Thursday, December 16, 2010

How About A Nice Game Of Chess?

So watching Extra Credits this week reminded me of something. Not that games aren't art, I already discussed that. Video games will be art when we start discussing the artistic merits of Monopoly. Video games are games, they're not art just because I really really like them. And it's not that most people on the interwebs seem to grossly overthink the simplest things. Seriously, watch this weeks episode and tell me you're not thinking "Riiiiiigggghhhhhhttt" most of the time.

What it reminded me was that Missile Command is probably one of the most terrifying games out there. Seriously, that game was some unsettling shit. In large part this was because it was one of those old school arcade games that never ends. It just keeps getting incrementally harder with each level. For those of you not familiar, Missile Command was a simple game where you had three SDI (strategic defense initiative) missile silos with finite missiles and six cities chock full of civilians. And then thermonuclear warheads start falling from the sky. You have to protect the cities from wave after wave of atomic death. Oh sure, you got your ammo resupplied after each level, but attrition weighs you down something fierce. Eventually your going to lose a city, and it's gone forever (actually I think one citiy magically rebuilt every 10 levels or something, but I could be wrong). Or you could lose a missile silo, rendering your cities more vulnerable (if you got a silo back after a set number of levels, I didn't live that long). At long last, the sheer volume of warheads being thrown at you is going to win. And all you can do is sit and watch helplessly as your empty silos try and target the warhead that is about to wipe out millions of people. And then it hits, and you get the game over screen. Actually, it wasn't a "game over" screen. It said "The End" within the games pixellated, circular nuclear blast. The game wasn't over, it was the end. Everyone was dead. Humanity died on your watch. And there were no continues, more quarters just started a new game. Now that was some scary shit, especially when you consider that the game was made at a time when it could have really happened. Oh sure, today we play DefCon because no one realistically expects a global thermonuclear war, but in 1980...

Back then you couldn't really "win" arcade games. That's what hi-score lists were for. You were competing against other gamers in your area for the top score. To that extent Missile Command was no different from its peers. But that subtle change from "Game Over" to "The End"... damn. And it wasn't a frantic firefight to survive until the end, but all too often you ran out of missiles or all your silos got hit, and all you could do was sit and wait for the inevitable. For such an old arcade game, that game was dark.

1 comment:

Matoushin said...

I stopped playing Defcon after a game where I was utterly victorious. Utterly. Not a single detonation on my side, complete destruction of the opponent. Every last major population hub and city had been hit, often by multiple, multiple missiles. The enemy populace was decimated, and then decimated again, and then once again. What had once been hundreds of millions of people was now merely tens of thousands.

As I basked in the completeness of my victory, I was suddenly struck by the morose tones of the music, and the bleak, cold game interface. Aside from a simple, brief message there was no celebration, no cheerful music to hail my triumph, no sparkles or flashing lights. The only greeting was the green glow of radiation, the aftermath, and a grim finality.

Perhaps it no longer can have the impact it might have had in the 80s, but Defcon disturbed me to the point of never playing it again. Even if games are not art, such an experience is meaningful in a way that many films and books strive to be and fail.