First Strike wants you to think about nuclear annihilation
First Strike is coming to PC at a strange time in world politics; a Dr Strangelove time, when the threat of nuclear war has flared up in a way it hasn’t since the close of the Cold War. Despite UN-backed panels calling for disarmament, the US, Russia and North Korea – amongst others – have called for a strengthening of nuclear arsenals, and the Doomsday Clock has got a little bit closer to midnight. Closer to home, the UK elections have, at least in part, pivoted around candidates’ attitudes to using nuclear weapons.
As a real-time strategy game, First Strike frames the player as one of 11 superpowers, each racing to research, expand and protect their arsenal; inevitably leading to nuclear annihilation. Originally released for tablets in 2014, the game has been given a new lick of paint and released on Steam as First Strike: Final Hour. It makes a game out of nuclear war, but it does so without shying away from the scale of destruction it simulates. Jeremy Spillman, co-founder of Blindflung Studios, tells me that: “Even if you win the game, you don’t win the game.”
“Even if you win the game, you don’t win the game”
“It starts to tally up the millions of people that statistically would have died depending on the number of cities and nations destroyed during the war,” he says. “Even if you are really good at the game, half of the world will blow up.”
Spillman points to the 1983 film WarGames as an influence for this approach to balancing fun gameplay with real-world commentary. Centering on a teenage hacker who manages to hack into military supercomputer and nearly start World War III, WarGames is both an science fiction thriller and parable about AI-controlled warfare. Hiding a political message behind an accessible face is something the makers of First Strike want to imitate. “I really love that movie, because even if you don’t care about the balance of power, or the concept of mutually assured destruction, it is still a very good movie to watch as a child,” says Spillman. “Maybe years later you will realise the topic had depth.”
One way First Strike aims to give depth to its fast-paced strategy gameplay is to pull on the real-world balances of power. As such, the game is deliberately imbalanced. Start as the US, for example, and you’ll have a big stockpile of weapons, better technological capabilities and a geographical advantage. Play as North Korea, however, and you’ll find yourself as a small country with only one nuke. Spillman says this is intended to give some perspective about the global imbalance when it comes to nuclear weapons.
“We’re always talking about North Korea’s or Iran’s capability of being able to make a nuke – but the US and Russia are still sitting on a huge stockpile,” he says. “Disarmament hasn’t really gone much further since the 1980s, in my opinion.”
Interestingly, Spillman talks about a clear difference of opinion towards the game, depending on whether the person was alive during the Cold War. For younger generations used to postapocalyptic Fallout games, it’s an unreal fantasy; a scenario that plays more to abstract fears rather than actual fears. For older generations, the game is a risky take on something that felt very real only a matter of decades ago.
Spillman may be too young to relate to that palpable sense of dread, but he is fascinated with products that expressed it during the latter stages of the Cold War. Aside from WarGames, he points to Chris Crawford’s game Balance of Power, published in 1985 on the Apple Macintosh. Like First Strike, and also like 2006’s DEFCON, nuclear escalation is framed as a game that ends with complete destruction.
“The whole game is about the premise that you’re trying to avert nuclear war for as long as possible – which is impossible in the end,” Spillman says, talking about Balance of Power. “This shows the mindset of the 80s, that people were really feeling like they’re sitting on a powder keg, and it will explode at some point.”
That keg might not be as volatile in 2017 as it was in the 1970s or 80s, but today’s geopolitical stability has taken more than a few knocks and nuclear weapons are very much back on the agenda. The cartoonish aesthetic may make First Strike feel accessibly detached from reality, but beneath this fun game is a timely reminder that nuclear war won’t end well for the world’s population.
First Strike: Final Hour is on sale now for PC and Mac, via Steam.