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WarGames is very much a child of the 80s. It is a suspenseful thriller like many released in the period were. However, unlike many, it is an intelligent thriller, one that still holds up well today.
Released in 1983, it met a world still haunted by the shadow of the cold war, and this is the vantage it plays from. However, the aggressor is irrelevant, and it might as well be Palestine, or India or any country with a nuclear arsenal, which is depicted: They are not central to the plot.
David Lightman is a bright school student. Too bright you might say. Like most bright teens in a school system not equipped to handle them, he is unmotivated, even bored by school. He turns instead to his home microcomputer, a vintage IMSAI. Hooking it up to the phone system via an acoustic coupler (in the old days, these took telephone headsets, and allowed computers to speak through them ? pre modem) to search for computers to hack into. He dials phone numbers randomly, until one responds in machine code. He then tries to hack his way in.
He uses this method to change his failing school grades, stored in the school's computer, as well as those of his friend Jennifer Mack. In fact, whilst showing off to her, he hacks into an airline?s mainframe by dialling them directly, and whilst she watches, purchases a pair of one-way tickets to Paris for both of them. He has no intention of using them, but shows her how easy it is for him to convince the airline?s computer that he?s already paid.
After reading a magazine called Creative Computing, and seeing an ad for a new game company, David has his computer dial every number in Sunnyvale, California, to try and find their system.
One of the systems he gets in this manner has an incredibly basic CLI system, with none of the usual glamour. Intrigued, he tries a few commands, and a games list appears. Some of the games look familiar. Chess is there, so is Ludo, basic stuff. But further down the list it changes: like "theaterwide biotoxic and chemical warfare" leaps out as odd, followed by "global thermonuclear war".
David tries to access one of these games, but his access is rejected. Nothing he tries will let him in. David refuses to be beaten, and looking down the games list, starts following up some of the odder titles. "Falken's Maze" nets results.
David finds that Professor Falken was an early artificial intelligence researcher, and from there tracks down every lead he can on Falken's life. Feeding every aspect of that life into the computer, he eventually gets in with the name of Falken?s dead son, ?Joshua?.
Excited, he tries to play one of the games. Opting for ?global thermonuclear war? for the sheer novelty, he finds himself at a screen asking which side he would like to play as. He chooses USSR against USA, and plays as USSR. His first moves are to send nuclear missiles against Las Vegas, and his own hometown of Seattle.
David swiftly becomes disappointed with the game, as the missiles track in real-time to their targets ? it will take half an hour for them to arrive. The USA is being equally glacial at responding, having not launched a single missile.
David logs out in disgust.
Meanwhile, at the computer system on the other end of that line, things are going haywire. The computer belongs to NORAD, and it has just detected two soviet ICBMs being launched. Satellites scramble into position, and shouted accusations begin in earnest, as the defence grid tracks two missiles; one heading for Las Vegas, one heading for Seattle.
At NORAD, WOPR, an advanced artificial intelligence, programmed in part by Falken, is running the defence grid from a central location. During earlier tests, twenty-two percent of missile crews failed to launch their missiles when prompted to do so. This rate was unacceptable, and in tests, the computer was found to launch 99.9% successfully.
Luckily, a full counterstrike is stopped, after technicians manage to determine that the missile flight paths are bogus. There are no missiles, and the flight paths are deleted from the database. Unfortunately, no-one realises WOPR is playing the game, and as the USA, is calculating the soviet action, based on David?s initial moves, as David has lost connection ? its doing what it thinks David would have done. WOPR continuously feeds false data showing Russian bomber incursions and submerged Russian submarines to the humans at NORAD, goading them into unlocking access to the US nuclear arsenal, so that it can launch its response. To WOPR, in order to launch a response, the missiles must be fired. As it is tied into what its database says are nuclear launch silos, it reasons it must send the commands to them, as part of the game.
Government agents find records of suspicious calls to NORAD, and track them to David?s home, where the FBI pick up the unsuspecting teenager. Taken to Cheyenne Mountain, he is interrogated by increasingly irate officials. At first cagey, assuming its computer hacking he?s in trouble for, David gradually begins to realise, the game he?s started may lead to a real WW3. The heightened DEFCON rating the country is now under, really slamming that home hard.
David is locked in a conference room with an electronic lock, whilst the officials deliberate. This was a bad place to put a hacker. After jamming the lock, so the door cannot be opened from the outside, David crawls through ventilation ducts. Whilst an increasingly angry military attempt to break the door down, David slips to a room with a terminal. Contacting the WOPR system directly, under the same account details, he is at first chastised as the computer tried to contact him at the same phone number, then by the phone number assigned to his classified home address, both to no avail. Realising the computer thinks he is Falken, he asks ?what classified address?? and gains the details. He is also informed the game is still running, estimated 48 hours till game end ? and the rockets are launched at the USSR. Horrified, he slips back through the ducts to a low-security area, and joins a tour group leaving the facility.
Collecting Jennifer en-route, he heads for Oregon, where computer records say, from which he promptly escapes. He makes his way to Oregon, where Falken retired ?and was officially declared dead - after the death of his young son. Falken preaches that all things die. When nature has had enough of a failed evolutionary line, it usually engineers a way to kill that species off. Perhaps this is mankind?s time?
David and Jennifer eventually convince Falken that nuclear annihilation would be a bad thing, and that he should return to NORAD to somehow stop the march to war. This they try, arriving just as NORAD are sealing the mountain, and displaying probably the worst parking manoeuvre possible. Bursting into the facility, using Falken?s security codes repeatedly, the three emplore the general in charge to trust that the attack upon them is just simulation. Three bases are contacted; the first three that would be hit. With the order given to go to Defcon 1, return fire is on a hair trigger as the three bases are struck with nuclear missiles.
Strangely for dead people, all three bases are very talkative after impact ? despite apparently receiving multiple megaton detonations dead centre. The strike is called off, with much relief and celebrating ? as the displays report thousands of nuclear detonations across the United States.
Breathing easily, the general commands in a broad Texan accent, for the missiles to be returned to ready, and back to DEFCON 5. WOPR disagrees, and locks everyone out of the system. With war status still in action, it is free to start searching combinations for missile codes. If the humans won?t launch, WOPR will.
David is given access to the system, as he cannot make things any worse. Hacking in as ?Falken? he manages to call up the game list. A grunt takes over seeing access, and orders the missiles to disarm ? this is immediately denied. David tries again, bringing the games list back up, and requests a game of tic-tac-toe. David has the machine play itself at tic-tac-toe, over and over. His reasoning is that this is an AI, not a simple computer ? it can be taught what an unwinnable game is.
WOPR plays thousands of games in maybe 30 seconds, by which time it has the missile launch code, and could launch, but does not. Instead, the display shows the USSR launching again, and the US retaliating, in vastly speeded up arcs. The two sides annihilate and WOPR declares no winner. Another scenario is run, and another and another. Screens fill up as it runs every scenario it knows of. Winner: none. Explosions flash ion blaring white across every screen as each country is annihilated, a thousand times over.
Eventually, WOPR decides "A strange game, the only winning move is not to play" and by that logic, simply stops playing.
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