Cyro Interactive Created Arrakis to Test the Faithful

There’s a section early in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune that sounds like it was lifted straight from an RTS’s instruction manual. Spice mining on the desert planet Arrakis and the vehicles that make it possible are described in exacting detail—harvesters mine the spice, ornithopters hover above, looking out for sandworms. No surprise, then, that the franchise spawned not one but two strategy games in the early 90s. Westwood’s Dune II is by far the more famous game, a crudely effective proto-RTS that is essentially Command & Conquer, version 0.5. Buried under the misfortune of being released at the same time, Cyro Interactive’s Dune is consequently less well known, despite being packed in with a lot of Windows 3.1 systems and selling two or three copies on the Sega CD.

Westwood’s game set the conventions of a genre that would dominate the PC gaming world for the next decade, so it’s hard to say it’s not important, but Cyro’s Dune is a completely unique creature, a clever combination of strategy and adventure that has not been seen since. Its innovative approach brings the battle for Arrakis to life in a way a traditional, impersonal god’s-eye RTS cannot, making the player feel they are both directing and participating in the Dune universe.

Cyro makes no secret of their ambitions. The game’s instruction manual begins by point out the failings of David Lynch’s Dune film. Though the film picks up after a “rather slow first half”, “the film struggles to significantly transfer the grand scope of the novel and is forced to omit a great deal.” This is an odd assertion for a product based on a movie to make, and in its frequent use of digitized video involving Kyle MacLachlan Dune does not try to hide the fact that it is based on the movie and not a wholly original imagining of the universe.

Then why point out the movie’s flaws? Because, like any good delusional mad scientist with an army of robots, Cyro’s goal was not to make a game based on the film, their goal was to make a game that perfected the film. The imperfect shell left behind by non-Cyro employee David Lynch, could, through the magic of the CD-ROM, finally attain its true potential. Dune is not based on the moive, Dune is the marriage of the original novel and modern multimedia that the movie could only hope to be, at least according the guys who made Versailles: 1685.

Measured by these goals, Dune is a tad underwhelming, but by any sane rubric it’s a wild success for its time and a lot of fun to play, even today. The game’s genre actually evolves with the plot and the changing circumstances of the main character, taking Paul Atreides (looking very much like Kyle MacLachlan) from a standard adventure game protagonist, pointing and clicking on things in the Atreides palace, to a planetary military leader, directing armies across enormous swaths of territory.

…notice I avoid any mention of the game’s dialogue.

When the game begins, it is a straight adventure game. Paul travels around the palace, talking to different characters and learning about the world of Arrakis. Some characters, like Lady Jessica and Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, look almost exactly like they do in the movie, while others have a more original design. Baron Harkonnen pushes the boundaries of ridiculousness, but I did enjoy the Nosferatu-like look of the mentats. All the characters are rendered in colorful, detailed sprite artwork (not unlike the characters in Shadow of the Comet) and feature competent voice acting for the time (unlike Shadow of the Comet.)Before long Paul is given the task of exploring Arrakis and making friends with its Freman natives. Travel is handled by a gorgeous 3D flyover of Dune as Paul takes his ornithopter from place to place. This is accompanied by gorgeous music that evokes the lonliness of the desert planet perfectly. Eventually these “driving” sequences get tedious and you’ll find yourself skipping them, but the first few make for a thrilling introduction to the game’s wider world.From this point the game gradually evolves into a strategy/adventure hybrid on its way to transforming into a full military strategy game by the final section. Paul travels increasingly farther afield, meeting Fremen troops and setting them up to either mine spice or focus on military. Every few days he must return to the palace to send the Emperor a spice shipment; fail to keep up with the exponentially increasing demands and the game ends. Meanwhile, Harkonnen forces begin invading Atreides territory, making a strong military essential. There are a finite number of Fremen available and you can never train new units, so finding the proper balance between military and mining is the key to victory.

Romantic subplot technology was still in its infancy…

All the while Paul is interacting with characters on a one-on-one basis, gaining allies and increasing his power in a plot line that loosely follows that of the novel and film.  The more allies he enlists, the more his telepathic powers increasing, meaning the player no longer has to visit each individual Fremen group in person, but can contact an ever widening range as the game progress. By the final phase of the game, Paul can contact the whole planet without moving at all. If you’ve ever wanted to experience what it feels like to order loyal soldiers to their deaths from the confines of a comfy palace, Dune is worth a look. This is a great solution to the tedious micromanagement strategy games often fall prey to in their final hours, to actually speed up the gameplay based on story events in the main character’s journey.

