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Taking command – ‘8-Bit Apocalypse’

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In this age of esports and gaming computers and generational consoles, it can be easy to forget that video games have been on the entertainment scene for a relatively brief time. In the industry’s nascent years, video games were shared experiences, only playable through pumping quarter after quarter into game cabinets in arcades across the world.

Those early days serve as the setting for Alex Rubens’s new book “8-Bit Apocalypse: The Untold Story of Atari’s Missile Command” (The Overlook Press, $26.95). It’s a look at the world of video games – and the culture at large – through the lens of one specific game, the Atari classic “Missile Command.”

Through that one game, Rubens examines the explosion of the industry in the late 1970s and juxtaposes it with the Cold War political climate of the time – a comparison for which “Missile Command” was uniquely suited. It also allows for a look at how video games in general have impacted – and continue to impact - the culture at large.

When video games first rose to prominence, Atari was at the forefront. Those embryonic times featured a motley crew of characters, all devoted to working hard (and partying harder) in an effort to bring their games to the thirsty masses. Developers were given free reign as they programmed their creations, spending untold hours building and rebuilding games intended to relieve players of their quarters in as entertaining a fashion as possible.

Into this free-spirited world came David Theurer. He landed one of the coveted jobs at Atari; the company’s “into the deep end” attitude meant that it wasn’t long before he received his first assignment. One of the company’s higher-ups had seen a picture of a radar display in a magazine; Theurer was called into the office and told, basically, to make that.

What followed was a plunge into the existential angst of the era by way of the creation of a game called “Missile Command.”

Theurer’s vision soon took on a life of its own. The team (such as it was) consisted solely of Theurer and junior programmer Rich Adam. What started as a vaguely-defined effort to recreate that radar-screen aesthetic soon evolved into a game unlike anything the industry had really seen before. This was a game that wasn’t about beating an opponent, about fighting off a nigh-endless stream of enemies. This was a game of pure defense; there was no striking at an enemy. Rather, one simply defended oneself for as long as possible.

But more than that, this was a game with a message – a message that would eventually threaten to consume David Theurer.

It was a time wherein the world had largely internalized the nuclear threat that hung over it thanks to the Cold War arms race between the United States and the U.S.S.R. With “Missile Command,” Theurer found himself striving to illustrate the ultimate futility of nuclear warfare; he didn’t expect many of the game’s players to actively recognize that concept, but felt that a few would grasp it on a conscious level, while others might get it subconsciously.

The breakneck pace of game design led to Theurer’s gradually being consumed by the project. He dealt with nightmares brought on by the anxiety and dread resulting from hundreds of hours spent confronting the notion of nuclear destruction over and over and over again.

Of course, when the game was finished, it would become one of the most popular games of Atari’s arcade history, thanks to innovations in the hardware (“Missile Command” was the first arcade game to utilize the trackball control for greater precision) and in concept (the notion of a game that can’t be won in any traditional sense was rare, while a game with an actual narrative – and a player-created one at that – was unheard of).

Rubens devotes much of “8-Bit Apocalypse” to David Theurer and the internal struggles that went into building a masterpiece like “Missile Command,” a game that in many ways achieved feats of technical and creative artistry beyond any possible expectation. It’s a remarkable snapshot of a moment in time, one whose underlying tension is largely unknown to later generations – much like the game itself hasn’t quite reached the same level of lasting fame achieved by others of the period.

It seems strange in a landscape dominated by video games that engage in long-form storytelling, but to that point, few had considered that games could be more than just mindless diversions. In that respect, there’s no disputing that Theurer was a visionary.

Rubens captures it all with a deftness that makes for an engaging narrative. “8-Bit Apocalypse” could have been rendered a fairly dry, formulaic reading experience. Instead, thanks to extensive research and some storytelling flair, the book is a sharply-told representation of a specific place and time. That tremendous specificity is a huge part of what makes the book so successful – it is an exceptional piece of retrospect that throws the ultimate importance of a game like “Missile Command” into sharp relief.

Fans of video game history – and history in general – will be fascinated by “8-Bit Apocalypse,” the tale of a game that can’t be won, yet still offers true value in the playing.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 October 2018 18:12

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