Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 sci-fi novel Dune features a scene where a young Paul Atreides is drinking a substance known as ‘The Water of Life. This name is a fancy way of describing what’s actually psychedelic sandworm and phlegm. Although it is deadly poison, those who can survive are given prescience through their genetic memories. We are shown that such prescience is often more of a burden than an advantage.
In the spirit of exploring possible timelines, and potentially dooming humanity to years of holy wars in which millions die, what would today’s video game look like if Dune never was written?
Luckily for me, the groundwork has already been set by Chris J Capel, whose excellent piece on Dune demonstrates how that 50-year-old novel remains the template for the entire RTS genre. It’s always a surprise to me how young videogames have become. We can see them change rapidly and evolve in real-time. It’s impossible to imagine that 1992 strategy games would have shaped and popularized an entire genre. It did.
The most fascinating facet of Dune II, though, is how deeply woven Frank Herbert’s fiction is with those foundational RTS genre tropes. Any faction that wants to be successful must have the resource. It must flow. Capel wrote that even the name “harvester” for a unit responsible for gathering resources comes from Dune. The template, which is composed of rival, evenly-matched, but different-specialised factions that fight to capture, protect and exploit vital resources, is as relevant to Herbert’s situation as to real-time strategy.
The ashes of Jordorosky’s Dune gave Alien the soil they needed to thrive
Capel’s article is well-researched, factual, and measured. However, I am an idiot. Let me take it one step further. Let me tell you, without Dune the above genres would look completely different. The same goes for the FPS.
H.R Giger was not familiar with filmmaking when Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean-French filmmaker approached him. Salvador Dali introduced the filmmaker to the work of the Swiss artist and he was instantly taken with what he later called “ill art”. Jodorowsky hired Giger to design House Harkonnen’s visual aesthetic for the doomed Dune film. Check out some of the artwork here.
Giger’s artwork shares many common themes and flourishes. However, the elongated cranium evokes the elusive Space Jockey as well as the original Xenomorph. Giger’s segmentsed sandworms are also prescient. After production of Jodorosky’s Dune was halted, Dan O’Bannon, the visual effects supervisor, ended up sofa-surfing and skint with Ronald Shusett. Together they wrote Alien’s screenplay. O’Bannon and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud (illustr), H.R Giger, and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud – all of whom were involved in Jodorosky’s Dune – would collaborate on Ridley Scott’s 1979 film. The ashes of Jordorosky’s Dune were the perfect environment for Alien to thrive in many ways.
Strategie games give us an opportunity to experience the pressure of leading
The space marine is perhaps Alien’s greatest legacy to gaming, along with its sequel. Although the term dates back to Bob Olsen’s story ‘Captain Brink Of The Space Marines’ and was reintroduced in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Aliens is where a fledgling id Software got its inspiration for Doom Guy, gaming’s oldest space marine. This is not the place to go into Doom’s influence.
The Alien Trilogy has a significant influence on visuals. Are air vents possible? These concepts may not be unique to Alien, but they are combined to make a set of references that has been used time and again in games.
Alien also has a strange legacy. If you have ever played an FPS with a gamepad, you will know it. “The game’s control setup is its most terrifying element,” reads Gamespot’s now infamous review of the 2000 PS1 game, Alien: Resurrection. The left analog stick can move you left and right, as well as strafe right and left. While the right analog stick is used for looking up or down, it turns you.
This is not an attack on the reviewer. I am sure that many people at the time felt the exact same. Alien: The Resurrection gave birth to this dual-stick strategy, which was freshly developed from the egg sac of Alien. Both the PS1 Quake 2 version and Medal of Honour were released in the same year. They used the same controls. A very similar scheme was also used by Goldeneye. It’s still a gusty addition to Dune’s sandstorm, but it invokes the Butterfly Effect.
To summarize: A no Dune is a non-existent RTS/FPS. No RTS means no MOBAS. Esports are not possible without MOBAS or FPS. There are many things to consider. I also have to admit that this is a crazy claim. It is completely impossible to verify. It is completely simplified. It’s silly to insist upon, but it’s fun to consider.
Although landmark media pieces can be a tipping point, it is not as easy to assign major changes to specific works. Like Dune’s spices, the medium’s development has been influenced by many factors.
The space marine is Alien’s greatest legacy to gaming.
Similar to Dune, the spirit and message of Dune are not easily traced. Herbert created one of science-fiction and fantasy’s greatest antiheroes in Paul Atreides. ’60’s anti-war counterculture embraced Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but some elements have always seemed at odds with this unexpected Hobbits-and-hippies love affair. Aragorn’s right-to-rule heritage and flatly heroic affect make him a distinctly counter-revolutionary figure, exactly the kind of unexamined, messianic propaganda poster made real that Paul’s story acts as an antithesis to.
The Lord of the Rings says that all we have to do to make the world a better place is to take the power away from the black armored people and hand it over to the long-haired, noble people. Dune disagrees. The first book does use the format of a selected hero’s story, but when read together, they reveal Paul’s plot to create tyrannical rule over the people and commit genocidal acts on a massive scale.
Herbert’s famous comment about charismatic leaders need to come with a warning tag – and how Dune, fundamentally an exploration of those ideas, is far more culturally relevant than Tolkien’s comfortable, unchallenging archetypes – was incredibly well-received by culture.
This is Dune’s subtle legacy in modern science fiction, fantasy storytelling and stories that we can explore. Strategy games that offer us the opportunity to feel the burden of leadership. RPG games that allow us to explore the morality of violence. FPS games that allow us to survive dystopias and trawl through post-apocalypses and fallen empires, to pick up the pieces and witness the aftermath of struggles for power.
Frank Herbert writes in Dune that “greatness is a temporary experience.” It is not always consistent. It is partly dependent on the myth-making imaginations of humanity. A person can experience greatness only if they feel connected to the myths he lives in. Reflect on what is being projected onto him. He must also have an acute sense of humor. He is free from the illusion of his pretensions. He can only move in his own self if he is sardonic. This quality is essential to a man’s ability to be able “to destroy himself even if he does have some greatness.”
This article explains how to create stories using gameplay. It also demonstrates the rare phenomenon of being both a protagonist and an observer in a story. It is possible to ask, reflect, ridicule, and even mock the actions of archetypal heroes while we are doing them in virtual space.
It’s like looking into possible realities and moral dilemmas. Dune is a profound study of the nuances and follies of narrative heroism. Without it, games would be unable to offer the same depth.
There are no sandworms in No Man’s Sky. That one is probably what I should have started with, right?
Publited Sat, 4 Sep 2021 at 11:33:19 +0000