I couldn't bring myself to compose this article until I'd managed to properly murder one of my friends and fellow writers here on the site. In all fairness, Eric 'Brony' Henn was no pushover, and I'd dispatched him with every intention of bringing him home. But sometimes life is cruel—cruel as streams of magnetic gunfire converging from several angles on a single squadmate. If it's just a game, why then did I care when Eric went down? Why did I allow the dead weight of his corpse to slow my squad as I dragged him towards the extraction point, the extraction timer ticking to oblivion with each passing turn? Why, I keep asking myself. Why?
Only 6 missions, but 15 confirmed kills. The hero of my Black Site mission, unceremoniously cut down in his prime.
I did a double take when Wyatt's article on XCOM2 came out. Originally, I'd taken my time getting to reading it, but was struck when I got to the part about his posts on social media detailing the exploits of his friends in-game. And more than that, I was struck by the response he received. Putting one's friends through the character creator in XCOM2 and its predecessor is nothing new: Just about everyone does it at some point. What was new was me, this being my first XCOM experience, and I was like a stranger standing outside in the cold, looking in through a window at a brightly lit party that I couldn't quite understand. I wanted the door to swing open, to be invited in, but even if it had in that moment I doubt I would have grasped what everyone was laughing about. With some trepidation, I began poking around the edges of what XCOM2 had to offer.
No specially created characters on my dry run was my self-imposed rule. The game's reputation preceded itself. I knew that it was infamous for killing rookies and veteran soldiers alike, and I wasn't about to waste time and effort customizing soldiers who were likely to die to my initial misplays. First, I was going to learn how to play the game. I wasn't going to specially name a character, mess with their armor colors, or even change the game-suggested nicknames until they could survive long enough to receive at least 2 promotions. Don't get attached was my mantra. These guys are probably going to end up dead in a mission or two.
Nat 'Cpt. America' Wallace. He's survived just about every mission in my first playthrough. If he ever dies, I'll just wave the white flag at the aliens right then and there.
Despite my best efforts to keep a distance from my red-shirts, I found myself coming back from missions more and more attached. Stories started to form around them. Personalities emerged from these randomly generated creations. The smart-ass sharpshooter. The take-no-bull grenadier. I actually dreaded the thought that I'd have to say goodbye to them when I started my Ironman run (for those new to XCOM2, Ironman is a mode that progressively saves, making everything that happens permanent; no reloads to save a botched mission). When one of my crack snipers went down, in a mission with so many boots on the ground I'd not noticed who it was that got shot, and didn't find out until after the ship had lifted off again, I spent the next five minutes breaking my own self-imposed rules and writing my first epitaph for the fallen. So, when it came time to start the Ironman run, I exported the best of who remained to my character pool. A handful of storied elites, ready to start their tales again fresh alongside new allies in any further games I'd play.
We as humans live for a good story. In one of the more involved cases I found on Reddit, one player of XCOM2 was actually creating backstories for each of his characters, creating a narrative of soldier families who'd lived their entire lives fighting for the resistance. A father convinced of humanity's struggle against the aliens. A daughter who had no interest in the war, but enlisted to watch after her beloved dad. Sibilings covering each other in successive sorties. XCOM2 for this player became an interactive drama-bomb, silently ticking down to the explosion of eventual loss that the game dangles over its players like a poison carrot. This case might fall under the more extreme spectrum of XCOM2 experiences, but it's no less apt to the point that we as people crave story. I'm going to get a bit boring for a minute here to reference something I once read in a leadership book: imagine you're sitting at a meeting and your boss is late. Everyone's starting to wonder what's going on. He strides in hurriedly after five minutes, offering no explanation, and abruptly starts the meeting. When it's done, he leaves as quickly as he came. What do you think you and your co-workers might be feeling at that moment? Stop and take a moment to consider this hypothetical.
What's the deal with this robot brain? If you don't already know, you're probably making suppositions. Admit it!
In the prior example, most people tend to respond by inventing some kind of story around why the boss is late and why he won't discuss it. The leadership book's point in all this is to facilitate communication; not making assumptions and letting our imaginations run wild helps head off problems at work. I've always been struck though by how these situations come about. How many times have we all been guilty of doing this in everyday life, whether with co-workers, friends, family, or even complete strangers? If you read a sub-par book that leaves off more description than you'd like, doesn't your mind begin filling in the details? If a movie doesn't explain something clearly enough, haven't you started making theories as to why things unfold the way they do? Well he's probably feeling or I bet it's because. And some of these suppositions can be complete fabrications, based on nothing more than our own imagination rather than any kind of facts the work offers up. It's almost as if we as humans are hard-coded to fill in gaps where they exist. We are creatures of imagination!
