SpaceLab Transmission Begin:
Hey guys, sorry for the delay and the sudden change in format. As my first Spacelab entry I’ve been trying to figure this whole process out, and the nightly thunderstorms and haven’t been playing nice with my power or recording. So I decided to stop beating around the bush and put out a Text Analysis. I hope you have fun reading it!
I had also hit a few technical snags, mostly from a lack of equipment or software necessary to do something of this size in a reasonable amount of time and produce it at a professional level. I’d probably be better off doing it as a podcast, but until we figure that out, I’ll be releasing my scripts in text form. Obviously, these will look pretty long, but I’ll include some pictures to help shake it up. A few of the comments may not make as much sense without the accompanying audio-visual clip I recorded for it.
If I ever do decide to revisit the video format, I’d love to do one on X-COM. I’ve got hours of video recorded by now and this entire script—and more—recorded as audio files. The time commitment required to produce it is just too huge right now.
I know, I’m as bummed as you are, especially after spending like three fevered days on the thing. If you’d really like to see a video, please comment and tell us what you think, since your feedback is really crucial for motivating these kinds of decisions! But enough of that, here’s what I’d written for the video, and I do plan on releasing further Game Analysis Columns like this as well.
It’s interesting to note that it wasn’t always called X-COM. It was released first in Europe as UFO: ENEMY UNKNOWN. It was only later in the Japanese and North American release that it was renamed to X-COM: UFO DEFENSE. They renamed it again when they ported to the Playstation, this time calling it X-COM: ENEMY UNKNOWN. I guess they wanted to split the difference.
I recently replaced my old copy, of which I’ve still got the instruction booklet, with the version you get from Steam. No surprise, that one also says X-COM: ENEMY UNKNOWN, so that may be the sub-title they’d really preferred.
Nowadays everyone just knows it as X-COM, the first and best of a huge series of games. Even though it’s likely a new generation of gamers will grow up thinking that X-COM is actually a tactical first-person shooter, as of this writing there’s no proof that’s a bad thing yet. You can expect a fair but in-depth analysis of the upcoming “XCOM” when it’s finally released. It isn’t as if X-COM’s original series was immune to the trap of bad sequels… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, back to basics.
X-COM stands for The Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, which is the name of your covert planet-saving organization. Funded by a shadowy multinational alliance and equipped with the world’s finest soldiers scientists and technologies, it’s no surprise that you’re basically screwed. Maybe if your team had been comprised of plucky youngsters instead of highly skilled Redshirts all three days from retirement.
Depending how you play you can imagine yourself as Stargate Command or one Metal Gear away from being the next Zanzibar Land.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of game X-COM is. It’s a hybrid game, taking elements from several genres to simulate the kind of global control you have. It has a real-time strategic command mode called the “Geoscape,” but the actual battles are won on the ground by squads of soldiers in the turn-based “Battlescape” mode.
During strategic mode you decide where to put your secret bases, how diligently you pursue UFOs and if you want to follow up shoot-downs with your commando teams.
There’s a lot more going on than that though. Base-building and research ala Civilization makes an appearance as well. You’ve got to purchase, research, or manufacture the tools to defend Earth, as well as being responsible for equipping every soldier, interceptor, and landing craft in your organization.
This will have a huge influence on how your ground missions go. During ground combat mode it turns to an isometric tactics game where you individually lead your soldiers and tanks to battle across desert and tundra, through forests and city streets, and even inside the alien’s bases on Earth and Mars.
Carefully managing the strategic objectives will make this meatgrinder combat lot easier to survive. It’s nearly impossible to win without gearing up really fast, and just as you feel comfortable with killing little grey dudes and pink dudes the freaking Snakemen show up. And it doesn’t end there….
The combat is actually surprisingly deep, with things like cover and reaction fire, using smoke grenades to obscure advancing troops, and all the weapons felt extremely lethal. At least, all the alien weapons felt extremely lethal.
In short, it simply defined what a great game was for a whole generation of gamers, myself included. I loved playing X-COM. The combat was brutal, the sound and visuals were slick, and just listen to that interceptor music!
But the thing that makes it an astounding technical achievement isn’t just how fun the game is, and its fun, but how it was able to use gameplay to create an experience that felt personal and immersive and stuck with you long after you put it away.
The feeling of being in total control but yet entirely overpowered by the enemy was liberating and terrifying at the same time.
One of the biggest ways X-COM did this was by putting so much control over the game into the hands of the players. They let the players create an emotional investment, rather than forcing one, by giving the player a sense of Ownership. This very fundamental choice laid the foundation for everything else that’d come next.
Ownership is a powerful tool. It makes you care, even if it’s a silly situation, because you have a stake in what’s happening. The aliens aren’t just invading a base, they’re invading your base that you’ve been building up since day one. That stuff really gets people involved at the emotional level. Look at things like Farmville or Minecraft—games that are nearly entirely an exercise in saying “I created this, I chose this, this is my thing.” Ownership comes in lots of flavors, but Creation and Choice are two of the most important.
