X-Com, Player Immortality And Emergent Narratives In Gaming

I am a big fan of emergent narratives. Having played X-Com: Enemy Unknown and completed it on all difficulties (with Ironman toggled on), I have witnessed my brave band of heroes grow from untested rookies to hardened veterans during the course of the campaign. There have been acts of heroism; countless victories; desperate defeats; and casualties. Oh yes, casualties. In my Impossible playthrough only two of the original 12 soldiers I began with survived to see the final mission on the alien mothership - to see one of them sacrifice themselves on the final mission in order to save the world was a poignant gaming moment for me.

Cheesy, I know. And to the uninitiated, a little tragic. Alright, it is pretty bloody sad, to be honest - after all, it's just a game, right? But that's the power of emergent narratives. The ability of some games to allow unscripted stories to emerge organically from gameplay. Emergent narratives are not a one way street - they don't just spontaneously emerge from the game bundled in a novella shaped package, ready for consumption. They require, on some level, reciprocal engagement from the player in order to bring out these emergent features. If you don't dig alien invasions or squad level military combat, chances are that X-Com is going to leave you cold. But then again, it might not, because X-Com does a pretty good job of sucking you in.

On the surface X-Com is a turn based game with two levels of play - it is both a fairly straightforward strategic resource management simulation, and a squad level tactical combat game. Embedded in the game, however, lies the potential for player driven stories to emerge. It begins with the customization of your soldiers. Country of origin is chosen by the game, but everything else - appearance, voice, name, and nickname (once earned) - is customizable. There are different specializations for each soldier, with a dual path for each spec. Experience in combat allows the soldiers to progress to higher ranks and unlock what will be essential skills in the more difficult parts of the game. In addition you are responsible for the state of your soldier's armaments, armor and equipment, as it is you who decides where you spend your hard-earned resources and which avenues of research to prioritize.

This is nothing new to modern gamers - this is the bread and butter of the most ancient pre-cursor to the games we play today, pen and paper roleplaying games. What X-Com does well is to make the soldiers matter. In addition to the hook of personalization, higher level soldiers become important simply because you need veteran soldiers to fight the enemy in the mid and endgame. Squads composed of rookie soldiers are ruthlessly decimated. Couple this with Ironman mode, where all choices are irrevocable - you play through the game with one save - and where death is final, and you have a recipe for high drama. There are no resurrections or reloads. When a trusted veteran goes down it hurts on a gaming level. More importantly, you also feel it on a narrative level.

The option to save and load is there of course - you don't have to play Ironman mode - but for me this cheats the player of a richer and more compelling experience. It is hard to identify with your soldiers when they are, in effect, immortal - they cannot die because you can always choose to reload the game from an earlier point. It's hard to empathize with gods. But with Ironman enabled, your soldiers become mere mortals struggling mightily against an overwhelming and increasingly powerful enemy. The possibility of death makes heroism possible. In my games I have seen my medic charge suicidally into the open to try and save a dying team mate, while his friends tried desperately to cover him. The medic died, but his team mate lived, and eventually took part in the final mission. And even though that particular soldier was gone, his memory lived on in the Memorial Wall of the fallen (included in the game) and in the soldier he saved.

The sequence of events and the internal narrative generated by my imagination were not scripted by the makers of the game - they emerged organically and naturally as I played. On a strictly functional level all I was doing was playing a tactical turn based game, pushing pieces around a square board against a computer opponent. But narratively, I was fearing for my medic's life, cursing my soldiers by name when they missed crucial shots, and cheering when gambles made with long odds paid off. Soldiers develop personalities based on events generated in game - the sniper with the deadly aim whose skill saved many lives became "unflappable", the assault trooper who consistently panicked whenever anything went awry became "cowardly", and the heavy trooper who consistently got injured and bounced back mission after mission became "stoic". Even tactical mistakes I made on a gaming level became attributed to the soldier's personalities. The soldier who got shot at from all sides because I pushed him too far forward became "impetuous", "reckless" and "hot-headed". Oddly enough, after that mission he started (or rather I started) doing the same tactically suspect moves again and again, but rather than reeling that impulse in I started to incorporate it into my tactics. It felt right narratively, i.e. that it was something he would do, given the personality that emerged from the missions he had played. I could imagine his commander chewing him out when they returned to base, and the soldier arguing back, saying "I needed to save those civilians, sir". A strange feedback loop is established, where what happens in game shapes the character of your soldiers, which in turn affects the way you play the game.

