XCOM is Not a Boss Fight

Today’s guest post is from cultural critic Jonathan McCalmont, who you may recognise from his video games column Blasphemous Geometries at Futurismic or from his extensive writing on a multitude of topics elsewhere.


Why the original X-Com is a classic…

I first played UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-Com: UFO Defense as it was known in North America) in the mid-1990s on an Amiga 1500 that had seen better days. I played the game on a series of 3.5” floppy discs that would grind and spin as the computer’s limited computational power struggled to cope with the game’s isometric 3D environments. More prone to bugs and hangings than 1950s Alabama, the fight scenes were frustrating affairs that somehow kept me on the edge of my seat despite their chronic lack of pace. Here was a game that was doing something new, even if it was not doing it particularly well. However, what that game was actually doing only became clear to me once it was re-released on the original Playstation.

UFO presented itself as a hybrid of strategy game and 8-bit dungeon crawler; Pools of Radiance meets Defender of the Crown if you will. However, despite its clear genre antecedents, the game’s appeal lay neither in its asymmetrical battle sequences nor its deceptively complex resource management interface. No, the true appeal of UFO lay in its ability to create the impression of an ill-prepared and under-funded human bureaucracy struggling to cope with a catastrophic realignment of humanity’s perceived place in the universe.

The tone is set by the game’s resource management system: built to resemble period software right down to the poorly-rendered spinning globe, the game’s outermost user interface adopted an almost corporate aesthetic. Like Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s upper-management meetings replete with beige office furniture and ferns, UFO looked like the type of software a military bureaucracy might have designed back in the mid-1990s: Here’s your pastel colour-scheme, here are your timers counting down to the next deadline, here are the faceless dolls representing your military personnel. It was all beautifully mundane and creaky, like the Gulf War running on Windows 95. Even the music was tastefully neutral and faintly reminiscent of what you might hear in the lift at a corporate headquarters. Here was an interface designed by a culture smugly certain that it could take anything the universe might throw at it.

This illusion was artfully carried over into the early UFO encounters that deposited your soldiers in what appeared to be Midwestern agricultural land. Brilliantly, the designers decided to cloak much of this landscape in darkness meaning that initial rounds frequently saw your dudes painstakingly navigating their way around an abandoned farm complex as though part of some bizarre paramilitary re-imagining of Harvest Moon. Then, suddenly, the world would change: A glimpse of something moving in the darkness, a flash of light and suddenly you’re one man down while your heavy-weapons expert is firing rockets into corn fields. What the fuck happened? What was that? Where’s the tasteful pastel menu for ‘pull yourselves together and kill that fucking thing’?

Despite drawing on the same generic alien mythology that inspired such 90s staples as The X-Files, UFO’s aliens seemed utterly Other as their presence seemed completely out of place amidst the mundane certainties of the game’s backdrops and interfaces: Midwestern farms should not contain lurking snake people, suburban landscapes should not feature spinning metallic discs and 1990s resource management software is not designed to help humanity come to terms with its place in the universe. UFO is not about killing aliens and building bases, it is about learning that the world is a more complex place than you previously thought and adapting to life in that radically changing environment.

UFO conveys this impression of a world undergoing radical change by making use of a technique much beloved of generations of horror writers. In Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, a group of British scientists find an alien spacecraft buried beneath a London street and soon come to realise that humanity is descended from a group of aliens whose savagery accounts for many of the darker passages of human history. In H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness, a similar group of scientists explore the Antarctic and discover traces of a civilisation that both predates and explains human existence. In both stories, the characters experience a terrifying sensation of slippage as the world they are familiar with dissolves to reveal a far more complex and terrifying reality than they could possibly have imagined.

UFO makes brilliant use of this technique by perpetually dragging us back and forth between the comfortingly smug pastel colours of our corporate resource management software and the reality of a world in which humans are no longer at the top of the food chain. Every time a Midwestern farm turns into a slaughterhouse and every time we return to the corporate interface we are reminded of how wrong we were to believe ourselves safe. Every time that corporate interface sounds an alarm or calmly informs us that we are running out of both money and soldiers, we are reminded of how ill prepared humanity was for this confrontation with the universal Other.

