RTS Galore! Episode 4: Spice Must Flow

«RTS Galore!» is a series of posts where I arbitrarily overthink real-time strategy games. My definition of the real-time strategy game and some sort of a methodological vector for the series have been explained here.

Previously we saw examples of how RTS games simplify various existential issues for the sake of creating addictive and unapologetically fun gameplay. Populous, for instance, gamified religious conflicts without making any meaningful theological statements, while Mega-Lo-Mania basically gamified the nationalistic total war concept and presented it as a natural in-game order of things without delving much into its problematics.

In this article we’re going to see what happens when RTS games are based on other works of fiction, specifically lengthy books filled with thematic intricacies and ideological complexities. Tough to find a better example for this than Westwood’s Dune series. Also, with a new Villeneuve’s version of Herbert’s story hitting the theaters in a couple of days, it’s a great time to write something about Dune. Good for the clicks, y’know.

Frank Herbert’s Dune was published in 1965 and is considered by many as one of the best sci-fi novels ever published. Teenage me was overwhelmed by the book’s immeasurable depth—political backstabbing, environmental problems, religious references—that book just had it all. Since then, I’ve become old and boring, and the hazy writing style of the late 1960s is just getting on my nerves now. So, re-reading the book in 2021 left less of an impression.

Anyway, Dune is a multi-layered book. One can find dozens of interpretations for the story—from an allegorical tale about the USA and USSR rivalry over the Middle East to a cautionary warning about the fall of capitalism and environmental disaster. Mostly, though, Dune is about colonialism. It is a story about greed and lust for power that drives neo-feudal corrupt forces to control and exploit Arrakis and its native population. It is a story about the anti-colonial resistance and the revolt of the masses. Even the environmental theme is more of a symbolic essence—the lack of water on Arrakis as the metaphor of oppression, and the famous sandworms are just an embodiment of an exploited land’s resistance. But everything is ruined by the white savior trope.

Planet Arrakis is the only source in the universe of Spice Melange, or simply the spice—a drug that enhances human mental abilities, which makes it necessary for effective space navigation. It is the most crucial resource for the neo-feudal interstellar empire of humanity. The Padishah Emperor grants Arrakis to the Duke Leto of House Atreides as a fief, taking it away from the Atreides’ rivals, House Harkonnen. Eventually, it turns out to be a trap set by the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen to destroy the Atreides. They almost succeed in their deed, but Leto’s concubine Jessica and their son Paul manage to escape and find shelter among the natives of the planet, Fremen. Paul becomes the Chosen One whom the prophecies foretold; he leads the Fremen rebellion, wins, and establishes tyrannical control over the planet for the following books in the series to tell about (most importantly, he turns into a giant worm later).

It is almost a typical white savior story. One individual from among invaders and colonizers becomes The Chosen One for the oppressed and colonized, deprives them of any agency whatsoever, and establishes his own rule. Paul knows that his victory would lead only to more violence and suffering—he sees that in his visions—but it doesn’t stop him. Herbert probably tried to achieve the opposite effect—to show the dire consequences of messianic stories—but I don’t think he laid out this idea effectively. The problem of agency—the eternal nemesis of authors—is to blame. Fremen don’t have any chance to control their own fates in any way.

The Bloodthirsty and cruel Harkonnen and the corrupt Emperor are the obvious villains in the story. But what about the Atreides? Aren’t they the good guys, fallen victim to the treachery? Well, they suffer through a cruel betrayal, but they are still colonizers and exploiters—albeit more civil. Civil in a neo-liberal, care-about-people-but-just-for-the-show way. The Harkonnen and the Atreides are almost like the modern-day Republicans and Democrats but with a much striking style.

Basically, what we should remember about the book is that it is an anti-colonialist story as those had been told in the freshly emerged post-colonial world in the middle of the 20th century—primarily euro- and white-centric (considering the metaphorical context). But it has a unique and incredible setting: desert planet, futuristic interstellar feudalism, mind-inducing drug as space fuel, and giant sandworms.

Unsurprisingly, Dune had eventually received its screen adaptation. In hopes of creating its own Star Wars, Universal Pictures acquired the rights, hired David Lynch, gave him 40$ million, assembled a star-cast, and recruited lots of other talented people, so Dune of 1984 was born. It was a bizarre mess of a film that, among many of its flaws, made the thematic problems of the book more blatant.

