Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, starring Timothée Chalamet in the leading role of Paul Atreides has everyone in a spice craze. The movie is a critical and financial success, and offered a huge new audience a look at the grim, feudal vision of the future that enthralled sci-fi fans since 1965.
While the most successful, this year's Dune movie is hardly the first time the book has been adapted to a different medium. Aside of David Lynch's highly divisive and controversial movie and a separate miniseries that actually went beyond the first book, players have visited virtual versions of Arrakis on multiple occasions throughout the years - with a new game from Funcom on the way too.
Being a seminal work of science fiction, Dune has left its mark on some of the biggest pop-culture properties we still enjoy today, and introduced themes and ideas that have since become tropes. Star Wars and Warhammer 40K wouldn't exist without Dune, and every time you see a big sand worm in some sci-fi work, that's Herbert's influence on display.
It's only fitting then, that some games set in the Dune universe have left their own profound mark on the industry. Let's take a look at the past of Dune video games - some of which may be worth playing even today, if you're in a Dune mindset after watching the film - as well as the possible future.
The Dune IP produced five officially licensed games in relatively quick succession back in the 90's and early 00's, after which the franchise went dormant. Alongside these official releases, the modding community has released a ton of fan-made Dune content for some of the most popular games out there, mostly focusing on strategy games - with good reason.
The virtual history of Dune begins in 1992, almost three decades after the book was published and shy of ten years after David Lynch's film. This first Dune game borrows a lot of its visual design elements from the movie, and frames the story in a curious blend of real-time strategy and adventure game format.
This unique approach to gameplay resulted in only a semi-authentic adaptation of the storyline. Initially, the game is mostly presented as a point-and-click adventure following the main plot beats, but after Paul Atreides recruits some Fremen Sietches, the strategy gameplay is unlocked where players need to juggle military and economic development - the former helps fend off Harkonnen attacks while the latter lets you fulfill spice shipment demands.
Dune was successful both critically and commercially, but the gameplay elements - especially those in the strategy portion - are fairly dated by today's standards. The greatest impact of the game, however, was setting the scene for its vastly more influential successor. Despite being a game that, comparatively, few people know about and even fewer played, Dune's legacy shapes the gaming industry to this day - mostly through the influence of...
Dune II (1992)
The big one. Published by Virgin Games just like the first Dune game, Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty was developed by Westwood Studios, the company that would go on to achieve a well deserved legendary status in the industry. Cutting out the point-and-click adventure bits to focus on the real time strategy, Dune II ended up championing the classic RTS formula which is used in the genre to this day.
Many of Dune II's features, individually, weren't new innovations - we're talking about things like fog of war or intense resource management, and skirmish based gameplay which forced players into a mentality of considering bases temporary establishments - however the unique and then-new way it combined these features turned it into an utter hit with the strategy crowd.
Dune II would go on to inspire the biggest names in RTS, like Westwood's own Command & Conquer and others such as Age of Empires, Warcraft and StarCraft. We can't imagine the strategy genre without these games, but they wouldn't have existed - or at the very least would have been fundamentally different - if not for Dune II.
Dune II also broke away from the subject material to a greater degree, eschewing the plot of the literary work to instead take inspiration from the fictional world in which it was set. The game introduced entirely new characters, allowed players to choose their faction - including a new royal house, the Ordos - which allowed for various outcomes. The game also presents Arrakis with multiple royal houses simultaneously mining spice on the planet.
If you're going to play just one Dune game in this day and age, this should be the it.
Dune 2000 (1998)
A sort-of remake and sort-of sequel that didn't quite figure itself out, Dune 2000 proved that lightning does not strike twice. Dune 2000 tells an entirely new storyline with a similar premise as Dune II, but references some events from the previous game placing it in a nebulous place from a storyline standpoint.
Spiced up with FMV cutscenes and fancier graphics, Dune 2000 didn't bring anything new to the table in terms of gameplay and was seen as a simplification of the fantastic Dune II. Still a success by all measures and positively received at the time, it never stepped out of the shadow of its predecessor, and was widely considered to be a lesser imitation.
Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001)
Around this time Intelligent Games and Westwood Studios definitively figured out whether or not they want a sequel, and Emperor: Battle for Dune was a direct follow up to Dune 2000 featuring returning characters, references and a new plot once again told in FMV, which was the hot thing at the time for games to do.
The game notably had an original take on story, once again skipping any direct attempt at adaptation and instead taking several elements from later Dune novels and incorporating these into a new story written for the game. The three houses, including the OC noble house Ordos, return to a chaotic time right after Dune 2000 where the Padishah Emperor is dead and the members of the Landsraad are waging a war of succession.
Emperor: Battle for Dune featured a story campaign for each house which, weirdly, each culminated in a fight against a "god worm" based on Leto II from the books, and featured all sorts of twisty and turny sub-plots regarding secondary factions. The cast even included Michael Dorn, known for his depiction of Worf in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.
Emperor recieved a lukewarm reception, continuing the tradition of Dune 2000 for technically being all there but also not bringing anything noteworthy to the table and paling to the genre defining crown achievement of Dune II. It wasn't a stellar commercial success either, because it would be the last Dune game from these developers and publishers, as well as the last RTS in the series.
Frank Herbert’s Dune (2001)
Around this time Frank Herbert's work was adapted to television as a miniseries, which served as the basis for Cryo Interactive/DreamCatcher Interactive's Dune title. Leaving behind the RTS genre which has been a source of success for adaptations of the politically charged sci-fi novel, Frank Herbert's Dune instead opted to be a 3D action-adventure game.
It flopped so hard that it sank Cryo Interactive. To be fair, the company was already facing financial difficulties when it was developed and released, and was a comparatively expensive game to develop at the time, making it a pretty clear "make or break" situation. Upon release, Frank Herbert's Dune was panned by critics and failed to make a splash - though curiously a single outlet, "The Electric Playground", liked it enough that it was a finalist for their best adventure game of the year title. We're not entirely sure if they actually played it or just put it up there due to brand recognition; either way, it didn't win.
The second of Cryo Interactive's officially licensed Dune games never saw the light of day, because the company went bankrupt after Frank Herbert's Dune. Dune Generations would have been a return to the RTS genre - maybe they should have started with this, no? - while opening up the scope of the game to the wider Dune universe beyond the planet Arrakis.
Plans for the game painted a picture of players taking charge of their own noble house in a conflict to control Arrakis and the flow of spice, starting out on their own homeworld which they had to secure and dominate, later gaining political power on the intergalactic stage before moving in on the desert planet and its precious resources.
Dune Generations never officially left the alpha testing phase of its development cycle.
Two decades have passed without any official Dune games being released, but luckily for us the recent blockbuster has brought the property back into the zeitgeist. Funcom, the development company behind Conan Exiles, has a deal with Legendary Pictures about releasing three officially licensed Dune games over a 6 year period, with the first such release still far out.
The company hasn't revealed too much at this point, but we know that the first upcoming Funcom Dune title will be a survival MMO not unlike Conan Exiles. It's clear that the devs have experience with this sort of thing, and with Conan Exiles already taking place mostly in a desert environment, Funcom has home turf advantage, so to speak.
With Denis Villeneuve's second Dune film already greenlit, and the director being outspoken about his enthusiasm to film a third one as well, the spice-driven sandworm-toting epic will be part of contemporary pop culture for the forseeable future - and we don't need prescience to know it. Hopefully, this means more games will whisk players away to the virtual deserts of Arrakis.