ICBM is an historically accurate Cold War simulator, and we're all still here, and therein lies the joke in a game released on April 1.
It's November 1, 1983, and with tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States running high as ever, it's a bad day to be 1st Lt. Evans, a deputy missile combat crew commander (missileer) stationed at the Ellsworth Air Force Base in North Dakota. When humanity finally decides to burn this mother down, Evans and three of his comrades will be the ones who simultaneously turn the keys that launch the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with W78 thermonuclear warheads that will end the world.
For now, though, nothing is happening. Evans has a cold cup of coffee and orders to stand by. He watches the digital clock tick away in front of him while he waits for his eight hour shift to end.
An explosive intro and menu sets the scene. In September 1983, the Soviet Union shot down and killed all 269 passengers on board Korean Air Lines Flight 007, mistaking it for a spy plane. On November 1, your first day on the job as Evans, NATO is starting a 10-day military exercise, Able Archer, which the Soviets suspected was the real thing. Years later, we found out Able Archer brought us to brink of nuclear war, much like the Cuban Missile Crisis did.
After being briefed on all of this, you take your seat at a Minuteman III Launch Control Center. It's a lot to take in. It's a wall of buttons, switches, knobs, and screens, all of which serve a specific function. You can examine each little screw to see what it does, and click to use it. There's a phone receiver too, which the president of the United States will use to call you when the time comes.
ICBM's developer, Michael Davis, told me that he modified the real Minuteman III Launch Control Center to make it a little more visually interesting, but that it's close to the real thing. He grew up on Air Force bases, his father flying F-111 jets during the 1990 war in Iraq, so he spent a lot of time getting the details right.
"There's actually a lot of documentation because there's no good in having this nuclear deterrent if you don't brag about it," Davis told me. "America was really bombastic about it. We were like, 'don't even try it, Russia.' 20/20 and Dateline went down in the bunkers and interviewed the missileers. They were small national celebrities."
But the missileer life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Unlike another excellent game about nuclear war, DEFCON, in which players coldly launch nukes at capitals around the world and watch the death toll climb in the millions, ICBM subverts expectations by sticking to reality.
Reality is boring.
Davis told me that, since the the missile program was part of the air force, it initially recruited pilots to become missileers. "The pilots really resented it because they were going Mach 2 in the skies, and suddenly they're literally in a cave underground," he said.
It's one of the most important jobs in the world, with the fate of billions in your hands
As the Cold War faded, luster for the missile program wore off. In one particularly low-point that Davis discovered during his research, a commander refused to authorize repairs on the toilet in one of the bunkers, so missileers had to resort to shitting in a cardboard box, and eventually over the railings, down the side of the missiles.
There's a reason they make countless of games about jet fighter pilots and not missileers.
I imagine that ICBM is a very accurate depiction of the job. When I was first presented with the control center, I frantically examined all the switches, rushing to make sense of the complicated procedures before I got my orders. It's one of the most important jobs in the world, with the fate of billions in your hands, but none of the people who had it have ever been asked to make use of their training.
There are five chapters that you can play on five difficulty levels, though the only real challenge is passing the time. In the hardest chapter, the digital clock malfunctions, so I couldn't even keep track of how much longer I had to wait.
"Ultimately this is meant to be a very loving lampoon," Davis said. "There is so much redundancies to prevent an accident, which to their credit has never happened. We never had a disaster."
ICBM is free to download here.