I just discovered a relatively fun, if someone disturbing, computer game that struck a chord in me. Published by Ambrosia Software and developed by Introversion, the game DEFCON has an interesting catchphrase: “Everybody dies.” And they are aren’t kidding.
From the splash screen to the beautifully rendered game pieces and playing area, the attention to detail lets you know that you are in for a treat. Basically, the idea behind the game is to simulate the 1983 film WarGames, which features a teenager that accidentally breaks into a top-secret, US military warfare simulation computer looking for a unreleased videogame to play. In the movie, the computer almost causes World War III. However, in DEFCON, World War III happens every game; you can’t stop it.
You begin at DEFCON 5, where you can place your pieces, including air bases, radar stations, missile silos, battleships, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines, throughout your territory. Placement, as well as the missions you assign to each piece, are critical to winning the game, as you have less control over movement as the game goes along. As in WarGames, the computer moves you from DEFCON level to DEFCON level, rather swiftly getting to DEFCON 1, which means nuclear weapons are cleared for launch.
If you launch your ICBMs and bombers too early without destroying the defenses of the other side, you will likely not hit the enemy silos, meaning that your cities are vulnerable. However, if you wait too long to launch a crushing blow, most of you missiles will be destroyed in their silos. As in a real Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) scenario, the game is nothing more than a somewhat complicated game of Chicken, with millions of lives at stake. Well, virtual lives. But this game evokes more than the standard level of engagement when you see your hometown erupt in white light and the casualty number glows below it. “Memphis: 1.1 Million Dead.” Yikes. I guess I shouldn’t have launched my full attack so soon, eh? Sorry about that, pals…
DEFCON brought up memories of hours spent playing a Mac game called Strategic Conquest in the early-1990s. Much like DEFCON, Strategic Conquest didn’t show you what the enemy was doing until it was usually too late to stop it, and both games have nukes. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two, though, is that I always played StratCon with the idea of trying to avoid nukes and wipe out the other sides using conventional weapons. In DEFCON, nukes are the point. The unimaginable actually happens in every game. You can’t win if you don’t nuke. And if you don’t nuke, you’ll get nuked. Everybody dies, indeed.
DEFCON has a limited demo mode that will let you play the full game but only with non-human players or as an observer of other games happening simultaneously on the Internet. Unlocking the full game is only $25, but you don’t need to buy it to really enjoy some human vs. computer action, which is really more in the spirit of WarGames.
Perhaps the only way to win at DEFCON, as was pointed out by the computer in WarGames, “is not to play.” But with a such an elegant yet simple game that can easily prove addictive, choosing not to play is harder than you think.