XCOM: Enemy Unknown: An Exercise in Hopelessness

There hasn’t been a game I’ve played that stressed me out quite so much as XCOM did. It had me thinking about every move I made. It had me worrying about my soldiers. It had me tearing my hair out at every failed mission and every mistake I made. Never has a game made me feel so powerless, and I was only playing on normal.

Here’s the thing: I’m bad at XCOM. I knew that going in and all XCOM did was reinforce that fact. It beat that fact straight into the ground and stomped it so it was flat. Not that I’m complaining, because it made me rage, it made me scream, it made me shout ‘bullshit’ at the computer more times than I can count (during one particularly bad mission I turned off my computer in a rage because it wouldn’t let me force quit). But it also made me jump in exhilaration when I had a good mission. When my squad fell into place and cleared a mission without casualties I would be so relieved and happy. The only reason I felt such elation for a simple win is because a few missions before I had an entire squad wipe out.

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There’s no better feeling than a hard fought win in XCOM

That’s what XCOM does well. There was never a point, for me at least, where I felt like I had things under control. There was always that looming threat, this race against time that always felt like it was bearing down. It instills a real fear in you that I don’t think many other games can boast. I think the fear comes from the fact that every decision you make is permanent. When a soldier dies in battle that is the end, they are gone. When your best team is suddenly taken out in a disastrous mission and all you’re left with is Squaddies, it really sets in. Because you know from then on it’s going to be an uphill battle.

I didn’t quite finish XCOM. Like I said, I’m bad at it. I made it to the Ethereal and couldn’t quite defeat him. But it’s the furthest I’ve gone. I will play again, and I’m sure you’ll hear about it.

In Memory of Major Deng

Today, this world has lost a hero. Perhaps the greatest hero we have ever known, or will ever know. Words cannot express the deep hole that has been left in his absence, but I will try. For his sake.

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Lok Deng in position

Major Lok ‘Walker’ Deng was with the XCOM Project from the early days. From the very first mission he was an integral member of the team. An expert sniper, Major Deng racked up thirty-six kills over thirteen missions, by far the highest kill count of any of the soldiers. His fate was nearly sealed during an earlier, disastrous mission Operation Flying Father, where an entire squad was wiped out by Chryssalids. If he hadn’t been nursing an injury during that mission, maybe his death would have come earlier or maybe he would have turned the tide.

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Operation Flying Father was a disaster

That day Lok Deng lost a number of his trusted colleagues, including Lieutenant Tendai Mubu, who was another early member and good friend of Deng. Some say their death never left him, even as he stepped into that skyranger that took him to his last mission.

Operation Bloody Heat was a disaster from the outset. Dropped into Nagoya, Japan in a futile attempt to save a population from being butchered. We could never have anticipated what awaited them there. Deng, accompanied by Sergeant Amber Wouters, Lieutenant Yumi Fujiwara, Squaddie Bolanle Jalloh, Squaddie Masahiro Ogawa and Squaddie Mary Ferguson were confronted with a new enemy. The Cyberdisc, a hovering robot death machine, tore through the team, and Major Deng made the ultimate sacrifice. He had the chance to flee, he could have climbed onto the skyranger and made it back to base, but he chose to stay. Squaddie Ferguson had been pinned down by a Chryssalid Zombie and Deng refused to leave without her. He was taken down by the Cyberdisc while he waited, at the precipice of his escape.

We will never forget Major Deng and his contributions. His memory lives on. And while he can never be truly replaced, a new sniper has risen through the ranks to become the Project’s primary sniper. Sergeant Anna Volkova will do Lok Deng’s legacy proud I’m sure.

God damn X-Rays.

Finish Them: XCOM Enemy Unknown

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactical strategy game developed by Firaxis Games and published by 2K Games. It’s a reboot of the original XCOM games and quite a well received one.

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The first aliens you encounter in XCOM.

In XCOM, the player is put in charge of a top secret facility located in an area of the player’s choice. From there they send out soldiers to defend Earth from a hostile alien invasion. The player makes the decisions in regards to everything the base does, research, deployment, recruitment and other things. Because the facility is funded by various countries around the world the player is required to keep these countries happy so as to keep getting their money. They do this by launching satellites over the countries or sending troops in to defend. Because the player only has access to one dropship for troops they have to be careful about where they send their troops. Failing to please countries can lead to them pulling their funding from the XCOM Project, making the game harder to complete.

