Narrative Mechanics – How Missile Command Tells a Story – Extra Credits


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.

100 thoughts on “Narrative Mechanics – How Missile Command Tells a Story – Extra Credits

  • I did not think this channel would ever make me feel stuff. Dammit extra credits. Gonna have to share this for me to move on.

  • dam this game sends chills up my back when i play its a really desperate scenario……granted i tend to look up shit on just what a nuke can do i gotta say even vault tec is a pathetic bit of false hope as the blast is hotter than the sun vaporizing the upper layers of the earth and collapsing all underground structures in the region beyond that….cant even run to a underground bunker….

  • those moments when u start thinking sooo deep about a topic u 1st thought had no meaning other to entertain. Then start reasling how u as a person affects other peoples lifes

  • Actually, yesterday I was thinking, "Can you make an enjoyable game where you cannot win?". Arcades with a high score system are the easy answer, but I mean a game for todays standards, where you don't just want to be in that score list. Can you make such a game and keep it interesting?

  • I played a version of thus game in fallout 4. Except there was only one missile base, and landmarks instead of cities. It loses a bit of it's depth without cities.

  • It's not a problem it's just I don't even know but for a while he is whispering like he doesn't want to wake his mother no offense but it's hilarious

  • I've never played missile command but I've had a very similar experience when playing "Crusader Kings II". If you don't know Paradox Interactive's games then you should probably take a second to google them. They've created their own little genre of very unique incredibly complex games that play a bit like a nightmarishly overcomplicated version of "RISK", the boardgame.
    It really made me understand the character of Tywin Lannister from GoT, in a way that no book or TV series had done or could ever do. It's hard to even describe why or how it did it, but one day I suddenly realized, while playing, that I had started to stop thinking of the horribleness of certain actions, instead only seeing them as ways to further my dynasty. It's not the fact that I did some backstabbing to advance my dynasty – that kind of 'moral dilemma' is pretty common in good games, stage plays, movies, etc. It's the fact that I completely stopped thinking about backstabbing as something horrible and instead just saw it as a tool to achieve my goals, exactly like bribery, marriage alliances and war. At that point I felt like I had gotten a tiny glimpse at what it must be like to by Tywin Lannister.

  • I always thought the finality of the destruction of the protective barriers in Space Invaders was quite striking. I knew that no matter how good I was, there was always going to be that one wave that'd beat me, and each dent in the barriers seemed to mark a step closer to that.

  • Yes I'd sacrifice one city to better defend the other 5. Yes I'd prioritize saving the strategically important military installations. Yes I'd send soldiers to defend citizens, assuming it's not a suicide run. Sorry, were these supposed to be morally challenging questions? The military's job is to defend the defenseless, and the best way to do that is to not spread the forces too thin. Also, every soldier understands it's his duty to protect others and none would object to sacrificing himself to save another.

  • I think you MIGHT have over analyzed it a bit.
    I mean you can see it like that, but most people probably saw losing a city as meeting a loss condition, and while you do have to choose stuff, but probably doesn't bring anything about lives or stuff to people…
    I don't know

  • It might be the third time I have watched this episode, but it's the first time I cry.
    This episode is just really powerful.

  • I feel that Undertale does a good job of using its mechanics to tell its story. Obviously it has actual characters and dialogue to do that, but the gameplay reinforces it greatly. The fact that pacifism is harder than violence, because if you never kill anybody you never gain any levels so you have less health and all the fights takes longer. The genocide rout is a story that can only be told effectively in an interactive medium, and to a fair extent so is the True Pacifist run. Also great at expressing its core idea with its mechanics: Dark Souls. The world is harsh and you a small within it, your only chance to overcome these seemingly insurmountable obstacles is to stay determined. Because if you lose hope, if you dispair and give up, then you'll never succeed. Because not giving up is the only thing between you and all the hollows you fight. If the foes you face are too strong, if you accept that you can't win and stop playing, you're just another hollow who couldn't make it.

  • I came to this channel this morning for tips and tricks about game writing. I didn't come here to feel..

  • When talking with kids and trying to open their eyes for those kind of things I really found it rather problematic to use such old examples (even though this was such a grate one!), on top of that I found it better to have more than just one example ready (for that you don't get a "The exeption proves the rule" thrown at you). In that sense, can you please teach me/us of some other examples?

