XCOM's mastery of player complicity

Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.

Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.

This happened to me yesterday:

My satellite network — hastily assembled and sparser than I’d like, due to early-game mismanagement, but still effective — tracked the landing of what the game described as a small scout UFO in a Chinese swamp. I had recently entered what I take to be the story’s Act II, shortly into which I had shot down and captured the most enormous UFO I’d encountered so far. A surprise raid on a scout ship sounded like an easy dessert mission.

I — that is, me, in my living room, not any in-game protagonist bound to scripted events — decided to treat this as an opportunity for a live-fire training exercise. This is not a choice I picked from a menu of ways to respond to the situation, nor was it anything suggested to me by in-game advisors. Through a few minutes’ worth of manual controller-fiddling, I had most of my usual team hang up their equipment and return to the barracks, and equipped and deployed less-experienced soldiers in their place. I also rolled in a robotic mobile weapons platform that my engineers had just researched and built, but which we hadn’t fielded yet.

When the strike team reached the landing site, I had an up-and-coming heavy-weapons specialist accompany the robot in approaching the little craft directly, while the other four soldiers flanked it. No sooner did the lead man see that the ship’s door was already open did it pour forth a host of alien horrors none of us had never seen before. As the rest of the team watched in shock and confusion, they took my poor sergeant like an offered hors d’oeuvre.

The battle ended moments later with no further casualties on my side, but the camera let itself linger on the higher-ranking soldier who had rushed to the spot where his comrade fell. I couldn’t tell quite what gestures he was making underneath all the after-action-report text on the screen, but I think he may have been sobbing.

While I saved my game before this (and I’m not a lunatic who activates the permadeath-ish “Ironman Mode” on my first play-through) I didn’t go back and try the mission over. Despite the loss, it felt like a gain, narratively speaking. This thrillingly worst-way education that my team has yet to see the full scope of the alien threat yet would fit perfectly into any filmed sci-fi epic, and so it did in the epic I increasingly feel like I’m co-authoring with XCOM’s creators.

I felt like I helped make it happen. And not in the sense of “Gosh, I really screwed up — I deserved that setback,” but in the sense that I played an actual participatory role in helping the game tell its story. The game encouraged me to feel overconfident, but it was my own choice to actually adopt that stance, going so far as to put green troops in harm’s way, and paying a dear price for what we all learned. This isn’t the first time this feeling arose during this play-through, but it is the most recent, and (with the shocking on-screen death of a secondary but still “speaking-role” character) maybe the most personally affecting so far.

Many other games would either fall back on a completely scripted cutscene to express this plot point, or would treat my sub-optimal performance as a complete failure, as if I had wandered off-script and spoiled the story, and would demand a do-over. XCOM, like magic, transforms gameplay failure into a narrative “low point”, tempering the protagonists’ power and complicating their goals, and it feels right. And the story continues from there.

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