Let’s Talk About…: Unexpected Depth

We’re back with our “Let’s Talk About…” series! Check out the previous chats here.

Let’s Talk About…: Missile Command

Good ol’ Atari, right? For such a pioneer, it definitely has its memorable titles. Maybe it’s because of what I’m seeing on the news right now, but there’s one game that keeps popping into my head, and that’s Missile Command.

One of the aspects of this game that I always found so fascinating (and frustrating) was that there was no way to beat the game. No many how many missiles you stopped, no matter how long you kept your last city standing, the game always beat you. And, interestingly, the game put the player on the defensive, rather than offensive. It took away the power of nuclear war, instead opting to tell a story of a struggle to survive a nuclear strike.

For such a simple game, it really told quite a poignant story, didn’t it? A missile commander, tasked with making split-second decisions to save the innocent lives of civilians or protect his/her own missile silos. Deciding whether to sacrifice one city for another for a tactical advantage, just to survive a few minutes longer, to hold on to hope for ever a couple more seconds in the face of a threat that you, as a player, knew was insurmountable. Even the end screen isn’t “Game Over.” No, it says “The End,” as the flash of a missile flickers on the screen.

Credit to Kyle Richoux

I remember the first time I saw the 1983  WarGames, (basically) about a teenager who hacks into a government supercomputer to play what he thinks is a game, but turns into this snowballing horror that almost sets off nuclear war.

That’s a really poor description, but it’s a good movie. Anyway…

The moral of the story was that the only way to win a nuclear war was to “not play.” And it’s the same thing with Missile Command. The only way to not lose is to never turn the game on. That’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? Something so simple, something that Spec Ops: The Line tried so hard to convey, was mastered over 30 years ago with pixelated graphics, silhouettes of cities, and “pew pew” noises.

It’s a good lesson to remember, isn’t it?

I guess the news is beginning to get to me…

Did you play Missile Command? What did you think of it? Have I overanalyzed? What was your favorite Atari game? Let me know in the comments!

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
~ Athena

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19 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About…: Unexpected Depth

  1. Technically speaking, Spec Ops had an unexpected depth; it was unexpectedly more shallow than intended!

    Anyway, I think you have something there. Many interesting story beats can be found in games simply through how they’re played. The practice of trying to turn them into films kind of robs the medium of that quality, and I’m glad developers are relying on that storytelling technique less. Considering the overall climate of when it was released, I’m still astounded that Missile Command got greenlit. I never was freaked out by the game over screen, but I totally get why it would scare some people back then. I heard one of the programmers had nightmares from working on the game.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s hard not to let the news get to you, especially as of late.

      I have to admit, I hadn’t played this game until today (thankfully, IGN has a emulator full of classic Atari games). However, I knew of it thanks to and have played some games explicitly inspired by it.

      Like Red Metal said, it’s surprising that this game got greenlit when the the majority of 80s Cold War-themed games seemed to invite players to forget about the consequences of, well, war.

      As for a favourite Atari game, mine was, predictably, Pong.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, unfortunately.

        It’s possible that the public wasn’t looking too hard at the content of the game – it may have been dismissed as just another ridiculous arcade game, who knows? So maybe the themes were sort of… just not even given the dignity of being notices. But I can’t say for sure.

        Pong is a solid game, and no one will ever convince me otherwise!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. You’re right. That was certainly unexpected depth!! haha

      The film-like game is certainly interesting, because it’s a familiar was of storytelling, but games can carry a narrative in so many more ways (and I might argue more visceral or intuitive ways) that tend to be forgotten or unexplored.

      Is it possible that Missile Command was given the go-ahead because, as a video game, it was just dismissed and not examined too harshly? Or maybe people were okay with the commentary; I’m not sure there’s any sane person who wants to see nuclear war glorified…

      And yes, one of the programmers had nightmares after working on the game, seeing towns that were near him be annihilated by bombs. I can’t even imagine…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It scares me how easily a real nuclear war could start… all it takes is one dumbass dictator, sigh. I never played Missile Command, but that is indeed quite a powerful message for such a simple game.

    I do have an Atari 2600 with a few games though! It took me forever to figure out how to get it to work (my TV was on the wrong channel the whole time… don’t tell my college or they’ll take my electronics diploma away). My favourite game would have to be Adventure. It has a cute Easter egg from a disgruntled programmer in it 🙂

    Also, you never overanalyze. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup.

      That’s cool! A-ha! I suddenly feel better about my mishaps with technology now! So, your secret is safe with me haha. I’m not sure I played adventure, but I am quite the fan of Easter eggs. I looked up this one, and… tee hee is all I can say about that! haha

      Also, I think you misspelled “always” haha. But I’m glad you liked the post!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it was one of the first, if not the first, inclusion on an Easter egg in a game. I’m very proud of him for standing up to his oppressive bosses like that!

        Nope, it’s definitely spelled “n-e-v-e-r”. I can be stubborn too, remember 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  3. No, Missile Command did definitely have some unexpected depth. Was one of those things I played as a kid, never connecting the dots. Coming back to it as an adult brought an odd feeling to me. This was unexpectedly dark, but I could never parse it as a youngling. Like, my parents didn’t like me playing Mortal Kombat, but they were fine with that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s my thinking!

      I didn’t notice any of this when I played it, either. The only thing I remember not understanding is the big “The End” screen. My friend and I were talking about War Game and it just sort of came back. Disturbing stuff. One of the devs actually had nightmares for months after the game was finished, about cities close to him being destroyed. So it was very real to him, too…

      Liked by 1 person

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