Humanity’s profound ignorance is further highlighted by the fact the bureaucracy does not simply research new weapons systems, it also researches the origins of the aliens in an effort to make sense of what is actually happening. Indeed, it is only once you work out who the aliens are and what it is that they are attempting to achieve that you begin to turn a corner and stop passively reacting to the aliens’ interventions on Earth.

The most impressive thing about UFO is the way that it captures what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a vast conspiracy. Play through the game with varying levels of competence and you will be struck by the fact that a gifted player can only ever slow down the alien invasion. You cannot break the aliens in an early battle or get the drop on them by pre-empting the game’s narrative… you can only deploy your soldiers, make the right decisions and hope that you learn fast enough to go on the offensive before it’s too late. Make the wrong decisions early on and the game will take you from tentative rural skirmishes to casualty-laden urban clusterfucks in a few short months but make the right decisions and you might get the chance to take the fight to the aliens before they drop a mothership on top of your home base. By connecting the speed of the invasion narrative to the competence of the player, the game manages to both give the player a sense of control over events, and make it clear to them that humanity is no longer in the historical driving seat. UFO is a game that is full of known unknowns but it’s always the unknown unknowns that get you in the end because nobody is ever completely ready to meet CompThulhu or for the suggestion that the player’s actions might well have nudged Humanity onto the same developmental track pursued by the aliens. This too plays into the game’s sense of slippage as the aliens do not just represent some catastrophic social upheaval, they also represent one of Humanity’s potential futures thereby suggesting that the player’s militaristic attempt to preserve the status quo may in fact be dooming Humanity to a future of inhuman belligerence.

The genius of UFO: Enemy Unknown lies neither in its game mechanics nor in its plotting but in its thematic depth and the way in which it uses mood and texture to capture what it is like to be lost, what it is like to find oneself, and what it is like to wonder what it is that one has become. My only regret is that the game’s recent remake (named XCOM: Enemy Unknown) completely fails to understand what made the original game so powerful.

X-COM geoscape


Why the new XCOM is enjoyable fluff…

Aside from the fact that it is an X-Com game that is available on the current generation of consoles, the allure of XCOM lies chiefly in the fact that its combat system was designed in a world containing a relatively mature tactical RPG sub-genre. Thus, rather than a series of slow and frustrating tactical encounters featuring an array of faceless skill packages, XCOM offers a succession of engaging and well-paced skirmishes with enough tactical focus and cinematic panache to keep you entertained and interested through dozens of hours of play. The ability to personalise both the look and name of your troopers also gives your soldiers sufficient emotional substance to ensure that their loss is felt on a human level. Indeed, when I lost my most experienced Heavy, I did not grieve for his skills as much as I did for the fact that I had named him for the veteran science fiction critic and encyclopaedist John Clute. Frankly, I can live without an experienced Heavy for a few missions but the thought of a world without impenetrably over-written book reviews strikes me as almost immeasurably sad. Unfortunately, beyond these limited upgrades to the battle system, XCOM struggles to find a tone that is appropriate to the subject matter.

The problems begin with the tutorial mission. Rather than it taking place in the relatively benign environs of a Midwestern farm, my tutorial mission took place on the rain-slicked streets of Berlin. Right from the start, XCOM piles on the atmospherics with enough mood lighting and sinister music to make the eventual appearance of the aliens seem like something of an anti-climax. Far from being Otherworldly invaders, this first group of aliens seems perfectly at home in a world filled with long shadows and muscular military presences. Even more problematic is the fact that, because this is a tutorial mission taking place largely on rails, the aliens seem like a complete pushover thereby depriving them of menace as well as Otherness.

The biggest mistake that XCOM makes is opening the game on a note of panic and keeping it there for the entirety of its running time. XCOM attempts to recreate the original game’s mood of ill-preparedness but rather than allowing players to realise that proprietary corporate software packages will not save them, XCOM embeds this idea in the lugubrious architectural interface used to navigate between the bureaucracy’s different departments. Whereas the original X-Com headquarters spoke of corporate hubris that fell apart as the game progressed, the new XCOM base looks like something assembled as an afterthought. Evidently humanity was so ill prepared for an alien invasion that nobody thought to provide its multi-billion dollar paramilitary defence force with sufficient light bulbs. The game’s top-down approach to mood is also evident in the disastrous decision to lend each department a human face.

