In honor of Villeneuve’s much-anticipated new movie, let’s not watch it and play the Dune II real-time strategy game from 1992 instead.

I first discovered the genre in 1999, with Age of Empires II. Lucky break, that’s still probably the best one. I then worked backwards through Age of Empires I (1997), Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995), Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994), then Dune II (1992), unwittingly playing games that had directly “inspired” (been ripped off by) the next. It was like following a river back to its point of origin—each game was clearly the same idea, just older and clunkier and missing more features. It was like watching a painting slowly get unpainted.

Dune II is the beginning of the line. The pencil strokes on a white canvas. The darkness on the face of the deep. For years, every gaming site (and the Guinness Book of Records) claimed it was the first real-time strategy game ever made. But history has now been revised, and now an obscure 1989 title called Herzog Zwei (on the Sega Genesis!) has the honors. RTS games are like punk rock bands. Each time you think you’ve located the first one ever, there’s an even earlier one, buried deeper in the archaeological record.

Don’t ever try to be a gaming historian, it’s fucking impossible. You can make the simplest statement of fact (“games can be played on a computer!”) and a smug asshole will “actually…” you five seconds later. The worst part about these pedantic corrections? They’re always correct. History is meaningless sand. Every fact can and will be rewritten. I once believed Wolfenstein 3D (from 1992) was the first FPS game in history. Stupid. I want to build a time machine*, so I can twerpishly say “actually, Catacomb 3-D came out in 1991″ to my ten year old self. But I’d be interrupted by a dozen other time-travelling clones of myself, each bearing their own corrections. “Actually, it was MIDI Maze in 1987″, “actually, it was Battlezone in 1980″, etc, etc. I’m just going to draw a line and declare by fiat that every game idea ever (from Pong to Fortnite to Battle-Raper) was invented in the early 1970s by a beardo with a PLATO mainframe. Fuck gaming forever. (And obviously, I would never misuse a time machine for such a purpose: I’d do the same two things we all would: save Hitler and have sex with my own grandfather.)

I am sorry for these bizarre rants. You probably think I’m on chemicals. Just remember: me being insane does not prove there are no cats living inside my hair-drier.

Dune II. What’s Dune II like?

Charming but creaky. You feel its age. Playing it is as awkward as it gets without moving soldiers using manually-typed x86 assembly pointers, but it’s clearly the template for a hundred later games. Everything that makes the RTS genre compelling is here: resource management, base-building, training and upgrading soldiers. Its paternity cannot be doubted. Dune II is the Yesugei to Starcraft II‘s Chinggis Khan.

(If you’re wondering, Dune I is an unrelated adventure game developed by a different studio.)

Dune II‘s MCGA/VGA 320×200 graphics are extravagant for 1992. When you load into a match, you are treated to the time-honored “Talking head explains the mission to you” thing (swiped from Sid Meier’s Civilization), which also become a genre cliche. The in-game graphics are exactly as bright and as colorful as you’d expect for a 1992 game set on the desert world of Arrakis (which means “very” and “not much”, respectively). There are four kinds of terrain: Sand(tm), Different Sand(tm), Gravel (where you construct buildings), and Spice (which you harvest and use to train soldiers, build buildings, and so on). It might be visual monotony (tetranomy?), but at least it’s clear and simple.

The game doesn’t have a story, it has a setting. Frank Herbert’s Dune. If you’ve never heard of Dune, let me bring you up to speed on the story: It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy blah blah something something Wookies Jar Jar Binks midichlorians #OscarsSoWhite #FireKathleenKennedy #GamerGate #ReleasetheSnyderCut

The Dune franchise was at a low commercial ebb by 1992. Frank had passed six years previously, and the questionable “revival” led by his son Brian was still many years away. In 1984, David Lynch adapted Dune into a fascinating film that left a Tsar Bomba-sized crater at the box office. Early 90s sci-fi was fearsomely hip and cool, and though Dune remained highly regarded, it was still a book from 1965 and loaded with storytelling conventions that had fallen out of fashion—the way characters have long internal monologues on the page, for example. It belonged to a different world, and was more comparable to Lord of the Rings than, say, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

I am struck by the sense that Westwood (or Virgin, who secured the rights) didn’t particularly care for Dune as a story. Instead, they wanted its galumphing “space-age Lawrence of Arabia” setting, which seems ready-made for videogame adaptation. This is like how Star Wars is compelling for its fantastic future-junkyard setting, and not its bog-standard “hero’s journey” plot. (Although this comparison gives short shrift to Dune, which unlike Star Wars has a very strong story).

You play as one of three factions, House Atreides, House Harkonnen, and House Ordos (who I don’t remember from the book, and according to Wikipedia, they aren’t in the book!). Unlike Warcraft (whose orcs and humans are largely mirrors of each other), the Houses diverge substantially in what they can do. Only the Atreides can recruit Fremen. Only the Ordos can make Deviators (who, in a clever touch, can convert enemy units to your side—this game inspired Age of Empires’ iconic “wololo” monks!). The game doesn’t let you train Sardaukar (although you do fight them in one mission), which feels like a missed opportunity.

The lore-heavy setting makes Dune II difficult for a new player. What’s a Wind Trap? If I’m under attack by Trikes, what units should I make to fight them? How many silos should I build? Warcraft is easier to grasp: it’s intuitive that peasants build farms and gather gold and lumber. It’s intuitive that an archer can shoot over a distance and is a good choice for defending a wall. Warcraft is a game of things you know. Dune II is an alien world that forces you to learn by building and trying.

