Best Games - Missile Command
There are a lot of games that are tests of endurance. Most early video games had no victory state, no point at which you could say that you had beaten the game. You could play the game until you could not ,or did not want to continue. You could play until the game stopped working, or you ran out of money. Arcade owners were hoping for the last option. It was a competition between you and the game to see which one could last longer. Games with the design sense and basic play cycle of Missile Command were not uncommon. It was a product of the artform and arcade business as it was in 1980. It was also a product of the late stages of the cold war.
Art is a reflection of it’s time. Surrealism and dadaism in the 1920’s sprung from the hyper-rigidity of a europe mechanized to sustain the first world war. It is a release valve of pent up emotion and a rejection of organized logical thought. During this same time there is the rise of art deco and science fiction, art forms that embrace the technological leaps that the war demanded, but repurposed them in the pursuit of aesthetic beauty and optimistic vision. Two very different, very human ways of dealing with the trauma of the preceding decade.
During the 1980’s, the cold war was coming to a close. One way or another it was going to end and the pervasive anxiety of the hows, whys and whens of that ending fueled a lot of art.
Maybe you could say that Missile Command is a little too on the nose. A little too representational and not nearly allegorical enough. Maybe you could say that it was too pessimistic in not including a victory condition. Games are supposed to be fun right? They are supposed to foster joy.
Missile Command offers you one choice, Defend these six cities, or don’t. That’s it. The truth is, you can’t and won’t. No matter how good you are at the game, no matter how well you use your limited munitions, no matter how well you defend the cities, you will fail. One falling bomb will get through. One attack will succeed. One city and all of its inhabitants will be lost. It will be your fault. The next city will fall. Then the next. They will all be destroyed and there is nothing you can do about it. When you ultimately lose your final city, Missile Command doesn’t present the customary Game Over, subtly inviting you to play again. Missile Command says THE END. There is a finality to your failure. You can only delay the inevitable.
In 1980 that’s how it felt. Inevitable. Not an all out nuclear war, but a change. The change from breathless hostility and geopolitical stasis to something else was inevitable. You just had to have hope that the world would choose a change toward peace. Stability. Art has the luxury of choosing both outcomes, or many outcomes. Art can be surrealist and reject rigid, lock step of progress, but can do it with the wide eyed optimism and hope for the future embodied in science fiction. Both can be true. For some art both must be true.
Missile Command is ultimately a positive and optimistic work. Your only job is to defend. You protect your cities, you preserve life. Never are you tasked with attacking an enemy. Never are you asked to destroy. You act as a shield, not a sword. The mechanics and business of the arcade demand that you eventually lose the game, but Missile Command suggests to you that maybe, if you don’t lose hope, you will succeed. You will save your cities and outlast the onslaught raining down on you. And maybe, just maybe, no one else has to lose for you to win.
If any work of art could so succinctly sum up the frozen emotional turmoil of the early 1980’s, it was Missile Command. Missile Command is one of the best games.