Partway through XCOM: Enemy Within (the expanded version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown), I realized that its video game story would never work in a movie. It wasn’t that the premise wouldn’t work – alien invasions are hardly confined to video games—it was the way the story was being told. There was absolutely no attention being paid to characters’ personal lives.
What you learned about the main characters—Central Officer Bradford (whose name I had to look up just now), Dr. Shen in Engineering, and Dr. Vahlen in Research—is confined to how they do their jobs. The tensionin the narrative comes not from a love story, a personal trauma overcome, or a motley crew of misfits learning to work together despite all odds, but from the choices that the player makes as Commanding Officer. Will you prioritize the right research and engineering projects to keep from being overrun by the technologically superior alien invaders?
Will you strike an effective balance between providing better gear for your soldiers and investing in other things like your air force, covert ops (new to the EW expansion), and building new labs and satellite centers? Will you take one risk too many and come back from a mission with most of your squad in body bags or play it safe and (in EW) lose out on the time-sensitive Meld substance used to upgrade soldier capabilities?
These questions wouldn’t be suspenseful enough to sell a mass-market movie to crowds that can only sit and watch events unfold, but when you, the player, are in the driver’s seat, there’s plenty of suspense as you prepare for and then fight battle after tough battle. XCOM’s story wouldn’t work in any other medium but works great in a video game. I like good characters in games, but so many stories in games are bland and feel obligatory, like the developers didn’t want to deal with a story but felt obligated to tack one on. XCOM is refreshing in its conviction that the strategic decisions of battle are compelling enough on their own. In a game like XCOM, where soldiers’ deaths are permanent and even games on the Normal (second easiest of four) difficulty setting are no joke, this works.
XCOM’s video game story offered me a perspective on a long-term military campaign that I hadn’t gotten from other media. By taking the personal element out of it and focusing exclusively on the strategic (with the titular addition, in Enemy Within, of a little attention to the ethical dilemmas of pushing human augmentation to keep up with a brutally unethical enemy), XCOM game me a chance to inhabit the strategic uncertainties. I’d make a choice about how to spend my limited resources, then have to wait until that research or project came through, wondering if I would need it before it was ready or if I’d suddenly realize the resources I’d devoted to it were more urgently needed elsewhere. The uncertainty about when and where alien attacks would occur (and what kind of attacks, requiring what kind of response) was also more pronounced than I’ve experienced in movies or books.
This is largely because there really was uncertainty – the way the game is designed, an attack might come three days or three weeks after the last, so throwing all my money into a two-week-long aircraft development project might be a great or an awful idea. Concentrating on protecting Asia as opposed to Europe (or half-and-half) might also work out or prove disastrous—but you just don’t know until you try. The need to make decisions that might turn out to be wrong was something I got more powerfully from this game story than from any movie or book about military campaign strategy I can recall.
I don’t think all video games should have stories like XCOM, but I’m glad some do, because you can’t get stories like this one anywhere else but video games. The Valkyria Chronicles series are great games with good (VC II) and very good (VC I) stories of a more traditional, character-alongside-war-progress type familiar from movies and books. They work well in those games, and as I’ve said before, the VC gameplay—tank-and-infantry squad tactics in a long campaign not unlike XCOM’s—is fun. But I think XCOM’s story takes a rarer path between no (or next-to-no) narrative and traditional, character-based narrative, a path that could only work in a game. What do you think about XCOM’s story? Do you care one way or the other? Do you agree that it’s a good story that could only work in a game? Do you know any other game stories like it?