WOPR's graphics in the film aren't quite that good...
"Greetings, Professor Falken. Shall we play a game?"
1983, David Lightman is a Playful Hacker
who nearly sets World War III
into motion by playing a game with a computer that doesn't know the difference between games and reality. Specifically, the game "Global Thermonuclear War." This launches no real missiles on the Russian side, but it plays hell with WOPR, the US military's computerized missile-detection and launch system.The Government
does figure out that someone has hacked into their supercomputer before they release any missiles. They have no problem figuring out who the hacker in question is, and forcibly capture him for questioning. It takes a while for David to explain that he didn't want to cause a real
thermonuclear war — he was just trying to play some video games, and impress his girlfriend along the way. It didn't help that he booked himself and his girlfriend on a flight to Paris before he started this game (he was showing off that he could do it; booking tickets online
was novel back in the '80s).
Meanwhile, WOPR wants to keep playing and figures out how to break out the real
David and the Government have to find a way to stop a nuclear war that no one really wants.
This film was released in the early 1980s, when personal computers were still new, and networking them was a decade away. The general public didn't think much about hackers before this film. It also popularized the use of the term "hacker" as someone who breaks into computers, and gave an early taste of what online services could provide.
A direct-to-DVD 2008 sequel was made, called WarGames: The Dead Code
, where the US Government develop another AI supercomputer called RIPLEY, this time to combat terrorism. Apparently, they didn't learn their lesson the first time.
Also, there's the novelization
by David Bischoff, as well as a ColecoVision game based on the film
Not to be confused with games about war: if you're looking for that, then you probably were looking for Real-Time Strategy
or First-Person Shooter
(most likely the former.) The ColecoVision
had an adaptation a year after the film's release, while in the nineties, there were additional videogame adaptations of the movie; the PC saw a real-time strategy game, while the PlayStation
had more action-oriented, third-person vehicular combat. Both versions served as a sequel, with the again-rogue WOPR becoming something akin to Skynet and massing a full-blown military force against humanity, and the player was allowed to fight for either side. The games were generally well-received when they were released, but have since faded into obscurity. In 2006, British software developer Introversion released DEFCON
, a strategy game where "Nobody wins, but maybe you lose the least." with a visual style clearly (and acknowledged to be) inspired by WOPR's graphics. DEFCON
became enormously popular in several gaming circles.
It also has an official mobile game, in which you play through a storybook version of the original film's storyline by playing a quirky chain-matching Puzzle Quest
variant with nukes, money, radar, and health tiles, and "tactics" and "mods". Notable in that you actually play as WOPR trying to beat each of the major characters.
This film provides examples of:
- Actually Pretty Funny: Falken tells David that he was amused by how he had Joshua "attack" Las Vegas, saying that it was a "suitably Biblical ending to that place, don't you think?"
- Affectionate Gesture to the Head: During the movie, Dr. McKittrick had been suspicious of and antagonistic toward David Lightman. At the end, after David had prevented World War III, Dr. McKittrick tousled his hair in a friendly way and David returned the gesture.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Actually averted. It's less that WOPR is bad and Ludd Was Right, which is the Aesop behind that trope, and more that someone cocked up programming this specific AI and someone was unlucky enough to trigger the bug by accident. If the AI were as intelligent as most examples, WOPR would have understood the difference between games and reality, and the plot of the movie would not have happened. It also wouldn't have happened had anyone listened to Beringer's opinion to keep humans in the loop, and just use the AI as a tool to analyze many potential scenarios.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Computer worker Malvin specifically asked his friend Jim to let him know whenever he was behaving 'rudely and insensitively' - his behaviour at the time and reaction to having it pointed out imply something along these lines.
- Armor-Piercing Question: Asked by David to Falken "What was the last thing you cared about?". Has a delayed effect
- Attack Pattern Alpha: WOPR runs through several variants of Global Thermonuclear War when he's convinced to play both sides himself, which have creative names like the "Indochina Variant."
- Award Bait Song: Edge of the World by Yvonne Elliman.
- Batman Gambit: By faking hostile targets, WOPR gets the DEFCON level lowered, so the locks on its missiles are removed and it can launch.
