How do you rationalize a game where “everybody dies?”
“How do you rationalize nuclear war?”
It’s a humid mid-spring day and I’m lying on the floor at my parents’ house in rural Virginia, about 70 miles outside of Washington, DC. On the outskirts of Hunt Country, rolling, emerald pastures and grandiose Civil War-era mansions separate Capitol Hill from … here, an area with a rapidly-dissolving middle class and the inspiration for a rather disparaging (and embarrassingly accurate) book titled, “Deer Hunting With Jesus.” I make the best of having to be here and luxuriate in the availability of cheap jerky. As I wait for my brother to join the match of DEFCON that I’ve set up for us, I stare into the game’s main menu, and peruse the many detailed lists scrolling up the left-hand side of the screen that evoke just the right flavor of apocalyptica: beta tester credits, strategic world targets and the symptoms and signs of radiation sickness (“hair loss, bloody stool, sloughing of skin … “).
About 3,600 miles away in Cambridge, England, indie darlings Introversion plug away on their next game, Subversion, along with a PSN port of the aforementioned DEFCON. “We’ve had to do a spot of downsizing recently,” notes Introversion managing director Mark Morris. “We finished Darwinia+ and there is a bit of a lull while we do the groundwork for our next projects. At the moment it’s just the four original directors and my dad, dutifully sending out the physical units to the customers that want them.”
I imagine Mark’s dad, Will (“the most under-appreciated member of Introversion”), locked against his will in a bedroom the size of the one I’m in now, though as Mark is quick to note, the studio has smartly ridden themselves of the “bedroom” moniker. “We dropped the ‘last of the bedroom programmers’ tag a while ago,” he says. “When we first entered the industry it was dominated by huge publishers and medium-large-sized developers – there was no concept that a team of four or five people could independently develop and publish a new game. Happily, that situation has changed and we see lots of small teams doing really well. Claiming to be the last in that sort of an environment just stopped making sense. That said, we still hold those bedroom values of only working on original IP and not doing work for hire.”
Pemmican in-hand, I ready our game as my brother joins the lobby.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“Yes, I think it does,” he says. “I don’t think it is any less relevant now then it was when we released it four years ago. Obviously, had we launched during the Cuban missile crisis we would probably be millionaires by now – we would have had to have invented the home computer as well, but I reckon that we could have done that. I think people are interested in the theme, but, really, it is the game itself that keeps bringing people back. We’ve not found an optimal way to play DEFCON which means that, like chess, it just goes on and on.”
“We are trying to avoid changing the game itself,” says Morris, when queried about their work on the PSN iteration of DEFCON and the lessons carried over from their last original game (for a moment ignoring Darwinia pseudo-sequel Multiwinia) into the upcoming Subversion. “I think there can be improvements made to the ‘meta-game’ – a well implemented player ladder and tournament support would aid the enjoyment a lot, but as a game in itself I don’t think it needs to be messed with.” He continues, “Subversion is a very different game to DEFCON. Much more similar to Uplink, actually. Most of the lessons learnt from DEFCON are technical and relate to our underlying network architecture and development processes. I think that the audio in DEFCON was our best achievement and lent to a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, I’d really want to recreate that within the Subversion world.”
I again lament my lack of sound, particularly over my brother’s ever-increasing cellphone chatter.
“Launch Detected.” I immediately launch a handful of volleys at his coastal cities. “Shit,” I hear, from across the room, before explaining it away to his girlfriend on the other end of the phone.
San Francisco hit, 9.5m dead.
New York hit, 16.5m dead.
The smell of earthworms and warm Virginia rain wafts through the open window. I shift my weight on the uncomfortable carpet, rip off a large slab of salty jerky with my teeth and my mouth is flooded with a thick saliva.
How do you rationalize a game where “everybody dies?”
“How do you rationalize nuclear war?” Morris asks. “We’re not particularly left-wing at Introversion and the original desire to make DEFCON was probably more about how cool it is to silently place your submarines and gently move your bombers to a position to deliver a devastating attack than it was to comment on the futility of war. Once we started looking into it though, we just couldn’t help but give some sort of commentary on the rationale behind systems of war that have the capability to wipe us out as a race.”
Washington, DC hit, 3.1m dead.
Jonathan Glover is a writer.