The price of heroism: storytelling in X-Com

Note: Storytelling in Dominions 3, part of this feature series, is available off-site. You can read it at Flash of Steel.

 

 

Almost every game out there casts the player as a hero: someone who accomplishes great feats in the face of extraordinary odds. By the time we finish, we’ll have vanquished tyrants, terrorists, aliens and ancient evils. But few titles have had gameplay mechanics that convey heroism better than X-Com: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown), the 1994 strategy game from Microprose where you led a multinational force – soldiers, scientists, pilots and purchasing officers – against an alien invasion. And X-Com managed this without a single line of dialogue or scripted plot event.

 

First, being a squad-level game gave X-Com an immediate advantage: it was built around individual characters. It was individual characters whose stats, ranging from marksmanship to carrying capacity to reaction speed, you pored over at base. It was individual characters whom you controlled in battle, telling this one to take cover behind a wall, while his sergeant prepared a grenade and a tank scouted ahead. It was individuals you named for friends and colleagues (you could freely rename soldiers), individuals who saved the day with lucky shots and well-placed grenades, and individuals whose progress you followed as their stats and kill counts inched higher with every mission.

 

So far, so good. But I could say the same of any RPG, tactical RPG or squad-level game. Thus, while the focus on individual feats was necessary to X-Com’s storytelling appeal, it was not sufficient.  And this was where the “overwhelming odds” part of the formula became important.

 

For in X-Com, those feats came at a terrible cost in lives. Think of any science fiction scene where human soldiers plink away at armoured monstrosities, only to be slaughtered once the aliens open fire; that’s what the start of X-Com felt like, especially when the aliens showed up with heavy weapons. As your technology improved – once your soldiers started bringing home alien guns and grenades for your scientists to reverse-engineer, once your workshops began turning out armour made from the same material as UFO hulls – the situation did grow less dire, and by the endgame, the balance shifted decisively in favour of a human player who brought an “A” squad loaded with the game’s most powerful weapons.

 

Yet that lethality never completely disappeared, because even with the best armour in the game, one (un)lucky shot could still kill. You may have become better at preventing the aliens from ever getting the chance to move and shoot, but your finest marksman, your most seasoned veteran would die as quickly as the raw recruit once the aliens drew a bead on him or her.  As a result, this was one game where it was so tempting to reach for the reload button when something went wrong – but where it was equally rewarding to resist that urge. For it was that sense of overcoming the odds, of bouncing back from slaughter and catastrophe, which made victory in X-Com so sweet.

 

I remember Swordlily the sniper, a key player on my “A” team and one who steadily rose through the ranks. I gave her one of the most accurate weapons I had, and a suit of advanced armour to keep her intact. Then one day, an alien fired a shot right into the transport plane – where she should have been safe, at the far end of the troop compartment – and killed her where she stood.

 

I remember the time three soldiers, the last survivors of their ten-strong squad, straggled across a field to storm a giant UFO by themselves – and won.

 

I remember when the aliens came swarming in to assault an outpost manned by my “B” squad, undergunned and underskilled rookies. A guided missile sped around a corner and right into the midst of my defensive layout, turning half the squad to ash. One survivor, wounded and panicked, dropped her gun. But right opposite her was the less fortunate soldier who had carried my squad’s missile launcher. So on my next turn, once she pulled herself together, I sent her racing out of her hiding spot. Across the hallway she ran. With a few clicks, she grabbed the dead man’s launcher. With a few more, she returned fire with a missile of her own. And it worked. I salvaged that battle and saved the base. Not a bad accomplishment considering the odds – and it rested on one soldier’s courage.

 

If that isn’t a tale of heroism, one that X-Com made possible as so few other games could have done, I don’t know what is.

 

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