Why do we get so attached to our soldiers in XCOM?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Disclaimer: This is a transcript of the video below, I made some changes to better accommodate the written format, but in general it's the same.
I finally got around to play XCOM2 and once again my soldiers died... I grew attached to one in particular... Onde Called Sofia "Solo" Conti.
Then I saw her died to a set of lucky hits...
After Conti kicked the bucket I was floored, I stopped the game and made myself a drink. While drinking I got around to think why I cared so much about her. It’s just a fake soldier on screen.
“Yes, she was there in the first mission, Freeing the commander then obtaining the power core to fuel the Avenger. She almost died there, she was always on the front line, selflessly slashing away to allow somebody else to live. She was always dependable, always rising up to the challenge, nobody was better with a shotgun. And she was twitchy but light hearted. She had a difficult uprising during the invasion so she’s scarred, but somehow she became the leader of the squad.”
“What the hell was am I saying” I thought to myself… She is just a generic soldier in XCOM… or is she?
Being a commander in XCOM is no different than being a manager in real life…
Ok XCOM commander talk like this: “Yeah, my team is great. We can do anything, we are really good at doing X”... Great XCOM commander's talk like this “Yeah, my team is great. Conti is a hard one, always on the frontline, great with a shotgun, amazing with the slasher. Gangster is the pain behind lines, you want death raining from afar, she’s your girl, cute and deadly. Van Damme, is a wisecracker California style German. In the field he is no joke, he has saved more soldiers than anyone else, healing and hacking while being shot at. Smash is an aliens nightmare, he is a armour shredding, explosive specialist, he is the one you want against heavy units, control is his middle name. Soo, is the cool looking Korean woman with the happy trigger finger. Her guns are always smoking hot, since there is no rest for them, when needed she is uses her sniper as well as her guns.”
And I have never met an OK commander… we all know our soldiers abilities. We need to since they will die fast on the battlefield if we don't. Xcom is brutal as it always was. We respect them, get to know them, care for them, point them at the correct direction to grow… as great managers do.
They came to us, green rookies and the ones who live become battle hardened. We have seen them grow, from fearing the first alien shots to becoming feared behemoths on the battlefield.
I sat there eating my sandwich and thinking why do I liked Conti so much. And because I should have done better things with my time I made this list:
First, customization. We can do a lot of customization to our soldiers in this game. Names, Backstory, clothing, accessories, hair, etc. This will give us a sense that its something personal to us. Seeing that pink haired sniper in gunning down the field must mean something right? We name them after our relatives, co-workers, favorite bands, etc. Also we get to have a nice nickname for them.
But I’ve played the original Xcom back in 93 when it first came out and there was almost no customization, almost everyone looked the same and I still cared for my troops the same way. I used to have a squad with the names of my entire 10th grade. Most of them died as one do in Xcom.
Most people, like me, only customize their soldiers after they already have an attachment to them.
And I don’t even change their names or faces, just small thing like colors and some face props. And I still get attached to them.
So, Customization, while being a part of it, takes a small part on why we like our soldiers.
So the next, evolution, We evolve our characters over time. We trim and make them lean, and we try to create the perfect soldier. In the 93 game we would have to exercise the action we want them to perform. If we wanted a heavy we would have to carry big weapons until they got better at it. Want a sprinter with lots of time units? the equivalent of several actions in the latest game... run amok in the battlefield at your own peril.
In Xcom 2, we decide their skill tree path, we funnel them down into two separate paths.
Skills make our soldiers better in the field, but since soldiers from the same class share the same pool of skills, there must be something else going on. Since...
We can end up with two soldiers with the same skills and still have one missed over the other.
Following evolution we have Hardships. Xcom is notorious in giving us trouble, death, and unfairness. XCom is like life, a harsh teacher, it gives the test first and the lesson later.
We are approaching the core of the attachment. Whenever humans go through hardships together they create a bond even when there was nothing before.
XCom create the Brothers in war effect.
In Xcom we start overwhelmed by the task ahead of us, everyone green, from the player to the squad. It's a upwards battle, never becoming easier. When we get a break with new weapons, new challenges are thrown at us, we struggle through the hardships and come out on the other side.
In the geoscape we respond to situations, unlock new contacts, enter battles.
In the battlescape we command the squad, again, overcoming the odds of every missed shot, until the end, every time we think we are a step ahead the game, it throws us down back to the rug. Some of us die, some of us live. This hardship binds our soldiers to us. There is no THEM Soldiers in Xcom… there is only US Soldiers.
But just difficulty alone does not imply attachment, or else we would be attached to every game character on the hardest mode.
Hardship makes the path difficult, which in turn makes leveling another rookie to master of the battlefield an enormous task.
Losing an element of the squad is a big loss, there is not enough time to raise 30 soldiers at the same time, you’ll get 10 to 15, 6 of those advanced, the rest between medium and rookie. Losing someone advanced is a big investment, of our time, lost.
The differences between a soldier in XCOM versus one in Civilization or Starcraft is that it takes a lot of time to grow another soldier in XCOM and in result scarcity.
