Blood Isn’t Good to the Last Drop

I respect feminist games criticism because it shows us how much better we could do with our designs. Many of the tropes dissected aren’t behind the times only in social awareness, but in the state of the art in gameplay. Where you find a lazy portrayal of gender, race, or violence, lazy design choices often follow, and we can improve both by amending or eliminating our use of trite patterns.

This excerpt from Phil Owen’s WTF Is Wrong With Video Games? and this tongue-in-cheek list of in-game activities that would count as war crimes in real life primed me to think about these topics in my current gaming. (Both articles have their problems, but I can appreciate and recommend them for getting those thoughts rolling.) In particular, Cracked‘s critique of “giving no quarter” resonates with gameplay irritations I’ve run into in both video games and tabletop RPGs. Why is it still so often necessary to kill every opponent on a map before concluding a mission?

Feeling the itch for some turn-based squad tactics (perhaps in anticipation of XCOM 2?), I’ve recently restarted playing the WWII skirmish game Silent Storm, originally published in the early 2000s. It does one thing well with respect to the No Quarter trope: mission objectives almost always require that you obtain information, not kill everyone. Your goal on a given map is to procure documents, film reels, prototype technologies, etc., or to subdue and capture personnel with crucial intelligence. I find that quite refreshing! Real-world military objectives–at least for forces we see as admirable or heroic–rarely focus on annihilation, and it’s great to see that in a game.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design undercuts that commendable concept. Level layouts, enemy AI, and the fact that you can’t leave the mission zone with visible enemies even if you’ve accomplished all objectives, mean that most of the time you must wipe out all opposition to advance anyway. The intelligence targets you must capture don’t surrender; you have to fill them with lead to “knock them unconscious” and carry their limp bodies away. (There are a few nonlethal weapons in the game, but their game statistics are terrible, heavily disincentivizing their use.) Enemy units sometimes flee, but they can’t actually leave the level, so they reach the black expanse of nothingness at the map’s edge, then turn around to start shooting again.

We see this trope time and again, and invariably it makes for a worse game. I love the XCOM series, but especially in the earliest versions, hunting down the last alien on the board to complete a map was an exercise in tedium. It comes up in tabletop play, too. A common complaint against the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was that battles took too long to complete, and often at least part of the problem came down to playing things out until every monster in the encounter was dead. We’ve got No Quarter burnt into our heads by long exposure, but it’s a bad pattern.

We have the technology to do these things differently. The XCOM games already have morale algorithms, where enemies panic in the face of impending defeat, dropping their weapons and fleeing–but for some reason, the games haven’t taken the logical next step: have said enemies surrender, removing the necessity of blasting them to end the level. (Yes, you can knock them out with nonlethal weaponry in XCOM, which is a nice touch, but it’s still a waste of time and verisimilitude that you’ve got to hunt down and shoot routed enemies at all.) I appreciate the design patterns in Dungeon World, in many ways a superior set of tabletop play tech than D&D, whose principles of fictional flow and “bring every monster to life” lead naturally to combatants fleeing, laying down arms, or otherwise changing the nature of the conflict before they’re all dead.

These are more humane, progressive, feminist, etc. approaches to violence and victory than the tired No Quarter trope, and they make for better games too!

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Review: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Adulath Caracai II:

Yes, that’s “Unknown,” not “Within.” Back on my old LiveJournal, I titled my game review posts “Late to the Party”… maybe I should still do that!

Gameplay: It’s extra difficult for me to come at this from an on-its-own-merits perspective. X-Com: Terror from the Deep, sequel to the UFO Defense from which Enemy Unknown is inspired, ranks in my personal top five video games of all time! So by psychological necessity, this will be something of a comparison review.

That warning established, I feel Enemy Unknown takes almost the ideal approach to reimagining its predecessor. It starts with a number of baseline goals having to do with the original UFO Defense‘s greatest successes. It’s squad-level, turn-based tactical combat, interspersed with global strategic decisions involving interception of alien craft, research of their technologies, and production of new arms and equipment to outfit soldiers with; just like the original. A soldier, once killed, is dead for ever, just like in the original. Missions are thus the same tense search-and-destroy affair as in the original, with clenched teeth as you end your turn and await the enemy’s move, and curses when a sure shot goes wide or an alien takes down one of your veterans.

