The Day After

The Day After
Everybody Dies in DEFCON

Jonathan Glover | 15 Jun 2010 12:13
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"Darwinia had taken a lot longer than we expected and we were keen to work on something more contained," Mark says when questioned about the origins of DEFCON. "Chris actually wrote the prototype for DEFCON whilst he was still working on Darwinia. He sat down and watched WarGames and thought, 'Could I make a game of that? A nuclear war strategy game?' He was also watching 24 at the time so he tried to complete it in 24 hours. That didn't really work out, but despite the technology that we had to develop to make DEFCON work the core mechanics remained true to the original 24-hour prototype."

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As the round begins I scatter silos and radar along my southern border and up both coasts - Russia is now a grinning skull. Scouring over the tiny units, what's most immediately noticeable is how well the four-year-old game has aged, its timeless vector graphics belying an aesthetic sophistication - flecks of color illuminate my face as I draw in close to see bombers already hovering around my territory.

DEFCON 4.

According to Mark, "We knew we wanted a simple and stylized look. We really wanted it to feel like you were a general buried deep in NORAD, but as with all Introversion games there was a good degree of iteration before the glow and tone were just right. We had a fantastic sound guy, Al Lindsey, on board to create the music and soundscape that really make DEFCON feel so dark and tragic. The music is my favorite part and we almost won a [Game Developer Choice Award] for best audio but lost out to one of the Guitar Hero [games] - hardly fair!"

I have the sound turned off on my bulky, borrowed laptop - begrudgingly, as DEFCON's sound design is perhaps its best feature. A hauntological bent dictates ethereal strings and low-rent Cold War synths, both of which are perfectly framed by unsettling ambient queues. DEFCON stages are signaled by a maybe not so distant alarm, crackling over the intercoms of your bunker - or perhaps your opponents. Is that the sound of coughing, or quiet sobbing as you begin your attack on Houston?

Though DEFCON has always been my personal favorite in Introversion's oeuvre, I'd always assumed it a risky endeavor coming off the success of Darwinia - the studio was teetering on the brink of financial failure long before Darwinia was ever released and reportedly spent their last £1500 the day before Darwinia pre-orders went live. "Not at all," responds Morris. "We knew that DEFCON was going to be popular. Despite popular misconceptions, DEFCON outsold Darwinia and is our most successful game by a long way. There was a lot of press interest and we felt like we were on to a winner."

DEFCON 3.

My brother's bombers are now hovering over Moscow and he's left nearly his entire Western seaboard open to attack. Likewise, I enter through Alaska. I also realize too late that I forgot to deploy one of my submarines. It will sit alone in my units tab, a red, luminescent reminder of failure.

I ask Mark if he thinks the game has a timeless and frightening relevance.

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