  • 2:57 Thank you for including Canadian content by way of showing British Columbia. But please: BC is a PROVINCE, it is not a STATE. And yes, these things are important for Canadians!

  • I think undertale did this brilliantly, personally. Yeah, I get it gets old hearing about it, but there was just so much crammed in there. One of the that even started the game in the first place was how most RPG battles are pointless to the story, merely simple warm ups for the bosses. And so, Toby created a game that took elements of RPG's that we would normally consider to just be something you have in an RPG, even (SPOILER ALERT)

    The save function itself. The fact that not only did the game break the fourth wall, but said fourth wall breaking was actually building the wall behind you, was simply glorious. Every character had reasons for doing what they did, with even the standard enemies having unique personalities.

  • I was born in the 90's, so this game was not only difficult to find, but it was old and lacked charm in my eyes.
    However as a kid I did get to play this game. The game was simple to understand, however after playing it a few times I grew frustrated. What I hated about this game was the fact that despite my best efforts, there was no reward whatsoever. I realized that no matter what, I couldn't win. As a kid I wondered why would someone do something so stupid to a game.

    Now older and more learned, I still hate the game for the same reason. However I no longer think of the lack of a wining condition, as something stupid. Quite the opposite, I think it's rather genius. Nuclear War, no… WAR in general has no such thing as 'winners', there are only those who lose, and those who lose less.

  • lets bring this back instead of focusing on an offensive story and character lets focus on a defensive one like missile command

  • Oh my god. I remember playing Missile Command on computer in elementary school and I never realized this. I found the game deeply frustrating because I could never win. I always ended up sacrificing cities to save others, ran out of missiles, lost bases… no matter how hard I tried, I always, ALWAYS lost in the end. Now I know why.
    To paraphrase Joshua from War Games, "Nuclear war is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play".
    That is deeply chilling for a game made in 1980.

  • My laundramat has this game in it. ive played it dozens of times but had no idea that the developer was from and had nightmares over my hometown. digs deeper than expected.

  • For anyone with Half-Life 2 or its episodes, it comes with a commentary mode where the developers talk about how they developed the game's tutorials and narrative, and how they designed the levels and events of those levels in ways to combine tutorial and narrative with a story-telling style that has relatively little actual telling-the-player-what-to-do.

  • I don't think you can say missile command teaches there's no winner in war just because there's literally no ending to the game. It is an arcade game not meant to end. You might as well say tetris and pac-man teach the same message because there is no win state in those games either. (lol, pac-man wants you to learn even if you try to save the world, the world falls apart)

  • After this video I never see old arcades the way I did. Pac Man is probably what changet the most before I saw pac man's story as pac man went to maze just to eat evil ghosts. But now I see it completely different I see that every pac man you play are different person. Ghosts see them just toys to play they will bring in maze some food and then see how long can they survive. You can't win. No matter how long will you play it you can't win pac man will inventebly die. Then when you put another coin to arcade machine you play as another victim of the ghosts. Every player in high score list had all something in common they always died only difference is that some of them survived longer than others. This should tell how easily joy filled simple game could be one of the darkest.

  • I recently got Missile Command for my Atari 2600. It's a great game but I feel like I've missed out on the arcade version since the home version only has one military installation and only one form of missile. It also doesn't say "THE END" like the arcade version.

  • It's a pretty interesting experience just now having found these videos. Takes me back to early episodes of the Game Overthinker. I dig this channel I've decided.

  • Another game that does morality like this well is Papers Please. Except it's even more personal. You have to keep your family alive, and helping to reunite other families, saving lives, or simply not arresting people you don't really need to arrest jeopardizes your own family's survival.

  • I played Missile Command when it first came out. I didn't feel that strongly about it. I didn't think of my bases as having people inside. I didn't think about the cities having people inside. The game could have made this more emotional by doing something like having a flashing speech bubble appear over a city that said, "HELP!" Maybe the developers didn't have enough storage for that. Video games at that time didn't have enough memory to store your average desktop icon that we have today.

    The game that gave strong moral choices was Defender.

