The independent game developer behind roguelike work-in-progress Ultima Ratio Regum, and an ex-professional gamer turned game studies academic, Mark Johnson's work is inspired the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco and informed by Science and Technological Studies.

Red Alert 1, released in 1996, was one of the few Real-Time Strategy (RTS) releases of its era to shy away from a historical fantasy or far-future sci-fi setting. Warcraft II depicts a fantasy medieval world of humans, elves and orcs, Starcraft paints a futuristic world where humans share the galaxy with the aloof aesthete Protoss and the inhumanly ravenous Zerg, and Total Annihilation’s far-future galactic war is fought between the centralized Core and the decentralized Arm — but Red Alert was set in around the Second World War, with a little bit of a sci-fi twist.

Red Alert blended the real and the imagined. Click To Tweet

Actual history met alternate history, as objects we might recognize in the everyday stood alongside objects from worlds we have never visited. How did the Red Alert games in the Command and Conquer series use these aesthetics to tell stories? How does its art and design narratologically locate the different editions in the series? How did it thematically navigate between overlapping realities and architectures?

Red Alert

Red Alert’s central conceit is that Albert Einstein created a time-machine, went back in time to “Landsberg, Germany, 1924”, and erased a young Adolf Hitler from history. Upon returning to the present, Einstein’s assistant questions him about the success of the mission and the implied impact: he replies that only “time will tell”. Once the player reaches the main menu, however, it becomes apparent that the WW2 we knew has been unintentionally replaced by a new timeline, in which the Allies and the Soviets, not the Allies and the Axis, battled using a range of new, and imagined, technologies. This time travelling endeavour is portrayed in full-motion video (FMV), a long-term standard of the Command and Conquer series (of which Red Alert was the second release). These videos showed actors , sometimes recruited from among the game developers at Westwood Studios, explaining briefings to the player, filling in gaps about the fictional universe, and sometimes were combined with CGI imagery to position the actors more fully within the Red Alert’s world.

Einstein carries out this mission as the world’s first chrononaut from a room identified as being in “Trinity, New Mexico: 1946”. In our own timeline, Trinity was the birthplace of the nuclear bomb. This sets much of the tone, and in turn the aesthetics, of Red Alert – it takes its cue from the most significant military technology of the era (nuclear weapons) and the technoscientific structures of political and economic support associated with it, and applies similar conditions to other fictional technologies.

To locate itself firstly within the “real” Second World War, Red Alert is replete with images of iconic technologies of the WW2 and immediately post-WW2 eras. Submarines can be deployed as player-controlled units and feature in many cutscenes; the Allies are able to launch a satellite which gives them omniscient sight of the entire map; Sputnik is visible in one of the introductory cutscenes, whilst nuclear weapons can be launched by both sides. The iconographic use of these technologies is expanded by the game’s fictional ones; these are what we might call “alternate history” technologies – the type of thing we might expect to see in Marvel media depicting WW2. It also draws on the contemporary cultural imagination around powerful weaponry, for example Third Reich proposals for “wunderwaffe”, the “wonder weapons” whose imagined deployment promised a miraculous turn-around in the Axis’ impending defeat.

Two technologies define the science fiction aspects of Red Alert: the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain. Click To Tweet


The Allied unique superweapon developed by Einstein, this is a building which charges up a unique “chronoshift” ability, which allows the player to transport one tank (attempting to transport troops results in their immediate death) temporarily to another part of the map (rather than through time, strangely enough). After a period this unit will return to its original location. If the player transports enemy naval units onto land, or land units into the ocean, they are immediately destroyed.

Iron Curtain

The Soviets, meanwhile, deploy a device that can turn a single unit temporarily invulnerable, rather than transporting it around the map. Although the real world Iron Curtain was merely a metaphor for the spatial divide between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, Red Alert uses this term to describe a literal structure. There was no Cold War in the Red Alert chronology, and therefore no spatial divide which could have been named such. In this way it acts as a signpost for the fictional universe which plays upon our knowledge of the real universe, and takes a term from real history into the fictional universe and redeploys it in a new and unexpected purpose.

The Two Superweapons

These two technologies are explicitly positioned in opposition to each other and as emblematic of the greatest research of both sides, and their greatest hopes for victory. One Allied mission briefing explicitly states this dichotomous opposition: “With [the Chronosphere] to help you, even Stalin’s new Iron Curtain will not be able to stop us!”. Not only does this quote illustrate the sometimes rather campy dialogue of Red Alert’s cutscenes and briefings, it also draws on the Iron Curtain as an ideological and physical boundary in the real world, and the Soviet superweapon in the Red Alert world. .

