Tactical Tuesday: The Melange — Spice, Story and Strategy

Tactical Tuesday

The more I ruminate upon this title, the more I consider it to be the most important game I’ve ever played. One of the oddest, indubitably, but one of the most important. The heart of an adventure game grafted to the brain of a strategy and development title, Cryo Interactive might have been tragically bankrupted in 2001 by developing further titles in the franchise, but they debuted gloriously with Dune.

Around the same time that I found this tucked away on the hard drive of our dear old PC in the early Nineties — the machine a second-hand effort, replete with the ticking, growling innards of the day — I had seen the film adaptation by David Lynch. There was IP familiarity on the barest of levels. Ratty, tatty and thoroughly-borrowed copies of Herbert’s books loomed large in the local library as I bypassed them for Great Space Battles and left the greater details of the worms and space opera for another time.

But you’ve ever wondered what one of the finest examples of a game built from an extraneous IP looks like, Dune is your game.

Dune

Those familiar with the original 1965 science-fiction tome know well the tale of House Atreides being granted domain on the desert planet Arrakis for the purposes of mining spice, but even if you’re not, the tumult of the story and its plethora of enigmatic characters is wonderfully captured and easily parsed in Cryo’s Dune. Interestingly, the very same year this particular title was released, Westwood deployed their own take on the franchise with what could be argued as the first true RTS, Herzog Zwei notwithstanding, in Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty. While Dune II was the archetypal ancestor of one of the biggest genres of today, I posit that Cryo’s Dune is the greatest and most faithful game interpretation the Herbert estate and gamers everywhere has thus far received. Morever, a game that features mechanics not at all arbitrary to the source material. A game that, unmatched prior and thereafter, manages to be the pinnacle of story-driven strategy campaign design in delivering on the promise of narrative and strategic development in equal measure.

Assuming the shoes of Paul Atreides and the likeness of Kyle MacLachlan, the player finds themselves standing in the cool, silent throne room on Arrakis. The stoic Duke Leto and serene Lady Jessica offer advice and observation, but once one steps outside the palace and into the cockpit of an ornithopter — the franchise’s X-Wing, if pitiful comparisons are to be made — the game begins to show its hand. Ever so slowly, but surely. There is more than meets the eye with Dune, which at first glance, appears in production and progression as a curious convergence of the graphically-heavy Legend Entertainment text adventures of yore and the Japanese visual novel.

It is once you start seeing the strategic systems come into effect, and operate in real-time — or via an accelerated day-night cycle, anyway — that you realize this isn’t just some sprite-based adventure game. Perhaps there is something to be said for the unveiling of the systems; an allegorical perspective on Paul’s growth from a naive, water-fat boy from Caladan to the weathered savior of the desert-dwelling Fremen and the hammer upon the wretched Harkonnen.

Dune

In short, and loosely following the novel to a point, the player is tasked with courting the native Fremen in the name of House Atreides, to help forge dominance in spice production for the galactic Emperor. As the imperial requirement of spice increases over the course of the game, so too does the threat from the Harkonnen. Fremen, ostensibly the industrial and military currency of the game, increase in proficiency according to their designated specializations, as well as utilize extraneous items for increased mining and military capacities. What sets Dune apart from what would otherwise be a ruminative semi-grand strategy game is that it has a profoundly human element delivered by the adventure game aspect. This curious symbiosis makes Dune incredibly distinctive.

Unlike most strategy games, a heart beats within Dune. In the stead of clinical menus, we have faces and people. The adventure game aspect works as a conduit that makes strategic delegation more of an intimate experience than merely a detached adjustment. Even at its most basic, flying deep into the baking deserts to find the elusive Sietch caves of the Fremen, to descend and meet with enigmatic tribesmen on issues of allegiance and spice, is astoundingly personal. Moreover, the act itself is remembered and as basic a mechanic as dialog pertaining to absence is, to have a Fremen chief greet a prodigal player with “…ah, we’ve not seen you in many days!” is the kind of narratological deftness that few games manage to achieve.

Dune is littered with these little touches; touches that, at least in my experience, defuse the usual disembodied omnipotence strategy game players find themselves wielding and manifest a grounded, tangible sense of human discourse. Even at its most shallow, wandering into the subterranean caverns of a Sietch simply to have the inhabitants tell you of their progress in spice does more for an attachment to the cause than scanning a menu as one would in any other grand strategy title.

Dune

But let me not paint a picture of a one-way street in Cryo’s bizarre blend. It might appear that every strategic element is in service to the adventure game in Dune, but this is the delicious part. The narrative aspects of the game; the growth of Paul Atreides and the awakening to his destiny fit undeniably congruously with the developmental and delegation mechanics. Under the direction of his Bene Gesserit mother, Paul’s time in the desert awakens a proxy to the classic pop-up strategy game stalwart in initially short-range telepathy. The ability to not only have Fremen troops and workers contact you upon job completion or be told remotely of some occurrence at the Atreides palace, but also to begin to delegate further orders from the map screen, speaks so an incredibly inventive mechanic of involving the fiction in a non-dissonant way. Again, the increase of Paul’s destined spiritual and mental acumen enacts such a perfect upward curve that it services both the source narrative material and offers a logical plethora of tactical command options.

