Screen2Screen: Adapting Dune

by Ben Beck

Screen2Screen is a series where we explore software adaptations of films and television series -- the weird, the wacky, the somewhat obscure. Next, it's time to look at Virgin Interactive's lesser-known adaptation of Dune.

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Okay, we’re only two entries into this series and I’m already bending the rules a little bit. Is Virgin and Cryo’s Dune video game wholly an adaption of the movie? Not quite. It is, primarily, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling sci-fi space opera novel, but many of the character designs and other design elements are taken directly from David Lynch’s misbegotten 1984 film. So, I’ll be talking about the film and the book in terms of this video game’s adaption. Why I am a bending the rules? Because there’s little more in this wide world that I’d rather do than talk about Dune.

Let’s start with the book: Dune, Frank Herbert’s novel, is perhaps the most influential piece of science fiction ever written. A massive tale of political intrigue, mystical destiny, and shifting personal allegiances makes Dune a riveting, if dense, read. Set on the barren planet of Arrakis, where the warring households of Atreides and Harkonnen compete for access to the precious Spice Melange, the most important substance in the whole universe, young Paul Atreides discovers his destiny and changes the course of history forever.

It’s a fantastic novel, rightfully praised to the high heavens since its release. And after a few false starts in trying to adapt the novel into a film, it got made into one in 1984, under the stewardship of master producer Dino de Laurentiis and directed by noted oddball David Lynch.

I’m a big fan of David Lynch. His films inspire and confuse and delight me, and his personal eccentricities and unique worldview transform the mundane into strange, thrilling nightmares. It’s for this reason, I think, that his Dune doesn’t really work. Sure, Lynch has a relationship with plot that could be described as uninterested at best, but I think it is the sci-fi setting that trips him up the most. Lynch loves to delve in -- deep into characters, deep into locations, deep into moods and feelings. This is hard to achieve when you’ve got a unwieldy space opera to deal with, not to mention some giant sandworms.

Dune is not a good movie. It’s sort of ugly, the performances are very inconsistent, and it’s messy and cluttered without providing any kind of payoff. It bombed at the box office and was savaged by critics, only now enjoying a slight resurgence of interest and its own cadre of passionate defenders. The Toto-composed soundtrack isn’t half bad, I’ll say that for it.

Virgin Interactive got the rights to adapt Dune, and ended up two producing totally different games with the license: Dune for the Amiga, PC, and Mega CD, which we’ll be discussing here, as well as the seminal Dune II: Battle for Arrakis, often called the first real-time strategy game for the PC. It made my top ten RTS games list over here.

 

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Dune is a wildly ambitious game, combining elements of adventure, strategy and simulation. I was thinking hard, and couldn’t come up with another game that even feels like Dune, let alone plays like it. It’s intuitive, challenging, engrossing, and really it requires you to use your whole brain while playing.

The storytelling is fantastic. Journal entries throughout the game provide worldbuilding without being an exposition dump, and every character feels realized. The art differs across versions, but even on a less-powered Amiga this looks and sounds great. So much care and consideration went into this game, you really feel like you’re on Arrakis.

Dune II: Battle for Arrakis may be the more famous Dune adaptation, but this one really has to be played as well. One of the best video game adaptations ever made.