Whereas in the real world the nuclear weapons of both sides came to define the immediate aftermath of WW2 and the subsequent Cold War, in Red Alert each side has a different signature superweapon in addition to their nuclear arsenals. Atomic weapons still exist, but they are hardly talked about compared to the Chronosphere and the Curtain.

The superweapons are depicted as highly unusual structures – they look nothing like the buildings surrounding them and appear out of place in the otherwise-WW2 visuals. In the picture to the left, the Iron Curtain is the black spherical structure within a protective latticework, and in the picture to the right the Chronosphere is the smooth chrome structure.They stand out visually against the military utilitarianism surrounding them. These structures have not become normalized or domesticated within the dictionary of standard constructions for either army – they are one-of-a-kind, somewhat improvised, with no stable housing like the architecture of other structures, perhaps designed to be removed and redeployed.

Superweapons are less like “structures” or “buildings”, and more akin to performative experiments. Click To Tweet

In Red Alert’s cinematics, these extraordinary aesthetics are portrayed in full CGI, where we see strange energies – in Soviet red and Allied blue – enveloping the Iron Curtain, and emanating from the Chronosphere.

The Chronosphere also has a unique “damaged” animation – when most buildings in Red Alert drop below 50% health they appear fractured, crumbled or aflame; the Chronosphere’s damaged image instead flashes and emits uncontrolled bursts of energy, again speaking to its experimental nature (the Iron Curtain’s damaged graphic shows the scaffolding around it broken, but the central sphere intact).

There is a “distance” between the superweapon technologies and the real technologies they exist alongside – perhaps this is simply because we don’t know what a “real world” Chronosphere would look like, but the Iron Curtain and Chronosphere do strongly stand out from the WW2 buildings which surround them; they appear fragile and experimental. This positions them as new and untested technologies which may yield unsettling or unknown outcomes – indeed, the player is warned in one briefing that the Chronosphere may yield “unexpected side effects”, and sure enough, using the Chronosphere will sometimes create a strange effect known as a “chrono vortex”. This map-distorting visual effect has a 20% chance of being triggered , and drifts around the map destroying buildings and units it crosses until it dissipates.

Superweapons are unusual, complex technologies, poorly understood even by those who deploy them. Click To Tweet

These technologies displace nuclear weapons as the emergent technology that the commanders of both sides fixated over and considered essential to the success of the war. The in-game characters treat them in ways we might associate with nuclear weapons: immensely powerful, war-altering technologies. Both superweapons and nuclear weapons can only be constructed if the player has access to the highest “technology level” of structures (a telling indication of their implicit comparability), both are extremely expensive to construct, and both are crucial objectives for destruction or capture in various singleplayer missions. In the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain the familiar does give way to something unfamiliar, but the same kind of unfamiliar as nuclear weaponry: something new, but contained within the same socio-technical systems as our own world. Several years prior to WW2 and the creation of atomic weapons, might the concept of the ability to bestow temporary invulnerability or shift briefly through time have actually appeared equally implausible, and equally in the realm of science fiction, to the average observer, as a bomb which could destroy an entire city? Although the two superweapons are primarily unfamiliar, distinct, and represent a disjuncture with real-world history in their visual style, Red Alert also positions them as existing within the logics of its fictional universe.

Red Alert 2

Red Alert 2 – released in 2000 – played off Red Alert 1’s visual style in an intriguing way. Whereas the visual style of Red Alert 1 could be reasonably called alteration – the designers took an existing style (WW2 visuals) and twisted it a little bit to add a sci-fi angle to them (the Chronosphere and the Iron Curtain) – the visual style of Red Alert 2 is better defined as extrapolation. It took the aesthetics of the first Red Alert and moved them forward into a visual outcome set several decades in the future within the fictional universe. It treated the history of Red Alert in the same way Red Alert treated the history of the real-world – as a set of aesthetics and background assumptions which can be reproduced, played with, and adjusted.

Red Alert 2 lies somewhere in the intersection between dieselpunk, Raygun Gothic, and retrofuturism. Dieselpunk is an aesthetic style perhaps best-known to gamers in Bioshock, with its focus upon Art Deco visuals coupled with extremely “modern” technology; retrofuturism focuses on the depictions of past futures, which is to say the visions of the future which have since failed to come to pass (perhaps best embodied by SF films of the Forbidden Planet era, and the more recent Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow); whilst Raygun Gothic, a subset of retrofuturism, is a depiction of a particular alternative future extrapolated from modernist aesthetics and often used interchangeably with retrofuturism (sometimes associated with the Fallout series, particularly its most recent iterations).