That’s not to say the game totally avoids tedium. It is, after all, an early 90s PC strategy game. Particularly in the late stages, it takes ages to march troops across the map. After winning a battle, troops have to spend what seems like hours transforming Harkonnen fortresses into Fremen sietches before they can be used for anything else. Each troop, whether they be spice miners or military, also has an inventory, but to equip them properly sometimes involves a long journey across the map to pick up the right item. Also, like many, many strategy games, the game reaches a tipping point about 75% of the way through where losing is virtually impossible. Instead of a thrilling planetary race for resources it becomes a mop-up operation that can last hours as your troops eliminate Harkonnen territories one by one.

This is a problem strategy games have yet to fully conquer. Winning older strategy games was almost always a matter of building up resources to the point where the AI simply cannot keep up. Dune is no different in this regard.

There is also a sadly underdeveloped ecology feature. After a certain point in the plot Fremen troops can be trained to plant trees and start to remake Arrakis. It is possible to win this way, but it’s too boring to really be worth it.  You can get by ignoring it entirely, which is a shame, because having to balance troops between three essential occupations could have made the game that much more challenging. As it is, as long as you train enough military and make sure they have enough weapons, the game can be won without touching ecology.

I’ve written before about the way the spaces between gameplay can make a game itself feel more like a real place. Dune takes this concept further, integrating the adventure trappings into the strategy in a way so seemless that it never feels like a clumsy marriage of two genres but instead one complete, wholly original game. It’s one thing to impersonally command armies in an RTS, quite another to order a battle, walk out of your palace, hop on a worm, and go join the battle yourself. (Paul riding into battle on a sandworm gives the troops a morale boost and gives you some options for how the battle plays out.)

Dune’s great achievement is in making an impersonal genre personal, of putting the player in the shoes of a character and then giving that character a direct role in the world. Cyro Interactive may not have made the definitive version of Dune, but I’m not sure anyone else has ever done any better.

…?

 

 

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Batman Returns: It Sounds a Lot Better Than It Is

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I still remember the moment I first learned of the existence of Batman Returns for the PC.  I was standing in an Electronics Boutique in 1992 paging through an EGM magazine when a preview for an upcoming game nearly stopped my heart.  In front of me was a screenshot of Batman standing in the Batcave next to a giant computer.  Remember, up to that point, Batman games had been traditional combat-heavy sidescrollers.  Not bad games, per say, but there had yet to be a game that truly captured the feeling of being Batman.  Now that was all going to change.  Batman Returns, I thought, was going to let players actually be Batman:  Manage his equipment, drive the Batmobile through Gotham, collect and analyze evidence, and interrogate NPCs; it was going to be a game about solving crimes, not punching criminals.

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Anything might be possible!

I never got to play the game back then when it was new, and I always regretted it.  As was often the case in childhood, games I glimpsed once but never played grew more and more epic in my imagination as time went by.  I imagined Batman Returns capable of incredible wonders, features not even possible today.  Maybe Batman Returns wasn’t just a Batman game.  Maybe it also included Wayne Manor and let players navigate Bruce Wayne’s social life.  There was probably a full recreation of Gotham City from the movie.  Certainly the game would go beyond the simple plot of the film and bring in other Batman characters and storylines.  It wasn’t a game at all.  It was a Batman simulator!

I was right about one thing.  Batman Returns barely qualifies as a game.

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In 1992 this picture represented everything I wanted from a Batman game.  “See!  He’s not good at sports!  He spends all day in a cave on a computer!”

That’s not to say this game doesn’t do some things right.  The basic shell of the game is compelling, maybe even ahead of its time.  Batman Returns begins in the hub of Batman’s universe, the Batcave, and gives players access to a variety of options right from the start.  Batman can check the Gotham news, investigate a thorough biographical database of Gotham City’s movers and shakers (although all the characters are generic nobodies with 80s porn star faces who have no connection to the Batman universe, at least they’re there!), watch videos, input evidence, and select which weapons to bring with him for his night out.  There’s never been a Batman game that gives players the pleasure of watching a breaking news story about a crime-in-progress and then hopping in the Batmobile to drive into town and investigate, and it does give the player the feeling of genuinely being Batman.  At least for a while.