As well as being objectively less well designed than their original counterparts, the science and engineering interfaces have also acquired a pair of generic characters whose job it is to react emotionally to every bit of plot development. Thus, rather than calmly depositing news of humanity’s ultimate insignificance into your in-box, XCOM laboriously explains it to you in a cut scene imbued with all the emotional sophistication of a Michael Bay movie aimed solely at people with debilitating head injuries.

XCOM has little time for ambiguity or allowing its players to draw their own conclusions. Rather than allowing players to form their own ideas about what it is they are seeing, the game’s visuals scream ‘You’re fucked! This is really dangerous!’ in the player’s face and the screaming only stops when they eventually wander off to do something more intellectually satisfying such as rolling around on the floor making barnyard noises.

Much of the power of the original game lay in its unusual willingness to allow the players to formulate their own emotional reactions to the implications of the plot. The original UFO did not drive home humanity’s insignificance or spell out the idea that human civilisation might one day come to resemble that of the aliens… instead, the game placed this information in the player’s purple corporate in-box and allowed them to join up the dots in their own time. By allowing the player to happen upon these implications on their own terms and in the context of a bland corporate software interface, UFO imbued these revelations with real emotional power: these were not mere tactical details culled from an intelligence briefing, these were hard and uncomfortable truths about the world, truths that shattered the illusions of calm and certainty contained in those pastel colours.

By electing to have this information spoon-fed to the player by a pair of hysterical genre archetypes, XCOM not only denies players the chance to draw their own conclusions, it also does away with any pretence that an alien invasion might somehow be at odds with the world of the game. The original UFO aliens were cracks in the surface of reality, monstrously destabilising incursions into a world that humanity believed it understood. Conversely, the XCOM aliens are natives to a world that begins coiled in expectation of imminent alien invasion. Utterly at home in a world of underfunded paramilitary alien hunters and rain-slicked urban dystopias, XCOM’s aliens are nothing more than the generic bad guys from a moderately well realised tactical shooter.

To make matters even worse, XCOM’s writers have attempted to compensate for this emotional shortfall by reaching for ever-more purple prose including one grotesquely gothic interlude in which the acquisition of generic psychic powers is described as humanity peeking behind some sort of mystical veil. Needless to say, this top-down sense of awe is entirely absent from the practical deployment of psychic powers, which is presented as nothing more awe-inspiring than another option on the weapons menu. Apparently achieving enlightenment and oneness with the Godhead does 3 points of damage!

The more emotionally manipulative the game becomes, the more its attempts to evoke feelings of awe and terror seem ludicrous and ill conceived. Given that the game begins by situating us in a world poised on the brink of a massive alien invasion, why are we expected to be surprised when humanity winds up building its own UFO and finding a way to develop psychic powers? These are genre staples and this is a genre game; XCOM’sattempt to artificially imbue these staples with emotional energy is as absurd as a single-player military FPS that decides to talk about the horrors of war after the player has spent hundreds of hours machine-gunning Nazi soldiers and tea-bagging sinister Muslims.

In many ways, XCOM is an entirely decent and timely update of a classic game: Good to look at, rewarding to play and more than capable of capturing that sense of unease you once felt upon stepping into the carcass of a ruined UFO, it is a game that is entirely consistent with recent developments in AAA video game storytelling. The real problem is that the only insight gained by AAA game developers over the last ten years has been to transform everything into a boss fight.

XCOM base


Why Must All Games Be Nothing But Boss Fights?

One of the ways in which game developers get around a lack of memory is by re-using the same material over and over again in an effort to pad out a game’s lifespan. This is why the original Halo sends you hurtling across a series of landscapes only to then turn you around and send you hurtling back in the opposite direction. Back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, this type of recycling was particularly obvious as developers would just change a few colours and reuse the same enemies and backgrounds over and over again.

In an effort to stretch their material that little bit further and break up the monotony that comes from fighting the same things over and over again, game designers would often aggressively reframe one particular section as a boss fight. This process of reframing generally involved clearing the screen of all ‘normal’ enemies and changing the music to something more befitting a terrifying head-to-head confrontation. Even though all you were ever actually doing was fighting an enemy with a few extra hit points, these aesthetic tweaks not only cleansed the palate allowing you to go back to ‘normal’ fights without getting bored, they also seemed a lot more tense and important.

