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The Impact of Command and Conquer: Red Alert

By Tom Anderson

This is another article in which we’ll be looking at an unexpected chain of consequences in our timeline (OTL) and what that tells us about possibilities in alternate history (AH). For a detailed rundown of the philosophy and approach behind this exercise, see my first Consequences article.

When discussing the genre of AH, it is common to ask ‘What first interested you in this?’ For some people it will be Harry Turtledove’s best-selling novels, or Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” (now televised by Amazon) or even the classic US Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life”, in which a suicidal protagonist sees what his home town would be like if he had never been born and realises the impact he has had on so many lives. However, for people of the generation born in the 1980s, a frequently-cited inspiration is the Westwood Studios real-time strategy game “Command & Conquer: Red Alert” (1996).

The gameplay of “Red Alert” was ground-breaking for the time and inspired many other real-time strategy (RTS) games such as “Total Annihilation”, despite flaws such as balancing issues between the two very different sides, the Allies and the Soviet Empire. The most compelling aspect of “Red Alert”, though, and likely the one that ensured it retains a faithful following to this day, is the plot, expounded through well-produced cutscenes. Later sequels when Westwood was purchased by Electronic Arts would exaggerate this into a more cartoonish and far-fetched scenario, but in the original game the plot was understated and gritty, albeit based on an initial fantastic aspect. In 1946, a scientist (later revealed to be Albert Einstein) builds a time machine and travels back in time to 1924, meeting a young Adolf Hitler as he is released from Landsberg Prison. Einstein shakes Hitler’s hand, which is implied to erase him from history and return Einstein to 1946:


ASSISTANT: Did you find him?

EINSTEIN: Hitler…is out of the way.

ASSISTANT: Congratulations, Professor! With Hitler removed—

EINSTEIN (cuts him off): Time will tell. Sooner or later…time will tell.

If the player expected that Einstein’s action in removing Hitler would avert the Second World War and the associated atrocities, they receive a rude awakening as the opening cutscene fades to the opening drumbeats of Frank Klepacki’s iconic “Hellmarch” theme and images of Soviet submarines and tanks clashing with Allied ones appear. This culminates in the shocking image of a dagger with a hammer and sickle on its hilt stabbing deep into a map of Europe and Communism spreading across it like a bloodstain.

​Indeed, it transpires that Einstein’s actions only led to a different World War between the Allies of Western Europe (including a non-Nazi Germany) and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, who explicitly appears as Soviet leader in the campaign. Curiously for an American-made game, the United States does not feature at all, with the available sub-factions for the Allies being France, “England” (Britain) and Germany. It is easy to see how this dramatic and well-explained scenario created a love of, and a curiosity about, AH in the young minds who played “Red Alert”. Without the game, Sea Lion Press itself might not exist. What better topic, then, to explore with another of our chains of unlikely consequences in history?

What factors led to the creation of “Command & Conquer: Red Alert”, and which removed—like Hitler in the game itself—would avert its creation?

What if I told you that the game’s existence ultimately depends on a decision made by the real Joseph Stalin himself?

In the 1930s, Stalin infamously purged the Communist Party of the Soviet Union of suspected ‘undesirables’. Among the thousands of executions and imprisonments were many members of the exiled Communist Party of Iran, which had formerly been a significant force and had briefly run the separatist Soviet Republic of Gilan on the Caspian Sea coast. Stalin had, quite in passing, effectively destroyed Communism in Iran save for those Communists imprisoned in Iran itself. A decade later, with Hitler invading the Soviet Union, Stalin agreed to pre-emptively occupy and divide Iran between the Soviets and his British cobelligerents to secure the oil supply. In the ensuing atmosphere, a new communist movement, the Tudeh Party, came into being—as a direct though unintended consequence of Stalin’s actions.

Fast forward to 1951. The Soviets and British had left Iran by this point in name, but the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company continued to exercise considerable influence in the country, securing its oil for British interests. Into this atmosphere, Mohammad Mossadegh became Prime Minister and seized the Company’s assets, undermining British influence. Mossadegh was no communist himself, but was ultimately dependent on Tudeh Party votes in the Majlis, the Iranian parliament. Britain failed to resolve the situation alone, but when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President of the United States in 1952, the tenuous Tudeh connection—and the need to control Iran’s oil—led to a 1953 coup d’état in which Mossadegh was overthrown by a CIA operation called Operation Ajax. The Western powers had launched an audacious and outrageous piece of interference in another nation’s destiny for the sake of oil. Clearly, control of ‘black gold’ would define the second half of the twentieth century.

