Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wrestling with X-Com

This is a break from the Long War story, and it's just going to be a bunch of stuff from my head about the difficulties I'm having with both the game and the story. I'm not going to reveal the decisions I make about where I want the story to go, because that would spoil the fun for people who are reading. I will outline thoughts and possibilities though, without committing to anything. This post will also meander and not have any real structure, just more a compilation of my notes, observations and miscellaneous stuff about X-Com. I'm basically arguing with myself.
 
The Game
 
I still haven't finished the Long War campaign on any difficulty, because I keep restarting the campaign. The first two were just dry runs to about May or June, while the third and fourth were aborted because I started cheating. I'm on my fifth (!) campaign, and it's on the cusp of being aborted as well - there's a way to cheat even in Ironman campaigns in both X-Com and X-Com 2 - if one of your favourite soldier dies then you can Alt-F4 and quit before the program saves your game state. Then you restart the game and voila! - it's the previous turn, your soldier is still alive, and thanks to an amazing feat of pre-cognition a la The Minority Report, you can take steps to avoid your soldier's death. The thing is when you start writing a series like this you start really caring about your characters, and it's hard to relinquish control over their fates. I'd even planned arcs for some soldiers assuming that they won't die - when the aliens foil my plans by shooting my heroine in the head then I am sorely tempted to use the Alt-F4 solution. In my previous Ironman campaigns I resisted this temptation because it was more about winning the games rather than the individual characters themselves - in the campaign I am recording for my story I am ashamed to say I did this to save Hatakeyama in mission 54, a character whose namesake has personal meaning for me. Then I did it again to save Jeromai in mission 85, whose namesake wrote a blog that inspired me to do this series. It's hard to let go of your soldiers, especially when they start developing extensive back stories. Once the seal was opened, however, it was only natural for me to start reloading whenever things went bad. Before I knew it, my campaign was compromised by numerous reloads, even thought I'd set out to play the game on Ironman mode. I should have just played a normal game, with saves and reloads. It would have been more honest.
 
The main thing that stops me from abandoning the game is the length of the Ironman campaign. I am on mission 125 (!) and I still haven't finished the damned game. 125 missions including two alien base assaults, one base defence, several large UFO assaults, dozens of abductions, and much, much more. I've completed the DLC arcs successfully - Operation Slingshot was completed without reloading, while I cheated at the end of Operation Progeny to save the psykers from being killed by the aliens. Overall I have reloaded 22 times in 125 missions, starting from mission 54, followed by mission 85, then with increasing frequency from then on out. Save scumming is technically possible even if you don't enable save scumming in the options - while the RNG result is the same, you can change the order of shots to take advantage of high rolls and low rolls. If your sniper missed and then your assault guy hit, and the sniper shot was more crucial, you simply change the order of shots in the reloaded game to take advantage of better RNG result for the second shot. This, too, is cheating.

The death of Hatakeyama was a tragedy, but her subsequent return disrupted the fabric of time and space, and irrevocably tainted the fabric of the universe.

 
So the end result is that I'm going to start my Long War Ironman campaign again. AGAIN. No more Alt- F4. If they die, they die, and I'm just going to be a sad panda, and will have to write around it. My squad can't be the saviours of humanity if they are immortal, even if it hurts like hell to lose them. Alt-F4 is the gaming equivalent of a deus ex machina intervention in traditional media, and it taints the purity of the campaign for me. I know that real life is more important than pure gaming, but for some reason it really irks me to know that I reloaded. When the game is over and humanity wins, I'm not going to feel a sense of accomplishment - it'll just be the end of a rote task which took a long time to complete. And make no mistake, I will win - you can't lose when you have the ability to reload your game. So, bollocks to that - I'm starting again. It took 54 games for me to take the Alt-F4 option, and that was because X-Com hit me below the belt and killed my beloved Yuri. If it was any other soldier, I would have grimaced and took it. But in her case I couldn't let it stand, and I brought her back. That decision unravelled time and space, and corrupted the campaign irrevocably. In games as in real life, I just have to let her go.
 
