Tag Archives: XCOM 2

Choice

Sid Meir, the guy behind Civilization, famously described a game as being “a series of interesting choices.” The idea here is that a good game has you making decisions that have some weight to them, that is, decisions that though not necessarily wrong, could have repercussions. In Civilization, it can manifest from whether you plan on pursuing diplomacy or warfare, or whether you’re playing as the Aztecs or the English. Decisions.

By this metric, Candyland is a really crappy game with no real decision making, though this is arguably excusable as it functions as a method of introducing young children to the way board games work. Monopoly doesn’t really fare much better, as it really all comes down to the roll of the dice with the illusion of more — deciding whether or not to buy a property you land isn’t much of a decision because the answer is “duh.” If you play with trades, and players who are willing to trade, the game can get much more interesting, but that’s a big old if. Of course, Monopoly was originally intended, as The Landlord’s Game, to be an indictment against rampant capitalism and its lack of choice in the matter does underscore it; though I feel like the subtext was lost when Parker Brothers ‘borrowed’ the game from Lizzie Magie.

Anyway. Interesting choices.

Sid Meir’s a video game designer, so it makes sense to turn his lens to look at video games. The Sims is a game rife with choices: What job will your Sim have? What kind of stove will they buy? Should they or should they not date Santa Claus? There are a lotta choices you can make, which, given that the game’s a life simulator, makes sense. Interestingly, there aren’t really drawbacks between choosing to be a Super Spy of Master Criminal, it’s all part of whatever sort of narrative you’re constructing for your Sims. The choices remain interesting because it’s totally up to you.

The Last of Us has one of my favorite choices. It’s a small one, built into the gameplay’s crafting system. In the post-apocalyptic world, resources are scarce and much has to be made by hand. Alcohol and Cloth can be used to make Health Kits; they can also be used to make Molotov Cocktails. One of them heals you, the other can be used to fight Hunters and Infected. You have to choose which one to craft at any given moment, and given that you can only carry so much at a time, you’ll end up having to make something not knowing when you’ll get more. It compounds the game’s question of survival, forcing you to choose between attacking and saving yourself on a small scale.

Consequences are something that can make choices interesting — otherwise, it’s not more of a deal than picking the red or blue token. XCOM 2 gives your decision making weight. Are you gonna research armor or weapons first? Are you going to collect intel or supplies? Are you going to wait before launching that attack? The constant ticking time bomb of the aliens’ progress on the Avatar Project makes the time crunch real; you can’t spend all your time shoring up your forces or you lose. Periodic battles also make it hard to just wait around, as you will have to send your soldiers out on missions, and chances are, they will get injured.

That’s all big picture. When you get down to the minutiae of actual combat, the decisions compound. One strategic mistake in the tactical game could leave you with your best soldier in the infirmary for weeks — or killed outright, forcing any plans you had for a later raid out the window. If only you’d played that mission a little more

There’s a theory that storytelling was born out of the human/tribal need to simulate experiences for people who hadn’t yet experienced them. Maybe games are in some ways an extension of that, a sort of failure space for you to make choices and let them play out without real-world ramifications. Or maybe it’s just part of what makes them fun. Either way, they’re a great way to spend quarantine.

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XCOM-munication

I am so sorry about that pun*.

I recently got an email from Steam letting me know that XCOM 2 was on sale. It’s been on my wishlist since it came out, and I never took it off after I got it for the PS4. There was also an expansion pack for it released some time back, and I found that I could get XCOM 2 plus all the expansions for $30. Which, y’know, given that I’ve got very little to do these quarantine days, seems like a great deal.

Around six or seven years ago, I got super into XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s a strategy/tactics game wherein you take the role of a commander leading Earth’s defense against an alien incursion. It’s pretty great; you’ve gotta manage your squad’s strengths and weaknesses while accounting for any actions your opponents will take. There’s a tension to it, since one wrong move could mean multiple aliens getting the jump on you, and a wounded soldier will need time to heal — and a killed one is permanently out of the game. The cost of error is high.

I bounced around the idea of getting XCOM 2 when it came out, then pulled the trigger when it was one of the free PS4 games two years back. It’s more of the same; lots of strategizing, lots of planning, lots of figuring out back-up plans as plans A through E go sideways. It’s a game that became one I played with my girlfriend, in that we would spend ages agonizing over decisions and strategy, then watching in anticipation as our plan played out. So much fun.

Here’s the thing about XCOM though: I don’t really remember the plot. I mean, I get it, aliens invading Earth (or in 2, they’ve set up a puppet government and we’re the resistance) and you gotta fight back. There are more details to it, but really, I don’t remember it at all.

But what I do remember are my soldiers.

XCOM is a game that uses my Mostest Favoritst Trope: Ragtag Multinational Team Doing Badass Stuff. In this game, it’s not just AMERICA saving the world; your squad is comprised of people from all over the world. They’ve got their flag on the back of their combat vests and, in the second one, you can have some of them speak in their native language. This is awesome and kicks all the ass, because, well, again, it’s my Mostest Favoritist Trope. You also get to give them codenames, which just adds to the fun.

It’s been years since I played the first XCOM, but I still remember some of my soldiers: Roadblock, my Nigerian Support who wouldn’t let anyone past, Seraphim, the Israeli Sniper, and Samurai, the Japanese Assault. I don’t remember much of the story, but I do remember having Roadblock and Seraphim provide cover for Samurai to get in there and do her thing.

Same with the second one. Adele Mercier, aka Crevé, was my French Sharpshooter who went on almost every mission I had and racked up an impressive number of kills. Jane Kelly, aka Snake Eater, was an Irish Ranger who got her nickname not just because I like Metal Gear Solid 3 but because she made a name for herself hunting the serpentine Viper aliens (with a sword!). Then there was Astrid Johansson, aka Viking, a Norwegian Ranger who was really getting a lot of good experience and poised to become one of my mains when she was killed in action. That was a huge bummer.

XCOM lends itself well to narrative creation. There’s a clear conflict baked in, and your soldiers have just enough character for you to make up your own stories about the characters (I seem to recall the girlfriend and I claiming that Snake Eater and Crevé had a bit of a rivalry going on). The story I remember is one that was my own, and I guess that’s what made it all the more special.

Anyway. The XCOM 2 Collection is bought and downloaded, so, that’s the next chunk of quarantine sorted.

*Actually, no, I’m not. I regret nothing.

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Tasty Words

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.

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