XCOM: Horror in Helplessness and Turn-Based Strategy

And it was over. I sat watching the scene unfold, powerless to stop it; stuck hoping that my preparations and my troops were up to the task. Sokolov even made his shot — but it wasn’t enough to save his life. The entire scene took seconds, was totally unexpected, and totally altered the game going forward. Because Sokolov was dead, and it meant I’d have to train a new recruit from scratch to take his place. My team lost his skills and abilities, and I lost all the time I’d invested in him.

Moments like this are what make XCOM great. They’re also what make it scary. The possibility that enemies might suddenly do something unexpected and intelligent, and that they could cost your team their lives, manages to turn a turn-based strategy game into something of a survival horror experience.

A few elements are required to be in place for that to happen, however. First, you need to care about the squad. This doesn’t happen right away, and in fact, the past of my Strike Team is paved with the broken bodies of redshirt recruits who died choking on their own blood and alien poisons. But Sokolov and Martinez, Lopez, Boulos, Noku and Mercier — Alpha, Brick, Geronimo, Chops, Prophet and Crater — are different. They’ve fought and bled together. They’ve come through tough scrapes. They’ve trained, and they’re useful. They get jobs done and save civilians. I’ve had time to start caring about them, and what’s more, I’ve invested in their well-being.

So every time we set down on an XCOM mission, it’s a tense affair, and the game only amplifies the horror genre undertones by playing off the same tropes we see in other titles that are specifically a part of the genre. Landing sites are usually covered in bodies and other telltale signs of the terror visited by the alien invaders. XCOM’s cover system means you are only protected from one side, and its limited visual capabilities require you to necessarily put your back to darkness on many occasions, hoping there’s nothing there. As your team treks into unknown territory, often in darkness and rain, you have no idea where the enemy is — only that they’re out there. Occasionally, some awful sound in the distance gives you some clue of what you’re about to face; usually, this knowledge makes nothing easier.

One of the scarier moments in XCOM has players discovering and then assaulting an alien base. The Strike Force team never really has much in the way of support on any given mission, but there’s at least a chance they can fall back and abort a mission if things go belly-up too completely. In the base, however, there’s no where to go, except forward. And the layout of the base means that, at a few key moments, you’ll have to risk pulling someone from safety in order to gain more information about what you’re about to face.

When you finally do run into enemies, they’re likely to be the strongest foes you’ve ever faced, and you’re on their turf. They often fight in unexpected ways, charging characters or even controlling their minds. And every fight brings momentary relief, before you realize that while you have a chance to reload now, it just means you’ll be venturing into the dark again, but this time, with fewer medpacks than you had before.

Death is a part of the experience of XCOM, but for a strategy game, developer Firaxis has done a great job of making you fear those deaths. It employs the language of horror — jump scares, darkness, hidden enemies, gore, sound design and ominous musical cues — to let you know that no plan survives contact with the enemy, and none of your lovingly shepherded characters is ever safe.


Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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