I know, I know. Dune. You’re obsessed. It’s intoxicating. It seems like a white savior colonial fantasy, but then it goes all tits up. It’s the desert adventure of Lawrence of Arabia, with the maximalist fantasy world-building of The Lord of the Rings, but it’s also extremely 1960s sci-fi bullshit. It’s the kind of shit that inspires concept artists and writers to go balls to the wall with their most monumentalist impulses. You snuck away to an IMAX in the middle of a pandemic and gorged yourself on the latest adaptation. You came home and burned through David Lynch’s (fuck him and fuck NFTs) substantially weirder version. Maybe you even tried some of the SyFy miniseries (they’re rough, I know, but you’ll take what you can get at this point—you need your fix like the Imperium’s melange addicts need their extremely on-the-nose metaphor for fossil fuels, and young James McAvoy is a delight).
What if I told you there were videogames. Not just one, but several. And that they’re all good in their own ways.
Welcome to the fold. We’re going to save you from sullying yourself with the abominations that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson call “prequel” novels (or help you recover if you decided to go beyond the six main novels. No, we don’t talk about what happened after Chapterhouse.)
I’ve got the ancillary Dune media properties you need…
Before Command & Conquer, there was Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, featuring three factions (House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos), each with their own unique tactical component (Atreides can recruit Fremen, Ordos get mind-control gas missiles, and Harkonnen can nuke you from orbit). It’s a more rudimentary game than contemporary players would probably expect from even “retro RTS games,” but it also predates Warcraft: Orcs & Humans by two years. This is where PC RTS games finally take shape, weaving ideas and interfaces together from Technosoft’s Herzog Zwei and Peter Molyneux’s weird ass god simulator, Populous. It wraps it all up in a bulky, but themed UI, where players can select the types of buildings and units to create from a full-screen catalog, or consult their Mentats at the push of a button. And driving it all along is an eerie score by Westwood luminary and future composer of the Command & Conquer soundtracks Frank Klepacki. It’s alien and ambient but also pounding and raucous when it needs to be. Klepacki clearly pushed the Ad-Lib music synthesizer to its limits, not willing to simply bide his time until the explosion of Red Book Audio on home PCs.
In practice, Dune II is still engaging to play, simply by virtue of the number of ideas that came before and would extend out, stopping in this one spot like caravans at an oasis.
The first published title by (doomed) French developer Widescreen Games, it’s easy to write Frank Herbert’s Dune off as simply an expensive blunder. It’s a 2001 character action/3D adventure game with glaring flaws. Even for the time, it was clunky and visually underwhelming. What gameplay exists feels tacked on, clumsy, and often just not there. The voice acting is terrible, where common pronunciations of proper nouns from the Dune universe are cast aside for free form jazz, but the script is a jarring afterthought. Mostly you run through maze-like corridors triggering conversations, and then there are action sequences, sometimes stealth. None of it is particularly memorable. But it is noteworthy—this is the bomb that killed off Cryo Interactive.
But, in hindsight, it’s a captivating disaster.
Sure, the art is bad, even by 2001’s standards. But Paul’s character model looks more like some kind of monster with linebacker shoulders that descend into too-long, too-jagged and pointy limbs that lope about like bigfoot’s when he runs. The models are nightmarish throughout. The body horror of Baron Harkonnen extends to everyone as the game becomes a menagerie of ghastly low-poly monsters suspended in sand-colored mazes. Their faces don’t animate in the awkward and unanticipated ways that Dune (1992) does; it’s like being constantly attacked by masked figures, where both too much and too little detail has been applied. Dead eyes emote through wax faces, gesticulating with ferocity.
We have no choice but to respect it for the daring attempt and utter failure. It’s a bold attempt with no resources and less guidance.
In the times before, the way you mixed your desert hellworld sci-fi/fantasy campaign with your roleplaying group was by someone getting the Dark Sun books/boxed set and taking your Advanced Dungeon & Dragons 2nd Edition group through that hell. It wasn’t fun. Even when you accept that some campaign settings are miserable experiences and the fun can be had in there, Dark Sun makes Arrakis look like Disney World. If you want to go tooling around the cosmos, you added Spelljammer to the mix and suddenly you had an ad hoc Dune experience in a game system that your early ‘90s friends had bought deeply into.
Or you could play Rifts, if you really hated yourself, and humanity.