The Story
 
What I do have in my favour is that the Long War story is only up to April 2016, so it won't take much to catch up. There's no pressure on me to complete the game - I've already beaten both games, so I can dawdle along at my leisure. I know the tech tree now, so I can try and navigate an optimum path to give my boys and girls the best chance to succeed. It's going to take some creative playing to align some of  the story-telling elements, thought - I'm going to have to hope that RNG is kind, and give me enough male Japanese soldiers to re-constitute my squad leaders Takeda, Hara, Ishikawa and Sato. They all also have to live through March and April. Luckily I can modify the Long War INI file to set the percentage chances of recruiting a soldier from a specific nation. What I can't control is the gender of the soldier, which incidentally, is one of the more difficult parts story-wise about X-Com. In X-Com genders are represented equally in the strike force, and this is not the case in the world circa 2015-2017, especially in elite formations. I've no doubt that female representation in global armed forces will increase, maybe even reach parity sometime in the future, but for now I need to find a plausible reason to explain the 50/50 representation in X-Com in 2015-2016.
 
The ability to modify what countries your rookies will come from will also solve a problem introduced in the Long War mod - namely that the recruits literally come from all over the globe. The Long War pulls people from over 100 countries. This is not a problem if you're just playing the game, and it's actually pretty cool, but a problem for someone like me who has to somehow justify what a guy from Eritrea is doing in the task force. Not just from Eritrea, but one dude from Eritrea. The fictitious conceit I am using is that X-Com originated from the UN, and even they don't take people from everywhere. Back in the Korean War the minimum size a country could contribute to a UN force was a battalion, but this restriction has been lifted since then. For fictional purposes I'm assuming the minimum size is a platoon of 30 soldiers. Say 3 platoons to a company - 3 companies to a battalion - 3 battalions to a brigade. That means 27 countries for the entire X-Com force, and that's assuming each country only contributes a platoon of 30 guys. In reality nations usually donate at least a battalion, and that would mean that Bradford's brigade is actually made up of three battalions, say one from Japan (as the host nation), one from the US, and one from India (the biggest troop contributor in the UN). I can sort of wiggle around it by making some countries donate companies, and poorer ones donate platoons, but then I get screwed when a solitary African dude from an obscure country rolls up and joins the strike force. Where the hell did he come from? Starting a new game and modifying the INI file will allow me to pick the countries from which the recruits will hail from. The inclusion of the 16 Council nations are a no brainer, but I'd also like to add several more, specifically NATO members who joined the fight in Ogbomosho. Adding Doorn's brigade to the X-Com force also increases the pool by one more brigade (another 27 possible nations), and since they were originally deployed to the CAR we could expand the recruit pool to include more African nations. I just have a problem with utterly random recruits who pop up and have no plausible business being there.
 
If that sounds really anally retentive, then you're getting a glimpse of how obsessive compulsive I am about these things. An alternative explanation to X-Com is that it is a privately funded organisation with roots dating back to the McCarthy years, a la the story told in The Bureau (the X-Com spin-off game set in the 1960s). In this version of X-Com history X-Com was apparently set up as a bulwark against Communism, and re-purposed to fight the aliens when the invasion began. I would have been happy for the clandestine organization route, but the problem then became who the hell is supplying the planes and the satellites? Satellites and planes are prohibitively expensive, and I only know of one real world private company - SpaceX - which can afford to launch their own satellites. Even SpaceX has military support - they are allowed to use Air Force bases, and their biggest contracts are government and military. The only existing organization I can think of capable of creating the X-Com organization is either the UN or perhaps the US on its own. Since in-game lore depicts X-Com as having the support of a mysterious Council of 16, the UN was a no-brainer.
 
I also have a problem with X-Com being a clandestine organisation funded internationally but having a global reach and mandate. This is a giant contradiction in terms for me, and if based in reality, would be a NATO sized organisation but one that is supposedly secret and covert. If you look at the members of the coalition they are composed of nations that have been at historical odds with each other - China and Japan, and the US and Russia, for instance. I have a hard time seeing the coalition surviving 50 odd years without fracturing or letting the world know of its existence, especially during the Cold War period. Who is asking them to intervene, and where are they getting the authority? Or are they just flagrantly breaking international borders when conducting their missions? The only way the clandestine organization works is if it is hidden within one country, most likely the US. I would find that plausible, but their excursions into superpower airspace would be fraught with danger and liable to cause international incidents. Also, if they've existed for years then why is their gear still so abysmal? Vahlen and Shen basically learn to make a UFO in one year, while the only thing the Bureau has to show for their efforts after 50 odd years of possessing alien tech is the Skyranger. Erm, good job, guys?
 
