The X-COM franchise is a series of science-fiction horror tactical video games (plus a handful of shooter and flight simulator titles) that put you in the commander’s seat of a covert paramilitary organization tasked with protecting the Earth from alien invaders. You negotiate funding from a council of nations, delegate that money toward weapons technology, research and personnel, and lead teams of soldiers on missions against the extraterrestrials.
In the first generation of the series (UFO: Enemy Uknown, Terror from the Deep, Apocalypse), the horror elements are very strongly emphasized. These are 90’s PC games, soaked in an era of bewildering user interfaces, punishing difficulty and a grim, utilitarian approach toward the management of one’s human resources.
When you land a team of soldiers in a grassy knoll, you’re treated to a barrage of plasma fire the moment you step them off the troop transport. Equipping noobie soldiers with grenades and running them into the middle of an alien encampment is often a valid strategy. In those games, human lives are just another resource: Like money or time, you want to preserve as much as you can. But you can’t win the war without spending some.
That horror focus, for better or worse, has shifted since the series rebooted in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its 2016 sequel XCOM 2. Let me just say, right off the bat, that these games are both great. Firaxis has taken the series from a highly esoteric, dated-by-modern-standards 2D perspective to a modern 3D perspective without losing too much gameplay detail.
Enemy Unknown, in particular, is excellent: As a reboot of the franchise, it recaptures the fear and confusion of humanity’s first contact with an overwhelmingly hostile alien force with a very easy to learn set of game mechanics.
But as I mentioned in a previous podcast episode about attachments to video game characters, it’s also the beginning of a tonal shift for the series (in my opinion), which sees the player’s soldiers shift from well-trained warriors, outgunned but not necessarily outsmarted by their foes, to superhuman comic book heroes leaping walls and blowing up aliens with their minds.
I think this is precipitated by a two-step process: One, as graphical and sound quality improve, it’s easier to get attached to characters, and games today take more of a story-driven approach to writing than they did two decades ago. And two, as we grow more attached to these units and feel more of a desire for the game to tell their story rather than just the story of XCOM kicking the aliens back into space, it becomes more painful and upsetting to see those characters die.
Finally, since a horror tone requires death, or at least the ever-present threat of it, the series gradually shifts from using these characters as examples of the horrors of war to using them as ass-kicking, high-fiving Marvel heroes. Soldiers in XCOM 2 wield magnetically homing plasma axes, sniper rifles that can fire eight times in one six-second turn, and psychic powers that can clone soldiers or mind-control enemies.
While the game is still really hard — I still haven’t beat XCOM 2 on the two highest difficulties — the new games also employ a reverse difficult curve, where the early game gives you lethal consequences for even one mistake but the late game gives you an overwhelming amount of options to respond to any threat. In particular, your survivability spikes up: soldiers can tank multiple hits, get medical assistance from across the map via drones, or even employ psychic shields that block all damage for one turn.
These options encourage players to balance saving soldiers and accomplishing mission goals — which is cool game design — but I think the side effect of all this focus on saving your favorite soldiers has made it all the more tempting for people to save scum the game by reloading anytime they make a tactical mistake (see the following Twitter video):
I will admit to having a lot of fun playing the XCOM 2 late game with absolutely overpowered super soldiers, decked out with artifact weapons that can’t miss or psionic powers that let the remotely detonate an alien’s grenade. And the game compensates for all this firepower by throwing aliens at you that are less horror and more terror: bulky, terrifying monsters that can attack you several times a turn or steal a soldier’s body. Tonally, it’s appropriate that in the game where you play as the resistance fighting the aliens, you would become the scary invaders fighting from the shadows.
But all that being said, I’m excited for projects like Phoenix Point — a tactical game made by some of the X-COM team members that looks like it’s leaning into the themes of horror, desperation, and fighting against a force that is unknown with soldiers who are brave yet frail, intelligent but all-too-human.