Exploring the Cold War via Video Games
Using the Cold War as a theme in video games is nothing new. It has been used as a backdrop for PC games since at least the mid-1980s, and continues to be a popular trope today. The majority of games using the war as source material are strategy games, unsurprisingly, but it also makes an appearance across a whole range of genres: first-person shooters; point-and-click adventures; puzzle games; and even the occasional RPG. Communism, on the other hand, is dealt with more indirectly. For this reason, we wanted to bring to the forefront a selection of games that deal with either communism, or the Cold War more broadly. As historians, we are always excited to see how historical concepts and conflicts are used to teach and assess real-world politics. Here is a list of video games we think make some attempt at using the Cold War and communism successfully…albeit with varying degrees of success. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
This is the first of several titles in this round-up that focus less on the ideological or geopolitical concerns that drove the Cold War than on its social impact – more specifically, on the threat of nuclear war that loomed over humankind for much of this era. Defcon distils this threat, and the existential anxieties it engendered, into a model of total global annihilation. The game presents players with a world map styled after the ‘situation room’ boards seen in various fictional nuclear conflicts, and tasks them with destroying as much of the ‘enemy’s’ population as possible. In adjustable real-time, players position and deploy conventional and nuclear weaponry, with the knowledge that the ‘enemy’ is doing the same, then sit back and watch the missiles fly. Scoring is based on the number of ‘megadeaths’ (millions of civilians dead) each side achieves.
This is an undeniably chilling premise, though the game presents it in a more ambiguous way than might be expected. Its global view and abstraction of civilian deaths keep players at arm’s length from the carnage they are causing, while its haunting soundtrack and option to watch the missiles arc across the screen in real-time render the final phase (‘Defcon 1’) almost achingly beautiful at times. The moral dissonance this evokes in players can be difficult to process. In this respect, Defcon can be viewed in the same light as indie games such as Time Frame, with its similarly poignant, though more personal, depiction of the end of the world.
Fallout 4 (2015)
Fallout 4 had the potential to be amazing. The main plot was short and clichéd (your wife/husband dies and your baby is kidnapped). It was marginally more bearable because you could at least play a female. It has a great background story: it begins in the year 2077 and you’ve been picked for a Vault in case of nuclear war. The milieu is wonderful: you’re in a strange place that never progressed past the 1950s; computers are still analogue, yet AI has been developed. Cars seemed to hover above ground, but they look like your good ol’ 1956 Cadillac.
So it seems like a great set up – except the plot execution is horrible and the characters all two-dimensional. You don’t really interact with what happened as a result of the nuclear annihilation (the playable character wakes up 220 years later to a changed world). There’s not much discussion about why or how, or ‘what now’. We felt the game could have tried to be more agenda-setting by questioning the morality and ethical qualms of nuclear arms races, the ethics of having AI robots, and dealing with the challenges of creating a local, regional identity in a society trying to rebuild itself. As historians, we felt it would have been more interesting to have this dialogue.
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (1995)
By far the darkest use of the post-apocalyptic premise, however, can be found in this adventure-game adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s short story. The game is set in a world in which a nuclear war was triggered centuries ago by a sentient, yet homicidally deranged computer, known as AM. Since then, AM has been holding and torturing the last five survivors of the human race, devising illusions and scenarios with which to torment them physically and psychologically. The player guides the characters through these scenarios, the most disturbing of which is set during the actual Holocaust, with the aim of destroying AM and releasing its grip on humanity.
For those who can stomach it, the game raises some intriguing questions on morality and human nature, particularly those aspects of it that have led us to see a world bristling with nuclear weapons as an acceptable idea in the first place. This theme emerges most clearly in its final act, when the player meets alternate personalities of AM that represent Soviet and Chinese supercomputers – an obvious parallel with the three principal powers in the Cold War. Playing these personalities off against each other is the player’s only route to the ‘good’ ending, but, as with real geopolitics, comes with considerable risks.
The Republia Times (2012) / Papers, Please (2013)
This pair of games by indie developer Lucas Pope take a different approach, offering a glimpse at everyday life in a dictatorial communist state. Rather than focusing on its victims, however, both games examine communist authoritarianism by asking us to play as one of its perpetrators. The Republia Times casts the player as a newspaper editor in the fictional Eastern bloc state of Republia, while in Papers, Please they take on the role of a border guard in the closely related country of Arstotzka. In both cases, the player is tasked with making numerous everyday decisions (about which stories to put on the front page, or which people to allow into the country, respectively), which get harder as the games progress. Conspiracies and personal tragedies crop up periodically, and the player has to choose whether to report, assist or turn a blind eye to them.
This amounts to an impressively nuanced exploration of complicity. While the player is unmistakably a small cog in a vast machine, and is forced to choose between often equally unsavoury options, both games also confront them with the consequences, personal and national, of those decisions. As a result, they are obliged to stand by the choices they make – to become, in effect, a cog with a conscience, at once impotent and wielding the power of life and death over ordinary citizens. Authoritarian rule is sustained by countless instances of such low-level decision-making each day, and these games expertly capture its dynamics.
Dragon Age 2 (2011) / Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014)
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a bit of an oddball on this list because it does not have strong historical links like the other entries. However, it provides an interpretation of communism through a race of characters called the Qunari. The Qun is a way of life, and is not just a religion. Everyone is given a job which they must follow without questioning. They further protect their own, which illustrates the collective mentality, and have no qualms about using violence against those who oppose them.
The Qunari are also seen pushing towards expanding their influence outside of their territories. In Dragon Age 2, we see them converting poor, impoverished Elves into agents of the Qun. The player is able to agree with the Qunari in their mission, or argue against it. This was a good way to create dialogue about what free will truly is and how much individual choice matters when everyone is on a predestined path. It is a way to begin thinking about communism through high fantasy.
All Walls Must Fall (forthcoming)
We feel this game has the potential to be very good indeed. As it’s still a very new game, there’s little information about it. On the publisher’s website, the story is apparently as follows:
All Walls Must Fall is a tech-noir spy thriller set in Berlin 2089 where the Cold War never ended. A game in the isometric action tactics genre, you command secret agents using time travel, social stealth and combat. Prevent nuclear annihilation. Bring down the Wall. Love, kill, and remix reality to explore the meaning of freedom in a parable reflecting upon current global issues in the mirror of a fantastic future past.
The game overall looks more old school: it’s in third-person, with dialogue choices written out. However, developers seem to be promising players free will and actions that have meaningful consequences. This is great, as it allows players to really interact with the world around them. The setting is also very promising, and it will be interesting to see what a world in which the Cold War hasn’t ended can tell us about the ending of the real one. The parallels with the setting of Fallout, with its similar combination of counterfactual and future-history, will certainly need further investigation. We’ll do a full review once the game is out! In the meantime, you can see what they’re working on via the official Facebook page.
Featured image featuring ‘All Walls Must Fall’, from publicity page of inbetweengames.