Xcom 2: Thematic Difficulty

Hello, Commander

Xcom 2 wants you dead. It wants you to lose. I’m not even entirely sure that it wants you to play it at all. It would probably be happy to exist as a 30 gig file tucked away somewhere on a Firaxis server, only making passing sneers at people trying to access it. You have to fight to play it, and it fights against you the entire time. And I think that is kind of genius.

It’s genius not just because of its amount of difficulty. It’s ball-bustingly, soul-crushingly difficult, yes, but its difficulty and punishment are thematic.

You start Xcom 2 on the losing side. The humans lost against the superior alien force; as they probably would in real life. You are struggling to gain every piece of ground that you can. As the resistance against the incumbent alien occupiers, you are working with scraps. You’re cobbling together scattered intel and secretly dropped supplies. You don’t have a base on the ground, because that would be too risky on an alien occupied Earth. You have to fly around and conduct your base building on a repurposed alien heli-carrier (that is named the Avenger and looks suspiciously like a certain Marvel property aircraft). You are the losing team. And as such, the situations you are engaged in with the well-equipped enemys are hard. Really hard. And that’s the theme of the game. Fighting aliens that have already taken over our planet would be really fucking hard.

I don’t think that this type of thematic difficulty is explored enough in games. A lot of games are hard for the sake of being difficult. Games like Super Meat Boy or Ninja Gaiden use difficulty as a mechanism. They use it as a means to encourage perfection, as a way to tell the player to achieve mastery through repetition. A modern example of this particular brand of crushing difficulty is Dark Souls. The world presented in Dark Souls is bleak and daunting, sure, but the difficulty isn’t necessarily thematic. There is no reason we couldn’t start Dark Souls as a bad-ass high level magic user that just burns all the dragons alive, or as a well equipped monster-slayer.

Dark Souls expects you to fail until you reach perfection. It expects you to do the same thing over and over again until you are strong and knowledgeable enough to tackle the situation. But you never truly die in Dark Souls. You lose your souls and get set back, yes, but your character still prevails. In Super Meat boy you get set back to the start of the level, and even get shown a humorous montage of all your failings, but you can still play the level. In both these games you can, and are encouraged, to bang your head against the wall for as long as it takes for you to master an aspect of the presented difficulty. Xcom 2 presents a more realistic nature to difficulty.

In Xcom, you die. Your characters die, and they don’t come back. Anybody that you lose in the field is permanently dead. That well trained and leveled Sharpshooter that you’ve had for 20 missions just got shot in the face from a mile away? He’s dead now, and he’s not coming back.

This realistic tone towards mortality and human life is where I think that Xcom shines. It treats human life, and more precisely soldier life, with the dire fatalism that it deserves. Fighting a war is scary, and human life is incredibly fragile. There are no ultimate badasses when it comes to staying alive. You can have all the good strategic foresight and combat experience in the world, but sometimes you just get unlucky. Sometimes an enemy makes a lucky shot and all that experience you have isn’t worth shit. And there is no going back to the start of the level. There is no perfection to be found through repetition. It’s just over, forever.

Perma-death isn’t a new thing in games by any means, and it’s something that is usually skirted by save-spamming. Many games have explored perma-death from various angles and to various degrees of success. Games like FTL and Diablo in hardcore mode have used character death in the “try-try-again” fashion of rouge-likes, where starting over from the beginning is part of the game experience. The fact that Xcom hangs its hat on this type of gameplay, while still encouraging you to partake in a longform narrative and character development system, is bold.

It would be one thing if Xcom was just a series of randomly generated fights with characters you build. If it was just a rouge-like, where you did the same actions over and over. But it’s not. You are part of this constructed narrative about humanity fighting against the alien occupiers. You train and grow attached to your soldiers. You perform autopsies on the alien bodies that you recover from the battlefield so that you can forge better equipment for your soldiers. You are trading alien corpses to the black market in exchange for meager supplies that you need to stay alive. You are always on an uphill battle, and when you lose a soldier, it hits you hard. The entire narrative of the game can come to a close at any moment if you are not doing a good job as a commander. The game treats death as a common part of war, and difficulty as a natural aspect of command.

The thematic difficulty presented in this game is not overwrought. You can’t bang your head against a mission until you figure it out, sometimes you just lose, and the world goes on. You can’t train a single soldier to an ultimate level and expect him to not die, because sometimes they just get unlucky. You can fight as hard as you want, but sometimes the aliens win. And it makes sense that they win. They are the more well equipped force.

Basing your entire game narrative and systems around the theme of difficulty is risky. A lot of gamers don’t like to lose, and they certainly don’t like a game that is focused around you being on the losing team. But I think that “being on the losing team” is an interesting, and relatively unexplored space in games. What if we’re not the super special Jesus figure? What if we’re not the well-trained ultra badass demon hunter? What if we’re just humans trying to protect our home from really scary monsters? What if the death and horrors of war really do make monsters of us all? How do we combat that? How difficult would that be?