Dune Spice Wars. Are we the baddies?

The series Dune by Frank Hubert started in 1965 with the book Dune. The story is a space epic mired in political intrigue. It has been adapted several times into board games, movies and video games. While the board games may one day be the subject of a different article on this site, this article will be focused on the video game, Dune Spice Wars.

Real Time Strategy- Intrigue Through Gameplay

The atreides studying a map of arrakis
Screenshot from Dune: Spice Wars

Dune Spice Wars is a real-time strategy game(RTS) where players compete against each other or CPUs to control the planet of Arrakis. The game plays much like any other RTS with the player starting with a base and the ability to form units. In a lot of ways the game feels very much like a reskin of a generic RTS quickly made to capitalize on the success of the 2021 and the soon to be 2023 Movie. Like many other games of the genre the player starts with the map obscured requiring Scout Troops (In this game Scout Troops are called ornithopters in an attempt to relate them back to the setting) To scour the surface to map it. Logically this does not make sense in the Dune universe and the game would not change all that much if the player started with a completed map. To me it feels like the only reason the map is obscured at the start of the game is because that is the way it is done in other RTS’s and the developers just wanted to fit in with the genre.

While the game does little to improve the genre, It mostly just copies things that have already been done, The choice of a real-time strategy game actually works quite well with the Dune series. The most important thing about the Dune series is the political conspiring of the characters which is something easily portrayed in a strategy game. In my opinion it might have been better if they had gone with a turn-based strategy game because it would have allowed players to prepare long game strategies like the political machinations in the book. Still strategy games, especially competitive strategy games, have the same sort of aesthetic of betrayal and long-winded acts that the book portrays.

The digital version, that being the video game, Pits players against each other And so there was no need to establish a relationship between characters because more often than not the players will know each other. This is not the type of game where there is a large online competitive community so most players will be playing with friends. Having an already formed relationship outside of the game makes betrayals inside the game have a little bit more oomph. It requires less contextualization than the book and the movie to make betrayals feel impactful. 

The games and movies are more like each other than they are like the book. These new adaptations are focused on the cool bits of world building. That being mostly the tech. They love showing off Shield technology, they love the lasers and the fancy helicopters, but they don’t really care as much about the plot as they do about the setting. That is a little unfair for the movie because the movie is based off the first half of the first book and the first book was obsessed with World building only in the later half of the book does the plot really start moving. In this way there isn’t really a massive divide between the digital version and the movie version of Dune. I think the movie was just really excited to show off technical skill and the game is more of a cash grab than anything. The movie is based off of the book and the game is based off of the movie there is no digital divide here. 

Playing The Game

What little this game had in the way of tutorials did not prepare me enough. All RTS’s suffer from the same fatal flaw, they are way too dense. The density is innate to the genre because the whole point is managing many different resources at the same time, but for a player starting out, the game is practically incomprehensible. In a strange way this makes the game fit into the Dune series. The original book came with an encyclopedia in the back because the setting was so dense that readers would need to reference it to understand what was going on in some parts. The density of the source material and the RTS genre Compound on each other Making the game rather insufferable for those not familiar with RTS’s and/or the Dune series. 

An overly complex menu from the game.

Screenshot from Dune: Spice Wars

What’s CHOM? What’s the spacing Guild? How do I move my units? Why can’t I make more units? There’s a vote in the landsraad houses, What does that mean?

Just as Dune Spice Wars basically rips off many different RTS games it also attempts to rip off their tutorial systems. The typical tutorial system in an RTS game is a pop-up window that will pause the game, if possible, and describe what is going on. It is the same in Spice Wars but the descriptions suck. They are vague, you can’t control when they pop up, and they will only appear after something has happened.

The affordances of a video game allow the story to be portrayed through mechanics. In the book it is said the spacing Guild is the most powerful organization in the Empire, but through mechanics the game can implicitly say this by having one of the win conditions be that a player controls a majority share of the spacing Guild. The game is actually rather good at this. It characterizes the different factions of Dune through their abilities such as the Harconnons being able to brutalize villages to get them to join them or the Fremans being able to more easily traverse the desert. What irks mean is how they’ve changed the message of Dune.

The Morality of Dune – And How Recent Adaptations Have Completely Ignored It.

I am not some sort of literature elitist. I believe that game developers have the right to change the story of their source material if they wish to. My problem with the messaging of the game is not that it’s different from the book, but that I believe some nuances are removed from the story for the sake of making it more palatable to the public. In one of the advertisements for the game Dune Spice Wars We hear the characterizations of the four factions of the game. House Atreides, the Noble House of the main character, is described as “blinded by honor” and “bound to the emperor.”

Dune: Spice Wars – Early Access Launch Trailer

This characterization isn’t incorrect but it isn’t complete. House Atreides  is an empirical Force sent to Arrakis to conquer and subjugate its people. The book doesn’t shy away from the fact that that’s a pretty evil thing to do, but the games and movies do. In the book House Atreides is noble but they are also shown as being politically savvy and militarily powerful. They are shown as being a preferable alternative to the brutal Harkonnen but it is made clear that the people would rather have freedom.

The game is slightly better than the movie in this aspect as the player is able to play as the Fremen who still desire freedom, but the game never shows the Atreides as being the colonizers they are. 

 My problem with this characterization of the Atreides is that it pollutes the message of Dune, the dangers of unchecked authority and extremism. The story of Dune becomes: the Atreides come to Arrakis and destroy the Harkonnen, freeing the people. The story of Dune becomes a narrative of white saviorism.

A Narrative of White Saviorism 

the book cover of dune messiah. it is a face made of sand surrounded by desert

There is a line from the second book, Dune Messiah, that illustrates just how evil Paul Atraides is. He is speaking with his right hand man Stilgar. They are talking about the effects of his many wars. Paul brings up historical figures whose warring is comparable to his own. He asks Stilgar to pull up some historical data. In specific Paul says “There’s another emperor I want you to note in passing — a Hitler”

Stilgar does and he remarks “Not very impressive statistics, m’Lord.”

Paul agrees.

“dune messiah” by cdrummbks is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The reason I must stress that the Atraides are evil is because the game and movie do not. The story told from the game and the movie is that the Harconnens are evil and the Atraides are fighting to rid Dune of that evil. The game shows the Atraides as the most peaceful and negotiable group. Their abilities revolve around treaties and influence. 

Without the acknowledgement that the Atraides are just another oppressor the story of dune becomes one of white saviorism. White people with a Greek name come and free a native race from oppression. The Atraides come to Dune and rule benevolently, saving the locals. So the story goes for these new adaptations. 

No talk of how they stoke religious fervor among the Fremen in order to control them. Or how they only want Dune for its resources and they see the people there like pawns, useful tools to gain more influence. No, because if the nuance was added It may be unpalatable to a wider audience. Players would have to ask, Are we the baddies? 

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