Of Aliens and Texts

By Rituro - March 13th, 2013

“Hey, big nasty! What has two thumbs, carries a laser shotgun and can outflank your glowing alien butt? This guy!”

If you’ll recall my Best of 2012 article, one of the biggest surprises was that XCOM: Enemy Unknown only finished at #2. Those of you who know me surely know of my undying love for the original X-COM: UFO Defense, a game that consumed no small number of my college hours1 and, as a result, ensured a permanent place in my elite pantheon of “Best Games Ever”. So, why did XCOM finish behind Faster Than Light? Was I consumed with rose-tinted nostalgia for the original2? No; honestly, FTL deserved the nod. When an indie game brings as much to the table as FTL did for a palatable price point and delivers a solid, enjoyable experience play-through after play-through, I am obliged to pay the appropriate amount of respect. Plus, you get to slice through alien ships with a big honkin’ laser beam. That’s a can of fun all to itself right there.

But speaking of aliens (and getting back on topic), XCOM was most certainly not a bad game; far from it. In fact, being the X-COM die-hard that I am, I was only too happy to see Firaxis produce an excellent modern remake. It’s tough to gripe about the lack of Time Units and the inability to build multiple bases when you’re double-tapping a laser shotgun into the face of a Muton. The rare crash aside, there’s very little to honestly fault XCOM over at the game-play level that detracts from the enjoyment of the game. The voice-acting, on the other hand…well, nothing’s perfect, I suppose.

It’s in this spirit that I’ve been heartily recommending XCOM: Enemy Unknown to anyone and everyone given half a chance. My latest victim convertee: my good friend Greg, who I sold on the game during a recent adventure in downtown Vancouver. With help from a third friend, stories of sending rookies to die horribly bravely capture live alien invaders, Zapp Brannigan-style3, mixed with boasts of sniping while floating above the battlefield in Archangel armor. By the time we’d returned home, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable text arrived: “You just made me buy XCOM.” Booyakasha! Another converted to the glory of XCOM! Vigilo confido, squaddie.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the deluge of texts that would follow.

D’Arbon does what she does best and plugs a xeno from long range.

As a long-time X-COM fan2, I’m well aware and appreciative of the organic narratives that arise from the last-line defence of Earth. Memorable or bizarre encounters become personal stories. As soldiers progress, the stories become a rich tapestry of history for not just the squad but the squaddie. Yes, s/he is a fictional character who entered the game as a random jumble of characteristics, but did you see how s/he nailed that lucky crit at distance to save our sniper? That’s the stuff of legends, right there, my friend! I hereby nickname this squaddie “Angel” and hope like mad s/he doesn’t die a gruesome death in two turns4. Greg, however, was getting a hit of pure XCOM for the first time. As he worked his way through the tutorial, the texts unmistakably conveyed his growing emotional attachment to the squad. His first experiences from the opening mission:

“There goes Popov.”

“And Patterson.”

“Only Santiago now. Argentina it is.”

Even though Greg hadn’t added a single detail beyond some casualties and the nationality of his survivor (an Argentine), the events had taken hold in my brain, too. I was filling in the gaps and recreating that initial encounter based on my own knowledge of that mission. It was like reading Max Brooks’ excellent zombie apocalypse novel, World War Z, assuming Mr. Brooks was restricted to using Twitter. Whereas World War Z told its story through a documentary-like recalling of events, complete with interview with key players to fill in the details, I was getting Greg’s story in short little bursts combined with my own knowledge and memories of the game. The connection was there, just through very different mechanisms. The net result, however, was still the same – instant immersion. And Greg’s shorthand odyssey didn’t end there, oh no:

“Santiago, ARG. Fong, CHI. Mistry, IND. Garcia, USA.”

A dramatis personae! Well, now we’re really getting somewhere. Cue the conflict:

“Choosing scientists over cash for first mission. TO BALTIMORE!”

“If Santiago keeps going, I’m calling him Santa. He’s a Heavy.”

At this point, I had stopped what I was doing and was hovering over my phone. What would happen next? Would any of the rookies catch a plasma burst in the face? Could Santa live up to his name? After what felt like an eternity, the answer:

“Garcia leveled — Assault. Fong wounded, but OK. Mistry unharmed.”

