They Live

XCOM seems an odd choice to write about with my general focus on narrative and metaphor (although don’t worry there will be plenty of that in this one too). I absolutely didn’t imagine my next update on here would be about it or that I would even have played it at all.

That isn’t to say I’ve never had an interest in the series. Conceptually speaking the ideas behind it have been fascinating to me since encountering the original game years and years ago, the modern remake version was a game I bought on launch and really tried and failed to get into. There are a great many reasons for why the new XCOM 2 expansion has gripped me where other iterations have not – the narrative structure of rebellion and guerilla action carrying an appeal where being a secret-essentially-US-military organisation carried a bad taste, the introduction of personalising touches like the nemesis-esque enemy heroes, covert actions and the like. Chief among these factors though is overcoming the main thing that has kept me from engaging with so many interests of mine – fear of committing to any sort of activity whatsoever (“oh no what about all the other things I could be doing???”) and just a general inability to retain focus on any task that doesn’t grip me.

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I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, an event which as mostly filled my life since with moments of “oh right that makes sense now huh” and somehow made these issues more frustrating to me than before. The knowledge that I feel I can’t easily control my mind as it strays off course non-stop is comforting in a way but also feels distressingly powerful as an actual disorder and not some sort of laziness I have full control of. I bring this up because XCOM 2 has been unlike a great many thing I’ve enjoyed in that I don’t think I ever had to really focus on forcing myself to stay on track with it and I want to elaborate on why I think that is.

To put a name to it I’d say the major factor here is the game’s difficulty, or potentially more accurately, the tension that derives from it. Difficulty is a contentious topic in video game discourse, often understood as a binary state of being it comes up across many spectrums and approaches. Difficulty exists to some as a wall to access, to others as a means to bludgeon others with their own sense of superiority (often overstating the actual difficulty in question – the skill they feel they display being merely a product of time spent learning and not some innate quality). This crosses over with debates about the nature of gameplay itself, is it obstructive to gate portions of “content” off from a player behind skill challenges? Does adhering to the idea of never doing so deny games the ability to evoke player responses beyond subjective ideas of fun and/or merely emulating movies? My goal here isn’t so much definitively answering any of this, I believe there are understandable approaches in a great number of these ideas (the belligerent elitism withstanding of course), but instead to just tell the story of my personal experience with the idea of access limitations and what difficulty as a concept means to me.

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I’ve just beaten XCOM 2’s new expansion (I never played the base game) on it’s second highest difficulty on the mode that makes all decisions and actions final, every turn is autosaved replacing all previous saves on that particular run of the game. I feel pretty damn pleased with myself about this not because it has granted me a sense of superiority, but more the knowledge I was able to really learn a skill and take it all the way to it’s conclusion. It’s a joy founded on countless failed runs, restarts, mistakes and heartbreaking losses. In a sense it’s proof, on a small danger-free scale, that failure is simply a part of getting better at things, that you can lose time and time again but those experiences aren’t wasted; and that is part of what I started writing on this blog to prove to myself in the first place. See my struggles with my attention span have for a long, long time left me feeling incapable of anything really, my inability to do tasks that stretched even to hobbies and interests I desperately wanted to engage with left me deep in the clutches of self-loathing. A need for things to go perfectly on attempt one inflicted by my anxiety problems mingled with the inability to truly commit to or even conceive of starting projects or even games a lot of the time because, well, “of course it won’t work out and of course you’ll be making the wrong choice anyway”.

The experience of mental illness for me has been the feeling of an ever-present enemy undermining my every decision, desire and ability to even possess either of those things. A daily life lived “putting out fires” in my head, focussing only on keeping my tempest of a brain in check long enough to pull off doing really anything at all. This is where XCOM’s difficulty-based tension comes into the picture – clumsy though the metaphor may be the vast majority of time in XCOM will be spent in direct conflict with a totalising world dominating force bent on stopping your every goal and giving you as little space as possible to achieve your aims instead of merely preventing it from harming you. Now, I agree this is a little bit of a slap-dash and dorky way to explain mental illness but my intent is less instructive and more to paint an image of how this game feels to me on a subconscious level. What would absolutely (and entirely fairly) register as intense and stressful to many, has to me become the key factor in my love affair with this game.