Soldiers are a rare resource in XCOM, there aren’t many of them to go by.
There is a serious personal time investment on each and every one of our team members. They depended on me to survive and I depended on them to finish the mission.
And since we don’t have a lot of them to go around and not enough time to go raise them all, like sunken costs, the investment grows on us.
And it’s this time investment that I believe to be the second biggest, if not the biggest, reason why we get attached. We have time to get attached to our soldiers. As soon as I started Shadow of Mordor and saw the name of the player, Talion, which is the name for act of revenge, eye for an eye, I said to myself “The family is all dead and it’s revenge time”. Five minutes into the game and all the family dies The entire scene was awful to me, I was so bored, so predictable. On the other hand I add tears in my eyes when John Marston made his stand against the Pinkertons. I add time to let Marston grow on me.
Seldom games allow us time to grow attached to the characters, always trying to show us the next big thing, instead of slowing down and letting the characters crawl beneath our skin.
But to get them there, we need something else, something that transpires from the hardships we endure, the same thing that I’ve spoken about in the Zelda : breath of the wild video.
It’s when everything goes wrong that the path for adventures is set for us. And when this happens personal stories are created.
And this happens on every pod encounter.
Every time a fight ensues, there’s a tension that grows. Even the weakest of enemies is deadly with the RNG gods behind it. We know that the stakes are always high at every mission, at every fight, at every shot taken, at any shot avoided.
And every time our soldiers survive there is another paragraph added to their story, to our story.
And this is what I believe makes us cherish our troops so much.
As Humans we are all storytellers, and we love to tell or be told stories. we have evolved alongside and our brains thrive on them. At every corner it stitches a new one from all the information around it. We meet someone new and sometime later we weave a new story around that person.
Our brain loves to fill gaps of information at any unknown.
And so it goes on in XCOM. When in the heat of a battle, one of our soldiers performs an amazing shot that kills that pesky sectopod that was looming menace.
Some more random shots later and that soldier is your favorite sharpshooter, the magician with the gun. Or perhaps, your grenadier … the tank, capable of withstanding direct shots out on the open to serve as a shield to the team.
At every felled enemy our squad adds another comma to a story. Suddenly it’s not our squad, it’s the team lead by Conti, supported by Demo, watched over by Gangster And let’s not forget Monster, he looks a bit old but always gets the job done...
We call it emergent narratives, and even tough XCOM bears a story, as we play we create stories for each of our players. In emergent narratives the player constructs the story by himself, from the decisions in the geoscape, the research at the base, to the struggle in the battlefield. No retake of earth is equal for two players, its close and personal thanks to the RNG Gods. That means that our squad is also personal. Their story is personal for each player.
Emergent narratives come from the emergent gameplay, moments that are memorable because they occurred within the constraints of the systems developed by the designers, but they are not on rails. They are not scripted.
That 91 percent shot, that our guy missed and got another soldier dead, that 30 percent shot that critted and killed that viper. That time a three muton pod came along and every member of the team made the perfect shot and killed the pod before they moved one turn.
Stories are powerful, every person we know is a story inside our head. Every move they do adds to that story. And in XCOM every action we take, every enemy we gun down, every avatar project we close writes another paragraph to our story.
And since it’s our personal story it becomes emotional to us.
But that’s the problem with Emergent Stories, they are personal to us only, they only resonate with us and no one else.
They are not complete stories, they don’t have structure, they are snippets of action.
Stories are about something universal to humanity.
Here there is none of that. They are not universal. They cannot be shared. They are not good community stories, they are vapid and ephemeral.
But, for the the emotional attachment, there is no need for them to have structure. Real life has no structure as well and we still connect to other people. We still create stories.
These small stories generate the emotional attachment for our soldiers, since it’s not just them on the battlefield… we are there too. We feel dread when a new pod comes along, we feel the tension of the timer running out. Our entrails crunch on a missed shot, our jaws relax after a perfect turn.
We as the player, are the nexus for all of the feelings the game generates, and it is us who imbue its meaning to the soldiers. The soldiers are nothing but small plastic troopers that we personify because it seems they are passing through the same hurricane of emotions as we are. And in doing that, we can relate to them as equals. From there on, Conti is not only a soldier, but the badass katana wielding, gutsy women from a small town in Italy that commands the squad. She died doing what she loved the most, protecting earth’s freedom, her teammates life’s and always kicking alien scum in the ass...
As I said, all humans are storytellers. Some of us are bad, some are great, most is just average. XCOM takes all the elements that enable our brains to generate a new story and puts all in the soldiers. As such, just like Pinocchio, they become real persons.
Fireaxis knew that this would be enhanced in small ways, like adding a nickname from a random pool that suits the class. Adding a small generic backstory to each soldier. Allowing for a lot of character customization.
This only enhances to the immersive illusion as our minds fill up the fake narrative.
It enhances to the main story of XCOM game, since it’s not just a battle for the freedom of earth, It’s not just a team of randoms, It’s not just a generic rookie. It’s your PERSONAL generic rookie. It’s your PERSONAL team of randoms. And in the end it’s your PERSONAL battle for the freedom of earth.