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Squad selection screen for missions.

I’ve had XCOM for a long time now. Like Sacred 2, I got XCOM in a Humble Bundle, along with all of the other XCOM games (to quell any sort of speculation: the original XCOM games are not in the pool of games to finish, though I do have them). I’ve also played it a lot, but I’ve never managed to actually finish it. In fact I really haven’t managed to get that far at all. This time, the plan is to complete the game in Ironman mode (the only way I ever play). As always, I have a week. For XCOM I do plan on possibly making some mini-posts that detail my progress. XCOM just seems like the kind of game that warrants that.

Numbers in the Void

When I think of good RPGs I think of Dragon Age, The Elder Scrolls, and Mass Effect. I think of the characters that I become and the worlds that I inhabit. I think of stories that make me feel like I am apart of the world I have been put into. I think of immersive campaigns that make me feel like I’m the character I’m playing. Sacred 2 is none of that. Sacred 2 is numbers upon numbers in a world that failed to keep me interested for more than two hours. What begins as an intriguing world slowly turns into a numbing exercise in number crunching that gives me nothing to work with, and it’s unfortunate that this is the game I drew first in this little adventure of mine.

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I’ll admit, it’s a pitiful attempt, but I just couldn’t do it.

Sacred 2 began with a rather complicated character creation screen that involved a lot of variables and a lot of reading. You decide everything up front. Whether you want to take the light path, or the dark, what god you want to worship, on top of the standard race, class and such. As far as character creations go, it’s a pretty standard one.

Where Sacred 2 disappoints me the most is its world. There is just nothing there. I couldn’t quite figure out why I was doing anything, or who I was working for. I knew I was doing the shadow campaign, but the only sort of direction I had told me nothing of what I was or where I was going. From ‘interactive’ objects that did nothing to NPCs that basically told me nothing, the world was empty.

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It does nothing.

RPGs should have an immersive world. Having the number crunching and the multiple builds is all well and good, but it means nothing if you’re running around in a void. I want a world that pulls me in with every second. I want to look away from the clock for a second and have hours pass. Sacred 2 doesn’t do that. It’s like watching an hourglass drop sand grain by grain. I wanted to like it, I really did, but ultimately it was nothing.

Playing Sacred 2 felt like I was just a series of numbers coming up against another series of numbers in a futile effort to see who came out on top, and as much as I wanted to finish it, I just couldn’t. Sacred 2 is not a game for me.

 

So that’s not a great start to this little project of mine. I did anticipate teething problems. I promise the next game is a definite completion. It’s a game I’ve been actually meaning to complete for some time. Find out tomorrow when the post drops.

Finish Them: Sacred 2: Fallen Angel

Sacred 2: Fallen Angel was released in 2008 for PC and then a year later for Xbox 360 and PS3. It is a fantasy ARPG. So I’m in for a treat, because I’m not such a big fan of ARPGs. I never really have been, but I’ll play it of course. (as a side note: There will be a lot of ARPGs, because I have a few that I haven’t played, for obvious reasons).

I believe I got Sacred 2 from a Humble Bundle at some point (where I got most of the games I haven’t finished).

The rules are simple. I have until next Thursday to play Sacred 2. If I fail to finish it in that time then I move on. I’ll still write a piece about how far I got and where I got to. I might not finish everything I start, but I’ll at least try.

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Robot dogs are always the way to go

I’ve already started playing Sacred 2. I chose that robot dog thing as a character so that should be fun. Already accidentally summoned some massive demon thing that tried to kill me shortly after. I think I chose the evil path at the beginning but honestly I’m not sure. Even for an RPG it was kinda complicated. I’m not entirely sure I like drawn out character set ups to be honest.

One Hundred and Forty-Two

The number in the title is the amount of games on my Steam list that I haven’t finished. That is approximately 33% of my total games. There are some I haven’t even played. After a whole bunch of Humble Bundles, Steam Summer Sales and other mass discounts, the games start to add up. I’ve always had this problem with finishing games though. Back in the PS2 era I would buy games cheap, play them for an hour or so and then get bored. (once I get my PS2 up and running again I might be able to give some of them a crack) So as I was looking through my list of games an idea struck me. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I want to finish all the games I’ve never got around to finishing. And while I’m at it, I thought it would be a good idea to document my progress.

