Home > Uncategorized > Learning from XCOM, 2: a philosophy of cheating and balancing

Learning from XCOM, 2: a philosophy of cheating and balancing

February 9, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

The last post was about explicit rules, this one’s about what S John Ross calls the invisible rulebook of games: the assumptions, implicit understandings, even values that players bring to the table. And, again, I think XCOM can teach us useful things to port over to tabletop gaming.

Like many video games, XCOM gives you a bunch of ways to manage your play experience – difficulty levels, extra downloadable content, strategy guides and tips… and most of all, savegames. And out of all of these, the thing that is regarded as “cheating” involves abusing the savegames, or save-scumming; saving frequently or before you do something risky, so that if it doesn’t go well, you can go back to the pre-disaster state and try something else (or try rerolling on the RNG).

I confess, I save-scum.
Not obsessively – once per mission, maybe twice if it’s especially tough. And I feel a bit bad about it but… I use it as a tool to manage my experience.

XCOM plays along with save-scumming. On one hand, it offers an ironman mode, where your use of savegames is deliberately limited (although it’s still far from real life). On the other (in XCOM2), it hands you a stack of frequently-updated autosaves, in case you forgot to put a rescue piton in place before charging those mechs. It doesn’t judge… except to massage your ego a bit with that special ironman achievement badge. At the same time, XCOM presents its story as a life-and-death struggle, where your decisions carry consequences for the rest of the campaign, where characters die and stay dead and take all their xp advantages with them. It gets you to care about those soldiers and then it threatens to take them away – “this isn’t Mario,” it says, “where dying a hundred times is part of the learning curve.” (Oh and the RNG is brutal. I mean, it’s just an RNG so it’s actually… well actually NOT completely fair, it cheats in the player’s favour. But that is not how the fans react to it – instead they complain that it’s willfully vindictive.)
So in fact, XCOM doesn’t just give you tools to manage your play, it also provides you with tools to manage your level of kayfabe – how much you buy into its story stakes, which pitch the conflict as deadly. Will you always rescue your experienced soldiers? Will you let a rookie die to honour the story gods and make the stakes feel more real? XCOM is happy to support you, whatever you choose.
(I have another post about how this works with the implicit story of XCOM 2, btw.)

So what’s this all about? Why all the weird hedging and stake-setting (and quiet stake-uprooting behind the back of your executive function)? Does it render your victories hollow, that you can choose to save-scum until you beat any situation? Does it make the game Nintendo hard or meaninglessly easy?

After a hundred levels or so, I figured out that for me, at least, it’s about managing my emotional exposure. And I think that management is good. If you’ve been playing for 40 hours and in one bad combat round you can lose your 3 top soldiers and then you can’t win the rest of the game without them… that’s a not-fun level of stress, as far as I’m concerned. It’s kind of OSR metal but at the same time… because of the structure of the computer game, if you restarted you would have to relive all the early game experiences, so…
…I would probably disengage from the game right there. If you’re playing ironman mode then maybe you deliberately sign up for that, but I think it’s OK for that not to be for everyone. Anyway I can tell you that, save-scummer though I am, I have been very nearly brought to tears of relief when I’ve finally managed to get through a nightmarish level losing only one rookie. And I do not go back and replay that level to rescue the rookie – that’s the limit of my meta-scumminess (though my limited empathy for that lost virtual soldier may be scummy in other ways).

All of this is built on a second sort of kayfabe, and this is where I think we get into TTRPG issues. Whether I feel challenged or bullied, whether I’m involved enough that I’m tempted (not forced) to save-scum, depends on maintaining the feeling that I will be able to find a path to victory if I’m clever. What we call “balance” is really keeping the player in an emotional state of adventurous expectancy – a sweet spot of tension, slight fear, and hope.

In XCOM that balance is maintained very carefully, encounter-by-encounter, by dribbling enemies out in small packets that are well-calibrated to the abilities of the player’s units, and by leveling up the enemies along with the player’s forces, so they always present a “fair” (winnable but not effortless) challenge. And that calibration gets finer as the series of games goes on: in the 90s, UFO routinely caught flak for presenting unwinnable situations – having aliens show up right where you start a level, having them grenade your troops before they can move out of close formation. XCOM1 has some easy and some monstrously hard missions but I’ve never seen a plain unwinnable one (the point where expectancy tips over into dread and maybe despair in XCOM1 is during the strategic game, where you can get into a campaign death spiral, such that even if you reliably win at the tactical level, you won’t survive to see the final tactical challenges). But XCOM2 is a noticeably smoother, more balanced and consistent experience than any of the previous games – it’s superb at maintaining the impression of a knife edge, without actually risking you falling off the game before the end because you didn’t research down the right path early on. Which is to say, it’s a bit too smooth.