Anyway, all this made me decide to ignore The Bureau as a source of lore, and just pull from the X-Com series in general. The historical narrative approach works for me because it removes the burden of having to be original. All I have to do is make inferences based on what I know of X-Com lore and human institutions like the UN and NATO. The whole Ogbomosho arc came out of what I knew of the chryssalid life cycle as depicted in game - an organism like that could wipe out a continent, yet in game we're supposed to accept that a squad of international soldiers can rock up and save the day on their own, hours after the aliens land. Doorn was just an NPC in one of the game's Council missions, but I needed to come up with a plausible reason why X-Com would have to rescue him, which made him into a UN guy, which then begged the question of the who the hell he was and what the hell he was doing in Ogbomosho, and before I knew it, he was a Major-General commanding a MINUSCA brigade bound for the Central African Republic. I didn't pick Ogbomosho either - I didn't know it existed until it came up as a terror attack site in the game. Now I know the street layout, a little bit about its history, its geography relative to the rest of Nigeria, the language spoken by the locals, and all sorts of other things I would never have researched had I not decided to write this story. I've always been a big history buff - if you really like historical narratives you should read Anthony Beever's books on Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day. That's the style I'm patterning my writing on, and he has the added advantage of writing about real events. There's so much drama and horror in human history that fantastical stuff really pales in comparison. Even the half million dead in Ogbomosho is a drop in the bucket in the total amount of people killed in the numerous conflicts that have wracked and are still wracking Africa. If the aliens weren't so hell bent on turning us into DNA soup their arrival might actually be beneficial - but I guess that's like saying Hitler would have been remembered as a great German statesman if he hadn't decided to liquidate the Jews and start a world war.
 
This leads me to the problem of the schizophrenic nature of the alien invasion in the game. The aliens can't seem to make up their mind whether they are going to infiltrate us or conquer us from within (Thin Men, Faceless, Seekers, EXALT and Sectoid Commanders) or they're going to go old school and conquer us with brute force (Floaters, Mutons, Chryssalids, Cyberdiscs and Sectopods). But it seems to me that if the aliens wanted to, they could do both equally well. It makes no sense to do both, however, and it's something I'm going to have to reconcile somehow because that's what happens in the game. I could just ignore the events in game, but it serves a narrative purpose for me. I'd like to keep one foot in reality, and one foot in X-Com. If I stray too far from either, the end result will not be the one I am after. I really like the X-Com bestiary, including the 1994 version, and hope to incorporate both old and new aliens into the mix. There are some weird lifeforms in the 1994 version that newcomers to the series will not have been exposed to. Even the chryssalids were different, but the thing that makes them scary - their ability to grow exponentially - is represented well in both the 1994 and 2012 versions of the game. It's funny that I can cherry pick the bits I like - i.e. the relationship between the viper race and the chryssalids in the 1994 game - and ignore the stuff I don't - i.e. The Bureau's origin story.
 
Before I end this longwinded spiel I would like to say many thanks to the people who have commented both here and on Reddit - I really appreciate the feedback and criticism. The amount of traffic brought to this site by Reddit was just staggering - the day I posted the story on Reddit the blog recorded over 10000 hits for the first time ever. I normally potter along at under 100 a day, and I reckon 80-90% of the traffic is automated stuff from Russia, so it's nice to have people read my stuff and comment from time to time. Because of the feedback I've corrected spelling errors, cut out stuff which people thought were immersion breaking, and changed dodgy images like the F-14s mistakenly labelled as F-15s. I will also do more research into aspects of the air war after some valid criticisms made by VariableFrequency on Reddit about my choice of X-Com's interceptors. Having an audience has made me more meticulous and thorough. It might be fiction, but its fiction grounded in reality, so I have the duty to make sure the reality part hinges with what we know in the 21st century. I will also repost the story on Reddit every five posts or so, just as an update for people who saw the first nine posts, said they liked it, but then promptly forgot about it.
 

