Can games express an idea simply through their mechanics alone? Can they tell a story or raise a question using only their most basic element, play? These are fundamental questions which we’ll have to answer as this medium grows. How we answer them will help us to understand how to break away from merely emulating traditional media and evolve as our own art. Incidentally, James was challenged by another designer at a recent game convention to show an example of this. This is sort of a grand slam for us. It gives us an excuse to discuss a great topic, it lets James ramble about one of his favorite old games, it allows us to provide an example for all of you to use if this topic ever happens to come up in your conversations, and it gives James the chance to win a bet. Well then, onto the game. Some of you may be eager for us to talk about the latest Fallout or Call of Duty but I think it’s important to learn from our past. Too many old games are being forgotten which is a shame because they’re often the best to learn from. They tend to be simpler their mechanics aren’t obscured by flashy graphics or the complex physics happening under the hood, so today we’re going to be talking about Missile Command. For those of you who never played it, Missile Command was an arcade game developed in 1980. In this game you used a trackball to fire rockets from three different missile defense platforms in order to protect six cities from an unending reign of ICBMs. Given that this game was built over a quarter century ago, it doesn’t have much going for it in the way of graphics or sound. The missiles are single pixel glowing dots, the cities are by bichromatic skyscraper silhouettes, and the explosions resound in that great old Atari rumble. And yet it manages to express one of the most compelling narratives about nuclear war that we’ve ever experienced. How does it do so? Through play. This is a very carefully crafted game. Almost no element was haphazardly added. So let’s look at them one by one. First the game is nonviolent; the player never launches a nuclear missile. They never fire at an enemy. In this game the villain is unknown and unimportant. The game is entirely about trying desperately to save lives. Rather than losing its narrative and aggression and dominance, the game does something very rare for a video game: It puts the player in a position of completely reactionary weakness. It does this to set the boundaries of the experience which the player is exploring. The player can’t get lost in the awesome power of nuclear weapons or revel in gratuitous destruction. That isn’t what this experience is about. This is a story about being on the receiving end of a nuclear strike. Let’s take a look at this narrative choice for a moment. This is a much more human, a much more relatable story than one of mass destruction and conquest. By choosing this narrative to focus on, the creator David Theurer has presented the player with a role they can understand; A role they can emotionally assume as they experience the game; That of an individual who, not only doesn’t have limitless power as is the video game norm, but in fact has very little power to fulfill a task of dire responsibility. So let’s look at this role and how its reinforced by play. When the player steps up to the machine, they take on the role of a regional commander of three small missile defense bases. This choice of scope is important. It’s human and scale. We can understand six cities. We can imagine six real towns in our home state and project ourselves onto the experience. We can all emotionally invest in those few bases and that handful of towns in a way that we simply couldn’t if the game had tasked us with defending an entire country. Now before we even begin to talk about play, think about being the commander of these few, small, poorly stocked facilities. You probably never expected them to be used. You probably think of yourself as part of a deterrent for a war that could never possibly come. But now, as soon as you put that coin in that slot, the war is upon you. So let’s look at how this is reinforced mechanically. Missile Command, a 30 year old game, comes with what is perhaps the best and most difficult set of moral choices any video game has ever presented. Inevitably, as you play Missile Command, you’ll come to a point where you have to make a choice: Who do you defend? You have limited resources and a seemingly endless onslaught to repel. Do you try and defend everyone? Do you go out of your way and try to save that one distant town? Or do you let it, and everyone in it, vanish in an instant of cataclysmic fire so you have a better chance of saving the rest of the lives you’re responsible for? Do you let the soldiers under your command, men who know their duty but at the same time trust you to keep them alive, die when it comes down to protecting them or your civilians? Do you let a million lives get turned to ash so that you can defend one of your military installations, vital for protecting the other 5 million for whom you’re responsible? Do you jeopardize the many for the few or sacrifice the few for the many? The game reinforces all of these choices mechanically. You start the game with 6 cities, But as cities die it becomes easier and easier to protect those that remain. So do you let 5 vanish so that you can at least ensure the survival of the 6th? After all, you only lose when all 6 cities are gone. Also, each of your missile bases has their own supply of ammo and their own strategic location. Losing any one of them early in a stage severely hampers your ability to defend your cities. Thus, weighing the value of your bases against the value of your cities becomes a tricky question. Moreover, the player has to make all of these judgments lightning-fast. They have to make them in real-time just as the character they’re playing would. The player can feel that tension and that paralyzing indecision that accompanies choices of that gravity and, in the end, walks away with a new respect for anyone who has to make choices of that magnitude with the speed and confidence they need to be made. And what’s it all for? What’s the bluntest point made by this game?
That you can’t win. No matter how many stages you survive or how much time you spend playing, you can’t beat Missile Command. Nuclear war has no winners; Your job is futile but you do it anyway because you can buy people a few more minutes of hope. And what happens when you inevitably lose? The game eschews the typical game over screen found in almost every arcade game of its day for something a lot darker. With two symbols it reinforces the horror of what’s occurred in a way that most modern games fail to do with pages of script. It simply says “The End” across the flash of an incoming explosion. This is a game that tells a narrative about nuclear war and the human struggles to be found therein, and it does so solely with its mechanics; balancing and incentivizing each side of impossibly difficult moral choices. It’s stark and sobering in a way that few films or even books have managed to convey. But hey, that’s enough fro m us. We’ll just leave you with the affect this game had on its creator. This is taken from an interview with Theurer, years after the game launched. He said “I’d wake up in the middle of the night from a nightmare where I’d see these streaks coming in and I’d be up in the Santa Cruz mountains, and I’d see it hit Sunnyvale and I’d know I had about 45 seconds until the blast reached me. I had those nightmares once a month for a year after I finished Missile Command.” Theurer always thought of the six cities and Missile Command as the coastal cities of his home state of California. Yeah, so not only can games tell stories and convey ideas through their mechanics alone, They’ve been doing so for longer than most of us have been alive. Pretty cool, huh? See you next week.