It’s kind of like the obsession with encounter balance that slowly overtook published D&D content after 2e, which has been derided by some as “combat as sport” (which of course it is, in any game) as opposed to “combat as war” (which is the association deadly 70s D&D clearly wanted to evoke). S The quest for precise balance has been discussed in some OSR circles as one of values – of some kind of virtue vs. vice, “real” vs. fakery, red meat vs. soy. The real risk of losing your character is what makes combat fun!

And my revelation here is that probably the optimal emotional sell is neither a perpetually-balanced knife edge, nor a relentless parade of PC deaths, but rather a somewhat noisy equilibrium – something closer to XCOM1 than to XCOM2, where you occasionally feel a little bullied, where you occasionally get reminded of the price of failure, and you sometimes get easy strolls without significant challenge, so that you feel a little more accomplished when you beat a tough encounter compared with those other easy encounters you remember. More like driving a Porsche than a Rolls Royce, but also not like driving a broken-axled wreck that’s liable to explode at any second.

So what conclusions can I draw from all this?

  1. framing things (like fudging dice rolls or being reluctant to kill PCs) as questions of values seldom helps us get to any sort of accommodation with each other. If we admit that the issue, when we speak of cheating, is really one of emotional goods, then maybe we can move toward a way of discussing it that… has more possibilities. Over in OSR/trad circles I see two main attitudes – the game is the creation of the auteur DM, so only they get to say what goes or doesn’t go and the game isn’t serious unless death is on the line, which has to be proved periodically with characters dying. Don’t get too attached. And I don’t really think either of those is necessary nor particularly honest, when we’re thinking about why we play. Let us instead use our session zeroes to set our emotional expectations – what sort of experiences we want, what turns us off.

  2. the stakes don’t always have to be character death. Injury, loss of gear or abilities, and loss of reputation/funding are all highly motivating factors in making me want to beat every mission my soldiers go out on. The loss of a PC, on the other hand, always seems to cause some alienation/disinvestment on the part of the player. So I’m not saying don’t kill the PCs, but maybe don’t kill them without some serious warnings. Or at least have lots of other fail states so you’re not always killing them. I know, some people disagree with that pretty drastically, but on the axis of what’s fun rather than what we think ought to be fun for virtuous reasons, I think it’s pretty solid. Having a stable of characters so some of them can die without it being disastrous for the campaign is also a valid strategy.

  3. But on the other hand, do have a lot of consequences for failing to meet the challenges. Ticking doom clocks, opportunities that will go away or go to a rival, the approval or derision of NPCs, shifts up or down in the scale of operations the PCs can launch on the world. A successful pirate might measure their success in the hauls of treasure they bring in, their ability to retire… but for a game, and for the character of the pirate, it’s a lot better for them to measure their success in the size of ship and crew they can command, the prizes they can go after, their reach compared with other holders of power in the world. Humayun, the mughal emperor you’ve never heard of, lived an almost perfect adventurer’s life – he began as king of all he surveyed, lost it all, was reduced to wandering the land with a horse and a sword, and eventually won it all back. We tend to leave him out of history books these days because he neither started nor ended the Mughal Empire. He had no great innovations or policies. But the emotional beats of his story are the stuff of great adventure stories – he got to see the price of failure and the momentum of success, and I guess that’s what I want from a game.
  1. kelvingreen
    February 16, 2023 at 2:31 pm

    I feel like Fate Points (in the Warhammer sense) fit in here. They are saying “you could have died here, but you survived, possibly with some sort of lasting injury, and you’re running out of chances so it may not work again.”

    I always thought they were one of the better ideas from WFRP but they seem to have become unfashionable, I suspect partly through a sense that they are “easy mode” and partly because they smell a bit of storygames and the baggage associated with that part of the rpg world.

    I have no problem with them, but I think only if they are a diminishing resource that is difficult to replenish.

    • February 16, 2023 at 3:32 pm

      I really liked Hero Points in the James Bond 007 RPG _except_ they worked on positive feedback – if you rolled really well, you got rewarded with a guaranteed good roll in the future. I thought it would be better if you got it instead from nearly dying.

  1. February 15, 2023 at 2:20 pm
  2. February 15, 2023 at 7:46 pm
  3. March 20, 2023 at 6:30 pm

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