Introversion Software made their way into the spotlight last year with Darwinia (Introversion, 2005), an unquestionably unique take on the real time strategy genre. After winning the Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival earlier this year, they effectively became the poster child for independent game development and darling of the gaming media. And why shouldn’t they? They dropped the F-bomb in their acceptance speech at the festival.
While I think the praise for their sophomore title was mostly inflated, it at least drew attention to their next project: DEFCON. Released this fall as DEFCON: Everybody Dies (Introversion, 2006), it attempts to put some mechanics behind the Global Thermonuclear War simulation seen in the film WarGames (1983). After being a little disappointed with what Darwinia had to offer, I went into DEFCON with average expectations. After all, it had the same low-fi production values and overly simplistic interface; surely the gameplay wouldn’t be much deeper. I ended up being surprised, but not by how well the logical game mechanics and utilitarian presentation worked. I was surprised by what I felt while playing it.
I was annoyed at the abstract nature of Darwinia, because it just aggravated the disjointed nature of the gameplay. There were a number of influences at work in Introversion’s attempt at real time strategy — if you could even call it that. DEFCON takes the abstract of Darwinia, but gives it a familiar mechanic that is easily grasped by strategy gamers. A review without the mention of WarGames is rare indeed, but it’s the most obvious comparison: Matthew Broderick’s foray into Global Thermonuclear War through hacking into NORAD’s supercomputer introduced us to the possibility of remote-controlled warfare. Released in the midst of the Cold War, the film showed us that it was a very real possibility.
DEFCON takes place on a world map divided into familiar territories dotted by major cities, done up in the glowing blue lines recognizable by anyone who’s seen WarGames. These unfeeling, surgical visuals successfully convey a detachment from the gravity of what is about to take place. The game is online-only, but allows you to play by yourself by adding in computer players as opponents. The concept is simple: destroy your enemy. The seemingly trivial steps of acquiring resources to build up defenses and a supporting army are disposed in favour of the fast and furious preparations for war while the DEFCON (or “defense condition”) goes up the scale from 5 (peacetime) to 1 (global thermonuclear war).
I have to admit I felt a little creepy while playing. As a real time strategy fan, I’m used to sending units to senseless deaths and watching explosions and wholesale destruction of structures unfold on screen in games like Age of Empires III (Ensemble Studios, 2005) or Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (Relic Entertainment, 2004). DEFCON takes these individual “personalities” away, and represents the action with rudimentary shapes representing missile silos with their missiles following dotted flight paths, while white flashes represent the death and devastation they cause. Successful nuclear strikes are accompanied by words like “New York City: 14.6 million dead”. The background music is ambient and unnoticeable after a while, and at that point you begin to notice the other more subdued noises: the screaming, or the mournful wail of some anonymous woman.
DEFCON puts a startlingly strong slant on being the first to push the button. You can only deploy units in DEFCON 1 and 2, with DEFCON 3 allowing only naval warfare. Eventually the global conflict will trigger DEFCON 5, when your nuclear warheads can be used. Winning is based on points, which are acquired from annihilating enemy cities — not destroying enemy units, silos or airbases. The only purpose of these structures is to occupy your nuclear warheads before you gain a clear shot of your enemy’s cities. The 2:1 point ratio for enemy kills to your own population’s death is a heavy-handed illustration of the term “acceptable losses”.
I like Introversion’s approach to the game, because they aren’t making it overly complicated for the sake of being original. They got that out of their system with Darwinia, and instead focused on what players would expect from a game based on the subject. The detachment from the process of peppering the face of the earth with nuclear explosions is quite stunning, and although we have steered well clear of the Cold War it doesn’t mean the possibility of a worldwide nuclear holocaust has escaped the collective consciousness. Watching the new TV drama Jericho or heeding recent events in North Korea are evidence enough of that.
Chillingly, DEFCON‘s greatest strength is how simple it makes the waging of Thermonuclear war. There is no underlying political commentary; the game is indifferent. With the game’s various play options, the war can be as short or as drawn out as the player wishes. Playing against the computer AI can be frustrating at first — no one knows better than a cold, calculating machine about how to optimize building, scouting and attack phases when there are so few variables. But then you kind of start to feel like Matthew Broderick and Dabney Coleman, trying to figure out how to beat the computer at its own game and hope that the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance. While retaliating against a nuclear strike is made a matter of survival in the context of DEFCON, the death tolls are a constant reminder of the effects of wholesale nuclear destruction. It’s a brilliant morality play, and the player is forced to ask themselves whether they’d be in such a rush to press the button if presented with this scenario in real life. When Matthew Broderick’s character stumbles upon the game of Global Thermonuclear War in NORAD’s supercomputer, he asks the question “Is it a game… or is it real?” to which the computer’s artificial intelligence responds: “What’s the difference?” It’s a sobering reminder of technology’s influence on modern warfare.