Gaming Culture

My mode of play in XCOM 2 mirrored my mental health journey

My squad is working on extracting a VIP, an important scientist that was working with Advent. My ranger has them knocked out and slung over his shoulder. My team is pretty beat up; we’d taken quite a few shots earlier on in the mission. We’d been dropped into an urban environment, a crowded business park where the VIP worked. With the scientist secured, our top priority is getting the hell out. Only problem is fighting our way through the rest of the Advent forces standing between us and the extraction point. My team has all ducked behind the only makeshift cover around; architectural pillars and cars. A pack of Mutons is slightly out of range from our fire. I try to navigate my grenadier around to a better vantage point which turns out to be the worst possible move; I’ve just activated another unit of enemies with a mech and Advent shieldbearer. I spend the rest of my turn moving my other 4 units into better positions and firing out the new squad. My shots all miss by a mile. The mech moves first and launches a barrage of missiles. They immediately set off a chain reaction of explosions from the nearby cars killing 2 of my units and leaving 2 others exposed. The mutons move forward and fire on my ranger with the VIP; a critical hit takes them down. A few moves later and my entire team is gone.

XCOM2 Rooftop

Now I could roll back to an early save and redo some of my missteps. Problem is I’m playing on Iron Man mode which means I’m locked into my one save and thus my previous actions. I don’t play these games on Iron Man as some sort of difficulty modifier though that’s what it is intended for. I also don’t buy into the way veterans talk about it as the one true way to play the game. Play the way you want to play! I truly only play on Iron Man mode because I desperately need reigning in. My brain is truly broken in a way that if there is a better path forward, then I have to try over and over to achieve it no matter how long it takes. With multiple saves, taking damage and missing high percentage shots become unacceptable. I need Iron Man mode to keep me from trying to min max myself. I also need it to help me learn.

For those unfamiliar, XCOM 2 is a turn-based strategy game where you manage a squad of soldiers to execute procedurally generated missions. These missions can consist of escorting an NPC, extracting civilians, or just killing all of the enemies in a given area. Each squad member can take two actions per turn, whether that’s movement, special abilities, or shooting at a given enemy. There’s no undo button; once you perform an action you are locked in. The game is relatively unforgiving too and you can end up being really railroaded. For example, shooting at an enemy costs you an action and has a probability attached to it that you’ll even hit them. This probability is based on environmental factors (behind cover, at a higher elevation) and enemy abilities. As veterans of the series know, high probability shots don’t necessarily mean you’re going to hit. This is where that inflexibility comes in; you could miss an 80% shot and that soldier’s turn is now over. On the regular settings, you could simply load up an old save and try the shot again (also known as save scumming). If you’re playing on Iron Man mode, you are not allowed to have multiple saves and the game save after each action. This obviously makes the game more difficult and because of this people treat it as a benchmark in which to suss out the “true gamers.” 

XCOM2 Viper

I only play on Iron Man mode, but it’s not meant to test myself or to create more gatekeeping online. If I have the option for multiple saves, I can’t not try to perfect a run. In recent years, I began a personal journey to stop using avoidance as a primary coping strategy. I’ve used avoidance all of my life to avoid anything difficult whether that’s hard conversations, lessons, or turbulent relationships. I’ve had to work hard (and am still working) at trying to face things head on rather than trying to punt whatever the difficult situation is to a future date. Avoidance is also a really easy way to deflect blame. When you aren’t actively facing anything, everything is difficult. You look for ways around things, look for ways to avoid actually dealing with people or situations and try and cheat your way to some semblance of a resolution.

So how does that relate to save scumming? Well it’s really easy to deflect responsibility for a bad run or actually learn what the game is trying to teach you when you wont listen. “If I have the ability to roll back, this time the probability will be in my favor.” There was no deeper lesson being interpreted (my positionings are bad here, I should take more careful movements) but more of a feeling that the game rolled the dice against me. That mindset makes it really easy to make a game feel absolutely unfair. It sucks the enjoyment out of the game, that feeling of accomplishment where your knowledge allows you to overcome the mission obstacles. It also makes the game fairly exhausting, retooling saves over and over.

XCOM2 Brute

After an exhausting 10 hours on the regular mode, I made the choice to start a new run with Iron Man mode. I found myself having a good time, right up until I had a complete mission failure where I lost all 5 of my soldiers. I had to turn off the game in anger; I felt so drained and defeated. I decided to continue on that save after some time off. I found myself in a hole, but not an impossible one to dig out of. I hadn’t realized this before; while the game is punishing there is a possibility to keep going after a failed mission. I realized I had never actually faced failure in XCOM until now. I had skirted around it, never actually seeing what that failure state is like. My run wasn’t over, I still had plenty of opportunity to bounce back. It weirdly resonated with my own personal journey; difficult situations or failure didn’t mean the world was over. It might not always end positively, but it’s better than avoiding things and internalizing regret. If I felt exhausted from trying to pace things over in XCOM, then of course I’d feel the same way in real life.

I don’t want to disparage people playing with multiple saves; you can learn valuable information from failing and retrying. My brain wouldn’t allow me too, preventing me from actually taking in the hard lessons the game dishes out. I’m not saying XCOM flipped a switch and all of a sudden I stopped avoidance, but it reinforced a valuable lesson and coincided with the personal growth journey that I am still on.

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