As time went by and the technological capacity of video games increased, game developers became increasingly skilled at using all manner of tricks to re-frame particular fight scenes. Taking their cues from Hollywood action movies, video game boss fights soon moved beyond different music and cleared screens to using cut-scenes and graphical flourishes to both whet players’ appetites going into a fight and punctuate the dramatic beats of the confrontation while it is taking place:

An excellent example of the former is the way in which Batman:Arkham Asylum has Croc repeatedly appear just out of the player’s reach. Every time the villain appears, the game slows down to emphasise his immense physical presence and create the expectation that taking down Croc will be almost impossible.

An equally useful example of the latter is the way in which JRPGs such as Final Fantasy VII would display lengthy animations each time the player unleashed a particular type of attack. The slowing of the game and the striking nature of the animations illustrates the growing competence of the characters and their capacity to unleash terrifying damage on those who oppose them.

Few developers understand the structural importance of boss fights better than Hideo Kojima. Shameless in its scene-setting histrionics and ruthless in its willingness to terminate an enjoyable section of play before it gets boring, Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series has come to be seen as the bench-mark for cinematic video game storytelling. This development is rather interesting as while Kojima’s stories are invariably stylish and well-paced, their plots are invariably either intensely stupid or completely incoherent. In other words, while Kojima has mastered the narrative dark arts of emotional manipulation, his ability to come up with stories worth telling remains as limited as ever.

XCOM resembles the Metal Gear Solid series in so far as its approach to narrative is as totalitarian as it is melodramatic. Rather than trusting their material and their audience to find one another in an organic fashion, the writers of XCOM drive home every beat and every emotion as hard as they possibly can. Where the original UFO allowed players to uncover the disconnect between terrifying world and bland corporate office on their own terms, XCOM displays humanity’s precarious position in every colour scheme, every piece of text and every poorly performed and written cut-scene.

Games like XCOM are the product of a creative environment in which there is no room for subtlety or nuance. Like advertisers and political demagogues, AAA game designers are convinced that the only way of making the audience care is by reaching into their heads and forcing them to do so. Once upon a time, game designers used certain top-down narrative techniques to break up the monotony of fighting the same three enemies over and over again. Now, game designers use variations on these same manipulative techniques to wring emotional responses from the same old poorly written stories.

AAA game designers are now habitually returning to a well that has long since run dry. The basic problem is that if you create a calm game only to then occasionally shift to a more hysterical tone then those moments of hysteria will have real impact. However, if you create a hysterical game and them attempt to make the tone even more hysterical in an effort to grab the audience’s attention then chances are that all you will have is a ludicrous and inhuman mess. Rather than learning to tell stories filled with nuance and contrast, AAA game designers have spent the last ten years digging deeper and deeper wells in an effort to make their hysterical games seem even more hysterical! Much like the history of advertising, the history of mainstream video game narratives is one dominated by louder music, better visuals and ever-expanding production costs. Rather than telling stories that connect with us on a human level, AAA game designers have attempted to imbue their stories with the appearance of significance by turning everything into one enormous boss fight hence the increasing use of cut-scenes, quick time events and bosses that are too big to fit on the screen. You simply cannot make a mass-market console game that looks like the original UFO when people are making games that look like Bayonetta; the audience’s emotional palate has now become so desensitised that they would not be able to taste its delicate mix of narrative spices.

Much has been made of video games coming to rival Hollywood movies but given how terrible Hollywood movies can frequently be, I can’t help but see this as a bad thing. Games like Journey and works by Christine Love such as Analogue: A Hate Story and don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story are filled with ambiguity, insight and emotional intelligence but these games are now so far removed from the mainstream of gaming that they almost seem to be part of some secondary hobby (an impression accelerated by the near disappearance of mid-list titles). Some critics have been swift to seize on this disconnect and to champion the existence of ‘art house’ video gaming but the real danger here is not that intelligent games will cease to be made, it is that the narrative techniques used in intelligent games will entirely cease to appear in AAA titles. As a film lover, I am as capable of enjoying Transformers as I am L’Avventura but my true preference lies with the films that exist between these two truncated extremes, films like those created by Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks and Claude Chabrol: works that combine the ability to craft a compelling narrative that forces me to care whilst allowing me enough room to draw my own conclusions about certain matters. By removing all nuance in favour of heavy-handed emotional manipulation, the developers of XCOM have effectively remade The French Connection as Bad Boys II.

[Jonathan McCalmont blogs at Ruthless Culture.]