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All your favorite characters are here!

Once out of the Batcave, gameplay involves traveling to various locations and either “fighting” the Penguin’s thugs or searching the environment for clues.  Once Batman finds a new piece of evidence, he can return to the Batcave to analyze it, which will lead to new locations on the map, where Batman will find new thugs to fight or new items to find.  For example, in the first chunk of the game, Batman watches a news broadcast detailing an assault on Gotham plaza, drives to the scene of the crime, and overcomes some thugs.  After interrogating them, he discovers a rare kind of fish, which he takes back to the Batcave to analyze.  This gives him information about a fish market in Gotham where he can travel for his next lead.  In theory it’s the formula for a pretty good Batman adventure game, one that combines free-roaming exploration with puzzle-solving and detective elements.

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After this first section, however, the game’s flaws quickly become apparent.  The biggest is probably the “day” system.  For some reason the adventure is divided into nine days that the player can end at any point by returning to Wayne Manor.  The problem is the game gives no indication that you’ve done all you need to do on a given day, and it’s easily possible to get into an unwinnable situation by advancing time too soon.  More troubling, there’s no rhyme or reason to why things happen certain days.  For instance, if Batman visits the mayor’s office on Day 1, he’ll find a videotape.  On Day 2 the office will be empty, and on Day 3 there will be new items to find.  There are only about five locations to visit in total, and they all get new items as the days pass for no discernible reason.  Each location also has a very limited number of spots where new items can appear, so what initially seems like a large, open game is actually depressingly tiny.

Very soon, gameplay devolves into traveling to each location, checking the item spots, taking any new items back to the Batcave, and then advancing to the next day.  Many days there is only one new item to find and analyze, but you’ll still have to slog through each of the locations to make sure nothing is missed.  There’s no story, no particular challenge, and no sense of accomplishment.

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Search, leave, come back, repeat.

While the adventure elements quickly become repetitive, where the game really refuses to shine is in its “combat.”  In 1992 the PC was generally a platform for more thoughtful, slow-paced games, while consoles were for more arcade-like experiences that relied on quick button presses and manual dexterity.  However, since punching is a major part of Batman’s MO, the developers apparently felt that the game needed some action elements.  When Batman enters combat with one of three goons (there are only three repeating enemies in the entire game, not including the Penguin and Catwoman), players can choose whether to use a “fast, normal, or fierce” combat style and select weapons from Batman’s utility belt.  That’s it for interaction.

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Looking at this screenshot is as fun as actually playing the game.

Players then watch Batman hop around while engaging in (sometimes literally!) endless fisticuffs.  Using the right bat-weapon will often end the fight immediately, but should you get stuck in combat without a weapon you’ll be forced to sit and watch Batman punch his way to victory.  The different combat stances don’t seem to make a huge amount of difference, and sometimes even on the fierce setting combat never ends:  Batman and his adversary will just keep jumping past each other (with fairly decent animations, at least).  Mercifully, it’s always possible to retreat to the Batmobile in the middle of a fight, but an area won’t become “interactive” unless you’ve taken care of the enemies, so eventually you’ll have to win the fight.  It’s never challenging, just irritating.  As far as I’ve been able to tell it’s impossible to actually lose, even if your batsuit has a defense rating of “0%”, unless getting the game stuck in an endless combat loop counts as losing.

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Technically you can improve your combat abilities by putting on a fresh batsuit.  It’s a cool idea in theory, but since the game keeps going to matter what there’s no strong reason to change.

By the final few days, the game basically abandons any pretense of interactivity, instead becoming a series of Sega Genesis-quality stills from the movie.  Once Batman gets a news report that the Ice Princess has been kidnapped, the game is basically over.  He just has to travel to a few final locations and watch some cut scenes.  There’s one big moment of interaction, where Batman transmits the Penguin’s insults over the air, but if you’ve seen the movie it’s not a puzzle at all, and if you haven’t there’s no clear solution.  It feels like the developers just completely gave up.  The entire game probably takes less than an hour, and that’s only because Batman takes forever to walk from the Batcave to his car and because fights are so tedious.