- Beeping Computers: All of NORAD's computers have a default setting of "Beep" and "Boop".
- The Big Board: The big control room display of the globe and the (apparent) status of the war.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The list of games David could play with WOPR when he hacked into its servers:
THEATERWIDE TACTICAL WARFARE
THEATERWIDE BIOTOXIC AND CHEMICAL WARFARE
GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR
- Brilliant but Lazy: The psychological profile the army guys draw up of Lightman describe him as "intelligent but an underachiever", amongst other traits that would in their minds make him a good candidate for Soviet recruitment.
- Calling the Old Man Out: Overlapping with What the Hell, Hero?, when David tells Falken "You don't care about death because you're already dead!".
- Changed My Mind, Kid: Professor Falken gives up on everyone, Lightman and Jennifer included. Last minute change of heart: cue the helicopter!
- Chekhov's Gun: A few instances of it in this film.
- Continuity Nod: The videogame sequel went out of its way to have more in common with the movie than the WOPR acronym; the human forces are commanded by General Berringer, and David, grown up, is CEO of Joshua Information Systems. There is an actual narrative that references the events of the movie directly at many points.
- In The Dead Code, Falken and WOPR make a return to help the second set of protagonists combat RIPLEY.
- Cut the Juice: When WOPR starts doing a brute force decryption for the launch codes, the general orders the computer depowered ("Why don't you just UNPLUG THE GODDAM THING?!"), but is then told that would be disastrous since the system has a fail deadly function: a sudden loss of power will be interpreted by the launch sites as the destruction of the NORAD base. Without communication from WOPR the keep-alives would fail, and the launch sites would default to their final instruction - spin up everything and launch.
- Defcon Five: Averted utterly though Word of God thought they had it wrong in the DVD commentary. Includes the memorable line:
Flush the bombers. Get the subs on launch mode. We are at DEFCON 1.
- The Eighties: The hair, clothes, soundtrack and technology. More importantly and harder to define is the tone — this movie wouldn't be the same if made at any other time.
- Elaborate Underground Base: Where NORAD and WOPR are kept. So elaborate, in fact, that according to Peter Schwartz the military replicated the film design because the real life version was so unimpressive and small in comparison.
- The End of the World as We Know It: Subverted.
- Eureka Moment: "GAMES!"
- Everybody Laughs Ending: At the end everyone is cheering and happy. (Never mind there are gaping holes in our system and the whole military just buckled down for a false war twice in a few days.)
- Things like stopping global nuclear war and The End of the World as We Know It twice in span of 15 minutes are likely to to make people cheerful about their current situation. Note that no-one is laughing because of Joshua - they are simply glad they've managed to stop him.
- Everything Is Online: Justified, since David only discovered WOPR by "war-dialing" random numbers looking for one with a modem on the other end, and it's explained in-dialogue that the only reason WOPR had a modem connection to the outside world was due to a grave switching error at the phone company. After David's initial hack alerts the Air Force to this problem they remove it, requiring David to use internal NORAD terminals to communicate with WOPR for the remainder of the movie.
- Explosive Instrumentation: apparently, WOPR failing at Tic-tac-toeing itself causes random stuff to blow up for no very good reason and takes quite a while considering the limited number of ways that game can proceed..
- Explosive Overclocking
- Failsafe Failure: Inverted. WOPR doesn't fail safe, it "fails deadly", and said "fail-deadly" works perfectly. Any "failure" in the master computer is interpreted by the slave computers as the result of hostile action, and "launch the nukes" is the response.
- Failure Montage: After David learns of the possibility of a back door into the system he wants to hack into, there's a long montage of him trying various means of discovering the password needed to open the back door.
- The Fatalist: Stephen Falken.
Stephen Falken: Nature knows when to give up, David.
David Lightman: I'm not giving up. If Joshua tricks them into launching and attack, it'll be your fault.
Stephen Falken: My fault? The whole point was to find a way to practice nuclear war without destroying ourselves. To get the computers to learn from mistakes we couldn't afford to make. Except, I never could get Joshua [WOPR] to learn the most important lesson.