I’ve decided to use a random number generator to decide the games I play in order to avoid choosing all the good ones first and leaving the ones I might not actually want to play until last. In fact I’ve already chosen the first game. I’ll reveal it tomorrow, alongside a description of the game and a guess as to whether I’ll actually enjoy it or not.

It’s my hope that this will be fun, and maybe slightly entertaining for readers. At the very least I’m hoping it will spawn some new ideas that I can write about.

The Mystery of Lund’s Hut and Passive Storytelling

Tucked away in the wilderness of Skyrim, not far from Rorikstead, is an abandoned house called Lund’s Hut. It is overrun by skeevers, and Lund, the owner and namesake, lies dead in his bed. In the world of Skyrim it isn’t uncommon to come across an abandoned house, and it’s still not uncommon to find a dead body (or bodies). But there’s something that makes Lund’s Hut stand out from the multitude of other abandoned houses in Skyrim: there is no journal.

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Who is Lund? Why did he have to die? So many questions.

From my experience, when you come across a house like this in Skyrim it comes along with a journal that explains what happened. It’s usually the first thing I look for when I stumble on a mystery, but Lund’s Hut has none. There is no definitive explanation for what happened to Lund, or why his house is overrun by skeevers. But there are clues. A bottle of poison left on the table, a grave marker outside with a silver ring, bowls of food lined up below the hearth, and a skeever head mounted on the wall.

In the small amount of research I did on Lund’s Hut (kept deliberately small in order to not impact my own theories), most of the questions are, naturally, about whether Lund’s Hut is suitable for a player home, but I did find a few theories:

  • Lund and his wife raised skeevers, contracted a disease from them and died.
  • Lund and his wife raised skeevers. Lunds wife was killed by a skeever and Lund, in his grief, killed himself.
  • Lund and his wife were killed by skeevers.

Skeevers are at the heart of all of these theories, and I think that’s for good reason. When first arriving at Lund’s Hut you are attacked by skeevers, and there are more inside. Of these theories I think the second one is the most plausible. I think that Lund and his wife raised skeevers and at some point one of the skeevers attacked Lund’s wife, killing her. Lund then killed the skeever that killed her, eventually mounting its head on his wall, and buried his wife. Sometime later, troubled by the death of his wife, Lund drank poison (perhaps poison originally intended for the skeevers) and climbed into bed to die.

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Dirty skeevers. They gave my character ataxia by the way.

Why is any of this important? Why did I just spend nearly 400 words talking about an inoffensive hut in a game as expansive as Skyrim? Because I think it’s a prime example of passive storytelling. We aren’t told what happened at Lund’s Hut. There’s no journal written by Lund to give us a timeline of events. We have to take in the clues and figure it out for ourselves, and while there seems to be a coherent timeline of events just by reading the clues, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the poison was meant for the skeevers but Lund died before he could use it. Unless we talk to who created the house, we’ll probably never know. Lund’s Hut stands out in a game that relies heavily on journals and diaries left behind to tell us what happened. Video games have this unique interactive component that other mediums don’t have, and passive storytelling is a great way of conveying story in an interactive medium. Gamers generally aren’t stupid. Be like Lund’s Hut, let us figure it out for ourselves, your game will be better for it.

Why the Firewatch Ending is Brilliant

The ending to Firewatch has been a source of division among its player base. Some say the ending is anticlimactic, setting you up to take on this grand conspiracy, only to knock down those expectations with something a little more mundane. That’s if you can consider a father letting his son die in a cave and hiding away for three years to avoid questions mundane. Of course, when you consider the theories Henry and Delilah were gravitating to as they discovered Ned’s surveillance operation, maybe the truth was more mundane. But that’s kinda the point isn’t it? As a player, when you are presented with a man alone in the middle of the woods, with only a mysterious woman on a radio to talk to, you start to think to yourself: why is this story being told? And naturally, due to both the location, and the strange occurrences, your mind begins to gravitate to the grand conspiracies that Henry and Delilah did.

