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Reactions to DEFCON: Everybody Dies

DEFCON Screen

This is not a review.  This is purely the author’s musings about his feelings while playing DEFCON, and is in that sense entirely subjective.

DEFCON is not a fun game, to me anyway, which is not to say it’s not a good game, or even an enjoyable game.  In fact, it’s a quite enjoyable game; it’s just not a fun game.

I’ve been having trouble putting a word to the feeling I get as I play DEFCON.  My first thought was “depressed”, although that’s not quite right; DEFCON doesn’t make me sad.  My next thought was “despair”, but again, not quite right.  I still haven’t found quite the right word, but such is the nature of language; we use words to approximate our thoughts in order to convey them, but when a thought is unfamiliar enough we don’t have the words to describe it.  Right now, I’m thinking it’s somewhere between “unsettled” and “pensive”, though the feeling is deeper than either of those would imply.

Developed by Introversion (Darwinia, Uplink), DEFCON is a game that, according to its site, casts the player in the role of a military commander hidden deep underground in a fortified bunker.  You are in command of your nation’s nuclear arsenal, and your mission is to decimate the civilian population of your enemy while protecting your own.  The game is played entirely from a stylized map of the world (pictured at the top of this post), with icons representing missile silos, radar installations, air force basis, fleets and cities.  Think of the War Room map from Dr. Strangelove, or Wargames.  There is calm, but eerie music playing in the background, and it doesn’t change through the game, no matter how tense the “action” gets.  The game starts off at DEFCON (Defense Condition) 5 and gradually ticks down, with different actions permitted at different levels, until you reach DEFCON 1 and the use of nuclear weapons is authorized.  Missile silos can either be used to launch ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles), or as defense systems against incoming missiles and planes.

The game can be played in real time if the player chooses, or run at a higher speed.  ICBMs take 10-15 minutes to reach their destination when the game is played in real time.  Their trajectory is marked by a dotted line with a missile icon on the end of it, and their impact is represented by a white flash.  If the missile impacts a city, casualty information rises up from the flash.  2.3 million dead.

I’ve had to pause while writing this.  Those words get to me.  The subtitle, “Everybody Dies”, is no misnomer, but I think “Nobody Wins” would have been better.  That’s the point of this game; in global thermonuclear war, no one wins.  “Winning” a game of DEFCON means killing more of the enemy’s civilians than he kills of yours.  I killed 75 million of his people, and he only killed 50 million of mine.  I win.  Woo hoo.

You wouldn’t guess it from reading that last paragraph, but I actually love this game.  The strategy involved is very deep, though the interface and units are incredibly simple.  And winning is hard (though again, that’s the point).  But again, this isn’t a review.

This game makes me feel what I would loosely call “bad”, but it does so in a good way.  It’s like watching a movie like Hotel Rwanda or Reign Over Me; it doesn’t make you happy, and it’s definitely not fun, but it’s enjoyable, and a good experience.  Forget every other argument you’ve ever heard for games as art, DEFCON is proof that they already are.  Through twenty years of playing video games, and twenty four years of living in a society that values personal achievement, I have been taught to want to win.  Playing DEFCON is no different.  But DEFCON makes me feel guilty for winning.  The points I’m playing to rack up are human lives.  Human, civilian lives.  DEFCON is a game of who can kill the most innocent people.  And you want to win.  Every victory in DEFCON, though, is a hollow one; you still lose millions and millions of people, and you still kill millions and millions of people.

There have been other games that have tried to make the player think about their actions in a meaningful way.  A recent example that comes to mind is the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2.  That level has the player controlling a special forces operative who is undercover with a Russian terrorist organization, and is brought along during an attack on civilians in an airport.  The player is presented with a choice:  join in the slaughter of civilians, or don’t.  It’s a pretty black-and-white choice, but the scene is still powerful.  It’s powerful in a different way than DEFCON, though.  In No Russian, the player has a choice as to whether to kill the civilians or just walk through the airport without raising his gun.  In DEFCON, on the other hand, the player has no choice.  Yes, technically you could choose to fire no missiles, and simply try to defend, but if you do so millions of your people will die, and you will lose.  If you launch a preemptive strike, however, you can destroy the enemy missile silos before they have a chance to fire all their missiles, saving millions of your people.  But unless you follow up that attack with attacks on civilians you are still going to lose.  In No Russian you can win by only firing at those who fire upon you first, and not harming the civilians.  In DEFCON, you lose unless you make a mass murderer of yourself.

In DEFCON, even winning is losing.

DEFCON can be purchased through the Introversion web site, or on Steam.
  • this game rules!

  • Lokon_target

    Yes, I agree with you 100%. The game gives me a sort of… depressed feeling.

  • Pl4t0

    It is a testament to Introversion’s genius that they can make such an evocative game without sacrificing its depth or enjoyment.

  • DonnieDarko

    I’ve been whittling away at this game for three months now, and I have yet to “win”, or loose a battle. I get slaughtered every time. Even though, I can not resist the beauty and ambiance that this game so eloquently provides. When someone asks me what this game is like, all I can do is glare into their eyes with a frail and empty look and stumble over the word, “creepy”, every time. I love it. I hate it.