Monday, March 9, 2009

Balance of Power

Year: 1985
Rating: ***
I don’t like this game but I think there should be more like it. Doublethink is a difficult thing to reconcile.

I want to like Balance of Power. I like its creator and I like his aims. But this is his masterpiece and I can’t stand it. I find myself feeling slightly ashamed to admit that. If Balance of Power was a girl she’d be the frumpy bespeckled girl sitting alone in the International Relations section of the library with a pile of books and a hatred of men. Oh sure you can tell underneath it all she’s really smart and interesting and not at all like those other prettier more vapid girls but still you never really want to go talk to her. Cause if you do she’ll talk your ear off about post-modern theories of empire in the bored kind of voice people reserve for the stupid.

If you haven’t heard of it, Balance of Power is a strategy/simulation where you pick one of two superpowers and engage in old fashion Cold War doomsday dodging. It’s like chicken with nukes but with so much detail that it boggles the mind. One of the first screens in the game informs you “Those who play this game without reading the manual are wasting their time.” Seeing that was when I first thought about giving up. But hey I’ve got a blog to write and I won’t let a little reading get in my way. About one third of the way through the manual I got bored and decided warning be damned I’ll just play the game (In my defence it’s a very long manual).

In less than a turn I had lost. These were the words that greeted my defeat

“You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.”

I’ve been frustrated by games before. I’ve given up on games before. I have never felt emasculated by a game before. Let’s be clear here, I like politics more than it can be deemed reasonable. I enjoy reading about the machinations of powers and their effects on our world. This game is probably the purest realisation of a political simulation possible and it puts me to sleep.

I read the rest of the manual. I tried again. I lasted longer that time but still saw those same words again.

“We do not reward failure.”

I can just see her sneering at me, I tried to prove that I am her equal but I don’t even know the historical precedents of the Velvet Revolution. A few more tries and I gave up. If you like this game I’m sorry it just isn’t for me. I wish I could but I just don’t enjoy playing a game of chicken against a computer. The computer does not know fear so how can I defeat it? Answer: I can’t.

Of course just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean I don’t respect the shit out of it. I think if you were going to make a game about politics this should probably be your inspiration. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the whole serious game movement. These are games whose aims are to educate their players rather than entertain. And I don’t mean educate in the sense of how maths blaster made you use arithmetic to shoot enemy formulas. That sort of game tries to entertain their players first and stealthily drop knowledge in their heads when they’re not looking. If you’re playing a serious game it’s because you want to learn something. They can be useful as training tools for everything from doctors to labourers. Some people are even starting to use them for propaganda.

Take for example September 12 – A Toy World. In this game you are tasked with the goal of defeating terrorism by blowing up terrorists. However, killing civilians or damaging buildings creates more terrorists thereby making your goal harder to achieve. The rub and source of the message is that you can not not kill civilians. Now I can see where this game is coming from and I can even agree to it’s underlying assumption but doesn’t it strike you as incredibly simplistic? Surely the War of Terror can not be accurately depicted with two or three rules? I would guess that the makers of this game agree, but would insist that their purpose is not to represent the War on Terror in the most accurate way possible but instead to make a simple statement on one aspect of it. And that’s their problem they’re just making a statement. Anyone can make a statement. They’re simple, easy and you can use them as a club against people you disagree with. But a statement without detailed thought and argument to back it up will never convince anyone of anything.

Balance of Power is not a statement. It’s an incredibly reasoned and intellectual meditation on the nature of Cold War brinkmanship. Above all else it attempts to depict its subject matter accurately, and as a result it leaves the player in no doubt as to the nature of the Cold War. Mad horrific and ultimately pointless.

“We do not reward failure.”


  1. All I'm going to say is that I absolutely love that game over screen.
    I was going to write a whole post on t' old blog about awesome game over messages, but I could really only think of two.* So that is fully half of the best ever game over messages in history, which is a pretty impressive proportion.
    Did you read that guide I posted, by the way? It's all the information I ever had about the game.

    * The other one was 'Your wetware has failed you,' in a slightly crap old shoot 'em up called Pioneer Plague, by the way.

  2. Yeah I did but I still couldn't get the hang of it.

    Wing Commander has a cool game over screen. Well it's more of a game over cut scene, of your funeral. I like it because depending on how far in the game you got your eulogy is different, ranging from "We hardly knew ye" to "He was a king amongst men."