XCOM 2: Sequels & Failure

I’ve put something like 40-ish hours into XCOM 2 so far, and I still haven’t finished my first campaign. Partially this may be because I suck – so I play half a battle, get destroyed, have to reload the battle and start again. Still, I think there’s a message there about the game. Usually when I’m playing things I like to have an eye towards an article to write about it. Not all of my games get articles, but it’s efficient for me if they do. Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write this one up since I started XCOM 2. It’s about the game’s introduction.

If you’ve never played the first XCOM, it’s a turn-based strategy game where aliens invade Earth and you have to kick the shit out of them. It’s heavily based on the old sci-fi aliens with big heads and weird eyes – very Grey alien, very Dover Demon kind of things. Anyway, you fight them off and eventually you hit up their spaceship and blow them all to hell. There’s different types of aliens, and they get stronger and cooler and more angry, and you upgrade your guys, and it’s all very entertaining. Apparently I played 80 hours of the first XCOM and didn’t take a single screenshot, uh, so have a stock photo.

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This is what those aliens looked like.

The premise of XCOM 2 is that, in the ‘canon’ ending of XCOM, humanity loses the war and the aliens take over Earth. This is super cool for a bunch of reasons. Normally video games are committed to the whole empowerment myth, where the player always wins and the world is always saved. This leads to a bunch of video game protagonists (Master Chief, Desmond Miles etc) being studied as Christ-figures, messiahs and so on. There’s the apocalyptic threat of the end-times, the guiding figure (Cortana and Juno, respectively), the singular ability of the protagonist to save the day – you get the point. So when XCOM 2 resists that trend, it’s pretty exciting – a fact that is itself a sad commentary on the uniformity of triple-A games.

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So it’s a different approach, and that’s cool, but it also justifies a bunch of mechanical shifts really tidily. In terms of narrative, the start of a sequel is basically right after the end of the original, which means that the protagonist has all the cool shit that they initially had by the end of the original movie. Think Neo in the second Matrix movie – he was boss, because he got all his powers at the end of the first one. That’s another Christ-figure, curiously enough. Anyway – once the protagonist is super powerful, you have to reset the narrative arc of them building up to their ultimate strength in order to defeat the baddies. We see this in God of War II, which starts with Kratos losing all his powers – that’s a reset. Often these are contrived, especially after you’ve seen the reset sixty different times. Assassin’s Creed gets around it quite neatly by shifting to new characters every so often, but you’ve still got Brotherhood and Revelations, both of which start with Ezio losing all his stuff again.

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By contrast, in XCOM 2, the reset flows really neatly. You don’t have to retcon the previous game, or make some out-of-nowhere massive change that conveniently strips the protagonist of all their powers. Humanity lost the war, the aliens took over, and as a consequence of that you don’t have any resources or soldiers or technology or anything. You’re just a bit fucked. And that’s cool! It’s tidy. It keeps the narrative flow of the game looking really organic. If we whip out a shitty graph of the narrative flow, this might be God of War:

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And this might be XCOM:

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So God of War is kind of jerky, in that there’s this really abrupt shift and plummet. XCOM has a more stable curve, in the sense that there’s success, decline, and then a rebuilding – and none of it’s sudden. When it’s sudden, it feels arbitrary, almost as if all the effort you put into the previous game doesn’t matter. There’s a break with the past, a discontinuity. Here, there’s cohesion. Everything makes sense. The long battle against the aliens in the first one creates the foundation for the second one – there’s alien propaganda about ‘unification’ instead of ‘invasion’, there are small resistance groups scattered across the globe, the world leaders who were once by your side are now subdued and part of the new political order. The chief engineer from the first game, Raymond Shen, is replaced by his daughter, Lily Shen.

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Now, to be clear, the argument isn’t that there’s no narrative continuity in God of War, because obviously there is. I think the issue is more about momentum. If you think about God of War, there’s momentum up until the end of the first game, and then at the start of the second that momentum is lost. You’re dropped back down to zero, and you have to start again. Note that I’m just talking about GoW I and II here. By contrast, in XCOM, it’s one more continuous flow. You’re winning, you’re losing, the game ends and a new one starts and that point of defeat becomes the base for a sequel that proceeds organically. It’s not the jarring instantaneous loss of all power – instead, there’s a slow build back up to the initial position.

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The other thing to note is that XCOM sort of retcons its own past. Well, it doesn’t – but it takes the narrative in a direction that you might not expect. In the first game, as a player, the game ends when you win – or when you absolutely lose and the aliens take over, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say more frequently the game ends when you win. So when you start XCOM 2, and you find out that the ‘true’ end-state of the narrative is the opposite of what you yourself experienced, there’s a sort of mental shift. The narrative gets reformed around this new information, so that you mentally extend this imaginative interpretation of the past 20 years backwards in time, to when the first game was set. There are some things you know, some details that’re provided, but you’re also imagining a lot of what’s going on. So you’re mentally reaching backwards – not to the actual XCOM 1 that you experienced, but to this mental construct of what the narrative retrospectively looks like. And that helps the narratives of the two games come together. The narrative of the second game asks you to imaginatively reconstruct the events and outcome of the first, thus nesting the fictional narrative of the first game within its own borders. It’s another cool technique that ties the narrative of XCOM 1 more closely together with its sequel.

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