Way back in 11th grade, my friends and I watched in jaded horror as our English teacher posted the famous College Reading List, the one thing in existence that condemns more people’s culture and interests than Fox News, police who pull over black men, and your grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner combined. This was the list of the ONLY BOOKS WORTH READING if you didn’t want to wind up trading your sperm for heroine so you didn’t die of withdrawal in a federal prison cell some day. While I was fuming over the fact that the Sword of Shannara made it on the list due to an unused historical footnote about nuclear annihilation, which apparently gave the book a message and therefore far more value than the story it plagiarized, my friend Al noted another curiosity. “Dune?” he said. “Usually people just go watch the movie, but why don’t you just go play the video game?” I’ve decided to take Thanksgiving off, but to spice up your holiday, I thought I’d do a special double entry on Frank Herbert’s Dune and its Sega CD adaptation.
The novel tells a story of a spice mined on the desert planet, Arrakis. The Spice increases life span, expands consciousness, lets you fold time and space, and basically does every profound thing people tell you weed does before you smoke your first joint and spend two hours giggling over how profoundly funny it is to say the word “crayons” backwards. The folding-time-and-space qualities, though, being rather helpful for space travel, makes the spice rather important for imperial expansion, so Dune opens on a setting of space-colonialism, exploitation of resources, and cultural appropriation that I guess we’re all just supposed to be okay with. Paul Atreides, a fifteen-year-old nobleman (who Herbert keeps describing as though he were ten), comes to the planet with his father, the duke, to oversee the mining operations for the emperor, and as long as they’re there, to provide a white-skinned overlord for the Fremen, the vaguely Arabic natives of the planet. But, hey, it’s not racist because the old nobleman, Baron Harkonnen was downright genocidal, so in a way, the Atreides are doing them a favor, right? Plus, setting up Paul as the Fremen messiah saves them the trouble of whitewashing him like we did to Jesus.
But whatever. Harkonnen is fat and ugly while Paul is young and beautiful, and as several of my ex girlfriends will tell you, anything that a pretty person does is morally pure just on virtue of being attractive and popular. But Paul, being a good sport, goes into hiding with the Fremen after Harkonnen goes all teen-slasher-flick on his family. There he must learn their ways and become accepted among them, like Jane Goodall among the apes. Through displays of hand-to-hand combat, he wins the Fremen’s respect (not to mention the wife of the man he kills and an adoring young fangirl), learns how to wrangle the vicious predatory sandworms, expands his mind through the casual use of drugs, and just happens to discover the secret connection between the worms and the spice (hint: I’m pretty sure it’s the active ingredient in Slurm).
The book does have a definite 18th-century white supremacy vibe to it, just shy of packing the Fremen onto spaceships and sending them to Tatooine to work on Jabba’s moisture plantations, but beyond that it tells a pretty compelling story of Paul’s mythological transformation into messiah, along with a political savvy the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen since…uh…well, for lack of a better example, let’s say the last season of Game of Thrones. Such a complex, masterful tale is definitely worth the read. So what about the game? Can I save myself the time and effort and get the same effect out of a Sega CD?
Let me put it this way: I’ve seen better adaptations from eighty-year-old men in computer labs. I’ve seen tumors with more respect for their source material. You’d find more literary value by reading a shredded condom wrapper on the floor of a public restroom. The Sega CD Dune adaptation is a fairly straightforward point-and-click adventure, likely coming to us by way of the 1984 movie, which I confess I have never seen. Frank Herbert gave us a philosophical examination of the role of religion and politics in the course of human history, and Cryo Interactive distilled the essence of the story down to long ornithopter rides through desert wasteland. And when I say long, I mean I’d set the game to fly to a new location, then go off to use the bathroom, have a conversation with Anne, pick up the dry cleaning, or partake in a vision quest deep in the woods for a week or two before coming back to check on the progress. I guess it’s sort of neat how they sync the video with the map, where dark spots on the map correspond to rocky sections of the desert, but I’d have to be dropping some hardcore spice before my brain wants to sit and watch that for ten minutes at a time.
Dune works as a book because everyone can relate to a coming-of-age story, and when your other coming-of-age stories suggest that you might discover freedom among the antebellum American South, or that your papa will marry you off to a well-bred Victorian gentleman, Frank Herbert strokes our egos by suggesting the final step in growing up is apotheosis, that the truly special among us will become messiahs (which might be easier to swallow for those of you who don’t struggle just to get a handful of people to follow your blog). Cryo Interactive, however, dumped any insightful bildungsroman in order to double down on the white man’s burden, dropping it solidly in Paul’s lap. As Paul, you fly your giant metal mosquito to each of the Fremen settlements in order to command them to, “Work for me.” And, of course, the Fremen are more than happy to oblige, being underdeveloped minorities who will forever live as uncivilized barbarians lest they have some white boy Bon Jovi groupie show up to give them directions.
As I mentioned, the game is likely based on the 1984 movie, however its obvious from the inconsistent art style that not everyone signed off on their likeness rights. Jessica and Princess Irulean quite clearly were converted directly from the film, with Irulean’s opening narration still intact. Paul still looks photorealistic, but somewhere in development they decided to give Kyle MacLachlan hair like a Soul Glo model. Duke Leto Atreides is just someone’s drawing of a Star Wars villain, and someone in the art department is clearly pranking Patrick Stewart, making his character look like the hell spawn of Buffalo Bill and Pennywise the clown on his way to audition for the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter.
Theoretically, the game eventually shifts focus away from being a point-and-click mining management simulator, and you can begin to raise and equip troops to fight the Harkonnens, so I gather it turns into something like Age of Empires meets Microsoft flight simulator, minus all the fun parts of each. But let’s get right down to it…forget the politics, forget the character development, forget the mythology, even…the reason you play a Dune game is because of sand worms. And if I have to fly around the same boring desert landscape for fifteen hours before I even catch a glimpse of one, I’m going to go watch Beetlejuice instead.