Why I Like XCOM: Enemy Unknown

every day after this game came out I'd walk into work, point at a co-worker whom I'd named a soldier after, and shout "YOU DIED MOTHAFUCKA" at the top of my lungs

Systemic moral choice.

Generally, most games handle moral choices in one of two ways: they either allow you to insert your own personality into a game by giving you really obvious choices (Mass Effect), or they can give you more ethically ambiguous options (The Walking Dead, the ending of Fable II) and force you to learn something about yourself.

In both cases,  the moral quandaries  are presented to the player as scripted, discrete choices. Save the Rachni queen or don’t. Give food to either Clementine or Larry. Reach a certain point in the plot, then choose one of a finite number of pre-baked outcomes.

In XCOM, however, you deal with these sorts of moral quandaries all throughout the course of normal gameplay. Since your soldiers can permanently die, every single time you send them out into the field you make strategic decisions that also have interesting — if subtle — moral underpinnings.

Say I’ve got a highly upgraded sniper and a rookie who are facing off against a hidden alien. Strategically, it might not be a bad idea to force my rookie out into the middle of the map just so I can draw out that last alien and give my sniper a chance to blow his head off. But what if my rookie dies? I shouldn’t really mind, because I haven’t put a lot of time into him…but I named him after one of my best friends (which, it has to be said, is an infuriatingly smart way to get me to care about a stupid little 3D soldier), and he’s got his own nation, and if he dies I’ll never get him back. Is it okay to let him die to keep my sniper safe?

The terror missions are  even more interesting. If you keep your soldiers back and play cautiously, the aliens will kill a shitload of civilians and push you closer to an overall mission failure. If you send your squaddies in guns-blazing, however, you run the risk of losing your troops. Which life is worth more: the civilians, or the soldiers? Are you okay with losing the terror mission to keep your soldiers safe? Are you fine with letting a few innoocent people die so that you can save a hundred more later? Where do I draw the line for what constitutes acceptable losses? At what point do my strategic decisions become moral ones, and vice-versa?

I love Mass Effect and The Walking Dead, but I goddamn adore XCOM’s systems-driven moral choices. They’re less flashy, certainly — a lot of people probably wouldn’t even consider the moments I’m talking about moral choices at all — but they feel a bit more personal because they naturally arise out of gameplay.  

You can buy XCOM pretty much wherever. Here’s a video of a dude trying to complete a campaign on Impossible difficulty with Ironman mode on:

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15 Responses to “Why I Like XCOM: Enemy Unknown”

  1. Ben says:

    Ooh yes. Those Beaglerush XCOM Ironman Impossible videos are some of the best XCOM-related content on Internet. They strike just the right balance between being really informative while also being casual enough to be fun (for instance, Beaglerush picks Asia because he likes playing as Asia, even though his viewers insist that picking Asia is not the optimal path). They’re also consistently hilarious.

  2. Junsu says:

    I like XCOM not for the moral thingies you mentioned but for the emergent narratives. The RNG and the permanent deaths of soldiers make for really intense dramatic situations. I had two high level female soldiers, one personally named Jessica Chastain aka Badass (Assault) and one automatically named Helen Roberts aka Angel (Medic). My other high rank soldiers were wounded, so these two had to lead a group of squaddies on a assault type UFO landing mission.

    Because of my stupidity and shit ton of Mutons, Berserkers, and one Cyberdisk, two squaddies died and two other squaddies were heavily wounded, and I burned through 2 medpacks. And we didn’t even breach the entrance of the large UFO! The two squaddies’ will were extremely low, so I sent them back to the Skyranger. I thought about sending my high ranking soldiers back, but I said fuck it and sent these two inside the large UFO. And they cleaned out the whole UFO all by themselves, and it was the coolest feeling ever.

    These two hardened soldiers, undeterred by the death of their newbie comrades, went to work on these aliens! I created a narrative in my head how these two girls were bffs and Badass was the hot headed one, rushing ahead of Angel- the calm, sensible one- ready to kick some alien ass. And how the other two squaddies must have revered them when they came back to the Skyranger.

  3. Sir_Tallblonde says:

    Yeah, emergent stories all the way.
    I also named my soldiers after friends. My first soldier (the tutorial survivor) “Papa Bear”, and he ended up being my highest rank guy consistently. When the soldier named after his girlfriend died, I brought her back as a cyborg using the skin pack (which he had got me for steam-christmas).

    She kept on dying, but everytime I got a new highly ranked female soldier, I determined R&D had finished the newest model and added her back with a Roman numeral after her name. Eventually BOTH of them tested positive for Psychic powers, and “Papa Bear” was the Volunteer for the final mission (being the guy from the first mission, it only seemed fair.) During that mission, everyone was killed but these two, but they did it, “Papa Bear” staying behind to finish the job. When he kicked her out of the ship to safety it was super emotional, because of the story that had happened between the characters during the game.
    without being scripted.

    Also, “Loco”, my badass assault trooper was lost on a botched terror mission in mexico fighting chrysalids. A couple months later another mission in Mexico rewarded a high level female assault trooper, and conviently this coincided with my research of the chrysalid chitin armor, so she returned to duty having crafted the armor in mexico over the last month and surviving without contact.