Your Mentat (who can be accessed via the top-left icon) is little help: he provides flavor-text and worldbuilding but little useful information. “The Wind Traps provide power and water to an installation.” Uh, what’s “power” and “water”, in the context of the game? Why do I need these things? Most of the text seems written with the presumption that you want to know how things work in the Dune universe, rather than how to use them in the game.

That aside, Dune II is mechanically simple. If anything, you spend more time unlearning things that aren’t in the game: it’s primitive by modern standards, and many taken-for-granted features of modern strategy games literally hadn’t been invented yet.

There’s no “fog of war”. The map starts out shrouded in black, but when a unit scouts the black, the area stays visible forever. This allows for cheesy strategies, like sending a soldier on a suicide mission into the enemy base, you can watch everything they’re doing for the remainder of the match. There are no production queues. No waypointing. No “find an idle spice harvester” button. You have to walk to school uphill, both ways, in the snow. I did enjoy the fact that if you don’t have enough resources to build something expensive, you can partially build it, and then finish the job when you have more spice. That’s nice.

But the game’s most stark omission is its lack of IPX/SPX/null modem support. Dune II is single-player only, and to be blunt, the enemy player AI is not good enough for it to be single-player only.

The enemy AI in later RTS games was controlled by a script. I used to write them myself for Age of Empires II, which had a little programming language that offered great flexibility. Some fan-made AoEII AIs ran for tens of thousands of lines of code, and spent years in development.

Dune II‘s AI is a little different. In fact, it’s not really an AI at all. According to Westwood lead programmer Joe Bostic, level designers would hard-code an “end state” for the enemy’s base, and the AI would simply follow a template. This means Dune II’s AI does not surprise you, or react intelligently. It blindly follows a step-by-step sequence of rules. But as 21st century AI bros inform me, doesn’t the human brain work like that? Aren’t we all just rule-following robots? That’s right: you are exactly as intelligent as Dune II‘s AI. Westwood achieved AGI in 1992 and the world doesn’t know it.

Sadly, much of the game is decidedly unintelligent. Dune II only lets you move one soldier at a time. This is frustrating (and the game’s biggest problem): any move or attack command must be issued separately to every soldier in your army. Imagine being a general in real life, but you can’t just mass-order your men to the front. You have to go to their tent, one at a time, and crack open a beer before asking politely if they’d mind moving to a new position. War would become impossible. Universal peace would reign. It would be horrible.

It’s almost pointless building a big army in Dune II: you can’t effectively control it in battle. Even moving a single soldier requires three inputs. You select the unit, click “move” (or hit M), and then click the place on the map you want the soldier to go. Think of this as an equation: to move an army in Dune II, you must click 3(X/1) times, where X is the size of your army (and all “fractional clicks” are rounded up into whole numbers). To get eighteen Ordos siege tanks in position, you must click thirty-six times. That’s ridiculous.

By contrast, Warcraft lets you move soldiers in groups of four. The equation becomes 3(X/4): moving twelve spiders takes nine clicks. Much better. Warcraft II goes one better by eliminating the “move” button requirement: you just right-click somewhere, and the engine guesses from context whether you want to move or attack. It also lets you select nine soldiers at a time. The equation is approximately 2(X/9): so moving twelve grunts takes four clicks. Later strategy games have no selection limit. In Cossacks, you move an army of arbitrary size with just two clicks.

But this was 1992. The dark ages. A year when police beat up black people, and sex perverts became President. I forgive Dune II for not predicting the future (I can’t do that either), but it’s frustrating to lose battles that you know you could have won, simply because you can’t click fast enough.

Dune II is incredibly micro-intensive. I can’t stress this enough. You need to constantly be on the ball, hopping from base to battlefield and back again. Controlling your units is difficult at the best of times. Things just stop working in this game, for no good reason. Your spice harvesters will sit around uselessly at refineries, waiting for orders. Your soldiers will ignore enemies standing right next to them unless you tell them (one at a time!) to attack.

The game’s apparent simplicity is undermined by the fact that you must be everywhere on the map at once, giving orders, or reminding soldiers of orders you gave them five seconds ago. Frank Klepacki composed the music, but Dune II’s real soundtrack is clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick. This isn’t a game so much as a Gom Jabbar torture test for mouse springs. Remember, little Logitech, fear is the mouse killer.

The game is flat, both visually and strategically. There are no natural obstacles such as walls or cliffs. The entire planet of Arrakis can be traversed in a straight line. This makes it easier to play than Warcraft (where poor pathfinding will cause your soldiers to get stuck against stray trees and bits of wall), but limits strategy. There’s nothing to fight over aside from gravel and spice. There are no chokepoints or funnel-points or defensible positions. This, combined with the hidebound AI, ensures that every match plays out in a similar fashion.

The dense fog of choices that Warcraft II immerses you in (do you 1-hall or 2-hall? Grunt rush or tech straight to stronghold?) does not exist in Dune II. There’s simply a “correct” way to play the game: it can be solved like an equation, and once you know the equation…what do you do then?

Maybe investigate the real issue: does the game have worms?

Yes, the game has worms!

They are a bit disappointing, though. The sand vibrates a little, and then a Shai-Halud pops up, eats a soldier or two, and vanishes. You can actually kill them, if you want. Pretty lame.

So that’s Dune II. The first of its kind. Or the second, third, or fourth. Whatever it is, it inspired everything that came after. Few games are so heavily imitated. Its place in history is secure (as secure as history can be), but is it worth playing today?

I’d say so. Maybe for a few games, anyway. You might really like it, and extend those few games to many. I stopped after a few. To be honest, I am uncomfortable when playing ancient games. I irrationally feel like they’re going to break while I play them, like they’re porcelain Ming vases in a museum. But maybe you want to smash the fuck out of some Ming vases, so have at it.

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