A game can be linear and emergent - that is, there can be a central narrative propelling the story forward which also leaves room for player driven narratives to emerge. In X-Com, yes, the story is always the same - aliens attack Earth, Earth fights back, Earth researches and develops x, and x is eventually used to defeat the aliens. Pretty simple stuff. But as illustrated above, the space in X-Com where emergent narratives can emerge lies in the development of the soldiers you take with you on mission after mission, and the battles they fight as they try to stem the increasing alien tide. One example of where narrative would NOT be emergent would be a soldier in X-Com who was destined to die in a particular point in time no matter what you did. Thus the single soldier sacrificing himself/herself to save the squad (and Earth) at the end of the game is clearly not an emergent feature of the story. I stated at the opening of this article that it was poignant moment for me the first time I saw it, and indeed it was. But it was poignant because of that particular character's narrative arc - the battles she faced, the close calls she had, and the comrades she had lost in getting to that particular point of the game - and not because it was pre-destined.

Once you know a soldier is fated to die at the end of the game, it becomes factored into your squad development - in effect you know who is going to be the "Volunteer" and you make the choice based on how you want your story to develop. Do you want to spare your favourite character from this fate so that they have a chance to live happily ever after (so to speak), or do you incorporate it into your character's story arc and make them the hero-martyr of the narrative? Regardless of what you choose however, it becomes part of the framework of the story and it loses its power to move you. Pre-determined death happens time and time again in RPGs as part of traditional narratives - Ashley Williams and Kaiden Alenko in Mass Effect come to mind, as well as Aeris in Final Fantasy VII - their fates are written in the stars and beyond the player's control to influence (although in the case of Mass Effect, you can choose who lives and who dies). This is not necessarily a bad thing - the death of Aeris was no less gut-wrenching for me despite being pre-determined - but it illustrates the chief difference between traditional and emergent narratives. An equivalent gut-wrenching moment for me in X-Com would be when my entire squad, including my sniper commander who had led her team the whole campaign, perished in a mission that went south. It ended that particular campaign for me, despite the fact that I would have still been able to continue. The loss of the entire team was too painful to contemplate going on without them. In fact I have started over 20 Ironman campaigns, and I have not technically lost any of them. The aliens never completely conquered Earth. In all but the two instances where I won the game, however, I basically quit because the characters I was able to identify with perished - as far as I was concerned, that narrative was over.

Both events - the death of Aeris, and the loss of the entire X-Com squad - were equally devastating at the time they occurred. But while Aeris' death loses its impact after the first viewing, the unexpected death of a beloved veteran remains powerful simply because it wasn't scripted - it could have been avoided, and it could have happened during any mission in the game. The fact that the game makes me care about these virtual soldiers is to its credit. I'm fairly sure I callously sacrifice hundreds of virtual lives in other strategic games without giving any thoughts to the abstract human cost. I don't mourn any of the Terran soldiers I send out to die horrible deaths against the Zerg in Starcraft 2. As far as I am concerned they are just cannon fodder in my quest to push rating on the tournament ladder. X-Com does a great job in making your soldiers human, and like humans, they each have a story - a story written by the player, formed in the player's head which gives context and meaning to the events that occur inside the game. The mortality and fragility of your soldiers also adds to the sense of danger and makes each mission potentially their last.

X-Com's greatest achievement, however, is incorporating failure into the game without making failure a game-ending event. In many RPGs the fourth wall is consistently broken when you (or your party of intrepid heroes) die. Death is a game-ending condition, and it jolts us out of the game back into the real world. Your only choices are to reload, or to start from scratch, or to quit the game. Quiting ends our immersion. Reloading destroys the illusion that we are not, in fact, omnipotent and that our agents are immortal. Starting again? Why bother in traditional narratives when we already know how the story will unfold?