    Defender, which came out a year after Missile Command, had individual people, invading aliens and a jet fighter with a laser weapon. People were on the ground, aliens would descent from the top of the screen, pick up the people, then carry them up and away. You had a radar and could see which people were being kidnapped off-screen. If alien was kidnapping a person and you shot the alien, the person would scream and fall to their death. You could catch the person and carry them around under your ship but if got blown up, so did they, so you felt responsible for them. You could set the people on the ground but they would be at risk of kidnapping again and you got a bonus at the end of the round for all the people you were carrying. You wanted to save people, not because of points, but because you were saving people, darn it! If you saw someone far away, being kidnapped you wanted to rush over and save them.

    The problem was you couldn't save everyone, if a person was taken away by aliens then alien would become far more powerful and their was friendly fire. You could shoot a person by "accident". The players with the highest scores knew that by killing all but one of the people, the game would be a LOT easier.

    So what do you do? Rush to the aid of a person who's going to get killed sooner or later anyway and risk getting yourself blown up? Murder every person in the game, except one, just so you can get a higher score? If there are two people on screen being kidnapped which one do you save? If a person is falling to their death, do you just let them go so another alien won't come along and kidnap them and become a far more powerful enemy?

  • May I compare this to that of Spec Ops: The Line? sure these two are different games that are played differently, but they both convey an important message: War is hell. Missile Command gets this right by being virtually unbeatable as no one can survive a nuclear war and Spec Ops does this by showing how much impact a war can have on someone's psyche. when analyzed fully, both of these games are smarter than we think.

  • "Just a game" logic can be applied to almost anything, media especially. "just a movie" isn't an argument at all. If you said "Oh it's just a simple game, it doesn't have any special deeper meaning." Sure. Not everything is created to the pinnacle of introspection. Everything does, or rather can have depth. A bit of soil has history for example, seemingly mundane dirt has intersected with thousands if not hundreds of lives. But yeah, relatively speaking, a game or dirt or whatever can be simple. Relatively. But everything is just something else. Language like that doesn't say anything useful.

  • See this video game has taught me a valuable lesson: If I, fairly emotionally detached human being am perfectly alright in sacrificing over 50% of my population to save the other half, then people who actually live under these circumstances that may one day hope day after day that the missiles never come because of political arrogance where humility was mandatory, then the people in charge of those anti-ICBM programs can be as well. Especially considering Britain couldn't survive a nuclear war, almost all of our population is crammed into five or six major city centres which take only one or two nukes to obliterate. So I doesn't even have to be sacrificial choice in our case, just acting slightly too slowly is already the end for too many people.

    – a PSA as to why it should never be politicians who have nuclear control, and why the militaries should be regulated directly by a more potent diplomatic force, if not disbanded entirely

  • The missiles being fired at the 6 cities are IPBMs (interplanetary ballistic missiles) not ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). The Game description of the Atari 5200 version of missile command is where I get this info from. And that cross-skull looking enemy that flies by is actually a satellite.

  • Not to belittle the point this video was making but
    *meanwhile in the mind of the player*
    "Aw heck I lost a city dang it imma go play pacman when I die"

  • "This is a story about being on the receiving end of the nuclear strike."

    A MARVELOUS game with this concept is This War Of Mine.
    Created by someone who was a child in Belgrade during the Yugoslavian civil war, it's a game that puts you in the shoes of one to four refugees, struggling for food, resources and protection in a city devastated by war.
    Scavenging for food, building tools of fortune, bargaining for vital goods, barricading your torn house and sneaking around to avoid encountering dangerous people are all vital parts of it.
    There's also combat, but it's not presented as a normal situation, like in action games: every time your character is forced into combat (or choses to fight to protect someone, or merely not to return home empty handed), the feeling is less "let's defeat this enemy and see what we get" and more "fuck fuck fuck please don't die please don't die".

  • it's not only mechanics…
    Let's say the nukes became coins and each city became a single, annoying, pretentious millionaire. Then the game, still with the same mechanics, would send a completely different message

  • When the video started I thought "Oooh, they'll surely talk about Brothers! Such a great example for that!" Then I looked at the date of the video… Brothers hadn't even been out yet then! 🙁

  • 5:00 unless you get far enough in the levels to cause an integer overflow and the game crashes or takes you to a kill screen or loops back to level 1

  • Damn that was a good episode, this is the first time I hear about this game and I'm amazed about it. Also I'm pretty sure if by any chance I played this game before seeing this video I wouldn't make this connection, it would have been just another arcade in which I had to survive the longest to get the hi-score.