Fortunately, no matter how much you might screw up, the game doesn’t last forever.  In a guillotine-like act of humanity, if you get through Day 6 without having completed all the essential tasks, the game just ends in a fail state, finally granting players the mercy of a conclusion.  There are actually a few ways to lose, and all of them are accompanied by a cut scene.  Sometimes it’s even clever.  At one point Batman finds a videotape of the mayor taking a bribe.  If he happens to be dumb enough to broadcast the tape to the city, the Penguin wins the election and the game ends.  It’s always nice to see a game that anticipates a player action and responds accordingly, even in a game where so few player actions are possible.

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Are those shadows in the background the specters of Batman’s parents looking on with angry disapproval?  Sure, why not.

Another potentially cool feature is Batman’s scanner, which he can use to scan in evidence without removing it from a location.  This is incredibly useful, because in certain situations removing items from a location insures that no items will appear there again.  I think the idea behind this is that the owner of the location stops leaving evidence out once they discover it’s been stolen, which is again a clever consequence, but the game never gives you any kind of feedback that this is what’s going on.  Instead you can play through the whole game oblivious to the fact that you’re missing out.  Some of this evidence eventually gets Batman access to Selena Kyle’s apartment and opens up the “better” of the two possible endings.  If the game just gave you a little more feedback, this kind of thing would be an ahead-of-its time feature instead of an annoying flaw.  Replayability is great, but players need to know there’s a reason to play again.

Likewise, the game boasts two endings that are directly tied to your actions during the game, which in theory should be great.  The first ending is more or less the ending of the movie, but the second attempts to give Batman and Catwoman some romantic closure.  One of the conditions for this “good” ending is gathering enough evidence to get Max Shreck arrested before Catwoman can murder him.  This involves a thorough playthrough of the game, making sure to visit each location without losing any evidence.  It’s tricky, but it makes sense.

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Heh, “approach.”

However, to guarantee the Batman/Catwoman romantic ending, Batman must also make sure to never encounter Catwoman in the game.  That’s right, the only way Batman can ride off into the sunset with Selena is to avoid any and all interaction with her.  This means when Batman learns that the Gotham City Ice Princess is in danger, he has to just ignore it.  Again, I think the idea here is that by finding information that links Catwoman to the Ice Princess earlier, Batman will spot a trap and avoid rushing in.  If you never show up to try to rescue the Ice Princess, you never get the news report saying she was killed, so, presumably, she isn’t.  However, the game gives absolutely no certain indication that you’ve saved her, and you can still avoid the encounter without ever finding the evidence.  Batman Returns so often comes so close to implementing genuine choices and consequences, only to botch the landing.

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Another potentially good idea:  Unless Batman remembers to put his grappling hook in his utility belt, he can’t get up here.  However, since there are plenty of utility belt spots for every item you could possibly need, there’s no strategy involved at all.

Graphics are great for the time.  Batman is big and well-animated, and the painted backdrops of Gotham city do a great job of evoking the dreary environments from the movie.  Everything is bathed in the same blue and black Christmas-gone-wrong tone of the film.  Even better, the midi-version of the Danny Elfman theme Batman theme is one of my favorite pieces of game music from the whole era.  The original music for the game is pretty forgettable, but the dark, slow version of the Batman theme is a pitch perfect fit for the game’s gloomy tone.

Overall the game is a failed experiment.  Batman Returns truly had the ingredients to be a creative Batman adventure game.  I would even argue it still has the best framework of any Batman game I’ve played, including the Arkham series, but the developers just forgot to add in the game.  As it exists it’s probably the worst of the many, many Batman Returns games, and that’s saying something.  What could have been an original experience quickly crumbles into just another half-assed movie tie-in.

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Even today, a game that took this outline, included some actual combat and a genuinely compelling mystery for Batman to solve could work.   Batman games still spend too much time making Batman into a punch-happy brute instead of a clever detective improvising his way through situations.  Telltale’s latest Batman offering is in many ways the game I hoped Batman Returns would be.  It focuses on Batman’s day to day life, both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, and actual detective work becomes part of the equation.  Unfortunately, like all Telltale games it’s also completely on rails, an interactive story more than a traditional game.  What Batman Returns promised and failed to deliver was the genuine freedom to live the life of the Batman, the chance for players to take the initiative in both finding and then solving mysteries.  Over two decades later I’m still waiting for somebody to make the game Batman Returns could’ve been.

