Shall we play a game?
Any child of the ’80s remembers the thrill of films like WarGames or The Manhattan Project, in which plucky teenagers would buck the system to show how silly mutually assured destruction was – but the real Cold War was so much more intense. Who knows how many times the world came within a key’s turn away from complete nuclear annihilation? A game released almost one year ago set out to prove how intense it was to be trusted with the world’s safety at your fingertips.
Released April 1, 2015, ICBM by Repvblic presented a realistic vision of the height of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, placing the player in the very real burden that many young soldiers had to accept, presented as an early 1990s point-and-click adventure game – currently on display at the SXSW Gaming Expo in Austin, Texas.
“Someone took the headphones off and [said] ‘I couldn’t do this job,'” explained the game’s creator, Michael Davis. “That’s an awesome reaction to what I made. … It was more to make you think, ‘#&¢₭ man, someone does this for a living every day.'”
Before creating ICBM, or its sister game Military-Industrial Complex (which costs 99 cents in app stores, so make doubleplus sure you like the gameplay and message of the free ICBM before purchasing it), Michael attended film school in Orlando, worked in programming jobs in Austin, Los Angeles and Los Vegas – including working on “like, future soldier stuff” for government contracts. He briefly worked for a friend’s game development company, and realized this was something he wanted to try his hand at.
“The company closed, then he and I started working for the military software company, that company closed, and so nothing had launched, none of the products had shipped, so I was creatively unfulfilled,” Michael said. “I just felt like I’d never finished anything before, like never ever.”
Inspired by the text-based and adventure games of his youth, Michael set out to make the game of his dreams.
He asked his wife a vital question: “Would it be cool if we could live on savings for a little bit and I just make something really, really tiny just so I can finish something and put it on the internet and just see what happens?”
Michael’s wife – and managing director – Monica Davis, was completely receptive to his vision.
“I thought it was hilarious and I told him he should definitely do it,” she said. “A lot of times you come up with an idea and it changes into something else and it takes forever to make, and the point was, he wanted to finish something.”
After two months of what Michael described as 16-hours a day, seven days a week, it was ready.
Once the game was online, Michael shared it on Twitter with as many game developers as he could – focusing on those he respected, but being sure to ask what they thought about his work, not asking them for favors or even a retweet. When Rami Ismail of Vlambeer hyped it up on social media, that set the gears of gaming in motion.
“There’s ten thousand new games, so when someone that is very well respected says, ‘I like this,’ that is just – that was the first domino.”
While the unusual nature of the “game” seems tailor made to draw the internet’s ire, ICBM received rave reviews in much of the gaming press, and was often positively compared to a similar government-job simulator, Papers, Please.
“I had expected the reaction to be pure hatred,” Michael said. “I thought people would hate it so loudly, that maybe people who liked it … would say ‘well that actually seems like something I’d want to see.’ But I think that the internet has gotten so savvy at delivering content that you actually want to see that the people who would hate it never got it in their news feeds.”
Before you continue, make sure you’ve played the game at least once. It won’t take you long, but try your best to serve your country as the Cold War threatens to turn hot.
SPOILERS for Gameplay and Plot Details!
No seriously, did you play it all the way through?
Once you read through the rather lengthy introductory materials, mission briefs, and nationalistic propaganda, you may have noticed a distinct inability to get anything done. Your job, after all, is to wait for the executive order to commence World War III, so any preemptive action on your part would be disastrous. Really ramming the point home however, is the fact that even the coffee is undrinkable.
“The gag is that it’s historically accurate in that nothing happens. Literally nothing happens.”
(There is a secret code that can be typed in to “win” the game, but to learn what it is, gamers would have to visit Repvblic’s booth at a gaming event like SXSW!)
The similarly-themed Military-Industrial Complex targets the nature of international economics and warfare in much the same way (and with graphics any Commodore-64 user would be jealous of).
Annoyed at the lack of interactivity in early flight simulators and the overuse of quick time events in modern gaming, the target of Michael’s satire were as much the pitfalls of gaming conventions as it was the futility of the Cold War.
“You just tap ‘A’ to see next cut scene. Tap ‘A’ to see next cut scene. … Is this a game? Is sitting in a chair a game?”
Monica agreed, noting that the joke seemed to hit its target, and was not broadly aimed.
“Even though it is satire, it was really important for him, since his father was a jet pilot in the air force, he didn’t want anyone to feel like he was just like laughing at their jobs,” she said, clarifying the joke is not in any way aimed at the military, something several military veterans acknowledged as they praised the game’s accuracy in online forums.
The critic Michael thought would be the harshest on his game, actually loved it.
“Her mom played it,” he said, referring to his non-gaming mother-in-law. “To her it wasn’t even like a joke or satirical, she was like, ‘It’s a book that you read by clicking on things!'”
That’s one way to put a positive spin on the ever-looming threat of a nuclear holocaust.