Wednesday, February 27, 2013

#57: A Challenger Approaches (And Discusses Role-Playing in Strategy Games)

Hey guys! Instead of your regularly scheduled dosage of newdarkcloud, you’re going to receive a heaping of MaristPlayBoy, courtesy of what I like to call a “writer’s exchange program” between PSTD and my own blog, the Red Shirt Crew. That said, since this is a gaming-centered blog, I figure I should use this time to talk about my personal favourite story-telling games: the turn-based strategy genre.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: strategy games aren’t known for their story-telling abilities. That distinction usually goes to RPGs (both of the Japanese and Western variety) and can sometimes be extended to an action adventure (Assassin’s Creed) or shooter (Bioshock) that rises above its peers. With the exception of series like the Fire Emblem games, turn-based strategy games are supposed to be devoid of all story elements, as scripted events would take away the control of the player in ways that would likely be unfair. After all, Civilization would not be a better game if every advancement in technology featured a five minute cutscene explaining the background of the guy in the town who made the discovery and how his life was affected by it.

However, I stand by my previous statement: turn-based strategy games are my favourite kind of story in games, and while their stories take a very different form than those in the genres mentioned above, I think it’s worth discussing what sets strategy games above other genres in terms of story.

The first thing that makes a strategy game great for stories comes from the actual mechanics of the game. Anyone who’s played a Civilization game knows how rewarding it is to crush a country that betrayed your alliance, or how incredible it feels to see a single archer fortified within your city walls repel swordsman after swordsman, overcoming the odds. Civilization 5 executed this perfectly through their revamping of the game’s combat system. By emphasizing the strategy and limiting the effectiveness of the brute strength approach, every successful or failed combat meant that much more, as it always felt like a reflection of your own skill as a commander. If you defeated your enemy despite being outgunned, the tales of your conquest will be sung all throughout your Twitter feed as you brag about your awesome techniques to your peers (Take THAT, Cleopatra), while a loss can be devastating and make you question while you play this stupid game to begin with (Screw you, Napoleon). While not a story in the traditional events, the sense of responsibility for your country’s victory or defeat ensures each playthrough will be memorable.

While the Total War series also creates story through their mechanics (gotta love that real time combat), it’s the characters presented that keep me coming back to each game, especially Rome: Total War. See, in that game, generals aren’t just random people that you’ve conscripted to serve you: each man in power is a member of your family, or a highly esteemed soldier who marries into the position. They each have traits and retinues that give them memorable personalities and, like members of any family, you’re pretty much stuck with what they give you. The pride of watching the first born rise to the occasion and lead your armies to countless victories is contrasted with the struggle of making his good-for-nothing cousin stop taking bribes and maintain an efficiency in city management he clearly lacks. That said, I love that I can get stuck with bad generals or agents (to a lesser degree, though Medieval II: Total War fleshed assassins, diplomats, and priests out to make them equally interesting in their own right). It makes the empire feel real, as these are real struggles that empires in that age had to undergo. Creating a badass general or reforming one who seemed doomed to failure is as satisfying as any great military victory, and all of it creates a campaign I want to play over and over again just to see what happens next time.

That said, my favourite strategy game of all time, and my personal winner as Best of 2012, has to be X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Why? Because never before in my life have a played a game in which I felt a need to tell people about what just happened than in X-Com. It’s a perfect example of what makes turn-based strategy games great: the non-combat mechanics are difficult, but endlessly intriguing, the combat is exhilarating, and the character customization breathes new life into the game.

Out of combat, X-Com makes a name for itself by forcing the player into difficult decisions regarding the survival of the planet and creating the best opportunities to succeed in repelling the invasion. See, you need money to buy or upgrade just about anything in X-Com, and each action requires time to complete. Since neither is a limitless resource, it becomes necessary rather quickly to plan ahead and utilize your resources in the most efficient way possible, understanding that sacrifices will have to be made. You can’t save everybody; countries will fall, soldiers will die, and some upgrades will have to be put to the side to make way for others. Each of these decisions greatly impacts the flow of the game, and as a result, it is one of the most immersive games I’ve ever played.

X-Com’s combat system is quite invigorating due to the lack of information given. The whole game is based on aliens coming to invade Earth using various tactics. Regardless of the type of mission, you never know how many aliens you will encounter, where they are located, or what type they will be. New types are introduced regularly and without warning (for the most part), making it impossible to plan ahead with anything but the most basic strategy. This creates an incredibly tense atmosphere, made even tenser by the combat system, which works on percentages of success instead of any hard numbers. Every move you make has risk attached, making successes that much more rewarding, and failures all the more devastating. The resulting combination leaves you on the edge of your seat in each mission, equally excited for the possibility of improving your men and gaining supplies while being terrified of the cost that comes from losing a soldier in battle.

