If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.
Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.
What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.
XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.
On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.
Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.