Friday, November 15, 2013

Video Games, Emotion, and XCOM

I like video games. If you don't know that we probably haven't spent much time together. I really, really like video games. I've written a little about video games in the past but after an experience I had last night I felt the need to jump back into writing about my pastime passion.

At the moment I do my gaming exclusively on my gaming PC (my most prized possession) and for the most part I buy and play my games through Steam. I play video games for a lot of reasons. I love the challenge of pitting myself against other players or clever AI. It feels good to overcome challenges and have an area of my life where I not only excel, but I am completely in control. I also love the thrill of swords and guns, battles and explosions and the overall epic feeling of being immersed in a video game world. But my favorite things that games can offer me is that ever illusive gift of story and emotion. Not just "dudebro, that was so epic! High five!" type emotion but the full range of human emotions experienced through the unique lens of interactive media.

This past week XCOM: Enemy Within came out and I have just been loving it. XCOM: EW is a fairly substantial expansion for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, one of my favorite games of all time. XCOM is a strategy game in which the player is the "commander" of the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (or XCOM, get it?) and not only commands a squad of soldiers in battles against alien invaders but also builds a pretty cool base of operations while researching alien technology and upgrading the troops from basic soldiers in psychic super soldiers.

The basic premise of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is as follows:
I love it. I just think it's fantastic. Seriously, watch the trailer and try not to get excited. See? You can't do it. It's just too exciting. There's aliens and explosions and...ALIENEXPLOSIONS! What more do you need? Well, XCOM actually offers a lot more than just cool explosions. The story is solid. Not life changing, but enjoyable. The strategy is challenging, fun, and rewarding. But what really makes this game stand out is the way it gets you emotionally invested.

In XCOM your soldiers all have names. You only have so many of them and as you watch them grow and lead them in a variety of different missions you really begin to get attached. But then the unthinkable happens. Somebody dies.

XCOM has this concept they refer to as "permadeath." Permadeath is the idea that when one of your soldiers dies they are gone for good. Just like in real life. It doesn't matter how much you've leveled them up or invested in upgrades. Once they die all of that is lost. This really changes the way XCOM is play. This is not a game you can play recklessly. Otherwise people will die.

And that's where the emotions come in. XCOM is a game that makes me feel epic, yes, challenged too. But it also makes me feel sad. It makes me feel desperate and scared. It makes me feel responsible. XCOM makes me feel. It's an emotional experience. That's special.

What prompted me to write this post is the massacre that happened last night and emotions it stirred up in me. I started my current play-through on Tuesday of this week and I had been doing a pretty good job. I'd had a few scary moments, close calls where one wrong move could have killed one of my soldiers. But I always managed to pull it off without losing anyone. But then a call came in, a new mission. My people were called upon to deal with "a developing incident in Newfoundland, up the coast from St. John's. A fishing village has gone dark: reports from intel sources suggest alien involvement." Three out of my four primary squad members were unavailable. They were receiving gene modifications at the time. I figured I would be okay though. I could use my "secondaries," the back ups and people who filled in whenever thee was an injury. I didn't think this mission would be a big deal. I was wrong.

I went in with four soldiers. Then this happened:
Well that sucks.

Chrysallids, those purple bug like things, are arguably the most dangerous enemies in the entire game. They eviscerate your soldiers, killing them in a single move and implanting an egg within their corpse. This egg "zombifies" the corpse for a few turns before a brand new Chryssalid bursts out of the corpse. It's terrifying. At first I just saw three Chryssalids and through the careful use of a rocket launcher and coordinated shots from the rest of my squad I managed to take them all down before they could hurt anyone. But then as I climbed onto a beached whaling ship more and more Chryssalids kept charging at my troops. I bunched up the squad at the prow of the ship hoping that I could keep them alive if they hunkered down and took on the enemies one by one. My squad seemed to be doing okay for a few turns until they had to reload. Then the enemies were coming faster than they could reload and I knew if I didn't do something they would all die. The objective, a transponder for an airstrike, lay at the stern and I knew that if I could get my squad across the the infested ship they had a chance. I had the whole squad run a short distance and than turn and fire. Then one of them was cut down. I was upset but I knew I had to keep going. There was still hope for my other three soldiers. They ran, they fired. Then two more were cut down.

"Holy crap!" I said aloud, slamming my fist against my desk. "What wrong?" my wife said from where she was sitting on the couch.

"I, uh. Dang it, Jenny. I just lost three of my soldiers. I screwed up. They're dead."

"Okay Chris, well, I'm sorry to hear that."

Back in my game I had Lt. Miu 'Scotch' Matsumoto hit the transponder and take off running. That was when the screenshot above was taken. An army of Chryssalids were biting at her heels the entire way, but champ that she is Lt. Matsumoto made it to the extraction point and survived. She was the lone survivor of what I had expected to be a routine recon mission.

That's what makes XCOM special. I feel emotion because of this. Almost 24 hours later I'm still thinking about it, agonizing over what I could have done differently. Movies and books can make you feel emotion, but nothing else gives quite the same level of immersive and personal emotion that video games can. And that's what makes video games special. Video games that make you feel are video games done right.

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