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XCOM Enemy Unknown: Searching for a Story

I love stories in games. A well-crafted plot can transport the player to a world never before experienced. It can create emotional moments that linger in a gamer's mind long after the controller is put down. It can involve a player in no-win scenarios that test his or her strength and resolve. That's what makes gaming special to me. The interactivity unique to gaming allows a connection to tales unavailable in books or movies. Story is the most exciting feature in high-budget games today, and it's a big part of what motivates me as a gamer.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown doesn't have that. Or if it does, the intricacies of the plot were lost on me during my initial playthrough. XCOM is a tale of humanity fighting off an alien invasion, and that's basically it. There's no moral choices, no emotional soliloquies, and no overarching message. Well, no message besides alien invasions are scary as hell and we need to take care of them.

Yet despite it's basic storyline, I can't help but love it.

Maybe my desire for narrative is satiated by imagining backstories for my squad. I took the advice of gaming personalities around the web and decided to name my teammates after my closest friends. This personal touch allowed me to build storyline reasons to explain why each member of my squad was the class he or she was, and justify what lead them to the war in the first place. I'm not talking about paragraphs upon paragraphs of history, but simply a light justification for how this situation came about. As I lost squad mates, it made sense to me when other members became frantic. They just lost their childhood buddy, of course they would! Still, imagined backstories seems like a thin patch over what I would normally consider a significant omission in a high-profile release.

Maybe picturing the state of Earth deteriorating as council members abandon the XCOM initiative satisfied me. With many countries and continents devoted to this program, it's difficult to keep every nation happy. After a period of neglect, South Africa was so frustrated with my leadership they pulled my funding. Don't they understand that I'm trying to save the world here?

But then I imagined their perspective and understood. As XCOM leader, I see the bigger picture. Almost literally, since the situation room contains a giant map of our planet. For a nation struggling to keep everyone alive, safety from invaders is top priority. I can understand pulling my XCOM dollars to re-budget that cash for the South African populace.

Even if I don't see the day-to-day struggle each nation puts up with, I can imagine it. Perhaps that's enough, though I will admit it feels a bit hollow as well.

Maybe the mission-to-mission gameplay is so rich I simply don't care. Once you're sucked into a battle, it's hard to remember the circumstances that brought you there. All you're concerned about is survival, finishing the mission, and getting everyone home safe. Accomplishing those tasks can be tough, though. One wrong move or missed sniper shot and a mission that started out as a breeze can turn into a hurricane.

I like the tension, though. It means every enemy killed feels like a tiny accomplishment, and surviving a 10-enemy wave means something. You have to take risks to accomplish your task, and playing it safe often leads to losses in the squad. When those risks pay off, it's one of the best feelings a game can offer through gameplay, story, or otherwise.

Whatever the reason, XCOM: Enemy Unknown impresses, even without a deep storyline. There's plenty of smaller games that forgo storytelling for perfecting the gameplay, but a game the size and price of XCOM typically aims for the full package. Would XCOM be a better game if the story held more meaning? I'm not sure. It might only distract the player from how refined the gameplay is. Even as a gamer who obsesses over story in games, I have to admit. XCOM didn't need a memorable story to be great.
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About mystakinone of us since 4:01 PM on 05.23.2012

I'm a recent graduate of Penn State University with a love of games that dates back to early childhood. In college, I majored in Media Studies and Media Effects to better understand how gaming affects people emotionally and psychologically. Fives years and one degree later, all the answers are at my disposal! Not really, but I like to pretend they are.

I host and produce the Rhythm Authors Podcast, a podcast about Rock Band Network and the RBN authoring company I work for. I'm also the editorial director of PMS Clan and a freelance writer.
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