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Difficulty to me, when deployed in the service of atmosphere, is a wonderfully engaging thing. XCOM 2 is not a well-written game but the constant harrying and ambushes by the Alien Chosen, the strikes on your allies, the undermining of your plans, the potential lethality and finality of every action taken in missions: all of this adds up to make a tantalising puzzle that never stops delivering interesting conundrums to my brain. It is incredibly easy for my mind to wander off of systems it feels it has fully grasped, once a strategy starts to consistently work without much worry it becomes and increasingly difficult struggle to keep my brain from minimising the program or looking at my phone or whatever other avenue of distraction is immediately on hand. In XCOM 2, owing to the combination of the imposed finality of decisions, the great variety of incremental, granular upgrade systems, the tense fear of loss felt on every enemy turn (doubly so as they line-up their shots for a perfectly agonisingly long time) and every risky step taken, my brain was never allowed to feel as though it had truly mastered it. This for me genuinely feels as though a personal access issue with games as a medium had been temporarily lifted, every single second felt like a fun and tense as hell puzzle to be solved and I loved every second of it.

The narrative experience isn’t to be overlooked either. The actual plot itself is largely just functional-at-best sci-fi fluff about psychic aliens that obviously isn’t really what you’re coming to the game for nor the main thrust of development but there is more going on in it’s world. Despite it’s corniness (or even possibly because it stands as such an immediately understandable situation) XCOM 2 is able to actually pretty deftly solicit your suspension of disbelief even through the “yeah , yeah whatever mate” cutscenes and dialogue snippets. The world is immediately realised not through it’s writing but through that same tension the gameplay provides, the feel of a struggle to unify a worldwide fragmented resistance against an exploitative power system that positions itself beyond recourse is obviously immediately relatable to the state of the real world. Whether XCOM 2 is intentional about this or not is immaterial and for it’s part it doesn’t really try to push interpretation too much, instead what it does is it sets up a scenario that is easy to sympathise with that provides a grounding sense of humanity amongst the absurd pop sci-fi of psychic aliens, huge robots and literally just Kurt Russell from Escape From New York badgering you over the radio.

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This base in a relatively simple concept of a struggle to survive and overthrow a militarised world dominating force and it’s propaganda machine situates you immediately in a position of vulnerability and struggle which adds a surprising amount of pathos to the general gameplay flow and the inevitable losses you will experience. Your soldiers are functionally little more than a checklist of unlockable skills and equipment, they speak in all the same basic strategy game unit barks and constantly fuck up all your great ideas by not landing their 90% chance shots. It surprised me then how much I actually got attached to some of them, the ability to customise their look, nicknames, names, backstories and all this allowing for you to start crafting your idea of what these people are like as you go. The gradual loss of each of the veterans of my first mission to overzealous commanding mistakes on my part cut me pretty deep, a large part of the feeling came from the fear that the loss of one of my better soldiers would spell the beginning of a spiral into another restart but after hours of referring to these people by the nicknames the game generated or I had given to them, hours of them generating stories of success, failure or just slapstick nonsense – they’d become sort of like personal friends of mine. My partner who watched me play through a large portion of my final successful campaign is still laughing with me about the story of my entire squad awkwardly sneaking around a mission that had just gone absolutely chaotic with enemy infighting, the agonising tension of trying to escape a misjudged situation with no losses, the moment the game crashed at the highest point of tension leaving us both howling and falling out of our chairs, the final triumph as nobody died and the mission was still somehow a success and this is just the story of one, admittedly particularly exciting, mission.