    Emergent stories are so fun because they take you by surprise, and few games do it better than XCOM

    • Junsu says:

      In the ending cutscene, do they only show the remaining soldiers? So it was only Papa Bear and the Girlfriend?

    • darkguy says:

      Had the same thing my first guy from the tutrorial was this big black dude i name ” The Sarge” with the nickname “sarge” he was my main pysonic and lived to complete the last mission idk i just had this idea in my head of him raising up all the rookies so they dont die like his first platoon did but in the end he exacted his revenge by “going out with a bang” games that let you create your own stories are always better

  4. Cathasaigh says:

    I really thoroughly love all of your stuff – been watching HAWP for years and following your writing on the site – and agree wholeheartedly about the subtlety of the choices you have to make every second of every game of X-COM. I was so thoroughly glad to finally get an excellent next-gen game in the spirit of its predecessor at long last (instead of battling Sectoids with gills). Keep up the great work. As always, looking forward to your next project.

    - C

  5. BRBonobo says:

    I played this on Classic at one point and a good distance in I lost my whole squad except my sniper (Angel aka “Mercy”). Every decision from that point on was about keeping him alive. I was suddenly willing to sacrifice any number of rookies to help him. I justified it because he was the last line of defense between the aliens and survival.

    Anthony, we should play this on multiplayer on stream sometime.

  6. klecser says:

    If you like this sort of choice Anthony, Fire Emblem may be another series you would enjoy. Its tactical turn-based, and you clearly appear to be an action gamer. This style of “moral choice” has been present in other genres for quite some time.

  7. Reaver says:

    I named soldiers after friends. My girlfriend turned out to become the best heavy I had. Then on the mission with the crashed ship (I actually haven’t gotten much further than this yet) with the giant mech and new special alien she died. Since I am a pussy and didn’t bother to play on Iron man I reloaded. A couple of my other friends had died, but I didn’t want her to. I reloaded. She died again. Reloaded. New tactic. She still died. I ended up having a Time Machine moment (or what you want to call it) where no matter what I did different she would die. Finally I just had to live with it.

  8. Jason says:

    Not only that, but X-Com has managed to elicit the most emotion from me out of any videogame I’ve played; and it all happened naturally: 4 out of 6 of the semi-constant squad that I’d been using (okay I was on easy, the alien terror attacks were too hard) were killed on the final mission. These were troops I’d played through the whole game with, and I’d given their own personalities and backstories. And in the end, I decided that the victory, however bittersweet, was worth the cost.

  9. Hawaiian_spawn says:

    It was an interesting study on unmanned soldiers. I ended up with two snipers and 3 Hover SHIVs. I found that due to how the game was framed you literally have to sacrifice/takedmg a person to trigger the scripted AI turn. At the start of every map i would send the drones off sky high and recon the whole area, forcing AI to “do something”. If one died, so what Ill build another. If only I could keep sacrificing Legion in ME

    I highly recommend The Witcher 2 Enhanced edition, from your articles about choice you would absolutely love it. There are two threads to the game, where i looked online and found that the world was completely different for some people. Witcher 1 is great but not many can get over the controls.

  10. Brian Allen says:

    Yes, permanent death makes this game such a ride. Every time I make a horrible command decision and lose somebody, it feels so bad.

  11. Jacob Begley says:

    I think the basic mechanic is that for most games, the moral choice is no bigger than ‘do i want this upgrade or that upgrade’. Even in bioshock, i harvested all the sisters the first time round, not for any moral decision, but because i decided at the beginning to do so, and so at the end of the day it was of no more consequence to me than what upgrades i could get for my guns.
    In xcom however, they give you full control of the fates of your characters. I didnt edit any details of my squad, from appearance (excluding amour and colour) to names. The individuals became very important to me, because each member was a randomly generated part of the game, and the death could impact me in a way a scripted event couldnt. Whit bioshock, i played through a second time, taking the opposite ‘moral’ choice. It didnt change my enjoyment of the game overly, as i knew that if i did something i didnt like this time round, well 3rd playthrough would fix that. Xcom though, even if i started a new game, i could never play it trough again the same way. I think thats what appeals to me so much. And the sear tension of progressing through the fog with these fragile individuals is so nerve-racking. (actually this is the reason i always carry a ‘drone’ into battle now. The fact that it can be replaced, and cant take cover, means i use it as a trigger).
    The other thing (though on the same lines) i liked was about the development. The order that you researched could mean life or death for your soldiers. Do i rush armour so my people can spend less time incapacitated? Do i rush weapons so i can kill them before they get a shot off? Do i get more planes and satellites, so i can maintain a good grip on my finances, or do i risk it for better weapons and equipment, knowing that any countries that withdraw from xcom will never come back?
    For me that was the interesting point. Everything i did would impact me. It aimed for something i valued. Not morality, because video games are for doing something different than you would in real life. It aimed for the most important part of a gamers existence (the run-into-your-burning-house-to-save-it-important). The went for the saved progress. And they aimed well.

    (p.s. Sorry for bather. I just couldnt stop :) )

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  13. Debra Nayman says:

    There are some interesting points in time in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There is some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we want more! Added to FeedBurner as well

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