I’m not ashamed at all to admit I fist-pumped pretty hard at this text. So what if it was Greg’s squad? So what if I hadn’t actually seen how everything played? This was incredible news. No deaths and an Assault! If that’s not a success to celebrate in a game that can be as punishing and cruel as XCOM, what is? The texts continued:

“Brazilian Ivan Flores is next up. Bought two vests and a medkit.”

“Santa still gets a grenade.”

“And we’re off to Beijing!”

This works way better when you hum the Mission Impossible theme song.

Ah, so much happiness and optimism in such few words. Greg quickly learned that such emotions are not to be dwelled upon in XCOM:

“Shit. Flores got critical’d. Man down. And he got the kills, too.”

“Garcia and Santa with kills, though.”

“Still pissed about Flores. Thin man got him.”

Ugh. Those damn thin men don’t make it difficult to hate them. Their “human disguise” appearance; their serpentine posture and bizarre leaps; their inconveniently accurate shooting; their thrice-damned poison. Good golly, do I hate them so. It would appear Greg did, too. Still, from tragedy comes opportunity:

“Good news: Mistry, after two weeks, is a Sniper!”

“Here’s hoping she survives!”

“Canadian Gustav Andre is our new guy. Hope he lasts!”

“So far, Santa and Garcia are still good.”

“Santiago earned the nickname ‘Crater’. Fong is Support. Garcia is up to corporal.”

“Time to capture live ones.”

Ah, yes. Capturing live ones. We’ve all lived through that, haven’t we? The dispassionate XCOM commanders (the Paul Redekers among us, to use the World War Z comparison) know the value of tossing an arc thrower onto a rookie and going for the capture after your veterans have softened up the target. If the rookie dies, oh well – no invested time lost. Conversely, if the rookie makes the capture and survives, it’s handshakes all around for a job well done. Greg, however, took the reverse approach. The results were catastrophic:

“Thin men took out Garcia. Me mad.”

“And now Andre, too. Car explosion.”

“Was hoping to capture; couldn’t. Mistry and Santa still leveled.”

“We also got another Heavy for that mission: Simran ‘Sledge’ Banerjee.”

Sledge is now part of the team but Garcia, one of Greg’s original squaddies, is dead, along with Canadian rookie Gustav Andre. The loss of an original squaddie is one of the most gut-punching moments in XCOM, especially if you’ve watched his or her career unfold one harrowing alien encounter after another. That said, the extraterrestrial invaders won’t stop terrorizing our planet just because you need a tissue. After a brief respite, Greg’s texts resumed:

“3 new guys: Arthur Griffin, Jan Olson and Masambe Dioppe.”

“Upped squad size to help out.”

“Doing a moderate Delhi mission to get cash.”

“Bam, got the capture. Everyone lived!”

“And Jacob DeGroot is an Assault!”

“He’s Dutch. I think we know where this is going: Santa, Sledge and eventually Dutchy.”

“I went with Sledge, Fong and 3 rookies. It worked out.”

“Fong leveled up. He’s now a medkit master! Yay! And I have some backups if he’s injured!”

“And now laser rifles and 6 per mission!”

Sorry, Sanne…you got jumped by a Floater and, despite a shotgun blast to its face, it survived and killed you.

It’s amazing how things can change in one mission. Not only is Delhi safe, an alien is captured, promotions abound and new kit is incoming. It’s one of those fist-pump, feel-good moments that makes all the emotional investment worth it, squaddie loss be damned. If it wasn’t abundantly clear by now, Greg is hooked on the game as much as I am on his war reports, his bragging about the following mission confirms it:

“Oh man. Port Elizabeth mission. Saved 16/18. Boss mode.”

“Yeah, I’m playing on Normal. But it’s still challenging me. Chryssalids scare me.”

“And now with carapace armour I can protect the big boys and bring a few rookies!”

Yes, XCOM giveth…

“Aaaaaaaaand game crashed. Back to Port Elizabeth…”

…and taketh away. Vigilo confido, squaddie.

1 – Because, really, sleep is for humans who don’t care that their planet is being overrun with Snakemen and Chryssalids. I cared, dammit.
2 – Time Units and hyphens forever!
3 – “You see, Killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and shut down.” –Zapp Brannigan, “Love’s Labours Lost in Space”
4 – She didn’t, and hasn’t yet. Angel, Rogue and Hex are still my deadly trio of femme fatales. I always take two of the three on important missions and they never disappoint.

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