I am deeply honored to introduce writer Josh Rollins to my blog, and I hope you all will enjoy his take on the wonderfully, immersive tactical, sci-fi game XCom!
“We’ll be landing deep into Algerian territory on this one,”Officer Bradford’s words came through the soliders’ ear pieces. A satellite photo on the far wall of the plane’s hull presented a round shape in a mix of thermo red, green and white. “Civilians on the ground. Repeat, we have civilians on the ground.”
“Damnit!” Lucas reached pulled out his wallet to take out a $20 dollar bill. It was a bet he shouldn’t have made; he hoped the crash would scare the locals away.
The hand that closed on the bill belonged to Max, a mountain of a man decorated by tribal tattoos where they weren’t covered by the heavy body armor.
“I told ya,” his voice was deep and carried a European accent, “when was the last time we had a mission in Africa without civs on the ground?”
Lucas shrugged. Without explosive weapons the fight will be much harder, forcing them to come in contact with the aliens. He prefered to blow them to smithereens and salvage remains for research later, much to the dismay of Dr. Vahlen and her team back at the labs.
“Three months, nine days, twenty hours, 13 minutes.”
It was MEC 3 Paladin. The head did not move to look at Lucas, the voice was flat and factual. Lucas found himself wondering yet again if there’s any woman left inside the monstrous robot sitting across from him. He gazed at the huge steel hands which were powerful enough to crush his skull. He saw her do that exact thing to a Sectoid once: one smooth effortless motion and the thing’s head squashed like a ripe tomato. The alien didn’t even get a chance to scream. The cold-blooded killing machine used to be his best friend and secret love interest before the surgery. He shook his head silently and let it sink unto his chest.
“Come on man,” Max placed his hand on his shoulder, the $20 bill tucked between his fingers. “I miss her tits too, you know.”
“Max! Goddamnit, she’s right here!”
“It. Don’t worry. it can’t feel a thing.”
“She is still human. And She saved your ass more times than you can count, which is a challenge for you, shit for brains.” Lucas shook Max’s hand away in disgust.
“Hey, don’t get emotional on me. It’s a machine. Just like the one you’re flying in right now.”
“Fuck you, man.”
The questions kept piling up. Back at base, Dr. Shen was working around the clock with his team, trying to figure out what caused the MEC soldiers to become so desensitized. Shen called it ‘MECancholy syndrome,’ but the term failed to catch. The soldiers called it MEC blues. It was a mystery: the arms and legs were removed surgically, along with some internal organs, replaced by machine counterparts – but the brain was left intact. Nothing should have affected the MEC psychologically. Still, somehow something did. Within weeks, MEC 3 was just a shadow of the person she once was.
“Hey, Tinkerbell,” he addressed MEC 3 Paladin by her old call sign.
“How about a drink? You and me, after we blow some alien ass?”
He wasn’t satisfied, but it would have to do. Asking MEC 3 if she (it) really wanted to get a drink would only prove that Tinkerbell didn’t care either way, and he prefered to hold on to whatever shreds of hope he had left. He knew she was gone, but chose not to accept it.
“Strike Team one, prepare for landing. North East of bogey. Search and destroy.”
Lucas held on to the cargo net as the plane lowered. Max was adjusting his utility belt to fit with the TAO launcher on his back, as always. Maybe they will get clearance to use it, Lucas hoped, or maybe they could use the MEC 3 railgun. He looked at the massive weapon attached to the MEC’s arm. It required two men to lift and a third to operate, but MEC 3 didn’t even budge from the recoil.
‘Tinkerbell,’ He corrected himself. ‘Her name is Tinkerbell.’
At first glance, there’s nothing new about the Independence Day plot of the game: aliens invade Earth, humans fight a long desperate battle, humans win. As a matter of fact, XCOM Enemy Unknown is a remake of a cult-classic PC game made in the 1990s. As the commander of an elite extraterrestrial-combat (hence the name XCOM) unit, you call the shots from a secret base deep underground and fight the alien invasion by researching alien technology, building advanced weapons, and training your soldiers. With some imagination however, the plot thickens.
I started out with the noble mission of Earth’s “first and only line of defence” against the alien invasion, but I learned quickly that the world is still busy fighting its own wars despite the alien threat. When the aliens attacked, I noticed some countries offer better rewards if I was to take care of them first; different world leaders approached me with private offers, often asking for cutting-edge weapons and armor; the Council of Nations who oversees the Xcom project (and pay the bills) came to me with special requests for side-missions that seemed rather political in nature. After a few hours of playing the game, every move I made bame a strategic calculation of profit and gain.
After I purchased the new extension, the game allowed me to genetically modify soldiers or take them through a traumatic surgery which turns them into human-machine hybrids (MECs) *A MEC or Mechanized Exoskeleton Cybersuit (aka MEC Suit) is a specialized combat rig utilized by a MEC Trooper inXCOM: Enemy Within*). As I spent my time tinkering with the layout and of my MECs armor, changed their haircuts and gave them different nicknames, I noticed something odd: my MECs never smiled. In fact, they looked downright depressed. I’m not sure if the game makers planned this “MECcnocholia” or not, but as you can see, it gave me an idea for a story.
It started with questions. Is it possible that the surgery, which involved removing all of soldier’s limbs and putting them in giant machines was the reason? How could you convince a human being to undergo such a traumatic surgery voluntarily? How can such a person function in normal society, after the war is over? If every inch of the MEC’s body besides the neck and head is mechanic, how do they have sex?
The characters in the games are also quite interesting. Dr. Vahlen, Dr. Shen and Central Officer Bradford help you run the base. Each one of them has a different philosophy when it comes to fighting the aliens. While I could find some character-related jokes (“Do you two ever agree on anything?” Asks Officer Bradford when Dr. Shen and Dr. Vahlen represented their findings for recent research) I found myself asking questions about them. Where is Dr. Vahlen from, if to judge from her accent? If Dr. Shen is such a humanist who states that that “if this is what we are to become in the future, then I want no part of it,” how can he allow for such terrible surgeries to take place under his observation? What wars was officer Bradford part of, being so capable commanding other soldiers and stand up to a base invasion by the aliens? And where is the damn cook who feeds all these people anyway?
As a video game, Xcom Enemy Unknown does not concern itself with such questions. I assume most people who play the game would not care anyway, but I felt it was unfortunate that cliches such as aliens who pass as businessmen in black and speeches about the darkness of human nature keep the game at a shallow level of “let’s kick some alien ass.” There’s a potential for a deeper story here.
As a matter of fact, I feel many video games I played have such potential. Most writers get inspiration from books and maybe movies, but I think video games can be a wonderful source of ideas. XCOM is the first game I’m reviewing in this certain light, but not the last. As I play more interesting games in the future, I hope to share my views and ideas with you… so stay tuned.