What those not familiar with XCOM, Firaxis and 2K Games’ reboot of Microprose’s classic turn based strategy game X-Com, need to understand is that it’s not just a game. XCOM/X-Com is about building an internal meta narrative over top of the game’s actual story. Much of this occurs through the simple act of naming one’s soldiers after friends, family, acquaintances,
and people you stalk on twitter. Allow me to demonstrate.
This was my XCOM A-Team.
Ken Scholtens, Amos Yu, and Matt Moore are all friends of mine. Granted none of them volunteered to have their names usurped but such is life. NB: All of them have said they’re good with being used as examples for the benefit of this post.
As a team representing the Earth’s first and last line of defence against an alien invasion, they had all survived one mission together and made at least one alien kill. Operation “Lazy Dirge” would be their second manoeuvre as a squad, each an experienced “Squaddie” with a specialized role.
But war is a nasty thing, especially when you’re trying to secure a crashed UFO.
What follows is a narrative replay of an actual mission I took this squad on within the game.
One of the little grey bastards, the scientists back at the base call them Sectoids, got off a lucky shot on Amos, who died instantly from plasma burns to the face. This sent Adam into a panic. He managed to cut down the Sectoid with a .50 caliber sniper round to the head. The extraterrestrial’s green blood splattered as Adam’s vision tunneled on the tableau of death. Screaming for his mother, he curled into the fetal position.
Without sniper cover, two Sectoids were able to bum rush Ken’s left flank. Matt was on overwatch, but his snap shot against the lead Sectoid went wide. Ken tried to pull back to better cover, but he caught a plasma bolt in the stomach as he was retreating. It was all Matt could do to toss a grenade at the oncoming aliens, avenging his fallen comrade.
The explosion killed one Sectoid and left another wounded.
Finally, Adam was able to pull himself together. He took out the injured Sectoid in a single shot. With his head back in the game, he flanked around the burning wreck of the crashed UFO. There was only one grey-back left and he meant to catch it in a crossfire. The first sniper round went wide, his vision still not yet returned to normal. By then Matt charged to catch the alien out of cover. With one burst from his assault rifle, the bug-eyed grey squawked and collapsed.
The battle was won. The wreck, secured. The techs back at base were overjoyed to find an intact alien power supply waiting for their study. Various council nations were already offering to buy the captured alien technology. Still, it came at the cost of two lives too many.
There was only one thing left to do, I had to tell Ken that he was dead.
me: Bad news.
Ken: No…Don’t tell me you got me killed already.
me: It was at a crashed UFO site, you got bum rushed by a pair of mind linked Sectoids.
How many men must you kill?
me: F*** you, man. I lost good people on that mission. Good men that might be alive today if the council nations recognized the threat that the invaders pose. Instead I have to send out green boys with pop guns and write letters to their parents when they come back in body bags.
Ken: Shame on you, commander! Shame on you!
Did these valiant soldiers know what you were sending them into?
me: They all knew the risks, and they all knew they were fighting for something greater than themselves.
Ken: None of them signed up for these suicide missions that you are sending them on.
me: What other choice do I have? Let the world fall into panic because of all these abductions and UFO flybys? One life on the battlefield buys a million people still showing up for work tomorrow. Tell me that’s not worth it.
Ken: We are going to have a lot of fun with this aren’t we?
me: Yes we are.
Since then I’ve refined my technique for delivering bad news. What comes next is a letter sent to another of my friends after his character died in the line of duty.
Dear Mr. Noon
It is with a heavy heart that I speak to you today. Last night at
approximately 6:22pm local time, your avatar, Corporal Chris Noon,
died in the line of duty on a mission in Japan.
Chris was a valued member of my team. He was an inspiration to others
around him. When things got tough, and lesser soldiers would panic,
Chris would stay steady and do his job. In the short time that he was
with the organization, he defined himself by his leadership and
professionalism. In doing so earned the respect of his squad mates
and his superiors. His absence will be sorely missed.
As you have received council clearance for classified information, I
can tell you that Chris died doing what we all thought to be
impossible. Chris breached the interior of an intact UFO. He held the
line, buying time for his teammates to secure their compromised
positions. His sacrifice was the turning point in an operation that
would have seen far greater casualties were it not for his sacrifice.
I know this knowledge will give you small comfort, yet in your grief
you must never allow yourself to believe his death was meaningless.
Chris died protecting his friends and safeguarding all nations of this
planet from a threat it has never before known.
Please know my thoughts are with you during this time.
A. Shaftoe, Commander, XCOM
There are no saved games in XCOM: no mulligans, do-overs, rollbacks or pleas for “just one more try”. Consequences are real. The game moves forward. People die and stay dead. That’s just how it works. Yes, there is an option to turn off permadeath, but that’s not my bag. As Captain Jack Harkness once said, “Now we carry on.”
If you’re a gamer, then likely you played the original X-Com and these stories are all the review I need to give you.
If you’re a gamer and count yourself creative, you’re welcome. If the game doesn’t suck up enough of your time, the hours spent writing in a world that is somewhere between fan-fic and original work certainly will.
And if you just want to kill aliens, blow shit up, and not worry about all the drama, XCOM’s got you covered there as well.
XCOM is a “must have” on all counts.
Finally, if anybody wants to indulge me and volunteer their name and likeness for my squad, I can promise you screen shots and a nice “we regret to inform you” letter when you eventually go KIA.