Published on October 18th, 2012 | by David Kurzrok0
XCOM, Mass Effect, and Narrative Freedom
XCOM Enemy Unknown has been out a little over a week and the disc has barely stopped spinning. Any blog, vlog, and major review site will tell you just how great the gameplay is, and you can trust them this time. But XCOM has another aspect to it that exceeds all expectations, and that is it’s story.
I’m not talking about it’s cutscenes. While good enough at giving the player essential context, as well as a sense of overall progression in the game without beating us over the head with pointless details and exposition, they do not really tell an interesting story. The narrative in XCOM is driven almost entirely by gameplay. I’ll give an example within my own Let’s Play series, which you can find here.
It’s the very first mission of the game. The Skyranger lands at a truck stop in Leon, Mexico and we disembark. We see four soldiers, elite within their respective countries but new to fighting aliens. One among them stands out from the rest, and by the end of the mission he has single-handedly killed four aliens with nothing but his iron will and some high explosives. Later, back at the base, I give him the name of Acheron, after my avatar in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and promote him to a squaddie level assault. Those are some big shoes to fill, but it’s only one mission in, and I’m already attached to him.
Missions come and go and new rookies join the ranks. Some survive long enough to get promoted and earn a nickname. Other rookies die before anyone can even see their face. Through it all, Chops, as he’s known by the rest of the squad, pulls through time after time. He’s had more kills, more desperate moments, and more critical choices than any other soldier on my squad.
Choice is really the key word here. Every turn, I’m forced to make critical decisions that could effect who makes it through the mission alive, and indeed, if the mission is a success at all. This constant stream of decision making gives Acheron a personality that is nuanced and interesting. He’s succeeded at running in close and saving a pinned down squadmate so many times, that I feel as though it’s his duty. If given the opportunity, he must do it, regardless of the consequences. It’s a part of who he is. This trait has evolved organically, not through cutscenes or dialogue, but through the choices I have made using the gameplay.
Contrast that with a game like Mass Effect, in which the main character, Commander Shepard, engages in dialogue with dozens of characters and makes decisions that can affect the narrative arc of the game. The difference is that Shepards story is revealed through exposition and dialogue, while Acheron’s is brought out through his actions. But Shepard suffers from a crippling disadvantage. His story can only progress in one of several per-determined directions. He only has so many ways of reacting to a situation. And often, no matter what choice is made, the story is bottlenecked at certain points. This makes many of the choices unimportant in the face of the over-arching plot.
But they have to be. Mass Effect is a victim of it’s own production value. There is no feasible way in which Mass Effect’s developer, Bioware, could afford to provide as many options (along with it’s subsequent divisions) as it often makes sense to have, due to the amount of time, effort, and money required to make each cutscene as impressive as they are. Whereas XCOM trusts the player to come up with their own characters and stories, pitted against the backdrop of planetary invasion.
Mass Effect demands that you enjoy it’s story. XCOM trusts you to.
In the coming days I will be showing a few such stories from my Let’s Play series, focused on the characters that have emerged as pillars of my squad. Watch as they advance from obscure, faceless cannon fodder, to elite alien face-melter.