Welcome to Eight Steps Forward, our unique Year in Review series that looks at specific games from 2012 that were touchstone moments of growth within the medium. The eight games featured in this series are progressive in genre, design, gameplay, and narrative. Spoilers will abound.
In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, if you win, you lose. If you eliminate the enemy, you lose.
If you survive – you still lose.
You lose because you are fighting a war as the insurgency, and your oppressors have a categorical advantage against you, except in a resource: bodies. You can throw rookie bodies at the enemy when your experienced fighters die. If your experienced fighters stay alive, you can throw fresh bodies in front of them and protect them. If you plan well, you can throw experienced bodies at your enemies and have experienced bodies replace them. But either way, until you figure out how to cripple the alien invasion, you rely on a lot of bodies. They are bullets in your magazine.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a simulator that imitates the general management of war (strategy), and the execution of war (tactics). On a high level, it makes the player exercise quantum resource management, asset prioritization, and strategic relationship decision-making. The high level is a war fought from a desk chair, with the “big picture” firmly in view. It is where losses are cut. On the ground, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a chess match that lives and dies by patience, tactical competency, preparedness, and a bit of luck. The picture is sharply focused on survival. On the ground, it is blood in and blood out. It is where losses are felt.
In games about war, we’re usually only privy to one of these parallels – in Battlefield 3, for instance, we are entirely entrenched in the heart of the theater, and we use our weapons to escape a series of situations alive. We’re soldiers. As the focal point of the militaristic shooters, we are imbued with the ability to turn the tides of war singlehandedly, but we also see death after death. In strategy games, like Age of Empires or against the more bellicose nations of Civilization V, we instruct battalions, but the wars are generally one set of statistics against another set of statistics, and the side that can survive attrition will be victorious. We don’t inventory the loss of human capital, we see the ends without the means.
With both dimensions, we have perspective.
Sending soldiers off to die is necessary, but watching them die sure hurts. And there’s always a moment – a space of about 5 minutes or so – after a veteran’s fragile life is taken where you mourn their loss and wish you could raise 21 guns for them. But then you click to the barracks and draft some faceless soldier and begin to fiddle with their name but who the fuck cares as long as they can shoot a gun?
I was on the ground once, in Russia, in a small forest clearing, my six soldiers spread out behind a tree and tall rocks. I had killed about a dozen hostile aliens without absorbing a shot, not to mention a casualty. Half my soldiers had experienced more than ten missions. They were tough. Unflappable and un-fuck-with-able.
From across the way, a couple of large aliens shot one of my rookie soldiers, and his brother went nuts. Or, I assumed it was his brother because they were both Swedes with the same last name. But even if they had different mothers, I’m sure they’d still tell you they were brothers.
The brother who went nuts panted, “No. No. No.” and blew away a fellow sniper in a panic and then champed his own muzzle. Another shot from the aliens took out the surviving brother, effectively halving what was a healthy, successful unit just moments before. Nervous myself, I turned tail and retreated the group back to the drop-ship, a couple of long sprints with the two large Mutons allowing me a wide berth. Something else moved in the fog.
I reached the drop-ship and was prompted to reconsider my retreat. Eliminating these enemies would calm down the Russian populace, and my relationship with Russia was very profitable. Quitting would send the country further into a panic, but I would have my soldiers back alive. I turned my team from the drop-ship and lined them up in the corner, ready to pull a fast Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. I reloaded all of their weapons.
No more soldiers died on that mission, but five aliens did.
The soldiers died on the next mission, along with about thirty of their brothers and sisters over the course of a few deployments. I needed the money offered by a wealthy nation to build structures. And I finally got it.
Russia was long gone by then, though.
Eight Steps Forward:
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About the Author:
James Hawkins is the founder of Bit Creature. He's a published poet, dabbling sportswriter, and former Senior Editor of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.
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