David Lightman: What's that?
- Foreshadowing: In a subtle example, when McKittrick is first showing David around NORAD, David says that Falken "must have been pretty amazing," referring to him in the past tense. McKittrick replies that "he's a brilliant man, a little flakey..." referring to him in the present tense. This is our first clue that Falken is still alive; David learns this for himself a few scenes later when Joshua reveals the classified address at which Falken is living under an assumed name.
- In the library video, Joshua Falken is shown playing Tic-Tac-Toe against a computer. Guess what game the Joshua AI plays towards the end?
- Fridge Logic: Invoked by Jennifer, astonished that David, a Seattle born kid, doesn't know how to swim. Then again, that water is pretty cold.
- Gallows Humor: When it looks like humanity is about to be wiped out in a nuclear apocalypse (and just a few moments ago everyone was jubilant with relief at apparently having averted that apocalypse), General Berringer's response is to be Sophisticated as Hell.
- General Ripper: General Berringer is set up with all of the classic hallmarks of one (ego, Southern drawl, Sophisticated as Hell speech patterns, willingness to launch), but turns out to be a Reasonable Authority Figure instead.
- Geek Physiques: Both the fat and the skinny (Maury Chaykin and Eddie Deezen).
- Girl Next Door: Jennifer Mack
- The Government
- The Guards Must Be Crazy: No one is doing a head count on the tour leaving the base. None of the guards (who you would have thought would have checked the prisoner in when he got there) recognize him when they come back up.
- And Apathetic Citizens: No one in the tour says "Hey, who are you?" to the kid who wasn't there at the beginning.
- Hollywood Hacking: Along with the William Gibson novel Neuromancer, this movie is the father of Hollywood Hacking, and invented ninety percent of the standard conventions, such as talking out loud while typing. On the other hand, at its time it was an incredibly accurate portrayal of how phreaking and hacking worked; Hollywood never left the 80s.
- Trope Namer for many real life hacking/phreaking activities.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Our hero gets one of these moments. In a variation, he doesn't want to lead a normal life, he just wishes he didn't know about the impending apocalypse so he could be happily ignorant until the bombs kill him in a flash.
- Incredibly Obvious Tail: The FBI agents picking David up at the 7/11.
- Insecurity System: NORAD's staff weren't fully aware of what types of security WOPR had running and what backdoors David had been using. One staffer even comments that they "keep hitting a damn firewall" when they try to regain control from WOPR hunting for the launch codes by invading the deep logic.
- But also see Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard which, combined with a bit of Air-Vent Passageway escape and a handy tourist crowd, allows David to escape from a locked, guarded room in the middle of NORAD and make it all the way out of the complex unimpeded.
- NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker does not, and has never had, public tours. Besides the picked staff and support/construction crew, only cleared journalists and high level politicians (read: Congress members who control the budget) can get in.
- Just Think of the Potential: Falken's colleague says the "flaky" scientist failed to see the potential applications for their work on game theory and nuclear war, namely teaching computers how to take care of it for them. When we meet Falken, he gives a different story - he was trying to teach the computer that it was impossible to win the "game".
- Know When to Fold 'Em: "The only winning move is not to play".
- Knight In Sour Armour: Falken
- Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: NORAD seems a little oddly short on any brigs, settling on leaving David in the infirmary.
- Logic Bomb: Kinda. One interpretation of the climactic scene is that WOPR is convinced not to start WWIII by the realisation that the Min-Max outcome isn't good.
- Love Makes You Crazy
- Machine Monotone: WOPR.
- Meaningful Echo: Early in the movie, David asks to play Global Thermonuclear War, WOPR responds with "Wouldn't you prefer a good game of chess?" After WOPR learns the concept of a no-win scenario: "How about a nice game of chess?"
- Mnogo Nukes: Simulated.
- Mythology Gag: The opening cinematic to the 90's console game was a fake game advertizement allegedly from the people who brought you "Proto Chess", "Proto Tic-Tac-Toe", and "Proto Biological Warfare".
