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X-periencing X-COM Across Genres

Posted by Dominic

Whatever happens from now (9:00 AM) until 11:59 PM, today is a good day. Because X-COM is back!

X-COM is one of those cult hits, immensely popular when it was released in 1994. Here’s the Wikipedia blurb:

The first game is undeniably the most popular and most successful of the series. It was often voted to be one of the best video games of all time by many gaming magazines and websites, including #1 on the IGN‘s list of Top 25 PC Games of All Time in 2007 and again in 2009, #2 on the Pelits list of Best Video Game Since 1992 in 2007, #3 on the PC Gamer‘s list of “Top 50 Games of All Time” in 2001, and #3 Computer Gaming Worlds list of Best Game of All Time in 2001.[2]

Genre-wise, X-COM is an hybrid of Tactics and Management. The player is charged with commanding the X-COM organization to repel alien invaders. He has a budget, sets up to 8 bases around the globe so as to “protect” neighboring countries. Each base can have installations built, like labs, factories, and living quarters (necessary for hiring soldiers, scientists and engineers). Scientists research new technology, engineers build aircraft, weapons and items for your soldiers. Basically, you buy combat and troop transport flying craft. When one of your bases detects a UFO, you send a combat craft to shoot it down (combat is resolved by the weapons you outfitted your craft with, and is not active shooting). When it crash-lands, you send the troop transport and enter an isometric turn-based mode where you direct your troops around, looking for and shooting down aliens. When they’re all dead, you bring back to your base the alien weapons and items found on site, and your scientists can study them, which allows you to reverse-engineer them and expand, so to speak,  your tree with their tech. If you do a good job of shooting down UFO’s, countries increase their monthly contribution to your budget. A game of X-COM is a long-winded affair of the Civilization sort.

Now, what’s interesting is the reactions to the announcement. The news is that the 2K Marin studio behind BioShock 2 is resurrecting X-COM by making a First-Person Shooter.I won’t lie: my physical reactions were something like:
X-COM is back!” *tingles down my spine, overjoyed*
in the form of a First-Person Shooter” *WHAAT? Disbelief. Confusion.*
makes substantial changes to the original series, combining research and planning elements not with overhead, turn-based strategy sections, but with first-person shooter action.” *Joy again.*

Kotakuite reactions largely amount to the first 2 steps only. The general pulse is that “X-COM is strategy and has nothing to do with a FPS”. There’s the precedent of StarCraft Ghost haunting the discussion, though it’s obviously moot given that, as one poster said, it never came out. Maybe it was garbage, maybe Duke Nukem Forever was garbage, and maybe tomorrow will be garbage. Who’s to say? Now, I haven’t seen it mentioned yet, but I expect someone to cite the Shadowrun X360 game as well. Take the tabletop RPG Shadowrun and its video game iterations on the Sega Genesis and Super NES (both of them console RPGs), and do a FPS with it. However, the reason in my view why that Shadowrun game hasn’t caught on is not because it’s a shooter, but because there’s no single-player component to it, hence no story that could leverage the Shadowrun mythos and ambience. Then there’s the precedent of Fallout 3, which is good news and should pump some faith in people. Same process than what is slated to happen with this X-COM remake.

The point I want to argue (and the timing of this is awesome, because it proves a point I am currently developing in my Ph.D. thesis) is that the aesthetics of the experience of playing X-COM, like any other video game, takes precedence over game mechanics or considerations of genres. An X-COM FPS will be truer to what X-COM is *provided* it does indeed combine research and planning with FPS-ing. Seems to me like people were quick to jump the gun (pun intended) when they read “FPS”, the Devil’s acronym. It’s like no one noticed the research and planning part. I’d submit that one of the defining features of X-COM is the joining of the management/planning part with the strategic turn- and grid-based tactical mode. Having a bicephal control over the operations of the organization as a whole (as a manager) on one side, and on the minutiae of combat and the combat squad, is what X-COM is about. As I argued in my Guitar Hero: Not Like Playing Guitar At All? paper, a game can adopt one of two global strategies as to simulation: favoring depth (complexity of the simulated elements and their inner workings), or breadth (increasing the number of simulated components and the interaction between various elements).

X-COM’s tactical combat mode is deep, but the game is mainly characterized by giving the player control over every aspect of the war on the aliens: managing budget, crafting weapons, placing new bases, conducting exploration and research missions, sending aircraft to shoot down UFO’s, directing combat and soldiers, and assigning scientists to projects. Research in and of itself is simple: assign more scientists and progress will be quicker; build more labs and more housing, and hire more of them, if you have the money, to speed it up. Same with manufacturing. Building bases is simple inasmuch as you only have to place buildings next to another building on a grid of space. No need to connect buildings with power lines or aqueducts, or manage traffic, or actively perform maintenance, etc., like you would in SimCity. Individual X-COM systems are simple, save for the combat mode. But multiple tactics games have deep combat systems as well (Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Battle, etc.), while comparatively few have the number of different systems that X-COM presents: tactical squad combat, interception of UFOs, research and production, budget management, and base-building. A close, but smaller, cousin could be found in Syndicate (coincidentally, another franchise from the 1990s that is rumored to be soon resurrected as well), where you direct a small squad of soldiers to perform missions, and also do research and buy equipment outside missions.

All this to say, X-COM is not “about” turn-based strategy. The “aboutness” of games is never correlated with their mechanics, who are just that: mechanics used to make something happen. What is X-COM about? Why don’t we visit the website for the upcoming game?

“X-COM is the re-imagining of the classic tale of humanity’s struggle against an unknown enemy that puts players directly into the shoes of an FBI agent tasked with identifying and eliminating the growing threat. True to the roots of the franchise, players will be placed in charge of overcoming high-stake odds through risky strategic gambits coupled with heart-stopping combat experiences that pit human ingenuity – and frailty – against a foe beyond comprehension. By setting the game in a first-person perspective, players will be able to feel the tension and fear that comes with combating a faceless enemy that is violently probing and plotting its way into our world.”

The classic X-COM games pitted soldiers who were ridiculously under-equipped and ill-prepared to fight the alien menace. Fear and tension were integral parts of the game. The turn-based mechanics and vision system created this by having the player forsake control over when his turn was finished. You’d click “end turn” and watch the computer play his turn, staring at the “Hideen movement” screen. And then, suddenly, you’d see an alien pop out where your squad had line of sight, and see him shoot down one of your soldiers in a single hit before vanishing into the darkness again. Your soldiers’ morale would decrease until they panicked and ran around, or went berserk and started shooting anywhere. X-COM: Terror from the Deep even incorporated the fear into its narrative background by replacing the typical Gray aliens in flying saucers with underwater monsters directly inspired, if not taken from, Lovecraft. The turn-based strategy mechanics of X-COM were the means to an end: instill fear and suspense when facing a superior, unknown, and hidden foe. The 2K Marin team has understood this. The new X-COM will put aside a portion of the mechanics and replace them with new mechanics that will be used to vehiculate the same aesthetic experience, only in a different modality. In this respect, it is no different than having a film adaptation of a book. Of course, it’s not the same on a certain level; but it’s the same on another level.

This also provides a nice way of framing the difference between series and franchises: series in video games are based on gameplay, whereas franchises encompass narrative. Star Wars is a franchise and Knights of the Old Republic is a series, of which The Old Republic is not a part of (because it’s an MMO). Though this is another story for another post…