In a word, what the film did with the book’s themes, one may call a simplification. Lynch’s Dune lost myriads of subtleties that gave Herbert’s novel its multi-layered nature. Intricate technology became semi-magical; Baron Harkonnen, from merely an obese machiavellian villain, turned into a disgusting abscess-faced caricature of a monster (he’s a bad guy, get it?); and most importantly, the white savior trope had been irredeemably solidified by the fucking rain during Paul’s triumph. Consider this: Paul becomes the ruler, and it starts raining. Raining! On the desert planet, which population is suffering from the deficit of water. Isn’t it the happiest of happy ends? That scene alone throws any minimal Herbert’s attempt to critique a messianic idea straight out of an airlock.

The film’s only redeemable feature is its aesthetics. Futuristic but somewhat anachronistic, spiritual but highly technophilic, repulsive but hypnotic. It’s probably the only film’s aspect that somewhat preserves the thematic complexity of the novel—ugliness of power, contrast between high-tech and feudalism, the decadence of the elites—visuals are effective and more coherent than the plot.

Dune’s videogame adaptations continued the thematic simplification even further. While this article’s scope is limited to Westwood’s series of RTS games based on the Dune franchise—Dune II (1992), Dune 2000 (1998), and Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001)—I think it’s important to explain why Cryo’s Dune (1992) is NOT suitable for the established framework of «RTS Galore!» and it’s dealing with the novel’s themes is irrelevant for the current article.

It’s crucial to stress that adventure game elements mixed into the Dune’s gameplay aren’t the reason for the game falling out of the scope of my so-called research. Strategic elements, though, don’t fit into the framework. An option to pass the time (there is plot importance to day\night cycle) is a sort of interval control which is a big no-no for RTS games, by my definition. But most importantly, Cryo’s Dune has a strictly single-player composition. The player’s adversary is not an equal faction but rather an environmental hazard (plus the Harkonnen activity in that game highly tied to the plot). These are the main reasons that Cryo’s Dune is not an RTS game as far as I am concerned and irrelevant to this series of articles.

Now let’s see how the actual RTS games deal with Dune’s thematic baggage. As I’ve said earlier, they simplify it. Moreover, they simplify it to the hilt.

Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (or Battle for Arrakis in Europe) was based neither on the novel nor on the movie. As an early 1990s Westwood game, it had vivid bright colors and lots of shining gems in its iconography, which is as far from the gloomy Lynch’s movie as it possibly can be. Also, nothing is left of the intricacies and subtleties of the novel.

Emperor needs spice. He offers Arrakis as the gift to whichever of the Great Houses delivers the most spice. Great Houses arrive on Dune, and the war begins. That’s it. The only plot twist to come is that Emperor will ally with the rest of Great Houses against the player later in the game. That’s the only instance of the Dune II’s throwback to the novel’s political intrigue and backstabbing theme.

With political intrigue out of the picture, there is an even less moral difference between the factions in the game than in the novel. The Atreides are called noble in the introduction to the game, while the Harkonnen are called evil—we’ll have to trust the narrator on that one, for the main difference between them is purely mechanical. The Atreides are faster but weaker, while the Harkonnen are stronger but slower. Also, the super-weapons differ: the evil Harkonnen love to nuke the hell out of the enemy’s base, while the noble Atreides prefer carpet-bombings.

Slow and strong versus fast and weak is a classic conflict but a little bit run-of-the-mill. There is a mechanical need to spice it up to keep the game more interesting. I bet that’s why Westwood added the third faction into the mix. Briefly mentioned in the non-canon «Dune Encyclopedia,» House Ordos is a tabula rasa for the developers—a template to fill with new themes or a tool to underline the existing ones. Alas, nothing particularly interesting had been done with this in Dune II—the Ordos have no particular character—they are merchants, originating from a frigid frozen world. Called insidious in the game’s intro, the Ordos just meant to spice up battles mechanically with more maneuverable units and Deviators—missile launchers that temporarily cause enemy units to switch sides. Their super-unit is Saboteur—an ultra-fast suicide bomber that can be very effective if managed skillfully.

