Difficulty and Narrative: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Pt. 1 of 2)
"Two possibilities exist:
Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not.
Both are equally terrifying."
- Arthur C. Clarke
This is the quote that opens XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the sequel/remake to the classic sci-fi strategy game XCOM: UFO Defense. In every sense, 2013's Enemy Unknown is a cathartic piece of work, even bearing the non-North American title of the original game. Aimed at healing the wounds of failed remakes, troubled development stories and outright cancellations, and bizarre forays into other genres (first and third-person shooters, flight simulators), this was the game fans of the original XCOM had been waiting for: more of the same, but with fresh graphics and sound.
Yes, this was the game that finally kept the awesome combination of Sim City-like base management mixed with individual squad-based tactics that have never really been replicated before or since. Above all else, though, it kept one of the most vital aspects that endeared XCOM to the hearts of PC gamers everywhere: insane difficulty.
I'm not sure what it is exactly about classic PC games and difficulty curves, but the two always seem to go hand in hand, such that the "Hard" mode of Firaxis' 2013 game is nicknamed "Classic" in recognition of the 1994 original's teeth-grinding frustration. At first blush, if a game is too difficult, it seems like it won't be enjoyable. In some cases, this is definitely true. The key is in design; if a game is difficult because the designers apply a steady curve of aggression, and the player has a chance to become accustomed to that curve, it feels like we can conquer that hump with practice and perfection. If the difficulty is a direct flaw of gameplay design (like, for instance, the execrable Superman on Nintendo 64), or simply starts hard and remains hard (or follows a bizarre pattern of easy-hard-moderate-hard-easy-hard etc.), then it's just frustrating.
With XCOM, though, I feel that the key to enjoying the difficulty lies in the narrative. The story behind XCOM is simple: you are in charge of the XCOM organization, a shadowy international body that protects Earth from threats that are beyond the scope of any one nation. In other words, you are E.T.'s worst nightmare. Formed in the wake of rumours of alien abductions, bizarre terrorist attacks, and strange sightings in the night sky, you represent humanity's last, best hope of survival.
The challenge, of course, is that though you have fairly massive funding (in the original game, your budget starts out around $6 million/month), and the best technology humanity currently has to offer...that budget and that technology pales in comparison to that of the alien race(s) hell-bent on conquering you. XCOM understands that in the incredibly unlikely scenario of an alien invasion from outer space, any race attempting this course of action would not only be decades ahead of us in technology, they would also have access to a massive amount of resources in order to traverse interstellar distances, arm and equip an invasion force, etc. Think of it this way: when the Nazis invaded Russia, they did so with 3.8 million troops, armed to the teeth, and that was just for one country. Imagine the scale of resources necessary to invade an entire planet.
Essentially, from the get-go you are completely, hilariously outgunned and outmatched, and the entire game is a rush to catch-up to a force that continuously changes its tactics, troops, and methods. This is the other way that narrative drives difficulty in XCOM. When you do confront the aliens face-to-face on the ground (and that's when you either catch them in the act of killing civilians, or if you're extremely lucky and shoot a UFO down), you have essentially no knowledge of their capabilities, appearance, weapons, anything. They are a wholly unknown enemy.
It all goes back to the quote from sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke. Recently, the human race was thrilled to finally have some clear pictures of one of our most distant solar neighbours: Pluto. When you consider that we have only just begun to thoroughly understand our own solar system, and weigh that against the infinity of possibility that lies behind each star that makes up our galaxy, and then expand that even further against the ocean of galaxies that make up the universe...is it any wonder that we might be a bit terrified?
Despite this, however, there is a sliver of hope at the heart of XCOM. Given time and research, you can gradually plunder the aliens' technology, adapt it, and turn it against them. It's a delicate balancing act of acquiring resources, protecting the various funding nations, and keeping your own soldiers alive, but with skill and patience it can be done.
I find it actually kind of poetic, in a strange way, that the solution, as always, is to learn more. The more you come to understand your enemies, the less unknown they are, and the more easy they are to defeat.
The unknown can be terrifying. Therefore knowledge can be comforting.
(stay tuned for XCOM: Enemy Within...)