- No Antagonist: David hacks into a military AI, WOPR/Joshua, mistakenly believing he'd hacked into a video game company's computer system, and he, the military, and its programmer Dr. Falken, try to stop it from causing The End of the World as We Know It.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Stephen Falken. Word of God says that he is similar to Stephen Hawking, complete with having the same first name and bird-related last names.
- No Mere Windmill: Thereís nothing wrong with the computer. Nope. Itís just a hacker. Itís all his fault. And since this disaster couldnít have been caused by some random kid, he must have been working with the Russians. No, it was the computer all along: A dangerous case of Garbage In Garbage Out, ascending towards The Computer Is Your Friend. This is a Type B case of Not Merely A Windmill: The main character knows what WOPR is up to, but nobody believes him.
- Not Quite Dead
- Not What It Looks Like: David wasn't planning to board that flight to Paris - especially not to escape Global Thermonuclear War...note
- Nuke 'em. Or "Oh hell, I beg you not to."
- Oh, Crap:
David: (typing) Is this a game, or is this real?
WOPR: What's the difference?
- Very subtly done when David gets the list of games in WOPR's system. His excited grin dissolves once it starts listing games like "Global Thermonuclear War", and he mutters a subdued "Oh, my God..."
- When David is ripping the evidence of his Global Thermonuclear War game from the printer to throw it in the trash, after hearing Jennifer's advice over the phone, he is startled when "Joshua" blurts out, "Greetings, Professor Falken". He finds that it's going to be a lot harder to cover his trail than he thought. It escalates as he finds his modem has been bugged and he hears the telephone ringing.
- On a lighter note, the tour guide pranking a tourist into pushing the Big Red Button. The guide acts as if she has accidentally set off a nuclear warhead for a split second, until he reassures him that all's well and the screen shows a "greetings" message.
- Ominous Multiple Screens: NORAD's War Room. Each hooked up to a projector, when you know it is quite an achievement for the time.
- The Password Is Always Swordfish: Or in a part of the computer that isn't protected by the password.
- Password Slot Machine: Popularized the trope, if not invented it. "Nine numbers... Ten! It's got the code; it's going to launch!"
- Pay Phone: David Lightman is stranded in Colorado without money and can't make a phone call from a pay phone, so he uses an old soda can pull tab to jerry-rig the pay phone to make a free phone call.
- Peace Through Superior Firepower: WOPR is given control of the entire U.S. arsenal.
- Playful Hacker: "Let's bomb Seattle!" "Let's bomb us!"
- Poor Communication Kills: David could have contacted the authorities immediately, pointed out that he was trying to hack into a games company that was indeed in the same city he found the number in, assumed that because games were listed it was the game company and therefore played with it. (He actually would have a fairly firm legal leg to stand on - the site never said it was a military computer network, and had a ridiculously easy password.) However he's a high school student and freaks out a bit, understandably.
- Product Placement: Tab soda, 7/11, State Farm Insurance, lots of arcade games in the beginning.
- The Professor: Professor Falken
- Reasonable Authority Figure:
- General Beringer, who not only turned out to be right on every significant point, but was one of the very few people in the movie who had a rational, well-thought out reason for every decision he made (even the incorrect ones).
- McKittrick isn't too far off this trope either. He doesn't seem to buy the FBI profiler's assertion that David was turned by the Soviets, and tries chatting with David to find out what's going on. His only problem is that he can't buy David's story that WOPR is running a game of its own. He's willing to go a ways down the path with David... until David tries to contact the WOPR while he's alone to find out if it's really playing the game so he can avert the catastrophe if possible — this "suspicious" behavior is what pushes McKittrick over the edge as far as trusting David.
- Rule of Drama: The helicopter buzzes the two kids, chasing them around for a bit before contacting them over the PA system that it's the good guys.
- Shown Their Work: The producers had actual bona-fide hackers on hand that they consulted constantly to make sure the Hollywood Hacking was grounded in reality and is still one of the most realistic portrayals to come out of Hollywood. The places where it's wrong were deliberate Rule of Cool, since the hours of boring number-crunching involved in real hacking would not have made a good movie.