A history that features rayguns centres the popular imagination over scientific development. Click To Tweet

These styles all speak to a distinct set of speculative or imagined historical changes: they combine past social ideals and structures with modern and postmodern technology in complex anachronisms, and they consider how contemporary conflicts might play out with the technologies of the past — or more refined, improved or developed versions of these same technologies.

In Red Alert 2 the two memorable alternate-history technologies of the original Red Alert return. The Allies still possess the Chronosphere, but it is now able to transport nine units instead of merely one, and there is not a time limit on their transportation, making it orders of magnitude more useful, whilst the Soviet Iron Curtain has been similarly upgraded to a nine-unit max. They are joined by a range of other technologies. The Allies possess a range of “prism” technologies to complement the Chronosphere – a series of tanks and buildings which emphasize smooth lines, geometric exactness and the implied precision of a focused laser weapon.


The Soviets, meanwhile, have expanded the role of Tesla as their equivalent of Einstein via “Tesla technology” such as “tesla troopers” and “tesla tanks” as well as the “tesla coils”, a base defence from the original Red Alert. These structures share the same aesthetic of “experimental” technology we saw in Red Alert 1 – they are depicted sparking electricity and possess a clear lack of refinement or care in their construction –  and an implicit danger to the electricity they use as their weapon (this aesthetic is similar to Tesla’s laboratory in 2006 film The Prestige).

ra2 superweaponsThis Allied/Soviet visual difference is even reflected in walls: Allied walls are extremely smooth and clean and appear to be made of concrete, whilst Soviet walls are less regular, spiked, and covered in barbed wire. These screenshots show (from left to right) the Chronosphere, “Battle Lab” (a required building for more advanced units), two Prism Towers and a “War Factory” (for producing tanks) for the Allies, alongside some wall; whilst the right-most screenshot shows the Iron Curtain, a Tesla Reactor (provides power), two Tesla Coils, and the Soviet War Factory, making these different visual styles particularly clear.

We can see that this difference is also reproduced in their superweapons – the Chronosphere enables rapid movement and deployment, whilst the Iron Curtain strengthens the units it affects (these are the left-most buildings in both screenshots). The Chronosphere (unlike its Red Alert 1 progenitor) now appears slick and refined, whilst the Iron Curtain still has much of its inner workings visible. Red Alert 2 thus takes the Allies/Soviets dichotomy established in a small way with the aesthetics of the Red Alert 1 superweapons, whilst simultaneously filtering out the WW2 aesthetics they grew out of.

The picture below, from Red Alert 2’s concept art, shows us an Allied prism tank on the left, and a Soviet Tesla tank on the right. This makes the intensifying of these technologies, and the different technological trajectories – the Allies have refined their technologies, whilst the Soviets continue to experiment – very clear once more. Indeed, Red Alert 2’s manual notes that after the Allied victory in Red Alert 1 (the Allied singleplayer campaign is considered the canon ending), the Soviets swore that because “the Allies had won with superior technology”, they would be the ones to develop the most unusual and innovative weapons for the next futures. Allied structures and units show a futuristic refinement and smoothness in Red Alert 2, whilst the Soviets have continued towards greater “innovation” and, therefore, a more “punk” aesthetic of experimentation.

Red Alert 2 emphasizes the futuristic units rather than the WW2-esque era of the original Red Alert, but these are still a performance of some “historical” sensibility, for their visuals and aesthetics speak to an extrapolation from the original alternate-history technologies deployed in Red Alert. The Allies were victorious in Red Alert 1 and thus refined and improved their technologies, yielding structures and buildings which appear predominantly retrofuturist; the Soviets, smarting from their previous defeat, continued to experiment and develop their own technological path, resulting in the experimental dieselpunk visuals we see here.

In the Red Alert universe the ideology of scientific progress has been pursued to its limit, and beyond. Click To Tweet

The “Total War” of WW2 never gave way to a Cold War and the accompanying nuclear standoff, and so new weapons continued to emerge on both sides. The weapons and structures of both sides in Red Alert 2 reflect the Allied victory in the first war in Red Alert 1, and the confidence and resentment embodied by the two armies. The political upheaval caused by the time travel experiments of Red Alert 1 resulted in a different technological landscape and a very different kind of arms race, where both sides pursued different means to victory instead of stockpiling the same devastating weapons to face off against one another.  This burst of technological upheaval eclipsed even the world-changing technologies developed in real-world human history in that same period.

The Prestige

The Making of The Prestige (2005) Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Touchstone Pictures


“Real world”

Memory Insufficient‘s style guide usually cautions against unproblematically reproducing the idea that one world is “real” and all others are fake, virtual, or otherwise less real by virtue of their digital materiality. However, in this piece we found it unavoidable to preserve the use of “real” to describe the factual in contrast to the counterfactual history represented by time machines, rayguns and the like.