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Cthulhu Addendum: The Lovecraft Museum

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Before leaving the world of Infogrames Lovecraft adventures, it’s worth visiting one final oddity.  Tucked away on the Shadow of the Comet CD, The Lovecraft Museum is an interactive journey through some Lovecraft-themed VGA artwork.  It’s less a game than a special feature, an excuse to stuff even more Lovecraft references into the already reference-heavy world of Shadow of the Comet.  Though slight, the Museum represents an early attempt to use interactive entertainment for something other than murdering players.

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More Call of Cthulhu: Prisoner of Ice

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Taking a bit of inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Infogrames’ second Lovecraftian adventure game, Prisoner of Ice, opens with an aerial attack on an Antarctic base in 1937.  After the Shadow of the Comet’s crumbling graveyards and haunted forests, the World War 2 era battle immediately sets Prisoner apart as a very different game.  While Lovecraft was certainly influenced by earlier writers such as a Poe and Arthur Machen, his work also firmly belongs in the era of the early 20th century pulp adventure.  Shadow of the Comet emphasized the gothic side of Lovecraft; Prisoner of Ice goes in the other direction.  It’s a pulpy, globe-trotting adventure that feels more like a second-tier Indiana Jones story than a horror game.  In the course of a very short adventure players will find themselves everywhere from a sinking British sub to the distant future as the game’s plot grows more and more ludicrous.  It’s no masterpiece and for the most part plays as a cut-rate Fate of Atlantis knock off, but by simplifying Shadow of the Comet’s interface and puzzles and ramping up the pace, Prisoner of Ice makes for a few quality hours of goofy adventure game nonsense.

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Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet

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Early adventure games and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction have a great deal in common.  They both suggest a world unbound by basic human decency, rationality, and logic.  Death lurks around every corner, and when it comes it is neither deserved nor explainable, merely the result of inhabiting a universe that is utterly indifferent to the plight of man.  It should come as no surprise then that developer Infogrames saw in Lovecraft’s work the ideal inspiration for an early 90s adventure game (as well as the much more well known Alone in the Dark.)  Call of Cthulhu:  Shadow of the Comet is an exercise in masochism and frustration, where logic goes out the window in favor of obtuse puzzles and an aggressively unfriendly interface, where even the simple act of talking to an NPC becomes a baffling ordeal, where almost every action can result in death.  So essentially it’s like dozens of other games from that era, but with the added justification of a Lovecraftian theme.

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Syberia: How Kate Walker Got Her Groove Back and Then Decided Her Life Revolved Around a Man

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By 2002 adventure games were already considered a “dead” genre.  Every once in a while the gaming press would point to games like Grim Fandango or The Longest Journey as a triumphant resurrection, but the late 80s/early 90s heyday of adventure gaming was long past.  One of the final inspirations for those “maybe adventure games aren’t dead after all!” articles was Syberia, a game created by Belgian cartoonist Benoit Sokal and developed by French company Microids.  At times more interactive fiction than classic adventure game, Syberia is a bizarre mix of wholly original steam-punk imagery, themes of loss, death, and identity, and terrible 90s romantic comedy clichés.

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The Little Mermaid: An 8-bit Heroine Throws Fish at the Patriarchy

Little Mermaid, The (USA)-0Even 26 (!) years later, The Little Mermaid holds up as a great Disney movie. The songs are exciting, the animation is beautiful, and Ariel’s wistful hope for a better life somewhere on land continues to strike a chord with anyone with a soul.  Looking back now, however, the movie is also kind of sexist.  Kind of really sexist.  In seeking to remove potentially alienating Christian and downright depressing themes from the original story, Disney writers changed the message of the story from “Life is brutal and disappointing but in suffering one might earn a soul” to “Complain to your rich father over and over until you get what you want.”  More critically, Ariel morphs from a headstrong young woman to a silent, passive protagonist whose main purpose is to secure the love of a rather bland man.  She “wins” the movie by successfully abandoning her entire previous identity to be with Prince Eric.  Ditching daddy for marriage is a pretty classic fairy tale theme (although decidedly not the theme of the 1837 story) so Disney doesn’t get all the blame for this, but sticking these tropes into a 1989 movie is still pretty sloppy.

Fortunately for Ariel, Nintendo games of the era were simply unable to tell a complicated story.  Inadvertently, by ditching most of the movie’s plot for gameplay purposes, Capcom’s The Little Mermaid turns Ariel from a whiney, passive protagonist to a selfless dispenser of maritime justice.  Though female stars were and remain a relative rarity in games, the nature of the medium means that when they do exist they generally posses much more power and agency than in films and other popular media.

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