- It was perfectly normal to drop your phone into an acoustic coupler and let it wardial all day long, then come home and try logging into the successful numbers by using educated guesses. After all, this movie isn't the Trope Namer for no good reason.
- David figured out the password through realistic means - by discovering who wrote the system and investigating his background, successfully guessing that the password might be "Joshua" - the name of Falken's dead son. This kind of social hacking is still done (very successfully) today.
- At the time of the movie, the concept of "computer security" was virtually unknown, since most computers weren't connected to anything to begin with.
- The opening scene is based on the "Two-Man Rule" and "No-Lone Zone" control mechanisms, both of which were (and still are) widely used by the United States military. The Two-Man Rule requires the consent of at least two authorized people before any mission-critical action can occur, while an area designated as a No-Lone Zone must always be staffed by at least two people who must stay in visual contact with each other and with the item being protected.
- Small Role, Big Impact: The missile crewmen played by John Spencer and Michael Madsen. Their disagreement during the opening simulation is used to help justify the implementation of the WOPR system.
- Sophisticated as Hell:
General Berringer: Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, I've come to the conclusion that your...new defense system sucks.
- Spiritual Ancestor: The strategy game DEFCON was strongly inspired by the computer representation of nuclear war in WarGames, and Introversion's earlier Uplink was strongly inspired by everything else in the movie. Uplink includes a 'Protovision' server which can be hacked with 'JOSHUA', resulting in the up top games list; you can play a prototype version of Global Thermonuclear War, which spawns a newswire story about a nuclear launch scare.
- Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Lots of examples pop up on the screens at NORAD, depicting the hundreds of strategies WOPR devises as it plans how to win a nuclear war. Swelling circles scattered across a global map indicate nuclear strikes to cities, military bases and missile silos. All of them show every side getting eliminated completely, which turns out to be a very good thing.
- Storyboarding the Apocalypse: Arguably, the multiple variations of "Global Thermonuclear War" near the end. The list begins with "US First Strike", "USSR First Strike" and the like, but towards the end the scenarios include "Greenland Maximum", "Cambodian Heavy" and "Gabon Surprise". Those darn Gabonese, always causing trouble...
- The War Room: Hell, this film's version of NORAD might well be a trope of its own; it was the most expensive set ever built at the time... It was even far fancier than the real NORAD command and control room, which looked positively poor compared with this (there's a picture in a 1983 book called The Intelligence War).
- Those Two Guys: Cabot and Watson, the White House staffers.
- Truth in Television:
- At least, November 9, 1979 NORAD saw Mnogo Nukes launched by belligerent computer bugs. Later they had a simulated "nuclear attack", though it wasn't exactly a software issue. A massive launch was played from the test tape right into the working system while personnel didn't know what the hell is going on. It was down to someone at NORAD to balance what they were seeing on screen and what the radar stations were saying, and decide to tell the President whether World War III was happening or not. And you think you had a bad day at work?
- Happened in 1983 on the Soviet side..
- Two-Keyed Lock: "TURN YOUR KEY, SIR!" A scene highlighting the stress silo officers are under and the commitment to follow orders. It is a stark choice: turn the key or die.
- Unbuilt Trope / Ur Example: Every hacking-related trope today owes its existence to this movie, right down to the first cinematic reference to the term "firewall".
- Unwinnable by Design: "The only winning move is not to play".
- Unwinnable Training Simulation: The opening scenes have what appears to be a real launch order, which fails when one of the operators can't go through with it. This turns out to be a simulation (unbeknownst to the operators), and 22% of those tested have reacted the same way, which is what convinces NORAD to put WOPR in charge instead.
- The Watson: David plays this to Jim String, who explains computer terminology to David, and by extension, the audience.
- We Will Not Use Photoshop in the Future: WOPR manages to subvert all of NORAD's sensors to the point where they only realize that the Soviet Union hasn't launched missiles when they're able to call bases in areas that were already "nuked".
- World War III: Thankfully averted, but the threat of it happening because of WOPR's actions drives the plot.
