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'One Minute to Midnight' turns political uprisings into a real-time strategy game

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It didn't exactly create a genre, but Papers, Please — a game about immigration and bureaucracy that puts you in the role of a border guard — and other projects by its creator Lucas Pope exemplified a particular style of socially aware game. Papers, Please combined a weighty subject with gameplay that was fast, challenging, even mildly addictive — it made you want to learn how to do things right, even if you were hurting people in the process. You felt invested in a way that a noncompetitive, free-form game couldn't have managed, and unlike any number of AAA blockbusters that give you fun ultraviolence and then tell you to feel bad for enjoying it, cognitive dissonance was what made the game work. You were learning to do a repetitive task better and better, while the consequences of your actions seeped in around the edges.

George Ing's One Minute to Midnight, which won Edge Magazine's Get into Games challenge this summer and was rediscovered by Rock Paper Shotgun earlier today, evokes a similar feeling. It's a miniature real-time strategy game set during a violent revolution in 2029, and you might describe the overall aesthetic as Occupy Wall Street by way of Sim City. In each new level, you're trying to make sure your faction beats out all the competitors, by capturing buildings and attracting crowds to them, then using those crowds to spread your influence across the city. It starts simply, but you're soon frantically clicking around the board to keep competing protest groups from taking over your turf, and starting an occupation in the right place will make or break your game. The pastel graphics start getting hard to see as the maps get bigger, but they're clean and simple enough that you won't lose track of them altogether.

The game's story is revealed in some narrative text between levels, the tone set by somber piano music. It's tragic but cliche: your good cause justifies violence, you must purify your inner circle, and if someone doesn't want what you're offering, it's in their best interests if you force them to see the light. As an actual description of a revolution, it's so stylized as to be meaningless. But what it captures perfectly is, actually, the kind of "revolution" most of us are used to — the faux-militant online posturing that characterizes certain areas of hacktivism and the recent unpleasantness in the gaming world. It's a revolution for people whose ideas about revolutions come from Che Guevara t-shirts and Animal Farm, complete with banners and broken glass.

And like online revolutions, it's less about goals than it is about winning, making sure people know you can play the information-processing game well enough to earn someone's fear or respect. You might have a manifesto, but it's just a vague soundbite, and you aren't paying much attention to it anyways. You're too busy watching your protestor count rise and fall and making sure the little ant-trails from other factions' buildings aren't about to overwhelm you. Like most games, and a lot of increasingly game-like political action, you're not fighting because there's a revolution. You're looking for a revolution so you can fight.