What makes that cost so much higher, and what makes the stories of this game the most uniquely interesting and memorable stories of any game I’ve played thus far in my life, is the time and effort put into your characters. Characters come from all countries across the world, and each can be customized to your liking. By the time you’ve created a character and watched them grow into these battle-hardened veterans, you gain an attachment for them unlike anything I’ve experienced in other strategy games. At that point, they’re no longer just “Squad Member #5”; they become “Luigi Pasta-Sallad, the rookie from Italy who was taken over by a Sectoid Commander and had to be killed before he became a danger to others” (RIP Luigi). Every decision you make both in and out of combat becomes crucial when it could be the difference between life and death for your favourite squad member.

I could write all day about the many memories I’ve formed from my time in X-Com: Enemy Unknown. I would love to spend hours touting the comeback story of Zathura Ho, a sniper that went through four battles without hitting a single target before becoming the squad’s most accurate killer. I could speak of Swedish Chef, the medic with fiery red hair, and of his triumph at the destroyed bridge in South Africa, saving the lives of three rookies while shielding them from incoming fire with his smoke grenades. And it would be remiss of me to ignore the sacrifice of Yugi Moto, a heavy that allowed himself to be surrounded by Chrysalids so that other squad members could get into position to take out the enemy hordes.

But to close, I can think of no tale worth telling quite like the tale of the valiant Assault Commander Hingle McCringleberry.

See, back in the day (meaning my first playthrough), rookies tended to die a LOT. So often, in fact, that the X-Com project decided that all rookies would be forbidden to be given nicknames or called by their real names until they had survived their first encounter and specialized in a field (hey, I was really bad at the time; you wouldn’t want to customize rookies if half of them were dying on each mission either). Still, that usually didn’t matter so much, as there was rarely more than one rookie in any particular squad mission.

Unfortunately, things were quite dire in the barracks, as all but one of the troops that had survived past the rookie stage were in the infirmary. Had the aliens waited just one more day, a more experienced team could have been sent to stop the invasion at that warehouse in Brazil. Sadly, the aliens weren’t really in an understanding mood, and HQ had no choice but to send three rookies in with the best soldier X-Com had to offer: Hingle McCringleberry.

The mission began as a testament to Lieutenant McCringleberry’s prowess in the field. His shotgun took out four baddies in as many turns, as each rookie fell in line behind him, watching his brutal efficiency with amazement and wonder. The man was a legend, willing to risk running directly into the enemy’s line of sight in order to execute that perfect shotgun kill. The Sectoids didn’t know what hit them.

After clearing out the storage tank, McCringleberry ran to the top of the warehouse to get a better idea of where the enemy was located. He ordered the rookies to come up to join him, as their weapons had superior range, but they were frightened by the alien noises off in the distance and chose to stay safe behind some vans at street level.

Suddenly, three Thin Men jumped out of the shadows, guns pointed directly at the spot where McCringleberry was hiding. He fired at the first Thin Man to enter his field of vision, but the shotgun was not accurate at that range, and the shot went wide left. It was the lieutenant’s last bullet in the magazine. And now that they knew of his location, he didn’t have time to reload, get into position, and take them out. The rookies were too far away to help. There was only one thing to do.

Obviously, the game didn’t provide specific dialogue for this situation, but I’d like to imagine Hingle crying out to the rookies “I’m going to buy you some time!” as he moved into the Thin Men’s line of fire. Understanding what had to be done, the rookies then got into flanking positions, unable to do anything but watch as their fearless leader faced the inevitable. The first shot destroyed the wall behind which McCringleberry had been hiding. The second shot just barely missed. The third went straight through his temple, and Lieutenant Hingle McCringleberry died on impact.

Now, just about any other squadron of rookies would have panicked at the sight of their field commander dying in battle (there is a panic function in the game, and I genuinely expected the rookies to panic here, since this would be a legitimate reason to do so). But this squadron was special. They charged into position screaming “FOR HINGLE!” and took each of the Thin Men out before they even knew what was happening. The battle was over. They had won.

True story: when Hingle McCringleberry died, I genuinely screamed “NOOO!!!” loudly enough at the screen to attract the attention of my parents. I had to report his death to my sister, who had created the character with me (inspired from this video), and she was genuinely upset at his passing. This is what makes X-Com: Enemy Unknown such a powerful game in my eyes. The mechanics come together to create the perfect atmosphere and immersion, while the customization and out of combat experiences ensure you are emotionally tied to your characters. Maybe you won’t give your characters quite the personality depth that I did, but I can guarantee their deaths will matter to you if you give them a name and make them your own.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make sure my Irish Major Peaches O’Callahan doesn’t suffer the same fate.

Chase Wassenar, aka Marist Play Boy, is the founder and lead editor of the Red Shirt Crew (which he hopes you’ll go visit), and a staff writer for Toy-TMA. He hopes his second play through of X-Com goes significantly better than his first, as the trauma that would ensue if Peaches was killed might actually break his heart. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedShirtCrew or email him at