While disposing of the plot, Dune II manages to preserve the novel’s setting. Again, I’d argue that this is done purely for mechanical reasons. Arrakis is a dangerous planet with a harsh environment, so the game doesn’t allow you to build structures on sand—base-building is limited to the islands of solid ground. But even there, you must lay concrete slabs as foundations before erecting buildings. The solid ground is also the only place your troops are safe from the menace of sandworms that often patrol the desert wastes searching for some tank or harvester to devour. Spice can be found only on sand, and the slow pace of harvesters makes resource collection nerve-wracking. Thus, Dune’s iconic sandworms, a manifestation of the novel’s environmental and colonialism themes, became a mere mechanical challenge for the player to overcome in Dune II.

Other Arrakis natives—Fremen—had also been demoted from the novel’s oppressed tribe devoid of agency to a mere unit—a slightly stronger infantry. Thus, most of Dune’s themes and ideas were thrown away and ignored or lost their substance by being simplified to serve the game mechanics.

There is one non-mechanical aspect of the game worth mentioning. It’s the game’s ending. Basically, regardless of which banner player chose to lead his troops, the game ends with the chosen House total victory. The only nuance is the difference in the way each faction deals with the fallen Emperor. Adjectives given to the Houses in the game’s introduction thus are finally explained. The “insidious” Ordos leave the Emperor as their puppet on the throne; the “evil” Harkonnen straight up blow up the dude away with a missile; the “noble” Atreides arrest the tyrant and charge him with treason. It’s an interesting insight into the difference between “evil” and “noble.” I doubt that the Atreides punish treason in any way other than death. So yeah, the difference between the cruel, bloodthirsty Harkonnen and the civil neo-liberal Atreides remains purely superficial.

After the Emperor got dealt with, the player is shown planet Arrakis shifting its color. Depending on the player’s chosen faction, from being a yellow desert planet, it changes to blue, green, or red. It makes it my favorite ending on the Citadel and openly implies that there’s no chance for any environmental change to happen on Arrakis any time soon—territorial control is the primary goal.

Such an ending solidifies the main Dune’s theme as a novel, a movie, and even a thematically over-simplified real-time strategy game—colonialism. The goal of a game is the colonial subjugation of Arrakis by brute military force. Essentially, despite all those different mechanics that the novel’s themes were sacrificed for, the most effective way to achieve victory in Dune II is to build more tanks than opponents. Whoever controls more tanks controls Dune.

It’s a straightforward message, but perhaps a more sincere one than whatever Herbert tried to convey in his novel. It’s less annoying than a white savior trope, at least.

Dune 2000 as a remake of Dune II doesn’t add much to the picture. Except for one peculiar detail—aesthetics. By 1998 colorful pixelated graphics had been superseded by the more “realistic” visual trends. Westwood introduced FMV interludes between missions in their Command & Conquer franchise, and it became the company’s iconic gimmick. Interludes for Dune 2000 borrowed freely from Lynch’s Dune iconography, probably due to practical reasons—some footage from the film was used in the game’s cinematics. For the sake of artistic coherence, several changes had also been made to the unit design—harvesters, as the most straightforward example, look beetle-like, precisely like in the film, as opposed to rectangular monoliths from Dune II.

Unfortunately, Aesthetics that underlined and strengthened simplified but still existing themes in Lynch’s film become hollow and empty in Dune 2000, where themes had been simplified up to the straight-up absence.

It’s not that there is no substance under the covers—it’s just terribly thin. The plot is the same as in Dune II but with several cinematic bonuses to spice up the FMV interludes. For example, the Harkonnen plotline has a memorable cameo of baron’s spine warts, while the Atreides’ include an encounter with the Fremen representative. Both have the same impact on the plot—none.

Interestingly, the Ordos borrow the look of the hair- and emotion-less Guild members from the movie, the fact that I consider a confirmation for what I’d said about the Ordos earlier. They are merely a mechanical addition, devoid of personality, and thematically meaningless.

The ending of Dune 2000 is even more samey for all factions than the one of Dune II. The Harkonnen, the Atreides, and the Ordos just blow the Emperor’s palace with each faction’s weapon of choice. To be frank, though, some intricacies are noticeable, but they remain mere references for those familiar with the novel and\or the movie. In this context, Bene Gesserit and Gom Jabar become merely fan-service memes for the knowledgeable player to recognize and feel the joy of the aha moment.

Mechanically, Dune 2000 brought lots of QoL improvements and modernized the gameplay a bit, making it a bit more dynamic, but it didn’t change anything significant enough to mention here.