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Putting the ‘conspiracy’ together

The idea that the events throughout the game were committed by one man who was just trying to keep himself hidden is so strange to us because we’re expecting more. Firewatch plays with our expectations. As Henry begins to wonder about his sanity, so do we. We wonder whether everything we’ve seen is actually real, or a figment of Henry’s imagination. We start to wonder whether Delilah is hiding something. We start to share their paranoia. But unlike them, we aren’t in their world. As players we are outside observers. Our source of paranoia doesn’t come from being in the woods, a place that is often the subject of horror films, but from the expectation that something big should be happening. Humans are wired to see patterns even when there isn’t any, and in the case of Henry and Delilah, this tendency leads them to far-fetched conclusions. Films like Shutter Island have us wired to look for conspiracy in any written work. We want there to be some grand plot to sink our teeth into. For us, the player, we’re trying to figure out where the story is headed. From the very first moment we start playing we’re taking in clues. We’re thinking of government scientists and strange psychological experiments. We’re not expecting the mundane. No one ever expects the mundane, and that’s where its brilliance comes from.

A Case Against Multiple Endings

It’s become somewhat of a staple for games, the ability to choose your ending. But as games begin to tackle bigger themes in their writing, games with multiple endings are beginning to show their cracks,

Endings are important. Probably the most important part of any narrative. They decide the arch. The way the story ends can drastically change it from something that works, to something that makes no sense. The existence of multiple endings in a game often threatens to sully the narrative that has been built up.

Let’s take GTA V as an example. Along with being the most recent game I personally finished (for the third time), it arguably has two endings that are tacked on as a gimmick. They provide no real resolution to the story, barring a few stretches in logic. When Franklin, and therefore the player, is given the choice between killing Michael or Trevor the only logical choice to make is the third option. Everything about Franklin’s story leading up to this point is leading to the third option. Franklin’s entire arch is about Franklin learning to be loyal to his friends. From his interactions with Lamar and his idolisation of Michael, everything leads to him saving both Michael and Trevor. Neither of the other endings are even close to being logical, and seem to have been put there as a matter of course.

I get it. The idea that the player has a choice in the way a story goes is a nice one. It gives the player some power over the course of events in a narrative form that is inherently interactive. Unless the multiple endings are inherently built into the game for good reason (The Stanley Parable comes to mind), then they aren’t necessary, and in fact may lessen the experience.

Mechanics, Theme and Final Fantasy X

If I were to ask you how important mechanics are in a video game, what would you say? My hope would be that the mechanics feature at the top of your list, without mechanics there is no game, but how important are mechanics to theme?

Often when thinking about mechanics we set them apart from the story of a video game. They’re there simply to make it a game. Without them we would just be watching a movie, and despite the industry’s insistence on emulating Hollywood, most of us don’t want that. Mechanics make the medium of video games unique, and it’s games that tie their mechanics closely to their theme that, in my opinion, are the best.

Final Fantasy X, released by Square in 2001, is an RPG. Final Fantasy X represented a change in the Final Fantasy series. Multiple mechanics were overhauled or changed completely, and although it still kept its base Final Fantasy feel, it was a departure from tradition. The battle system shifted from the long time ATB system into a turn-based system, and the traditional experience leveling system was scrapped in favour of the Sphere Grid. One might think this means nothing. It is common for developers to play around with mechanics, very few developers can get away with doing the same thing over and over, but when we take these mechanics and apply them to the rest of Final Fantasy X we begin to see patterns.

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An overview of the Final Fantasy X Sphere Grid.

The major, overarching theme in Final Fantasy X is breaking tradition. Tradition is broken when the party kills Yunalesca at Zanarkand. Tradition is broken when Sin is defeated, not just temporarily, but permanently. When we take into account this theme the accompanying mechanics start to make some sense. Of course, there is a certain amount of mental stretching to be had here. If we didn’t know anything about the rest of the Final Fantasy series we wouldn’t know that the Sphere Grid or the battle system was something new to the series. But nothing lives in a vacuum, and these things need to be taken into account.

Of course, when we talk about mechanics we need to be mindful of which ones are unique to the game itself, as opposed to standard mechanics of the game’s genre. Final Fantasy X is an RPG; it shares a host of mechanics within the RPG genre, especially with other Final Fantasy games. Things like random encounters, the party system, and equipable weapons and armour, to name a few. When trying to tie mechanics to theme, these are the sort that need to be avoided.

Mechanics are an important part of video games, so it stands to reason that mechanics should tie into theme. A good video game will blend its themes and mechanics together seamlessly and allow for a greater experience. I write this post first here on Gaming Lyrical for one particular reason: to make readers aware of what I take into account when talking about a game. In my opinion, mechanics are the most important part of a game and it’s almost criminal to ignore them when talking about theme.