a review of Defcon
a videogame developed by introversion
and published by valve, introversion, encore
for linux, macintosh operating system x and Microsoft Windows
text by Matthew Sakey
I was explaining Defcon to a friend, my arm-waving exposition rising in timbre as I spoke of the elegance, the simplicity, the awful beauty of this game of nuclear brinksmanship, a game where the whole point – where hours of play – really devolve into who’s the best loser.He didn’t get it.”I don’t get it,” said he.
“What’s not to get?”
“What about infantry? How do you place infantry?”
“You don’t. There is no infantry. It’s an abstraction; it brings grand scale murder into focus. It’s psychological.”
“Why can’t you see his silos? Where are your satellites? What about armor? NATO alliances?”
“There are no satellites. No armor. No NATO.”
He threw up his hands. “How is this a realistic war sim?”
“It’s not meant to be realistic, Kris.”
The look on his face told me that Kris understood the meaning of all those words. But to put them in that order and use them to describe a war game… well, it’d be like if someone said “And forgetting marsupial accessibility by variance” to you or me. The words make sense but not together. A strategy game that’s not realistic? Preposterous. Defcon is not meant for people who crave realism, but then, neither is chess.
Here’s how it works: up to six opponents each control a scoop of the world. At game start it’s Defense Condition Five – American military lingo for peace. It counts down relentlessly through Defcons until it reaches One – toe to toe nucl’r combat with the Rooskies, as it were. As the clock begins to tick, each side gets six missile silos to place in his territory, seven radars, four airbases and a whole flotilla of subs, destroyers and carriers.
Then you wait.
Everyone has nuclear weapons and the desire to use them, but ingenious balancing makes that a tricky challenge. Your ability to see into enemy nations – and thereby choose targets – is limited by your radar range and your willingness to sacrifice fighters on flybys. Moreover, the silos that launch your ICBMs are also your air defense systems (that voice you hear howling “silos aren’t anti-missile systems!” is my buddy Kris). They can only do one task at a time, so nuking your opponents means leaving your own territory partially undefended. It takes time to switch over and once you launch, the world can see your formerly-invisible silos.
So you wait.
At Defcon Three, surface navies pound at each other on the high seas while nations maneuver MRBM subs into position off enemy shorelines. Recon flights dodge SAM shells as they gingerly probe dark territory, looking for the vulnerable radar dishes that give precious advance warning of incoming warheads.
And you wait.
At Defcon Two, bombers start to fuel and players assess initial targets from spy intel. The delicious big cities are the principal victims, but clever opponents always defend them well. Your aircraft draw enemy attention with flyovers and feints designed to distract rather than damage. A sub surfaces off your coast to sniff the air, but it’s caught by shoreside radar and eats torpedo.
And you wait.
Throughout all this time the chat channels are raging. Alliances materialize and dissolve, secret promises are made and broken, everyone else waiting for just the right time to screw their friends and foes alike. Defcon One comes and goes, but no one launches. That’s bad strategy… it’s a waiting game. So you wait. But sooner or later, the inevitable howl of a klaxon, the warning: LAUNCH DETECTED.
Someone just blinked.
After that there’s little waiting. From the first siren it’s a race. The formerly quiet screen, displaying only the soft vector lines of a world map, is suddenly illuminated by dozens of arcing trajectories. Most warheads are shot down; full commitment is, again, bad strategy – better to leave some or most of your silos on air defense, wait for the other guy blow his wad. But sooner or later some warheads make it through, and casualty reports appear.
NEW YORK HIT 12.4 MILLION DEAD / PARIS HIT 8.3 MILLION DEAD / SAO PAOLO HIT 3.1 MILLION DEAD / TOKYO HIT 5.9 MILLION DEAD and on and on.
You see, in Defcon, everybody dies. It’s the subtitle. There are no winners, only those who lose the least.
That’s the secret, horrible beauty of Defcon. You’re safe in your bunker playing wargames, the deaths of millions blandly laid forth on your screen. No screams, no fires, just a soft flare and low rumble and that morbid text wipe counting the millions. Everybody dies.
It’s visually stunning. Introversion is self-funded and doesn’t have much money; they know they can’t compete with publisher budgets so they don’t try. The simple, luminous map, the softly glowing lines, it’s a study in minimalism. The audio is even better, like Clive Barker made into music. Nothing loud, no epic symphonies. The soundtrack is weeping mothers, distant coughing, lonely, forlorn tunes – Day After sounds. Score is kept. Your kills and survivors tallied against those of your enemies. It’s macabre and exhilarating.
Then there’s the strategy element. Each territory has geographic advantages and disadvantages; everyone starts with the same amount of equipment (“Africa gets nukes? Since when?” wails Kris) and the same amount of time to place it. Game speed is under player control. There’s even an Office Mode for work, where the game takes hours, so you can leave for a meeting or a nap without having to worry that London will be gone when you come back. For those who want things over faster, just speed up time and watch the world count down to annihilation. Mastering the speed game is an important part of Defcon strategy, since those who play regularly online know exactly what they’re doing. Which is what leads us to the game’s inevitable downfall.
If Defcon were a pony, it would know one trick. While in the short run it’s definitely awesome, it lacks any kind of true longevity. There are, it transpires, a limited number of optimal tactics. Each territory has prime setups that external forces cannot necessarily confound through strategem. In short, there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The victor of a game of Defcon can usually be forecast from the instant that one person blinks, because once the launches start the game is, in many ways, over.
Defcon isn’t selling for fifty bucks or anything, but at $19 downloaded and $29 boxed it’s not cheap either. And the amount of actual play you’re going to get out of it is debatable. Sure, there are many gamers, myself included, who will spend lots of hours just killing millions for the perverse rush. Like a nuclear war, Defcon is a fun diversion, but it’s a sprint, not a marathon. (“Probably because it’s not realistic,” opines Kris, wrongly). No, it has nothing to do with the lack of realism. That’s actually part of the beauty. You can’t “simulate” real nuclear war and you probably wouldn’t want to. Introversion’s approach is necessary and welcome, it gives the game a cruel, detached flavor that is palpably effective. Everybody dies, baby. Everybody dies.
I’ve played a lot of Defcon, and I do enjoy it. But I also know how to play and win now. I don’t win all the time, but the fact is its avenues for victory are sharply limited. It’s not bad. It’s beautiful and challenging and quite unique. Depending on perspective, and the amount of pleasure derived from bombing the crap out of the rest of the world, many players could (and do) enjoy the game very much. But at the end of the day it’s not all it could be, at least not for the price. The patina of simplicity, of minimalism, actually winds up going too far.
“We like to push buttons” is the proud motto of this website, and the fact is we’re not too discriminating in which ones we wind up pushing. Our feeling is this: if there’s a button, push it. And if it causes the deaths of millions in the fiery maw of nuclear furnaces, that fact – though unfortunate – really isn’t sufficient impetus to turn us off our button-pushing crusade. After all, everybody dies. But this button, once pushed a few times, doesn’t really call out to be pushed again.