The numerous changes from the original simplify things in many appreciated ways, and add customization and depth to areas that didn’t have them before. No longer do you need to micromanage inventory down to how many clips of ammunition you have stored in your base. As soldiers earn promotions, they gain skills you can activate in tactical fashion, unlike the homogeneous shooters of the original. And combat actions have been condensed down to two per turn (typically movement and firing), rather than the original’s fine-grained and very wargamey “time units”, along with a more consciously deployable reaction-fire mechanic called “Overwatch.”

I did say “almost” ideal, though. Many of the tweaks and simplifications make Enemy Unknown a better game, but not a better experience. The original had an underlying mindset of simulation: events happen because of calculated factors and prior events often out of your sight. If aliens attack Moscow, a UFO flew there from an alien base, and you didn’t see it or catch it in time. In the reimagining, though, it’s just… because it’s time for a terror mission. Things are more scripted, less real. You only get one base, one troop transport, and can’t build any more (despite the obvious utility of such, with alien attacks happening simultaneously around the globe); why? You just can’t. You can’t sell manufactured items for cash, unless there’s a specific random request for them; why? Because one of the simplifications is that manufacturing most items takes only money, not time, so selling for profit would enable unlimited cash. It coheres as a design, but there’s a hollowness to it.

Aesthetics: We’ve come a long way from the blobby sprites and comic book monster pinups of the original, that’s for certain! The aliens are monstrous and creepy and intimidating, just like they ought to be. Action camera angles (optional) highlight kills and dramatic discoveries. It’s X-Com brought into the 21st century, abandoning the 90s radar dishes and flat-top haircuts for orbital recon satellites and slick space-marine armor.

There are some odd choices here, though. Soldiers’ weapons look more like Nerf or Lego toys than instruments of war. On a night mission with the enemy’s location undiscovered, is it really a good idea to cover yourself in red and green LEDs like a martial Christmas tree? And the animations, while serviceable, feel unpolished: snipers brace their rifles on their forearms even when there’s perfectly serviceable hard cover right in front of them; a soldier engaging in suppressive fire steps out into open space and stands there looking undefended. It caused me some confusion: how am I not getting reaction fire, which triggers on enemy movement, when they’re obviously waltzing out into the open to shoot?

Difficulty FAQtor: A few lookups, mostly to get a sense of the relative utility of different special abilities. Difficulty is highly customizable; I tried “Classic” difficulty at first and found it entirely too brutal, getting wiped out or at least decimated mission after mission. I settled on Normal difficulty but with the “Ironman” option enabled, which disallows any form of save-game rollback. (Mercifully, if you fail the very last mission, it does allow you do-overs there. I needed two.) When I get the chance to play the expansion set, I’ll likely attempt Classic again, knowing better what I’m doing!

Ism Factor: Exemplary. Your squad members are evenly split between men and women, and come from various countries around the globe, their names, complexions, and accents varying with their background. (The expansion will enable the option to have soldiers speak their native languages!) Female soldiers have a more slender profile than the men, but their costumes are otherwise identical, not in any way exploitative. They even have the same VA scripts, ensuring that no inequity slips in through choices in what the characters say! Support characters are at least modestly diverse: the Central Command guy is whitebread American, but the lead scientist is a European woman, and the head engineer is a middle-aged, even a bit overweight, gent of Chinese heritage. They could have been bolder with those choices–why not an African-American woman for a central command officer, a Pakistani scientist?–but that’s such a mild criticism that I’d say the game retains its top rating in this category.

Enjoyment Score: 4 out of 5 stars. I eagerly kept playing the game, often losing track of time while I was about it. However, I didn’t have any desire to play more once I’d won, at least until I get ahold of the expansion pack, and the replay urge is a crucial criterion for a game to earn 5 stars from me. Notably, I’ve played Enemy Unknown‘s predecessors several times, ha.