When you start X-COM, your forces are microscopic, so you immediately need to get to work Creating things, things which you automatically identify as yours. You couldn’t just sit around, you have to massively expand your operations. Every new thing you add is like expanding your Minecraft Mansion while turning a wary eye skywards for sign of Alien creeper invasion. There was no linear path so you really could build up X-COM any way you wanted.
So you started research projects and expanded your forces, making new bases or interceptors or hiring new Rookies. But even though your scientists and engineers are just faceless cogs, your soldiers come with a lot of character. Each of your military misfits comes with a unique name, set of skills and innate abilities, and a wacky 80’s style character card. Man, what is up with that hair? You can even change their names if you want to personalize them further.
Then you watch them grow up from the most incompetent of rookies into hardened alien-killing commandos. Given how bad they were to start off with I always assumed they were a collection of criminals and military bust-outs that signed up for this suicide mission in exchange for a blanket pardon, kinda like the Dirty Dozen or Inglorious Basterds… and that’s part of the immersion right there—I was inventing in a story of my own design, reading personalities onto these guys, and I cared what happened the aliens popped up and blew them in half.
Another thing X-COM did incredibly well through gameplay was establishing atmosphere. X-COM didn’t want to just give you a great intro and some creepy music… It wanted to make you afraid. To make you feel weak and… vulnerable.
That’s hard to do, especially with such a bright and colorful assortment of aliens and environments. Sure, “after dark” missions were horrifying and the Cryssalids were nightmare-fuel but you can’t tell me this… thing… is exactly high on the H.R.Geiger-counter:
Like with novel writing, it’s better to show than say, and X-COM’s gameplay showed you the danger and the horror firsthand. That’s where Choice comes into play, because you don’t have a set of linear objectives. When you succeed or fail you Own that result, and many times a success in X-COM comes with big costs. Creating a squad, giving them the tools they need, and then seeing that squad ripped to pieces feels personal. You’re more emotionally invested. Even if you see them as toy soliders they’re your toy soldiers and that Alien just melted one of their heads off!
X-COM’s design gave you the Choice to handle these threats in any way you wanted, either with surgical precision or the nuclear option, and that made it all matter… a whole lot more. It made it scarier and more immersive and gave it incredible replay potential. And it accomplished this through a few deliberate design elements:
One, your soldiers were woefully outmatched in terms of firepower for a good portion of the game, and die to nearly anything the aliens toss your way, even later on. This is the most obvious way to make the player feel disempowered and scared, because they literally are weak.
This strategy is as old as dirt but nonetheless, it’s extremely effective at making the player cautious with his soldiers, especially as they become more experienced and valuable over the course of several rough missions. You’ll catch yourself sending Rookies first to draw fire because you just couldn’t bring yourself to risk your favorite soldiers.
Two, your soldiers weren’t little mindless robots. They were little cowardly robots. In X-COM, two of the most important stats were the useless-sounding Bravery and Morale. Together, these stats governed your soldiers chance to panic or go berserk when their team started coming under enemy fire or taking losses.
Bravery could only be improved through experience, but one of the ways to keep Morale up is to have a high ranking officer around. Promotions are given out to the most experienced soldier, so your sharp-shooting newbie ends up as a Lieutenant before long. This means he’s not only worth ten Rookies in combat, but if he dies the entire squad’s morale craters… possibly causing a mass panic… that can quickly spiral out of control.
Three, you nearly always had a numerical advantage and could always opt not to go after the aliens. You can even abort the mission mid-attempt and escape with whatever you have in your Landing Craft. That is to say, they gave you the Wuss-Out option, which ironically means they don’t need to baby safe the missions. From a design perspective this lets the games have more of what I call Margins of Success …and Failure.
In a game where you’ve only got one dude it’s pretty easy to tell when you’ve failed.
There’s no margin between success and failure—it’s just black and white. Did Rambo survive or die? Sure, maybe you get smaller, or lose a powerup, but you still finish the level. The player always achieves 100% success or 100% failure. But when you have more guys to work with… more resources to expend… then you have a calculus or risk. You can have Phyrric Victories or advantageous retreats and everything in-between.
One of the big things is that Death is not interesting. It’s not a meaningful form of challenge. When you die you have to start over, which is a good way to increase the strategy and in games like the first Castlevania it was supported by great level design. But achieving player Death is not by nature a good form of game design. This is in part because it’s so easy to do, and in part because it doesn’t allow the player to advance through the game if they’re constantly dying.
Until the player knows what he’s supposed to do, it won’t make any sense. It’ll feel arbitrary and lame. That’s why it’s not meaningful. If you don’t know what you should be doing, it’s not any fun to just keep dying and dying.