  • one of my favorite videos of yours. It makes me think about how many stories I've overlooked in the games of the past. This game almost makes me wish someone did make a "Missile Command 2" that has this story more explicitly stated. But then again, maybe by doing so, it would miss the whole point.

  • this is why anyone who lives in the UK should pray to whatever deitic entity they believe in, that we never get tangled up in nuclear war. the UK has a crippling flaw: it's a somewhat small landmass for 65 million people to live on. the US has around 350 million and hundreds of times the size to put them all. the UK, on the other hand, has just over an 8th of it's population in London. the next largest city, Birmingham, has 1/65th as just over 1 million. if ever an enemy with serious intent of using nuclear warheads comes to my country, there would be terror in the streets, for a few seconds, then a blinding flash, and then, a very morbid silence. the UK is an exemplar, despite with 62 cities, of what Missile Command does, and that terrifies me. because I could well be in the sort of zone that could be sacrificed to ensure the survival of another.

  • I know I'm a few years late but another game that I feel captures the horror of nuclear war is Defcon with it's use of soundtrack, mechanics, presentation, and sheer anxiousness that comes when Defcon 1 approaches and you're thinking "please don't tick over" but it always does…

  • I used to play that game on an emulator all the time, i thought they were aliens or something but i always felt helpless in that state.

  • I played this game on a flip-phone and I still remember getting mad as hell whenever I lost a city. Every time I felt like it was something I could have prevented if I'd just been a little faster or had been paying closer attention. I hated how the rubble was a constant reminder of a time I wasn't good enough, and how that would push me to defend the other ones even harder until the screen was an unplayable mess and it would all come shattering down.

  • sunnyvale gets nuked so much in fiction, 3 times in fallout, almost getting nuked in war games, , now it's getting nuked over and over again in missile command, note to californians, don't live in sunnyvale if you don't wanna be nuked

  • British Columbia is a province in canada. not a state in the usa.
    Also people say that you need to say to save more then lil' but wut if 5 people are cereal rapist an murders an the other is a child an you have to choose who lives

  • It said "Narrative Mechanics – How Missile…" and I thought it was going to be about Ghost Trick. I was so happy…

  • Missile Command is an extremely easy game to underestimate, but it tells a story exceptionally well. The sad thing is that Missile Command and other great video games will never mean a thing to most people. I never understood the true value of art in general until I started watching Extra Credits, but that's the thing: how many people will miss out on the hidden themes buried in video games, movies, novels, etc?

  • after watching this I downloaded and played the 1994 (i think) version, in it there is no limit on defensive ammo and the 6 cities are 6 of the worlds capitol cities. and I honestly felt that disconnect due to the scale just feeling to broad. A lot of the rest really held true for me.

    my wife, who is an incredibly sensitive woman (she makes me love games in new ways by the emotional content she sees in them, the same emotional content i as a jaded "veteran gamer" most often do not experience) played it once (not having watched this video) and simply said "never again"

    That experience really opened my eyes and I started digging through old abandonware looking for something that re-enforced that feeling for myself; while giving me a challenge I could happily sink hours into: without it feeling repetitive.

    this lead me to Cannon Fodder, one has to run it on a dos emulator (ye its that old…1994 as well, oddly enough) an found it to be an amazing example of mechanics as metaphor.

    let's just break it down as: a wave based survival game with soldiers as your lives (each with a unique name and yes permadeath) which plays out as a fast paced top-down shooter and includes (to my amazement) civilians and civilian structures. with each mission ending with credits to the soldiers who died and those who survived.

    All portrayed with minimal text and in pixel graphics with up beat music and a zany humor that's reminiscent of rambo styled "glory of war" feeling that is sharply juxtaposed with the slowly swelling graveyard at your base, marking all those fallen to "win this war" a war which is given no context (its safe to assume at the start at least that its the vietnam war, but later levels do bring that into question) and if fought against an unknown force for unknown reasons (ok given, i did one play through on cannon fodder 1 and only got to level/mission 7 but i fully intend to keep playing, and finish it…when I do I'll come update this if necessary)

    I strongly recommend this little (and sometimes punishing) game.

  • I got an atari flashback 8 for christmas from my brother and missile command is on it and was the first game on it that i played

  • Wow… That's… Really scary. A stressful game… Amazingly effective. Can't say I can think of another example of a game that has that kind of story without using any words at all…

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