Hence we cannot help but attach stories to the deeds of our soldiers as they battle, becoming more and more real. Such was the case with a random soldier of mine, Midori. She was a sniper who had the misfortune of having enemy reinforcements called in behind her position during a mission in which she'd already been hurt and had been ordered to hang back. Using her superior range, she'd made due, but as the dropship flew by, she found herself only able to scramble for cover and hunker down, clutching to a corner for dear life as enemy fire reigned in from all sides. As I ordered my squad to fall back and cover her, it became clear that I could remove all but the enemy captain who was perfectly positioned behind his own cover. The only person in range to hit him was Midori, one shot away from death. Doing so would involve her leaving her dwindling cover, but her odds of survival weren't great if she stayed put anyway. So I ordered her to run out and take the shot. Against all odds, she bailed herself out and survived for the extraction. Dealing with the mental fallout of surviving such an ordeal, I decided, was “justification” enough for changing her awful hair style she'd come in with. I gave her a punk haircut and dyed it purple. I also tinted her armor to match. She gained a degree of badassery commensurate to her skill, story, and personality. All things that almost exclusively existed within my own head. Midori, by the way, was one of Eric's squadmates on his final mission.
This is all that remains of Midori now.
If we get this attached to randomly generated characters, what happens when we put our friends into the game? I have to admit, following my initial playthrough and gearing up for my Ironman run, I could feel the excitement. It made my hands shake ever-so-slightly as I ran each of my friends and close family through the character generator. I was unprepared. When the initial Sky Ranger contained both my own character and my brother, I nearly died laughing that we'd “decided to deploy together”. I also nearly died taking some enemy fire for him so that we'd both survive our first mission, wounded, but still together. When my brother, who has always loved stealth games in real life, was randomly assigned the Ranger promotion by the game, I nearly fell out of my chair. And of course, when Eric showed up as a random rookie for hire, I instantly added him to the squad.
I'd thought that it wouldn't be that different seeing a friend in game compared to a random character I'd grown to like. After all, it wasn't really them. But in fact the more details we associate with a person the more we enjoy watching their character interact within the game world. All the preferences, attitudes and mannerisms the person in the real world brings to our image of them in game enhances our experience in creating those stories that we live for. Eric's tale, tragically, ended with me buying a little too much into his own bravado. One cocky comment too many making me chuckle mid-mission. After a perfect ambush, I ended up pushing forward a little too aggressively. I got the attention of a few too many aliens, and what was a routine cleanup for my squad turned into a massacre. Eric came into a hail of fire from all sides. Still determined to drag his body to the extraction, I had another squad-mate carry him alongside Midori who'd gone down soon after Eric. If I'd left the two of them and regrouped, I might have come away from that mission with at least a couple of my soldiers, but I realized my mistake too late. With the preset extraction zone still so far away and the mission timer relentlessly counting down, as well as my remaining fighters weighed down by their fallen comrades, I finally lost control of the rest of the squad and watched helplessly as they were all taken down one at a time. In a final act of defiance, they managed to force a success on the mission, squeezing off a final volley that killed the VIP I was there to either extract or terminate. Their parting gift.
What stories will your squad tell?
Just recently I nearly lost my brother's character as he cowered, panicked, deep in alien infested woods, a dozen enemies between him and our ship that was readying for takeoff. He was the only one still out there. I could have lifted off and left him. For a moment, I was tempted. There were nearly a dozen of my own soldiers back on the pad at risk because I refused to go until he was back on safely. It shouldn't have mattered as much as it did. It's just a game, after all. That's what any observer might say, watching me play. It's just a game. But it's not. It's a story. It's my story. And we parked there, firing back from cover as enemy reinforcements landed all around us. He made it back to the ship not long after, and we left without losing anyone. This'll be a great story to tell back at the barracks.
What are your favorite XCOM2 moments? Post them here and lets swap some war stories! Have something to contribute to the discussion? Lay it on us, Commander. It's ok, we're battle hardened veterans here. And if you really like our content, please consider follow our Facebook or donating to our Patreon.