In Ninja Gaiden those birds would keep knocking you into pits until you did it just perfectly, and that’s the problem. Perfection or Death creates only two possible results. It’s difficult, sure, but it doesn’t challenge the player as much as demand perfection and dole out punishment. To really achieve a meaningful, satisfying challenge you need to let the player be punished for failure but not so much that they can’t experiment and figure it out. This is where Castlevania went back to being awesome—your health bar let you take multiple hits before you went down in normal circumstances, so during Bosses and other big fights you were free to be challenged in a meaningful way.
Applied to a brutal game like X-COM, where you need money to fight your battles, but your money is only increased minorly unless you do really really well… it made it so the player always feels like he’s just barely scraping by. And it rewards him greatly for improving as a player or achieving a big strategic victory, like getting a new weapon or a new interceptor class. People like feeling clever, so a degree of struggle leads to a more satisfying result when the player grits it through or figures it out.
You’ll see these elements of design in Survival Horror games where you need balance the value of saving your healing items until later versus the risk you face now when limping around at half health. The Designers can throw zombies at you that just whittle you down, and it makes a pretty normal situation exciting—because even if you get out, it may have cost you a valuable item. It’s the difference between games that give you 3 hits before death and games that make you being hit constantly, so that you’re paranoid and on-edge.
Games with margins of success give you an incentive to do it perfectly, but let the Designers tune the difficulty so you sometimes need to trade some pawns for queens, strategically speaking. Capturing an Enemy Commander or destroying an Alien Base is so valuable to your long-term goals that that losing half your squad is worth it, and X-COM is full of those moments of choice.
It creates highs and lows of the game, where you go from feeling beaten down and upset to a moment of blissful catharsis when it finally goes right. And it’s all because the game can challenge you in a meaningful way–can lose something important without having to start over.
Fourth, the war you’re fighting is Asymmetric and your role is nearly entirely reactive. And did I mention there’s no pause, clock never stops, and the aliens never wait for you?
In most games the hero is going out and doing things to the enemy—it feels assertive and empowering and you control the pace of the action. In X-COM you’re just trying to hang on and survive, and trying to do it well enough that your human financiers don’t get second thoughts withdraw from the X-COM project while the aliens conquer Earth. Because, yeah, they’ll do that, and the aliens know.
This awesome dynamic is due to the strategic mode in X-COM. Rather than moving linearly from mission to mission, every moment is a moment where the Aliens are actively working to win somewhere on the globe, probably somewhere your piddly radar can’t even see.
But since you have that Ownership of this global war, even your strategy is a choice. Do you spread yourself thin and try to defend the entire globe, or do you concentrate on defending North America and Europe because those nations pay the best?
Do you let some terror missions go uncontested because you can’t risk the losses, or do you aggressively take down every alien ship, destroy every alien base, and kill every. Last. Alien…
Your only defense early on is that the invaders don’t care about your little nobody organization. The only reward you have for successfully defending Earth is making them take you seriously, which itself ends up making your life miserable in the form of Alien Battleships on Retaliation Missions.
These missions are hard, and what’s more, they’re invasive and they make you feel victimized by the aliens. Where it’s fun to throw grenades and blow up farm houses in the Battlescape it’s no fun to see the Aliens gunning down your pajama-wearing soldiers and blaster-bombing your facilities. It’s like someone broke in and trashed all your stuff.
Even if you manage to shoot them down before they unload, the enemy won’t stop sending Battleship Squadrons until they actually manage to land a team. It gets so bad that you might need to just let the aliens blow up it up to get them off your back, after shipping all the stuff to a new headquarters that is. Must be how Cobra Commander feels…
It’s demoralizing, and an awesome bit of gameplay that the Developers could have easily skipped. But seeing your base laid out as a battlefield really hammers home the desperation of those fights.
All of this builds immersion because you’re so involved in doing things that you even forget it’s just a game—and that’s exactly what you have to do to make a game really immersive. You see, in a movie, Immersion is created through suspension of disbelief, and unless the movie does something to pull the people out of the moment—like saying or doing something that is just… stupid—they’ll stay immersed.
In a game, you can’t rely on that. How immerse would a movie be if it had this massive, horrifying User Interface on the bottom and you had to click these buttons to keep the scene moving? An Immersive game draws you in by making those actions feel natural and having natural cause-and-effect result from your choices. X-COM gave you that. It was scary and personal because it was it was immersive, and it was immersive because you were invested in the moment of the game because of all the ownership you had over the experience.
Every terrifying, satisfying, exciting, soul-crushingly difficult moment was part of its own unique story, and that story was told with little more than game mechanics and a few goofy looking text blocks. But when people talk about scary, hard, memorable games, X-COM is always on that list because of the experience of the game. It didn’t need to look scary. It was scary because something was at risk, something you cared about, something we all can understand.
Win or lose, when you were done you wanted fire it back up, and when you did, it was great all over again. And that’s why X-COM is an amazing game. Even with the awesome combat and fun mix of gameplay, what would it have been without those design elements that focus on getting you, the player, emotionally involved?
Tune in to part 2 to find out the answer to that question.