This week I am privileged to have another talented guest post grace my blog! Today’s post comes from Kyle, who so kindly typed up this article to show that losing can indeed be enjoyable in XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
“Hi there, I’m Kyle! I play pretty much everything, from big AAA releases to small indies on whatever platform I can. I have a deep love for everything gaming, to the point where I know an absurd amount about the industry for someone not working in it. It’s a huge part of my life and will always be my #1 hobby. Thanks if you take the time to read what I write, and I hope you enjoy it if you do!”
Losing Can Be Fun! (XCOM Enemy Unknown)
Written by: Kyle
I play a lot of video games which involve killing and saving the day. I always say it’s not the violence in these games that is appealing to me, what I love is surviving against impossible odds. A problem for me is that the stakes are never actually that high. Your last checkpoint is more often than not a couple of minutes before wherever you fail. You die, you get taken out of the experience for a second and hop back into the fight.
There are some games where that isn’t the case. XCOM, a remake of the classic turn-based tactical strategy game of the same name from the 90’s, is one of them. It is brutal and unforgiving. You play as the commander of the XCOM project, managing a base, resources and soldiers who you command on missions. You can customize these soldiers, but you’re better off not bothering because chances are they’re going to die horrible deaths soon anyway. It’s inevitable. It’s XCOM.
I’d like to talk about this game because it has an optional mode called “Ironman”. Enabling it at the start of a new campaign means you have to live with the consequences of every decision since the game doesn’t let you manually save and autosaves after every turn. In a game as rough as XCOM where soldiers can (and will) permanently die, that’s a big deal. Your best squad can be wiped in a single mission. This often means that you can’t recover from the loss of experienced people and will lose the game. Aliens will take over earth because you lost the only people who could stop them. You can keep fighting to the bitter end if you want with whatever grunts you have left, but most people decide to quit and try again in a new game.
There’s one experience in particular I would like to share because it is one of the most intense gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Early in the game, a UFO landed in a forest somewhere and I had to send a squad of five soldiers out to investigate. I thought it would be a good idea to flank the UFO, so I started to slowly move everyone into position around the trees until first contact. I was caught unaware by a couple of sectoids and three floaters that were out for a stroll, admiring nature. The sectoids weren’t a problem, but the floaters were mean buggers that early in the game. They could take a beating.
I put my team up against good cover before the aliens made their moves. They scuttled around and took their shots, only successfully hitting one of my crew. I watched in horror as Corporal Varsha slumped over and collapsed. Luckily she wasn’t killed, but she went into critical condition. This meant that in three turns, she would bleed out and die unless a squad member could stabilize her with a med kit. The problem: She had the med kit. She still had a chance though, because if I could kill every enemy on the map in three turns or less to complete the mission, she would be fine. The alien’s turn was over. It was my turn now. With a racing heart and sweaty palms I got to thinking.
Each squad member has two moves each to change position and/or attack, but a soldier can only attack once each turn. I had four people to work with to take down five enemies that were fairly spread out and uncomfortably healthy. The thing about XCOM is everything is randomly generated, so every attack you make is a gamble. I’ve missed flank shots that had a 95% chance of hitting because hey, that’s XCOM. I sat there, looking over the battlefield. I was trying to find ways to maximize my turns while minimizing danger and the possibility of missing attacks. There’s no time limit so you can explore every possibility. This encounter took me an hour.
After three turns of back and forth fighting, some grenades and many bullets later, miraculously there was one more enemy and I had to roll the dice. On my last move, during my last turn to save Corporal Varsha’s life, I held my breath as I ordered a soldier to fire with a mere 60% chance of success. He made the shot. It took a hell of a lot of luck but the last enemy went down. I let out a sigh of relief. Corporal Varsha was going to be fine. All that tension, all that anxiety I had been feeling for the past hour washed away and I smiled.
But then the mission didn’t end. The aliens had another turn. Two seconds ago I felt like I had just conquered the world and now I sat there in disbelief, feeling sick to my stomach as I was once again given command of my unit. I sighed and moved one of my soldiers two squares forward. Two short steps to reveal one last, sneaky sectoid hiding in the fog of war. He was there the whole time and I never saw him. I took the shot. I killed it. The mission ended. I got a “Good” rating despite losing a soldier.
Mission accomplished, but in my eyes, I failed… and I had a damn good time. Winning feels so much better when there’s something to lose. That brief second where I thought I had achieved the impossible was amazing because it felt like there was so much at stake. I have started more than a couple dozen games of XCOM, and I have only beaten the game once. Corporal Varsha was the first to die on the road to my one and only victory. I lost six soldiers that game, and I remember how each of them died.
I’ve logged many hours in XCOM yet it has beat me time and time again, and despite my many losses I find myself having fun because it feels like everything matters. This concept of permanent death can carry over into other games that don’t have the feature built in. It works best in games which leave the player a lot of freedom, such as Far Cry 2, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and Fallout3/New Vegas. Try it out sometime, restrict yourself with one rule: You die, you delete your save. Without a safety net, the possibility of losing all of your progress can bring meaning to things that you would normally take for granted. The tension this creates where there normally wouldn’t be anything to worry about can bring a breath of fresh air to your experience. Have fun!