Outside of delivering the Emperor’s spice shipments, and while the linear narrative might seem at odds with the strategic elements of the game pertaining to freedom of choice, Dune is quite an accomplished game when it comes to the development of Arrakis and those under the Atreides banner. Once the triumvirate aspects of spice mining, military and ecology are operating, a player is never at a loss to find something to do — both strategically and interpersonally. One might return to a distant Sietch to chat with the Fremen leader, to hear of their wind trap construction, only to be brought aside and told of a further cluster of Sietches deeper in the desert. Perhaps coming across smuggler villages and deciding to upgrade the mining capacities of nearby operations by purchasing a wing of Ornithopters for spotting wormsigns, then remotely telling the Fremen to come and retrieve the purchased machinery. Sending prospectors into new territories to assess the viability of spice. The ecology and mining applications are notable and rewarding, as is the military.

Military specialization can allow Fremen troops to train as outright standing forces or as espionage operatives sent to gather intelligence on Harkonnen forces and encampments. Proficiency levels, naturally, speak to the efficacy of the unit itself, but the player has the opportunity to fast-track expertise by assigning particular characters to a location. In this case, enhanced military training under wily old weapons master Gurney Halleck means Fremen gain levels at a faster rate. The same item equipping mechanics extend from civic development to military, with an increase in combat effectiveness with every tiered weapon granted to units. Krys knives to lasguns, weirding modules to atomics; the Dune armory is not particularly varied, but retains balance and never feels overcompensated or under-delivered.

Dune

Throughout the narrative, the winning of hearts through charisma and deeds, the relationships between House Atreides, the Fremen and the Harkonnen, the majesty of turning one family’s trial on the burning surface of an inhospitable land into a triumph is portrayed effortlessly. A final push against the Harkonnen fortress with ten thousand Fremen, armed to the teeth and willing to die for their Maud’dib and for the future of Arrakis, while the deserts elsewhere bloom under the direction of powerful terraforming technology, to this day outshines most in both the strategy and adventure genres. Alone, the two styles of gameplay in Dune might have seemed merely adequate, but together, the game is forged into a masterpiece.

Just for those fiction sticklers, the game does diverge from the book and sidesteps the Harkonnen and imperial deceit.

And before I set you on your merry way — hopefully to scurry off to any of the various abandonware sites, shucking scruples and looking into which DOSBox front-end to utilize – I want to pay special tribute to the incredible soundtrack that was released alongside the CD releases of the game, which included a PC, Amiga and Sega CD version. Stéphane Picq and Phillipe Ulrich, under the name Exxos, produced the very rare and rather magnificent Dune: Spice Opera, subject of today’s Song of the Day post. A proto-Deep Forest for the sandstorm, if you’ll permit my flowery languidness, Picq and Ulrich’s delightful and wistful electro-operatic arrangement did for Dune what Paul Ruskay did for Homeworld. Vast, dusty spaces invoked, characters and motivations evinced, the planet of Frank Herbert’s opus insinuated in an ethnic timbre. Finding this sonic hen’s tooth is hellishly difficult and undoubtedly expensive, so if you find funds and patience exhausted, nothing beats a good YouTube playlist.

Dune is truly a spike of quiet greatness in gaming. Gorgeous sprite art, the aforementioned score and, especially for the time, stunning voice work to blend classic Cryo adventure with an intimate and initially glacial strategic climb through mining, ecology and war. While being a fan of the source material is certainly a plus, there is something intoxicating for all to be found in Cryo’s first, and arguably best, game. And I do feel for Cryo, because they never really bottled the same lightning thereafter. Their adventure games were always rich, exotic and undeniably French experiences, but I found none in their library quite as comprehensively compelling as Dune. As their financial ruin was brought about by trying to build an admitted dream game in the Dune Generations MMO, I cannot blame Cryo for continuing to be inspired by both the intellectual property and their prodigious debut.

Dune

If you want to experience a game as heady as the spice wrung from the sands of Arrakis itself; to play an oddball of otherwise two disparate genres; to see for yourself that strategy gaming can indeed have more than some dynastic mechanics passing as a proxy for digital humanism and adventure gaming can offer agency ramifications in real-time and in major scope, then Dune is that glinting object in the gaming sandhill. While Westwood laid the ostensible groundwork for an entire genre, Cryo Interactive created something that felt like it was the culmination of many years of blended iteration and curiously, sadly, never truly repeated.

1992′s finest game, and one of the finest games you could hope to play.

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Tactical Tuesday is Games Are Evil’s bi-monthly deep dive into the compelling and complex world of strategy games, hosted by our own Alex Connolly. Follow Alex on Twitter here.

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