Thankfully, you don’t have to worry about that. There’s an official Frank Herbert’s Dune tabletop roleplaying game now—Dune: Adventures in the Imperium.
Have I played it? Nope. I literally had the thought “I bet someone’s done a Dune TTRPG by now” when writing this article, and sure enough, they had. This is how I also found out that one of my friends is working on it. But it’s lively enough that he’s working on an official supplement right now. Honestly, it sounds like an interesting and refreshing take on the material. I’m told there are lots of rules for building and managing your own house of the landsraad and mechanics involve a great deal of grand strategy beyond just hacking and slashing your way around the Known Universe.
It was thought that Dune II needed to be remade. So a few tweaks to the storyline and fucking around with game mechanics that didn’t need to be fucked with give us a remake that isn’t worth playing (unless you really want to be that person).
That being said when you add in late ‘90s FMV cutscenes, it becomes apparent why this is still worthy of mention. Next Generation (in their review from the past) called Welsh Titan, John Rhys-Davies, a multimedia whore (and he was a champion of FMV appearances), and deducted a point for his appearance in Dune 2000. They were wrong. They are still wrong. And I will fight any motherfucker who says John Rhys-Davies can’t show up in whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and immediately chew all the scenery for the betterment of the project and us all. Every FMV cutscene in Dune 2000 is the very best of our hopes and dreams for the future of gaming technology. Respect that.
Of course, if you’re going to play Dune II you’d just play Dune II, so there’s no reason to play Dune 2000 except for the FMVs. Thank god you don’t have to do that, because here’s all the cutscenes in one half-hour video.
If you really couldn’t get enough Dune II and picked up Dune 2000, Emperor: Battle for Dune is the sequel that isn’t worth mentioning on its own. This sequel is an update with even more incredible FMV and more Dune 2000 gameplay.
Seriously, the cutscenes from these two games wipe the mat with Dune (2021).
While Westwood was busy building the foundations of Real Time Strategy with Dune II, Cryo Interactive was off taking a different and decidedly French approach. Opting for a hybrid design that merges light strategic gameplay with classic adventure gaming, it was a risky proposal. With an obtrusive UI, a weird score (provided by Stéphane Picq, with help from Philippe Ulrich), and baffling original character designs alongside reproductions of celebrity likenesses lifted from David Lynch’s 1984 film, it was weird to look at, weird to hear, and weirder still to play. It is, for lack of a better descriptive, extremely fucking French.
It’s a breathtaking and indulgent masterwork (much like Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation). In 1992, hybrid games weren’t a thing to take a gamble on. Games were strategy games. They were graphic adventures. CRPGs were CRPGs and that was that. While genres began to cross-pollinate, and the experiments of hybridism began to creep in, it was rare. And 1992’s Dune was a rarity to be sure. Its majestic sweep is made even more calamitously beautiful by a Sega CD/PC CD-ROM version that’s voiced, with a hybridization of graphical modes. Picq’s soundtrack is a marvel and released as a non-MIDI standalone album in the form of Dune: Spice Opera.
The tightly scripted sequence of events collide together roughly throughout the mechanics of the game. Major NPCs can be carried along with you as you journey across the desert planet “discovering” and then uniting Fremen tribes. Connecting sietches and building a network to both gather spice, trade resources, and become your army (or ecological terror cells) is half the game. And you need to gather spice because if you’re not delivering spice shipments to the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, Sardaukar come, and everyone dies. Then you’re treated to a surreal death sequence as VGA Kyle MacLachlan disintegrates into bleached bones, then dust.
The other half of Dune is a carefully plotted adventure game that flirts in and out of the novel’s story beats. With secrets to discover, plots to unravel, and some of the most delightful dialogues from NPCs who you’ll lose track of while carrying them around the map to various sietches and smuggler towns. Bringing NPCs to specific locations and around other NPCs at the right time is part of the adventure game mechanic, and it can and will break. You’ll get out of sequence. It’s beautiful in its absurdity.
Dune’s legacy might be more soundly secured in Westwood’s Dune II being part of the foundation of RTS gaming, but Cryo’s legacy here is as one of the more successful and engaged ancillary works in the Dune expanded media universe, and a framework that would show both the dead ends and futures of adventure gaming (like the spiritual successor Lost Eden), and hybrid genre gaming in general. If you play just one Dune game, this is the one.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.