The XCOM Files: Player Agency

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In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, you play the role of a commander who deploys a squad of soldiers to fight back an alien invasion of planet Earth. In my squad, one of my soldiers has sociopathic tendencies, got his trainee murdered, and has trouble understanding the proper amount of hazing. If you have played XCOM you may be confused because you know that this is not something built in to the game – none of the soldiers have any character building dialogue or decisions. So then where did such traits for my particular soldier come from? Player agency.

Player agency is a unique tool to video games and how they tell stories. The term refers to how players often want to have an effect on how things pan out, and the necessity of player input in order to play the game enables them to have that choice. The question is how can developers make stories that are engaging and deep, while also allowing the player to play a significant role in them? Well the easiest answer is don’t. That’s right, just don’t. Instead, many of the best stories come from the players themselves when they’re given the tools to do so. This is more or less achievable when developers set the scene, but leave the details ambiguous or blank, allowing the player’s imagination to takeover.

In XCOM, we are given the setup of aliens attacking planet Earth, along with some information about various species of aliens, new tech, and an overview of the planet at large. That’s it. The details of the soldiers we send in to battle, from their motivations all way to their name and appearance are ours to mold like some kid playing a demented game of dress-up with a set of dolls, then sending them to fight the kitchen blender her brother is wielding, and she’s playing for keeps – the last stick of bubblegum is on the line!

Let’s look at the XCOM soldiers, those unsung heroes, because it’s important to know their moments of glory, triumph, and sacrifice – or more importantly because someone needs to know how Sange Frostmourne has blown over half my squad clear to hell.

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Two of the earliest recruits to my squad were a pair of brothers from Japan, somewhat appropriately named Yasha and Sange. Yasha Mitsurugi was level-headed and smart, looking out for his fellow squadmates and naturally fell in to a support role. His brother wasn’t so well adjusted. Sange rolled into the barracks sporting a sky blue haircut and matching beard like something out of a video game or anime, and to add the cherry on top he insisted his last name was Ice, despite his brother (thus his last name) being readily available to Central Command. The squad quickly learned he was an extreme fanboy-nerd gone soldier because killing aliens would be, to quote him: “Wicked sick.”

His strange nature made Central uneasy, but we were not in a position to be picky with several soldiers already dead from our early encounters with the aliens, plus he came with surprisingly high marks, so we put him in the field. We instantly noticed his rather reckless habit of getting up close and personal with the aliens, so he was designated XCOM’s first Assault class and we gave him a shotgun to put his tendencies to good use. Ice’s breaking of rank to flank the enemy and put barrel to skull became so frequent that we were forced to assume it as part of the battle plan whenever he was deployed. Any other time he would have been demoted and removed from the field, but the fact is he was getting results and we needed him.

His squadmates remarked that Ice would shout randomly or yell various obscenities as he pulled the trigger on his shotgun, then tend to laugh about it. They said he was “Nerd Rage incarnate.” While we are unsure if there is reason to label him a sociopath, his squadmates took to calling him “Rascal” as a result. Ice’s confidence had grown into full blown cockiness by this time, and he claimed his name needed an “upgrade” to be more fitting. He now insisted on being called Sange Frostmourne. We surmise that in light of the nickname, Rascal, his new last name was an attempt to sound more “hardcore”, in which case the results seem to have been less than stellar.

In time, new recruits arrived at the XCOM barracks and they began to follow the example of the veteran squadmates, learning the ins and outs of alien killing, maiming, flaying, obliterating, and name-calling. One of the rookies, Natalia Volkova, took to Frostmourne’s style and became XCOM’s second Assault class soldier, dawning the shotgun and running into the fray after her mentor. Central agreed with the decision as Volkova was more calm and collected, so she could ideally bring some order to the squad’s frontline tactics.

After a few missions Volkova became a regular in the squad’s deployment, earning the rank of Corporal by proving herself on the battlefield. At Operation Soaring Spark, the squad was deployed to a subway station to deal with a report of alien activity. The squad encountered minimal alien resistance and were dispatching them with ease. Frostmourne gave the rest of the squad a big smirk and went sprinting through the subway cars to flank the remaining aliens. Upon running away from the squad, Frostmourne encountered a whole host of aliens that were hiding, waiting to do unspeakable things to him with the power of plasma. Despite barreling into some low cover, Frostmourne was completely surrounded – he was totally screwed.

It seemed like none of the squad would be able to reach him in time, but thinking quickly, Volkova went running after her mentor. She ducked into some cover near him to try and help draw some fire and cover Frostmourne so they could shoot their way out of there like you see in those action movies. It was then that the aliens sprang into action, firing upon the shotgun duo from all sides. Volkova’s plan worked, though better than she intended. The aliens pincered on the two of them, splitting their fire. Frostmourne suffered repeated hits, but was somehow still standing – Volkova wasn’t so lucky. She took several mouthfuls of plasma right to the face and died saving Frostmourne from his arrogance. Frostmourne managed to escape the onslaught, just barely, and regrouped with the rest of the squad, allowing them to take out the remaining alien threat without further human casualties. On the flight back to base, upon being confronted about his actions, Frostmourne was reported saying: “Who’s Volkova?”

There was must debate in Central about suspending Frostmourne from service for his reckless behavior, but it was ultimately ruled that with the ever increasing threat of the alien force, that we need veteran soldiers on the field and he produces results. Still, as a precaution it was agreed that no new recruits would be assigned to his charge for some time. With that restriction in place, missions carried on, and the XCOM project enjoyed no further casualties for a long time, allowing Frostmourne to brag about his “epic kill sprees” and “did you see how that alien’s head popped off all splursh and splat?” with no harm to human life.

When a new recruit, Raniya Ghaffar, stepped forward as XCOM’s third Assault troop, Central’s worry was put to rest as the new duo proved to work very effectively together right from the get go. This was drastically short lived.

During one Operation, Frostmourne and Ghaffar climbed a building together and quickly dispatched the aliens on the roof, covering each other, while Ghaffar showed some pretty ballsy nerve for a squaddie as she leaped over cover and took the fight face-to-face with aliens twice her size. The rest of the squad eliminated several pesky aliens at ground level while the assault duo made their way down the opposite side of the building, with all of the squad converging on a few remaining aliens. Ghaffar and Frostmourne came around the corner to meet up with the rest of the squad and took up cover by a delivery truck. Ghaffar jumped inside and prepared to ambush the last alien as it ran by, while Frostmourne took cover up at the front. The squad pressed in and the alien fled towards Ghaffar as expected, but in an act that Frostmourne later described as “harmless hazing and kill securing”, he popped out from his spot and took the shot instead as the alien ran by the engine. Frostmourne successfully killed the final alien, but much of his shot hit the truck which promptly blew up sky high. Ghaffar, who was still inside the truck, suffered critical wounds and was overcome with immense panic – screaming how everyone and everything was being consumed by hell itself – as the force of the explosion threw her about and flames engulfed the truck all around her. Frostmourne got off with light bruising and burns.

Ghaffar has since been diagnosed with a severe case of PTSD from her dramatic flashbacks of the incident.

The alien invasion isn’t showing any signs of letting up any time soon, so for better or worse, Frostmourne will likely being seeing more combat time until he either plays a role in removing the alien threat, or killing us all. Either way, God help us.

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Kyle McArthur
Kyle McArthur 17 posts

Freelance Writer. Game Designer. Poet. Life-long gamer. Jedi enthusiast. DM extraordinaire. Shrimp lover. <a href="http://rolltonotdie.com/">http://rolltonotdie.com</a>