Friday, September 11, 2015

From Dune to Tanaris... and back?

"I dream of gardens in the desert sand"
"This memory of Eden haunts us all"
Sting - Desert Rose

Yeah, okay, fine, just playing with you, that's not the real link. Here's a link to a youtube clip of the actual song if you want a listen. Given my recent Star Trekking and the topic of this post, I just couldn't resist referencing that woefully false-advertised "adaptation" if only to remind myself that despite Hollywoodization and Lynch's rampant insanity mangling half the book's elements, the movie still kicked several different varieties of ass. What a missed opportunity, though: I think we'd all like to know who'd win a fight between Captain Picard and Sting, if only Kyle McLackluster hadn't gotten in the way.

Anyhoo, seamless segue into my real topic: the game Dune (available on Abandonia) was unfortunately based mostly not on the novel but on the movie, thus carrying over some of the creativity and WTF-ness of its visuals and its random gimmicks like weirding modules. Add to this a lot of concessions to video gameyness and there's relatively little of the book left over yet still just enough to capture the feel of Arrakis. Visually it actually held up remarkably well over the years despite its pixelation, thanks largely to some liberal and skillful use of color gradation.

By today's gameplay standards, Dune fits no category. While it had RTS elements it came nowhere near the trendsetting fast-paced "fire lazorz pew-pew-pew" appeal of its sequel. As an adventure game it was actually quite bland, mostly interposing minor story-based checkpoints on your path to global domination, the adventure side of things functioning more as a tutorial to the strategy mechanics than as a driving force. Its strongest points lie outside such pigeonholing. It serves as a such a valuable reference precisely because while it used a fairly modern graphic interface it dates from before the industry limited itself to such restrictive genres.

See, Dune was made while game concepts were still being built up instead of being pruned to fit perceived pre-existing market demands, and the general assumption was still that an increase in scale and complexity was inherently good. It was assumed that games would keep growing, that the goal was no less than the creation of entirely new worlds, coherent, interconnected virtual landscapes. Pay attention to three elements in particular: time, space and autonomy.

Passed. Not merely in some abstract, purely cosmetic fashion, days went by on a scale within about an order of magnitude of real-world time. Repairing a sabotaged spice harvester took a certain amount of time. Battles lasted some time. Plants grew over time. Your periodic spice payments to the emperor had to be on time. Perhaps most importantly, travel took time, and that ties into the issue of:

Distances had to be traversed, both by yourself and by your various troops. Ordering a Fremen troop to arm themselves with the laser guns you just captured at a nearby fortress entailed their taking a day-trip to pick them up. Fast-forwarding while traveling meant you might miss some important troop movements or other events which happened while you were busy taking a joy-ride on a giant Freudian symbol, so long trips were riskier than short ones. While you traveled, it might even happen that your destination fell into enemy hands, resulting in your getting shot on sight on arrival.

Crucially, a game which attempts to be a world must balance player agency with creating a coherent but mutable background. The world must both live without the player and yield somewhat to input. Here, Dune excelled. You could kick off a seeding campaign but had only a rough idea of how fast or how far or in what direction the vegetation would spread - in other words, how much space it would occupy and over what time frame. You could invest some time in picking up Gurney Halleck and dropping him off at a sietch to train the Fremen, and he would continue to do so, giving the action both a personal element and a global significance. Smugglers, saboteurs, the enemy's armies or your mother, all led their own lives which just happened to intersect with your actions in various ways.

Note that what I'm describing here seems less and less an RTS/Adventure hybrid as Dune is officially labelled and more of an open-world game. Like Morrowind, STALKER, Alpha Centauri or Mount and Blade, it serves as a single-player illustration of the inevitable Platonic ideal of a persistent world. Replace Dune's Fremen, Harkonnen and smugglers with multiplayer clans and you get yet another vision of the un-achieved grand escapist fantasy, of a true MMO. Moving slowly across a vast landscape, able to affect a small portion of the game while constantly running across other actors acting on their own portions of it to their own abilities, watching the product of such changes alter the world around you gradually, isn't that the matrix, the thing we'd abandon our meat for?

Dune was made in 1992. Twelve years later, World of Warcraft's success destroyed any such grandiose ambitions in favor of static, slot-machine gameplay. It's now almost twelve years after WoW's launch. Isn't it about time we remembered the Platonic ideal of virtual worlds, got back to expanding on the promise of MUDs, Sim Ant and Dune? Minecraft has whet a lot of players' appetites for the sort of old sandbox elements the industry as a whole has tried to bury, but are there now enough cavemen who can see the forms casting the shadows we call the game industry?

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