Jeromai also died in an alternate universe, but was his death pre-destined? Or is reality just a tree of possibilities, separated by the thinnest of veils? Fucked if I know.
 
As for canon, the release of X-Com 2 made all versions of the story possible. That's the great thing about X-Com - we make our own version of the universe through playing the game. As I said, I'm going to restart my Long War Ironman campaign, and there will no reloads or Alt-F4s. I'll play it on Classic difficulty, and if I win the campaign, the story gets a happy ending. If I lose, the story will link to X-Com 2 and detail the fall of X-Com and the demise of humanity. The first two months are going to be on rails, because I'm going to have to rename soldiers to assume the identities of existing characters in the story. And - ugh - I'm going to have to sacrifice some rookies to replicate the death of casualties suffered in March and April. Give them the names of the fallen, and then make them charge the enemy lines screaming, "KILL ME! KILL ME!" And regardless of what happens in my new campaign the first country to leave X-Com will always be France, and the first terror attack will always be in Ogbomosho. Once we get into May, however, the story is free to follow whatever trail it sees fit. I'm not sure what is going to happen in the alternate universe my characters are inhabiting, but I hope we win.

4 comments:

  1. Even if you win in Long War, you can still make the link to XCOM 2. I've been thinking about this while planning to make my own XCOM after-action report (some later day, when I am *much* better at the game. For the record, your story has been a hell of a lot of inspiration), and I think the solution I have is pretty good.

    You kill the Über-Ethereal, the Volunteer makes a final "sacrifice" (worth mentioning that Jake Solomon, lead developer on XCOM, stated in a twitter post that the Volunteer *does not* die when the Mothership goes up, but is teleported away by an unknown party at the last minute), the Skyranger returns to XCOM HQ, and congratulations are had. The Commander smiles, happy for his victory, then the world seems to shimmer for a heartbeat, the Commander blinks, and he's standing back in Mission Control as the Skyranger deploys for a mission sometime in April of 2015.

    This way, you can have your victory, but also you can build up to XCOM 2. The Commander is stuck in a simulation that resets every time XCOM defeats the Aliens (or are completely wiped out), and then you can start lore-building the way to your XCOM 2 after-action report.

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  2. Hey Wanderer,

    Sorry for the late reply, just been on holiday. I like your idea, but you should have kept it in your hat for when you write your own AAR - it would have been a really funky twist that makes sense given the lore and backstory of the Commander in X-Com 2. I can't very well use it now - I'm just going to have make up my own ending, regardless of how my Ironman campaign turns out. Looking forward to reading your stuff, dude.

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  3. This is a late comment by VariableFreq from reddit who had the interceptor comments. As a fellow writer for fun and ex-military aircrew, I'm happy to pitch in for research or rationalizations. For instance, the F-35 I critiqued will one day be a great plane when it has super-advanced engines since that's what turns supersonic aircraft with the aerodynamics of bricks into worthwhile weapons-systems. For us that'll take 12-20 years, but for XCOM some elerium afterburners turn a relatively unwanted craft into a superior machine. And energy shielding cheats aerodynamics for alien fighters and Firestorms.

    Though for the most part I'm more interested in linguistics, sociology, and conspiracy aspects. But whenever you get back to this feel free to reach out. To be clear, I'm offering something closer to editing or acting as sounding board since you're writing a different sort of plot than my headcanon as is and I've zero reason to force ideas on ya.

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    Replies
    1. Hey mate,

      Sorry for the extended delay in replying - I stopped blogging for the last six weeks or so due to work and personal stuff, and am just getting back into it again. Once I start writing again I might run some ideas past you if that's cool - I found the stuff you wrote on Reddit very enlightening and made me do more research on the stuff I'm writing. It's going to take me some time to get back into the swing of things again, but once I do any feedback is always welcome, on any aspect - technical, historical, geopolitical, story writing, X-Com canon, whatever. If I commit any major clangers feel free to point em out.

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