In X-Com your soldiers can die; you can fail a mission; you can fail a string of missions; everyone in your squad can die horrific deaths; and yet the war continues, until the defeat threshold is reached. Thus the game neatly sidesteps the problem of keeping the fourth wall intact, while keeping the impact of losing our beloved veterans as devastating as ever, undiluted by repeated reloads. By contrast, my Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect 3 has died numerous times in the line of duty - in all these cases, death was just an annoying inconvenience brought on by a lapse of gameplay or poor decision-making. To paraphrase Bill Murray in Groundhog Day - "I've killed myself so many times I don't even exist anymore". Shepherd cannot die. The same cannot be said when an X-Com soldier goes down in the line of duty - they can only die once, and that particular soldier, with his own unique back story, is gone forever without recall in Ironman mode.

I mentioned earlier that I have quit campaigns when too many of my favourite soldiers perish in the line of duty. I also argued that there is no good reason to restart traditional RPGs because we already know what will transpire. So why do I keep restarting? The linear storyline of X-Com does not lend itself to replay, so why bother? Again, the answer lies in the genesis, growth and death of your squad. When your squad wipes in X-Com, there is no reload option - they are gone. What you are left with are the options to either quit, restart or continue the campaign. In many ways the option to restart or to continue are interchangeable - in both cases you have to create an entirely new squad from scratch. The only difference is the status of your strategic game, and the effective power level of the aliens, which escalates as the game progresses. In either case, the new squad has no back story and is devoid of personality. Rookies are used mercilessly and thrown into dangerous situations with reckless abandon. After a few missions, though, you start to empathise with the little guys, and the story begins anew. For me, however, my main goal in X-Com is to create an epic narrative arc where characters are thrown into "real" life-threatening situations and overcome them - there is a fail threshold for me, and that is when all of the original 12 soldiers who begin the campaign with me perish. Once this threshold is breached, I consider the story ended, and begin the campaign anew.

Compare this with an RPG like Dragon Age, where the composition of your party, while customizable, remains limited to the characters created by Bioware. Furthermore when they "die" they are not permanently removed from the game. I actually think that this is a great idea as it raises the stakes dramatically in each combat. The reload paradigm removes the "mortal" from combat, however, and basically turns it into an intellectual exercise where you deploy a set of tactics to overcome the enemy as efficiently as possible. The only penalty for death in DA is time. In X-Com, it is time, as well as the loss of a strategic asset (experienced soldiers are battle winning) and your emotional investment in the soldier. I can't really invest in Morrigan and Alister in the same way that I can with Major Xiang Xou from the Republic of China just because of the simple fact that the former two cannot die. While I remain interested in the branching stories of Morrigan and Alister and chuckle at their scripted banter, I never actually fear for their lives, except perhaps as a consequence of one of my choices. Even in this case the choice lies in my hands. By comparison, Xou's fate is never entirely in my hands - I can stack the chances of survival in her favour by being careful and employing good tactics, but one can never fully predict things like panic, collapsing cover, exploding vehicles, stray grenades/RPG rounds, terrible RNG and/or straightforward user error. In my opinion, X-Com's ability to allow player to identify with their soldiers, coupled with a continuing narrative where death and failure are possible but not game breaking, are the two biggest reasons why the series has been so beloved by so many fans over the years.

So, if you're a fan of emergent narratives like I am, give X-Com a whirl. Play it on Ironman and let your choices matter. It's not perfect, but it has given me hours of fun, and reminded me why I loved the original so many years ago. More importantly, it made me think deeply for the first time on the reasons why I loved this type of game, and made me excited about the possibilites of emergent narratives in other games in the future. This is the first time I have written anything about games (WoW PvP related posts on various forums aside), and much of the underlying impetus for that lies in the stories generated by my squad of virtual soldiers. I would not argue against critics who said that the types of stories generated by the gameplay in X-Com are simplistic, formulaic and limited to a narrative discourse which has its roots in Aliens, Starship Troopers, and perhaps dating back to seminal male-orientated cinematic epics like The Seven Samurai and The Dirty Dozen. There is something be said, however, for being able to own the narrative. Regardless of how predictable and derivative these stories are, they are generated by the player and they are uniquely yours. That is why the X-Com series, FTL, the Jagged Alliance series and the UFO series have a special place in my gaming heart. Everyone wants to be a hero, or at least, play a hero in our escapist fantasies. But only by foregoing some of our omnipotence as gamers, by introducing the concept of permadeath and the possibility of failure can a type of virtual heroism be emulated in the games that we play.