[In this critical analysis, Andrei Filote examines how striking visuals, effective audio cues, and a poignant narrative collide in Introversion Software's high-stakes nuclear warfare strategy game DEFCON.]
As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, -
They kill us for their sport.
Shakespeare - King Lear
Popular culture has developed a fixation with positive resolution of conflict. Often games are just about entertainment. Rarely do they shock, disturb or instruct. It's common fare to pick up a historical theme, take it into the realm of fantasy, and build up an endlessly repeatable narrative of total war - all without saying anything. Unlike its cousins, DEFCON does say something. It builds up to an alienating experience, one punctuated by the fact that every match ends in catastrophe. In a story where "everybody dies," the goal becomes to "lose the least."
DEFCON is best when not taken at face value, and yet it is fun. Part of its poignancy is how enjoyable it is to play, how in seducing you it involves you in its conspiracy. It relies on contradicting elements of itself and thrives on antithesis. It is easy to be impressed by the magnitude of the game while also being repelled by it. It remains committed to the logic of empowerment even while producing images and stories that, fully explored, terrify.
What can be more empowering than deciding the fate of civilizations? In History only a select few individuals ever reach that enviable and yet unenviable position. Games have changed that, routinely putting the player into the shoes of a person who with absolute power turns the wheel this way or that. The roles supplied are many (Ninjas, Giant Robots, Navy SEALs, Batman, God) but generally speaking the benefit is directed toward the player. Like the villagers in Black & White, the objects of our decision making are also the means to our enjoyment. It raises the question: do we inhabit the world or exploit it?
This seems to be a recurring theme in the work of Introversion Software. In Uplink you play a hacker who can steal funds, modify government records, or even aid in the deployment of a cataclysmic virus. In Darwinia you guard a population of virtual citizens and help them in cleaning their system of a deadly virus (perhaps the same you deployed in Uplink?). Prison Architect, currently in its alpha stages, entrusts you with the management of a prison and its contents.
None of these titles were endowed with force merely by the arguments they tackled. They rely on elements that one way or the other subvert classic schemas. Sifting through poorly defended government records, you find the lives of others directly under your power. Whereas in Prison Architect the fun (but harmless) game of designing a system that runs as smoothly as possible is complicated by the use to which that system is put.
once the earth goes bust
what speck of dust
do you intend to rule on, Mr. King?
Arun Kolatkar - Sarpa Satra
There's a similar reasoning behind DEFCON. Part of that is found in the 1983 film WarGames, in which a teenage hacker causes a supercomputer to hijack a military installation and run simulations of a nuclear attack. The hapless commanders believe it is a Russian first strike and prepare to retaliate. Only when the phantom missiles fail to destroy their targets are they finally persuaded that there was never any danger. While WarGames was a product of mass entertainment, the cold war ethos and the fictional NORAD's strategic map planted the seeds of the future game. In an interview with Eurogamer, Introversion Software's Chris Delay stated that he "wanted to see a game that looked like the movie, with vector-lined Soviet subs closing in on your coastline. Most of all I wanted to recreate that tension and paranoia."
Take its main menu for instance. The digitally rendered bare frame of the globe gives us an instant photograph of DEFCON's aesthetic, morality and worldview. It is built out of darkness and the boundaries that separate us from them. And the globe isn't just the symbol and the product of a kind of worldview, it's also a necessary tool of warfare. We trust its referentiality to be accurate. When we finally begin a play session we discover that the map functions along the same lines.
But compare this to Europa Universalis or Shogun: Total War. Their game maps are cheerful and encouraging. They are grounded in the warmth and sensibility of wood and paper. They are bright and generous, inviting no afterthoughts to the action. They are the analog to DEFCON's digital. If we exit one and enter the other it is like turning off the lights and inviting a little darkness into our lives. In accepting this, a sense of displacement takes hold, beginning that process of alienation whereby little by little human comfort is stripped away.