XCOM and the Art of Permanence

xcomperm1Caleb Johnson never wanted to be a soldier. He had other plans for his life. All of that changed when the aliens attacked, though. He couldn’t just leave the world to fend for itself. He had to do what he could to help. So he enlisted. He found that he had something of a talent for warfare – or at least the skills therein – and before he’d even seen the battlefield he found himself placed in a program for the special ones. The elites. The ones who were going to save the world. XCOM.

It only took me a few turns to fall in love with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I didn’t know what I was getting into – I’d never played the original classics – but I sat down to play a couple of matches against Ed and I was hooked. The look, feel and mechanics of the reboot just worked for me. Every move I made felt important and satisfying, and by the time we stood up after I was given a sound thrashing I knew that it would be a day-one purchase for me.

When I finally got to pop the disc into my 360, I’d done my research. I knew the games that XCOM was based off of, and I’d looked up the snippets of information that had been released over the course of its development. I knew that the battle that I was getting myself into would be tough, and if I should make a mistake – as I no doubt would – there would be consequences. Men and women, the brave soldiers who had taken on the grave responsibility of saving the world, would die if I made the wrong move. There would be no handy respawns and they wouldn’t happily reappear at the end of the mission like nothing had happened. If they were gone, they were gone for good. I couldn’t wait.

All Johnson could remember of his first mission was the fear. The hot, brain-melting terror that rose in his chest as he first laid eyes on the enemy. The sharp, shrieking terror that threatened to burst from his throat as the shots began zipping across the battlefield. Nothing they had taught him had prepared him for this. Nothing could. But he stood, and he fought. He helped the members of his team fight off the raid, taking down two of the little grey bastards himself. He performed well, and the ‘powers that be’ took notice.


Of course, Enemy Unknown is hardly the first game to institute a perma-death mechanic. Fire Emblem has been doing it for years, and though there is a pang of sorrow every time you lose a squad member, something about the deaths of my XCOM agents really stung. After all, they were mine in a way that my Fire Emblem could never be, customised to be just the way I want them rather than characters in someone else’s story.

For me, what made XCOM so special was the way each character had their own story that grew and developed with them as you become the commander that you were always meant to be. From the moment you first meet a squad member you’re encouraged to invest in them. Give them a new name – the right name, obviously – get their loadout and armour just right. They’re an individual after all, and they’re important. They go on their first mission, and you watch them rise to the occasion, covering their teammates and taking down the alien scourge. So, obviously, they’re rewarded, getting promoted and finding their own specialism that takes advantage of their unique skills. And just like that, they mean something to you.

xcomperm3Johnson was to be a sniper. He’d never had much trouble hitting his targets, so it didn’t come as much of a surprise. Something about this felt right. Maybe he hadn’t known what he was meant for, but he was finding out now. He’d been promoted, too, which was nice. Apparently the war was taking its toll and they were rewarding those who survived the conflict. He didn’t really feel like he’d earned it yet. He would though. He’d prove them right. He’d make sure of it.

A few missions in, and you’ve got a squad full of people you love. People you’ve invested in. And every move is torture. You know that you’re putting them in danger every time you push them forward, and slowly but surely caution becomes the name of the game. After all, if you’re too reckless you might lose that Sniper that you’ve been nurturing since the first mission, or leave that Assault stranded in the open where he’d be an easy target. So instead you hang back, push forward slowly and leave the action points you’ll need for overwatch so you’re not taken by surprise.

Making missions as clean as possible becomes paramount. Even one stray shot could be the hit that takes a key part of your team out of action and ruins the balance that you’ve so carefully worked out. Your squad’s personalities start to shine through, and you know their names like you know your best friends. I can push Johanssen forward a little faster. He’s got great reflexes – no one will be taking him by surprise. Cyrus loves heights; they give him a better chance of scoping out the enemy and landing those long-range hits that can make all the difference when the real firefight starts. Stead has got great wheels – he’ll get anywhere he needs to be with time to spare, which is handy when you’re a medic. They start to get nicknames – they’re becoming legendary even within the organisation. Everyone knows about Longshot or Cowboy, even if they’ve never been on a mission with them. Everyone.


They called Johnson ‘Reaper’ now. He didn’t know who had started it, but everyone had picked it up. Hell, even the commander had taken to it. He’d heard people whispering about him when he was back at base, spreading rumours in hushed tones. They were nonsense, but he didn’t bother trying to quash them. Instead he spent more time than ever in the field.

Things had really taken off, then the scientists had got their hands on some of that alien tech. It had given them all sorts of ideas, and Reaper’s squad had been their lab rats. It hadn’t taken him long to get used to the plasma rifle that they had given him, but he didn’t love it like he loved the wings. Well, technically it was a jump-pack that let him hover, but to him it felt like they had given him wings. He spent almost every engagement in the air now, constantly talking to his buddies on the ground and taking out any threat that reared its ugly head. He was like an angel of death and he never missed. Maybe Reaper was the right name for him after all.

xcomperm5Here’s the thing though – XCOM is hard. Tough as nails. There’s no escaping death. There are no clean runs. Sooner or later, you’re going to make a mistake and, when you do, you’re going to get jumped over. Suddenly one of those men that you’ve spent so long getting to know gets cut down, and it hurts. It hurts a lot. These are way more than just pixels on a screen now. They’re people, people that you’ve gotten to know, that have spun their own stories inside yours, that are suddenly gone. And it’s all your fault.