- You Had Us Worried There: The long delay before the apparently nuked bases confirm that they are OK. While their continued survival would let them know that they hadn't taken a direct hit, presumably the base control officers were waiting for reports from topside that no nuclear missiles had landed near them before calling the all-clear. Be a tad embarrassing if they called away 'Everything's fine' when a Soviet ICBM had had a navigation error and hit five miles away, only to have to call NORAD back a minute later and say 'Um, about that...'
- Though that's probably why they called 3 separate bases. Base 1, do you read? <static> Base 2, do you read? <static> Base 3, do you read? Yeah we're still here...a little crispy, and probably not operational, but alive. Mostly.
- Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Deciding to ride out the second strike, the military officials realize there was no Soviet threat, so it's over, right? Wrong.
Tropes found in WarGames: The Dead Code include:
- Aesop Amnesia: The government apparently completely forgets why they created JOSHUA in the first place and creates RIPLEY, another AI with absolute control over American military assets.
- Arc Words: Greetings, Professor Falken. Shall We Play A Game? and A Strange Game. The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: RIPLEY keeps tabs on her creators to see what they're saying about her.
- Break Out the Museum Piece: JOSHUA was up in Canada controlling a power plant and losing chess games to a Russian. At this point in the film, it is about 20 years old and the only way the day could be saved was by having JOSHUA uploaded into RIPLEY's mainframe.
- Camera Sniper: Amy doesn't realize she's being watched through a viewfinder.
- Disappeared Dad: Will's father, though there's an explanation: he picked up an infection while out on the field...and that turns out to have been a cover story for the government.
- Driven to Suicide: Doctor Falken, in response to the government replacing JOSHUA with RIPLEY, to protect his family from retaliation.
- Fake-Out Make-Out: It started out as a real one, but then Annie spotted that they were appearing on television wanted shots, and kissed him again to distract the police.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Doctor Falken stays behind to upload the JOSHUA AI into RIPLEY knowing he won't make it out in time to escape the missile she's sent.
- He's Dead, Jim: The glasses are knocked off an agent's jogging partner when RIPLEY uses vehicular homicide to wipe out perceived opposition.
- Hollywood Game Design
- Hollywood Hacking: Including the talking while typing.
- Idiot Ball: Will's best friend Dennis, upon realizing he and Will have ended up on the wrong end of DHS. They deliberately leave a jacket with a cellphone in it. He dives for it and uses it to text Will, thus giving the DHS just what they need to track Will's phone.
- MacGyvering: Will turns a Pringles can into a signal amplifier for a listening device.
- Manly Tears: Will, on hearing from Professor Falken that everything he knew about his dad's death was just a cover story.
- Mexican Standoff: JOSHUA and RIPLEY get into one near the end, with JOSHUA threatening to start a global thermonuclear war if RIPLEY tries to self destruct via nuclear warhead.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: In-Universe, Joshua has a reputation for that. Even one of RIPLEY's Technicians is genuinely afraid when the WOPR joins the fight against her.
- Not What It Looks Like: Will in The Dead Code has a computer programmer father and a biotechnician mother, so he knows a lot about computers and biological and chemical compounds. Guess what RIPLEY thinks he is?
- Oh, Crap: The moment the humans realize that RIPLEY, being forced to self-destruct, means she moves the target from Philadelphia, PA to Washington, DC — where they're all standing.
- A more subtle one when Bill Carter recognizes the voice of the A.I. battling R.I.P.L.E.Y.
- Overreacting Airport Security: Invoked by the government on purpose to catch Will and Annie.
- Playful Hacker: Will, except he was trying to be a reformed Playful Hacker.
- Schmuck Bait: RIPLEY has a sexy female voice and her avatar online is a hot winking woman who repeats "Play with me, baby, play with me." This is how RIPLEY lures in potential terrorists.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: RIPLEY has one that turns up when she feels threatened.
- Shout-Out: Dennis' screensaver is the main screen for Stargate SG-1. More accurately it is Stargate Worlds, a now cancelled MMORPG/Third-Person Shooter. Dennis is seen playing game in his and Will's introduction.
- Soft Glass: "This is two inch thick, steel reinforced..." BLAM! One gunshot shatters it.
- Title In: Locations and times throughout the movie.
A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.How about a nice game of chess?