The opposite is true to Emperor: The Battle for Dune that changed the gameplay in quite a meaningful way by adding a grand-strategy aspect to it.

Westwood’s Dune games have always mentioned the importance of territorial warfare—Dune II and Dune 2000 present an overall map of Arrakis divided into sectors with color indications of which faction controls territory before every mission. Sometimes the player even have a choice which sector he wants to invade next. But Emperor: Battle for Dune took it to the other level.

Emperor’s campaign for each faction is a long territorial struggle for the control of Arrakis, where the player not only invades but often have to defend his territories against enemy invasions. That means that in addition to plot-driven missions, there are many skirmishes that don’t move the plot forward. This mechanical change emphasizes the colonialism theme in the game because colonialism is always about controlling territories and spaces.

This grand campaign, mechanic as we shall call it, leads to a complex of minor changes to the RTS component of the game. Relative abundance of skirmishes demands a faster pace—missions that have no impact on the plot must be quick not to bore the player. So while it took a long time to purchase a carryall for a faster resource collection in previous games in the series, Emperor: The Battle for Dune grants a carryall from the get-go. Concrete slabs that were placed on the ground before erecting buildings in Dune II and Dune 2000 had been abandoned by Emperor—there is no more time for that. Reinforcements mechanic that allows you to summon forces from adjacent territories helps to further save time on accumulating power before a final strike.

Fremen and Sardukar, which were previously mere units, have become minor factions that the player can choose to ally and exploit on the battlefield. By allying with Sardukar, though, you risk antagonizing Fremen and wise versa. The same concerns Ix and Tleilaxu, additional minor factions mentioned in the books but absent in the previous games. Tleilaxu even have a significant role in the main story: secretly allied with The Guild, they genetically engineer Emperor Worm—a creature with immense psychic power—in order to control Arrakis by themselves after destroying the remnants of battle fatigued Great Houses with an army of zombie soldiers. Yeah, the plot here is a bit wild. Missions aren’t confined to Arrakis—there are story missions on the home planets of each Great House, and there’s even one aboard the Guild’s spaceship.

Every Great House additionally has an individual side-story. The Atreides are concerned with allying with Fremen. The Harkonnen suffer through a bloody civil war. The Ordos concentrate their efforts on cloning the dead Padishah Emperor, whom they plan to enthrone and control.

The Ordos, by the way, finally receive the deserved attention in developing some personality. Ruled by Executrix, four beings fused in mental singularity and embodied within the weird creature known as The Speaker, the Ordos aren’t mere “insidious” merchants from a frozen world anymore. They are the capitalism in the flesh. Relentless, unregulated, and unbounded capitalism, where every signed contract is stronger than death and profit is sacrosanct.

To sum it up, the ruling theme, or rather the only theme, is colonialism again. Grand campaign mechanic, exploitation of the local forces, and thanks to the established personality of House Ordos, the emergence of the symbolic triangle of oppression: greed (the Ordos), lust for power (the Harkonnen), and neoliberalism (the Atreides). Emperor: The Battle for Dune is probably the most thematically whole game in Westwood’s series. Under such conditions, Lynch’s iconography ceases to be an empty aesthetic like in Dune 2000; it gives a dystopian undertone to everything in the game. And that’s almost an artistic statement. Which is the least you should expect from any Dune adaptation, but here we are—only the third game in the series managed to get there.

On the other hand, other themes from the novel are simplified to the level of memes just in case not to over-complicate things. Emperor Worm is a powerful artistic symbol from the book (Paul had turned into one, remember?), but here it’s just a decoration, sort of a reverse McGuffin, revealed in the end for players to destroy in order to emphasize their victory. Remnants of environmental themes vanished along with the concrete slabs sacrificed for the sake of a faster pace. Etcetera, etcetera.

Thematic simplification like that of the Dune real-time-strategy adaptations, illustrated above, does not happen because videogames cannot manage complicated texts. It happens due to mechanical constraints of the genre. But when an outside mechanic had been thrown into the mix, like the grand campaign in Emperor: Battle for Dune, it’s easier to focus the game’s theme(s) and even to get pretty close to artistically state something a bit more complicated than «the war is fun, hell yeah!»

That’s the lesson learned from Westwood’s Dune series. Let’s not lose the hope for RTS games to redeem themselves just yet. We have lots and lots of ground to cover.

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