If only you had been better, then maybe Cyrus didn’t have to die. If you’d been paying more attention then Johanssen would still be here, cracking jokes and geeing the guys up instead of dead at the hands of a Floater that you didn’t notice. If not for your mistakes, Stead wouldn’t have had to gun down his own brother after a Chryssalid dragged him down. And sure, you could load an earlier save, back to before you’d made that mistake, but it wouldn’t be the same. That wouldn’t be Cyrus, not really. It would be a fake, because the real Cyrus is gone, and no matter how much you miss him you can’t bring him back.

Reaper wasn’t sure how things had gone downhill so quickly. They’d been in control damnit, but now Chase was gone and things were getting ugly. He was up in the air at the minute, but he felt more exposed than he ever had before. For the first time since that first mission, Reaper felt that searing, wailing fear.

Now that you’ve felt the shadow of death, he haunts every move that you make. Everything that you do is overshadowed by that creeping, haunting fear that you might cock up again. This time, you know what’s going to happen and it cripples you. Time and again your mind stops working, and time again you make another silly mistake. Again and again you’re punished, and soon enough it’s a vicious circle that punishes you for being afraid by instilling ever more fear in you. With every death, victory is farther away, and as you scramble to train new recruits to fill the vacancies that their deaths leave, you have to be more reckless. It’s like death has a personal agenda against you, taking the lives of each of your beloved squaddies.


Reaper was the last one left now. He had heard the rest of his squad die, one by one. He didn’t know what they had missed, but something had gone wrong. His rifle was empty, burned out, but it had taken a trio of Mutons with it. He didn’t have time to replace the core – it didn’t take long, but even a few seconds of inattention was too long now. He was left with his pistol and, as a last resort, a pair of grenades. He’d never been much of a bombardier, more likely to destroy himself than his enemy, but Cowboy had insisted. And now he was dead, and Reaper couldn’t help but be glad that it wasn’t him. He checked the pins absently as he scanned the area ahead of him for any signs of the bastards who were coming to kill him. It was only a matter of time now.

xcomperm7This escalation is where Enemy Unknown really shines. It’s a smart lesson in the use of perma-death – which is fast becoming the norm in turn-based strategy titles – and an example that suggests it takes more than just throwing permanence at the player to create a sense of tension and fear. It takes time and investment to make someone care about a collection of pixels on a screen, but that’s exactly what happened with XCOM. I can still remember conversations held with friends about the feats of their teams and how fond they were of their characters. I can certainly recall the swear words that spouted when one of their favourites died or their campaign began to crumble around them. Without fail, they cared, and that’s why it hurt.

He wouldn’t last much longer. He knew that now, and it brought him a strange sense of peace. One grenade was gone. He’d actually managed to land it in the midst of some particularly irritating Thin Men, and they’d all gone up in a flash. Cowboy would have been proud. His pistol had been enough to take out a couple of the Floaters, but he’d taken a few hits. He could barely lift his left arm now – even if his rifle had had anything left, he couldn’t have aimed it to get a shot off. The second grenade weighed heavily at his belt, but even as he reached for it, he heard the dull whine of a plasma rifle and everything went black.


XCOM without the perma-death is a decent game. You can see that, when you play through with saves before every mission and the magical power to return people back to life. Where it really shines however, is when each decision you make has permanent, painful consequences. When it forces you to decide between two bad choices or to sacrifice your favourite Support for the good of the world. That’s when Enemy Unknown really matters, and how it becomes brilliant. Somehow it makes you a masochist and you love it. I know I certainly do.

Last five articles by Keegan


One Comment

  1. Mark R Mark R says:

    I loved this. I also love permanence and consequence, which is why I play RPGs with just the one save file. I don’t go back to old saves if something goes to shit; I soldier on and treat it as though it were real. You rarely get a second chance in life, so why should it be any different in-game.

    Speaking of XCOM specifically, or UFO: Enemy Unknown to be precise, I remember the exact moment when Commander Walter S Skinner was taken down. He’d been with me since I created and named my first squad. He was the first to try Psyonics and the Flying Suit, and his time units were so high that he carried around the Blaster Launcher as his primary weapon. Whenever there were landed crafts, or near-intact shot-down crafts, he’d be there first… he was always first out of the door, flying to a point where he could see the top of the craft, and using his Blaster Launcher to create a quick way in. He’d take out the alien commanders and navigators while the rest of his squad ploughed through the rest of the enemies through the front door.

    I’d watched him grow, didn’t give him any preferential treatment, but he ended up being the most accurate, getting the highest number of kills, and so he progressed quicker than all others. The moment he became Commander Walter S Skinner was awesome. I protected him as much as I could, obviously, and he lived through the entire campaign and got to see Cydonia. The final mission ended up being a breeze, with nary a casualty, until my complacency left him with no defensive time units as he turned a corner into a crowd of enemies.

    It must have been ten minutes before I could bring myself to end my turn. I’d considered starting a new game so that his death wouldn’t officially register, but it felt like I was doing him a disservice. If he had to go, he’d have wanted to die in battle, I’m sure.

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