Three years later in 1956, a budding science fiction author named Frank Herbert wrote a novel entitled “The Dragon in the Sea”. Inspired by the events in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, the novel envisaged a twenty-first century in which the Eastern Bloc has achieved domination over all oil, and the West only survives by sending secret submarine ‘subtugs’ to steal oil from underwater oil fields under the East’s notice. Herbert would then take the idea into the realms of allegory with his better-known 1965 novel, “Dune”. In this iconic tale, a hostile desert planet (Arrakis, also known as the titular Dune) is the only place in the universe where ‘the spice’ can be found, a precious drug with mind-expanding powers that allows ‘Navigators’ to pilot faster-than-light ships between the stars. Just like the Western and Eastern blocs, in “Dune” it is aristocratic, retro-futuristic feudal Houses such as the Atreides and Harkonnen who battle for control of Arrakis and its spice. Meanwhile, Arrakis is inhabited by the Fremen, a people hardened by their brutal home but with deep religious values and a creed that hopes for a saviour who will free them from outside control. The allegory for the Arabs and Iranians and oil is obvious even without Herbert using Arabic names and terminology in connection with the Fremen.

“Dune” made a large impact on the science fiction landscape, and there were were many stalled and troubled attempts to adapt it for cinema in the 1970s by Arthur P. Jacobs, Ridley Scott and (most infamously) Alejandro Jodorowsky. Finally in 1984 David Lynch released his adaptation, produced by Dino de Laurentiis, which did poorly at the box office and was partly disavowed by Lynch (though Herbert himself reportedly liked it). Lynch’s version introduced some new elements such as a sonic weapon used by the Fremen to free themselves, and was the first science fiction outing for Patrick Stewart (playing the character Gurney Halleck), later to play Captain Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Despite its lack of box office success, the film became a cult classic with a significant fanbase.

One person who was an enthusiastic fan of “Dune” the novel was Martin Alper, founder of a video game company called Mastertronic (which later became Virgin Interactive). He was obsessed with adapting “Dune” as a game but was stymied by the fact that the ownership of the copyright was uncertain following the de Laurentiis’ bankruptcy and Herbert’s death in 1986. Finally Alper purchased the copyright from Universal in 1990. He met with the French games company Cryo Interactive, who would work directly on the game with a team made up largely of fellow “Dune” fans.

The original “Dune” game, largely an adventure game in style but with unique elements, has an interesting tale in itself, but does not directly come into this one. Indeed, its real impact here was that it was almost cancelled following a change in management at Virgin. The project was salvaged and the game eventually released, but Alper pulled out and passed on the rights to an American company, Westwood Studios, known for their world on early strategy games. Westwood used the “Dune” licence to create a groundbreaking Real Time Strategy game, in part inspired by Japan’s “Herzog Zwei”, which was released in 1992 under the confusing title “Dune II” despite having very little to do with Cryo’s game. This didn’t matter, however. Though very primitive by today’s standards, “Dune II” successfully played off the role of ‘the spice’ as a precious resource by making the game all about trying to control that resource and protect one’s spice harvesters from the enemy. The concept known as ‘Command and Conquer economy’ was born and popularised the RTS genre, inspiring (among others) Blizzard’s “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans”, which ultimately led to the most popular MMORPG of all time, “World of Warcraft”.

But Westwood were already aware they were on to a winner, and in 1995 used an improved version of the “Dune II” formula with their own original storyline and intellectual property. Originally the game was planned to have a fantasy setting, but the Gulf War and ongoing terrorism threats led to this being changed to a modern warfare setting. A mysterious terrorist group, the Brotherhood of Nod, fights the United Nations’ Global Defence Initiative (GDI) for control of Tiberium, a mysterious substance that had fallen from space (obviously replacing ‘the spice’ from “Dune”). The game was named “Command & Conquer”, later retroactively subtitled “Tiberian Dawn”.

“Command & Conquer” proved an instant hit, and Westwood immediately began working on using an improved version of the same engine with a new plot. They hit upon the idea of a prequel that would hint at the shadowy origins of the Brotherhood of Nod and their apparently immortal leader, Kane (sometimes implied to be the Biblical Cain, who ‘took up residence in the Land of Nod, East of Eden’ in the Book of Genesis). Whereas in “Command & Conquer” the ‘good guys’ of the GDI had been the all-encompassing power facing pinprick asymmetric attacks from Nod terrorists, in this prequel the formula was turned on its head, with the ‘good guy’ Allies being desperately outnumbered and outgunned by the juggernaut of the Soviet Empire. “Red Alert” was born, complete with AH storyline to inspire a generation of writers.

So here is our chain of consequences:

- Without a decision in Joseph Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, the Iranian Communist Party would not have been destroyed;

- Without the Iranian Communist Party being destroyed, the Tudeh Party would not have been founded in the 1940s;

- Without the Tudeh Party backing up Mohammad Mossadegh, there would have been no incentive for Eisenhower’s USA to intervene on behalf of Britain and topple him for Iran’s oil in 1953;

- Without the struggle for Middle East oil, Frank Herbert would not have been inspired to create Arrakis and “Dune” (1965);

- Without “Dune” the novel there would be no “Dune” the game and “Dune II” (1992);

- Without “Dune II” there would be no “Command and Conquer” (1995);

- Without “Command and Conquer” there would be no “Red Alert” (1996);

- And without “Red Alert” there might be no Sea Lion Press!

I hope you have enjoyed this exploration of another unexpected series of consequences in our history, and what it may tell us about the ramifications of each action we take. Look out for more articles in this series!



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