Teachings of: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I can remember it vividly. My squad had just finished a mission to save the planet from aliens and one of my soldiers had just been promoted for his gallantry and bravery on the battlefield. And then, when we least expected it, there was a crisis call from Miami saying that there were human hostages in a library.

The mission proceeded as normal. The aliens moved, I moved and then I killed the aliens. Until aliens called chrysalids appeared. The unique ability for these creepy crawlies is that they turn humans into zombies to fight you. They’re easy enough to dispatch with high chances to hit and for critical damage.

That was until one of the zombified citizens unexpectedly turned into a chrysalid and approached my recently promoted soldier as he was hunkered down behind cover. It pierced my soldier’s chest and lifted him high into the air. He was gone, and I knew what was coming next. He rose like he had just been lobotomized and moved toward one of my experienced snipers. He retained his original physical form, but he wasn’t the man I once had under my command. My sniper did what needed to be done. He pointed the rifle at the former soldier and shot him in the head, putting him out of his misery.

The mission concluded, and we saved 10 civilians that day, but I’ll never forget what had to be done to accomplish that goal. Soon after the battle, my veteran’s name was thrown up on a memorial wall with all the other soldiers lost under my command. There are no potions or revives that I can use to bring them back. Once they’re dead, they’re dead.

As a personal flaw of mine, I get too attached to people, animals and things. Not in an obsessive or hoarding type of way, but if the person or thing is out of my life, I can never help but get depressed when I think about them. I’ve lost three out of my four grandparents over the past 22 years, two childhood family dogs in the same summer when I was in the eighth grade, and a good number of girlfriends that my brain can’t seem to loosen from my hippocampus. "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" puts these scenarios in front of me constantly. Along with strategic and highly tense gameplay that punishes foolish mistakes, it forces you to examine the larger picture at work.

Yes, my soldier didn’t deserve to die the way he did, and I’ll never have another soldier quite like him, because his career was based off the missions he did and the successes and failures that accompanied them. But we saved those 10 civilians and saved them from a fate worse than death. The game reminded me that the world was at stake, and you have to push forward through the hardships and losses. Quitting and getting depressed will not bring back those who you’ve lost, and the only option is to get back on your feet and keep going.

It’s a special moment in a gamer’s life when a game teaches them a valuable skill or shows them a different perspective or, in XCOM’s case, confronts the player with the fear of loss. "XCOM: Enemy Unknown" presents artificial yet important losses so that when more expected and life-changing losses occur, I will be ready to challenge them head-on.


Reach the blogger at spencer.fawcett@asu.edu.



Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.