The reliance you develop on your more experienced and higher ranking units really makes you feel what it must feel like to be on the Avenger seeing a legendary resistance soldier go down so easily and beginning to feel really uneasy about your own chances. The heroic but ultimately futile sacrifice of my stealthy reaper unit that I confidently had sneak across a map to destroy the device grounding my ship only to have her stumble just one space too close to a nest of chrysallids had me feeling deeply apologetic (crafting a beautiful memorial poster to be slapped all over the game world no less) to not only her but the comically overwrought faction she was recruited from. I worried we wouldn’t be able to go on without her scouting power and ability to ease the odds in my favour at the start of every mission and sure enough the game descended into possibly the most desperate section I’d experienced until I managed to survive just long enough to complete my own psychic soldier program.

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The alien Chosen too instil this sense of personal narrative into the experience of XCOM 2, essentially just a sprinkle of the Nemesis concept from Shadow of Mordor they are powerful enemies that sort of break the rules of the game and frequently turn up like cartoon villains to mug at you and fuck up everything you’re trying to do. Despite their cheesy basically-just-a-blue-orc dialogue and designs I found myself building up a real personal relationship with them too. A relationship based very little in their actual voiced personalities and very much in memories of the times they’d fucked me over or when I’d chased the wizard one around the map with my psychic sword guy just bullying him into oblivion or whatever else. They apply a constant tension both in missions on on the overworld macromanagement game that thanks to their constant taunts and actual mechanical interjections end up actually feeling like you’re being harassed by some horribly powerful egomaniacs. Crucially though they never felt unfair to me, their successes and losses against me just became part of the progression of the story of my resistance, when they beat you you hate them, when you beat them they seem like large petulant blue children you’re glad to see get owned. The constant pressure they apply gives both the push to track down their base of operations and the final fights against them a sense of reality and personalises what would otherwise be a relatively dry board-game mechanical relationship. The fights against the Assassin and the Hunter in my successful run felt very much like the make or break moments of my campaign, once I was able to overcome these constantly undermining, taunting bastards I’d gain just that much extra breathing space to grow into the overwhelming force the game was letting me know I could become as it drip fed me upgrade after upgrade.

Which brings me back to the mental health struggles analogy, the point where you’ve managed to create just that small amount of space in your life to grow instead of just survive has been a relatively new experience to me and it honestly made the process of transitioning from beset resistance force into an absolutely overwhelming psychic army feel really enjoyable to play despite it’s gradual erosion of the tension and depth that actually attached me to the game in the first place. The final parts of the game are very much a victory lap where you get to enjoy all the treats you’ve built for yourself now that you’ve overcome the difficult middle game and while this has something of a negative effect on enjoying the less consequential missions the sense of accomplishment and power is exciting for long enough that it isn’t a huge issue to me. The game concludes in a huge mission filled with enemies that used to be enormous threats to you even as a singular presence that you are now expected, and able, to wipe out in droves. The threat to your is losing to the attrition of the alien’s desperate mobilised numbers rather than their previous overwhelming superiority. It’s a pretty simplistic thing but the aesthetics of revolution and the feeling of having overcome the survival struggle is very rewarding, not least of all because it really does validate the belief that small victories beget larger ones and failure is never the end.

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As something of a contrived aside I would also like to say how nice it is lately that video games are obviously taking a lot of lessons from the experimentation and growth of the board game world. XCOM 2 wears it’s board game influence on it’s sleeve, the overworld could convincingly be portrayed as a Pandemic expansion set, the resistance orders are presented literally as a hand of cards to be placed into worker placement grids and so on. Board games reviewers often focus on the idea of the stories that arise from the mechanics of these games and the personal experiences that can create, significant thought obviously goes into convincingly players to perform a kind of soft roleplay spurred on by just engaging with whatever rules have been laid out. I couldn’t stop thinking about board games the whole time I spent with XCOM 2 and I think for sure that same focus on mechanical engagement into a world along with personal stories arising from granular interesting player choice, randomly generated scenarios and the inherent excitement of trying to stay on the better side of luck and having to adapt on the fly when you don’t are all things that XCOM 2 really succeeds at capturing.