Published on November 26th, 2012 |
by Mitch North
Naming Your Crew: Emotional Attachment in XCOM and Beyond
Recently I’ve spent a lot of time playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012), Firaxis Games’ turn-based tactical role-playing remake of the classic strategy game X-COM: UFO Defense (1994). In doing so, it has dawned on me that, despite what amounts to a series of computer algorithms and pretty graphics playing out on-screen, I do actually maintain a huge amount of personal interest in the fate of my soldiers, taking on genuine fear for them as they face up to the alien menace and put their lives on the line, Will Smith-style. But why?
Surely this makes little sense; after all, these characters aren’t real and it shouldn’t bother me if individual members die as long as I complete the mission, right? Plus it’s not like they’re blessed with immersive dialogue and backstories in the style of your AI teammates in Mass Effect or Left 4 Dead. Yet a game like XCOM is able to promote a direct emotional response in the player, towards the characters, through the virtue of this naming process. It’s not exclusive to XCOM by any means, just look at the recent FTL: Faster Than Light, or the not so recent Worms, but it happens, for three particular reasons.
The first concerns customisability. Within XCOM I have the ability to name my squad members and make aesthetic choices about their armour (a perk of the pre-order DLC). In other words, I am the creator. I can choose to name them after an American movie star (Danny Glover), an Austro-Hungarian author (Franz Kafka) or an Italian fashion designer (Donatella Versace). I tend to let the game to choose the nationality for me and let my imagination go wild from there. By the virtue of naming characters as something I already relate to, characters can begin to fulfil individual personalities that, given my presence as their creator, I can put far more belief in – especially compared to the believability offered by some games *cough* JRPGs *cough*.
There’s also the fact that, in XCOM, you’re able to alter the characters – rather than have the game determine these aspects for you – prompting greater belief in their traits and keeping the immersion constant. Though the characters aren’t taken as realistic, they are taken as more believable; distinguishing the point where you may suddenly take issue with the game’s portrayal of a specific characters motives or actions.
Hold your ground buddy! You can do this!
Let’s say you’ve enacted a scenario in which Danny Glover is a fearsome character – he’s the type of guy to take the lead in dangerous situations and has shown this through previous battles – even if he is getting too old for this shit. Then there’s Franz Kafka – he’s the lucky guy – in your last mission he was within a whisker of being killed but successfully looked death straight in the eyes and pulled off an improbable shot to take down that last enemy. He’s shown his worth and, as such, you call on him to try that again if necessary. Perhaps I sound a bit crazy at this point but it’s for a reason.
Here I have demonstrated the idea of being immersed to the point where you start to feel each character has formed separate personalities. A meta-narrative has been constructed in which you, through customisation and creation, are able to run with the idea of your characters having their own traits even if the game suggests otherwise.
All this feeds into the third aspect: care. You’ve customised your characters, given them a name and interpreted their actions as evidence of a particular style. Now you’re at a point where you’ve invested interest into each of them and you take on a personal response to each character. This is when attachment has become fully formed. As a result you end up caring specifically about each individual character. You may really hope Robin Van Persie pulls through, as he’s always been able to pull you out of a jam, while Seamus Heaney has proved to be unreliable in the past and prone to panicking, so your care for his character isn’t very high. You actively take on a role where you attach yourself to individually to the fictional characters.
While this has certainly been one of the huge appeals of XCOM for me, it isn’t exclusive. The earliest game I can remember doing this with is Worms (1995) in which I subsequently pitted my own personal teams of four against one another. Rollercoaster Tycoon (1999) allowed me to name, and then follow, the actions of park members, telling me which ride they were queuing for and what kind of food they were buying – you know, like a normal theme park owner would do. Pokémon (1996 onwards) followed in a similar fashion as I was able to capture and name my pokémon (and my rival) after whatever I pleased.
Ok. My bad.
The Sims (2000) is another game which stands as an obvious example in its own right; a game in which you take on the role of a god bearing down on your creations and manipulating almost everything about them. Valkyria Chronicles (2008), too, serves as an example of a more recent game in which personal investment, as in XCOM, is one of the key features. You lack the ability to alter your characters’ names or physical appearance but personal investment is reached by being able to maintain a unit of characters who you have a personal say in choosing. As a result of knowing that if characters die then they are gone forever you pay close personal attention to your their progress, making sure that if they go down in the heat of battle they will be promptly rescued… or not. Sure you can replace them with members of equal skill but this doesn’t matter; you treat them individually with a personal response.
Consider this in comparison to something like the Assassin’s Creed‘s franchise, a series which introduced the recruitment of assassins which the player could send across Europe to conduct missions of their own. At no point did Brotherhood seek to make these figures anything more than background extras, occasionally popping up from killin’ school to graduate before promptly disappearing again to London or Paris. There was no sense of care afforded to these drones, to the extent that they’re just statistics and percentage points to judge whether an inconsequential mission might be completed.
All in all, whereas these types of games may concede the idea of a tighter narrative by allowing for personal alterations (and hence a kind of breaking of the fourth wall), they are also able to allow for a greater sense of attachment from the player. And while it’s not necessary to take this approach in every game of a similar ilk, it’s undeniable that games like XCOM allow for a fantastically unique and interesting gaming experience in a way which incorporates active participation from the player. Ultimately, Enemy Unknown is a game with great gameplay working on numerous levels, and proves far more enjoyable than most tight, but completely non-unique and uninteresting, narrative-driven games that have been churned out recently.
Yes, Borderlands 2, I’m looking at you. What was your story anyway?