On a Deeper Level V: XCOM and Fail States

Image via steam.com

By Michael Dellapi, Highlighter staff columnist

The strategy genre of video games approaches fail states in such a way that is distinctly unique from games of other genre. The closest parallel to the way that failure is presented in tactics games could arguably be classic arcade games, which were deliberately designed for the player to either shell out more tokens to continue gameplay or risk the loss of all progress. Over time, it would become a rarity to see a game that would start a player from the beginning because they failed a mission. In “XCOM 2,” for example, failing a mission simply means restarting the sequence from the beginning. In between failures, it allows the player to contemplate where they went wrong and adjust their strategy accordingly. However, I found myself on multiple occasions restarting the game from the beginning due to certain unavoidable circumstances.

“XCOM 2” incorporates a “perma-death” system, meaning that when a character dies within the context of a mission but the mission itself is completed, the character remains unplayable for the future. This develops an immediate sense of tension and urgency between player and character, as the player desperately tries to ensure that all of their higher­ level characters survive to see another mission. In turn, one wrong move can completely cripple the player’s progress. For example, inadequate positioning of one of your stronger characters can make future missions unbelievably difficult if they happen to die in the middle of battle. Additionally, their replacements are woefully inexperienced and prone to nervous breakdowns while fighting. Eventually, these failures can spiral out of control until the game becomes completely un-winnable.

These instances of total failure are infrequent for the average competent player, but they exist nonetheless. There is nothing within the game itself that requires a player to restart the game, but instead mimics a legitimate high­-stakes scenario where every decision truly matters. Rather than moments of failure being isolated events, “XCOM 2” reminds the player of every mistake that they make and builds the game around these situations. In this regard, the game fully realizes the notion that each battle is one of survival rather than conquest, where the player must carefully consider every action that they make or risk completely ruining their chances for the future.


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