XCOM Taught Me How To Lose

February 10, 2016 by Brock Wilbur

In the wake of XCOM 2, Brock Wilbur looks back on what makes the pessimistic strategy series tick

Videogames were a pacifier for my family. My dad had to work lots of late nights in a small town bank, so I'd keep him company in the dark of that poorly-designed Midwestern corporate hellhole. There wasn’t much to keep a young boy preoccupied in that place: just some fish in the aquarium, but that only kept my attention for so long. (To this day, I still think zoos are terrible but I love aquariums, because fish are already trapped in a prison of water, so we aren't really hurting them.) I needed something to keep my attention, so I borrowed video games from my father’s coworker’s husband. He'd send large diskettes to work with his wife, and she'd hide them in her desk for me to find at night.

At first it was Sierra adventure games, which bore a weird sense of humor more suited to a middle-aged nerd man than a ten year old kid. Then, one day, it wasn't silly games anymore. There were no more Gobliiins or King's Quests.

This time, it was X-COM.

X-COM seemed like it was mad at me. I could sink ten or fifteen hours into the game, only to realize that I'd made some mistake or lagged too far behind, and now was trapped into in an unwinnable situation. Characters I'd customized and grown attached to would suddenly commit suicide in the field, or my best-trained agent would succumb to mind control and slowly, calmly execute his fellow soldiers. The game’s many interconnected systems meant that slacking on something as small as ammunition storage could result in the demise of the Earth -- which is a fairly high-pressure way to spend 100 hours on a campaign.

X-COM (or rather, UFO: Enemy Unknown as it was originally titled) punished me for daring to engage with it, and kept the bar for entry impossibly high. That's why, perhaps a year into playing the game, it became the first game I "mastered" on a scale I might never "conquer" a game again. It was also the first game I mailed away to purchase a modding program because I needed to break every element of the game for my own entertainment and education. I sent $10 in cash to England and a few weeks later was informed that, in order to unlock the full program, I just needed to add the command line tag "-zaphod" which, goddamn, I should've been able to guess.

The franchise has always fascinated me, especially as the sequels grew to incorporate undersea battles and a future city under siege by dimensional portals. Perhaps the best hook of X-COM, other than the need to handle the accounting and PR for a business that is trying to save the planet, is that it is always adding more complications -- it never simplifies.

When Firaxis rebooted the XCOM franchise (and dropped the hyphen) in 2012, my biggest fear was that the series would streamline its gameplay. Unlike so many sci-fi and fantasy RPG games I've shrugged off over the years, the incomprehensible, nearly unmanageable level of detail is what maintains XCOM’s tension throughout its campaign. I'll never forget the frustration of sacrificing one of my soldiers so I could stun an alien commander instead of killing him, because I knew my research team needed him alive, and blowing him up with my tank would have vaporized the ammo he carried that I so desperately needed. The checks and balances of each element carry such annoyingly consistent responsibilities that "choice paralysis" becomes a real thing -- in battle and in the barracks.

While doing a replay of the series last summer, I stumbled upon the through-line that I think defines XCOM: you are always losing. Even when you think things are going well, you are still losing on so many levels it is almost mean-spirited. No matter how expertly you allocate your resources and how carefully you manage your team, the aliens will be do it faster, bigger, and better. End Game conditions are always a Hail Mary with a harsh pass-fail grade. Even when you claim victory in the field, at best you are delaying the inevitable.

As someone who has his share of personal demons, one of my biggest battles is not shutting completely down when things don't go my way. Even as a kid I never knew how to fight back against becoming a disappointment, and I have numerous letters from teachers to prove it. I was that kind of kid who thought a B+ made me a bad person, and it's hard to fully overcome that kind of perfectionism. But XCOM taught me how to lose. It taught me how to take a hit and start from scratch. It taught me how to admit that the situation had become completely screwed and how I could step away, and that's a lesson it keeps reminding me with each new iteration.

The announcement of XCOM 2 brought with it a twist: it presumes that you lost during the events of the first game, and the aliens have conquered the planet, so your small team of rebels must start to rebuild just to get back to the point where you usually begin. You're starting even further in the hole, and you'll still be expected to keep pace. The game also launches with mod content from The Long War team who made the last game extra-impossible for those who thought XCOM wasn't already cruel enough.

It fills me with just the right mix of anticipation and dread, knowing that I'm going to have to save the world again in a couple of weeks. It's not so much the awareness of the work I'm going to put in to saving humanity, but it's all of the planets that I'm going to have to bail on before I get there. Consider this a pre-apology if I fail to save your Earth -- but I'm getting better at not beating myself up over it.

(UFO: Enemy Unknown screenshot from The Let's Play Archive.)

 Brock Wilbur is a critic, filmmaker, stand-up comic and huge 6'7" monster who loves you. You can follow him on Twitter @brockwilbur.