The Long Game: X-COM and the Dread of Slow, Painful Assimilation

A long time ago I wrote an article for a video game website that no longer exists (because the internet is a cruel and impermanent creature that relegates your work to an endless void with little warning). In this particular article, I wrote about dying in video games and how it was outdated.

And I stand by that statement today — the “Game Over” screen is a holdover dating back to the arcade days when game makers tried to shake every last quarter out of players. Defeat followed by the game reloading a previous save or checkpoint largely persists because players have to feel like something is at stake and errors lead to consequences. Most games haven’t found a better way to associate consequences with failure, so “Game Over” is usually good enough to do the trick.

The problem is this game over mechanism sidetracks from both gameplay and the narrative. One second the atmosphere is rife with tension and the next the tension is entirely gone. The player is yanked out of the fictional world with an obtrusive text message that signifies that yes, the player was just playing a video game and will get a mulligan on this one. This is the apocrypha of the game — this event essentially doesn’t exist because the player’s character could have never truly died. It’s entirely disconnected from the narrative.

After that, the the game forces the player to relive the entire experience again. Repeating that level of tension is nearly impossible the second, third, or fourth time the player has to repeat a challenging section of the game. (Yeah, yeah, I’ll get to writing about how Dark Souls makes this work.)

It’s kind of like if you are watching a new movie with a friend, and after some high stakes scene, your friend says “Hey, that was a really tense scene — let’s rewatch it right now!” Not only does it water down the power of that scene, but it also completely halts the narrative’s progress.

Some games manage to take this mechanic and flip it on its head. Dark Souls builds player death into the narrative so that dying over and over and over again makes sense within the context of the story. The narrative trudges along at a snail’s pace as the player retreads the same steps again and again, but it reinforces themes like willpower and resurrection; this forces the player to live out the curse of the Dark Sign. Plus, most of the narrative is implied anyway, and sometimes, the player needs some time to observe and let information digest to develop an understanding of what’s going on.

X-COM has a different take on the situation, though. Instead of forcing the player to relive the agony of death ad nauseam, the game utilizes a type of cumulative failure. Most failure is degenerative and builds over time. Troops become injured or can be permanently killed by enemies, benefits are lost, and nations that once supported the X-COM project panic and leave the council. Meanwhile, the aliens gain strength and redouble their efforts. Over time, failure accumulates and spirals out of control until X-COM is a dysfunctional disaster with no funding, completely helpless in the front of the alien onslaught.

And sure, other games definitely implement this mechanic — Darkest Dungeon is one such example. But in Darkest Dungeon, while losing your crew is tough, the only real long term threat is essentially bankruptcy. The missions essentially always give the player the option to traverse a low-level dungeon, and if the heroes perish, you can always just throw more pawns in the fire.

In X-COM, the story’s tension is much greater than in Darkest Dungeon. Sure, Darkest Dungeon‘s plot is more interesting because it’s not a trite “The world is in danger and only you can stop it” kind of story, but it’s ultimately about an insidious beneficiary who will sacrifice anyone else’s life for inheritance and the family’s reputation. In contrast, X-COM‘s plight is far more noble, and the consequences of failure feel far more dire.

Not only that, but in X-COM, threats to the project are multidirectional, and the mounting enemy forces are a riptide threatening to pull the player underwater. Every failure piles on and feels like a setback that could ultimately prove to be part of a chain reaction toward the inevitable invasion.

Yeah, this game has been stressful.

Cumulative failure might not work for all games, or even most of them. In fact, it can be a harsh mechanic. Most games — especially Dark Souls — reward the willingness to repeatedly attack an obstacle; players can learn to defeat a challenge as slowly as they want so long as they have persistence to match.

On the other side of the fence, X-COM rewards caution and a well-thought out approach. The game gives some leeway early on, especially at lower difficulty levels, but it eventually sifts out the players who neglect caution and don’t take an interest in the mechanics.

To be clear, punishing players into a slow defeat is common in strategy and tactical games — when players make mistakes, their resources become more constrained, giving them less ability to fight off opponents. But what I particularly enjoy about X-COM is that it applies these penalties to a single-player narrative. This creates a different kind of tension than a game with an implied narrative or a multiplayer competition. If players are invested in the story, losing becomes more painful. Now, it’s not your ability to claim supremacy over your friends that’s at stake — it’s the freedom of the entire world. And as bumbling and poorly-acted as X-COM‘s narrative is at times, I was able to get into the story and imagine myself as the leader of humanity’s best hope to hold back the invasion. I desperately wanted to succeed, and was deeply affected every time one of my soldiers died, I failed a mission, or a country left the X-COM council.

I love X-COM, and it’s not just because it’s a fun strategy game with excellent mechanics and destructible environments. I love how overwhelming the experience feels at times. I love how I can go from feeling like a tactical genius after one mission and feel somber and insecure after the next after committing a few strategic blunders. I even enjoy the decision to pair campy, cliche sci-fi aliens with a somewhat dark and foreboding mood.

As silly as the whole experience of saving the world from little gray men can be, X-COM truly does make me feel the weight of each of my decisions. A great number of games claim to give the player the power to make influential choices, but many of them fall flat because the results feel contrived and ultimately meaningless. But X-COM makes certain that the player’s decisions can mean the difference between success, and a slow painful march toward defeat.

And, of course, you can also pick the color of armor for your troops. So there’s that, too.

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