XCOM is Secretly One of the Year's Best Sports Games
He renamed all his teammates for his friends, he put himself on the roster and took all of the best equipment. He rebounded from painful defeats—or, eh, restarted a few here and there—and scored fist-pumping victories in all the others. He felt all the vicarious thrills that every sports video game offers.
But when Garth DeAngelis emerged triumphant at the end of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, he didn’t really feel like he saved the world.
“I thought, ‘I just won a championship,'” said DeAngelis, the game’s lead producer, “with my XCOM team.”
DeAngelis, 31, is 6-foot-5, a native Baltimorean tormented for his allegiance to the New York Giants. “My folks grew up in New York,” he says in his defense. He played college basketball before joining Firaxis, XCOM‘s studio. The guy is a jock.
So he can pick out all of the ways that XCOM—the strategy game that tasks you with repelling an extraterrestrial invasion—is like a sports video game. It features personnel management, and development, and an economic system supporting both, plus third-party proposals that amount to trade offers. Gameplay unfolds as a set piece, like baseball or American football, full of the same tension and precipitous decision-making.
It’s as a games designer and an athlete that he picks out what makes XCOM most like a sports video game.
“You can fail in a sports video game; you might not win the championship,” DeAngelis said. “That’s not a staple in the current gaming landscape, except for sports games. In traditional games, you’re used to losing and then restarting. But it’s OK if you lose a mission in XCOM. In fact, you’re going to lose missions in XCOM.”
I’ve written before that only sports move forward from a decisive loss—which is not exactly true, as strategy titles feature this outcome constantly without jeopardizing the overal goal. Still, DeAngelis is right. You may undo all of your mistakes by reloading quicksaves, and reach the end of XCOM without a single defeat, but it would feel as inauthentic as an 82-0 season in his other favorite game, NBA 2K13.
Failure in other mission-based narratives in gaming either force you to retry or, simply put you back out into an open world to acquire whatever you need to win or advance—whether that’s experience points in an MMO or your next wristband in Forza Horizon or whatever. If it doesn’t count, it can be undone.
Failure is permanent in XCOM—you can see it any time you visit the memorial of dead soldiers in the barracks, or when a nation is at maximum panic level, and you can’t give it a satellite, and the mission there is simply too dangerous to pursue.
“When you lose missions or lose soldiers, or lose a nation, you’ve got to surge forward and have your coach give a rallying speech,” DeAngelis said. “It’s an important component of the original.”
For me, the greatest similarity is in the unit cohesion. Put me on a map in a military shooter, even in a cooperative/competitive match like capture-the-flag, and I still don’t really care how the other guy does. I’m engrossed in my own statistical performance or simply not looking like an ass.
In XCOM, where I am not a participant, per se, but a director of the combat, I’m utterly committed to the success of the team—and that really is sport at its finest. I’m not concerned with the star performance of my team’s most talented individuals, and I can’t say the same for my approach to a game like Madden. I could bomb it at a single receiver all day long, sure, or even throw him the winning touchdown. Those decisions are a far cry from sending an assault specialist charging unguarded on an enemy’s position to save a teammate’s life, at the cost of his own.
That happened this past week, and I wrote up a medal citation for the guy my corporal was named after. “If you follow the #XCOM hashtag on Twitter, it’s a constant stream of players telling stories about their friends,” DeAngelis said. As Firaxis was developing Enemy Unknown, “I did another talk about emergent narratives in XCOM, and I ended it thinking, ‘This is totally sports video games as well,’ DeAngelis said. “They’re the ultimate video games enabling players to tell their own stories. If someone’s holding out in contract negotiations, maybe that’s why you’re not passing him the ball on the court. It’s a major part of the fun.”
I’d be only half-kidding if I said XCOM was the sports video game of the year. It’s not recognizably a sports video game—even if it’s an adaptation of a well designed, much beloved game that a generation of adults grew up with as kids. There’s no league license, no real-world performers, its cover stars are backlit and unidentifiable.
But the game grasps just enough of the themes and structure of a sports title to provide the same visceral, emotional payout of a hard-fought win. Every time I get done with a difficult operation, I return to base, exhale, and thank God I don’t have to make a life-or-death decision with my next choice. I don’t run back out on the field after an enormous road win in NCAA Football, either. I savor it. But despite responsibility of these decisions and the dread of making the wrong ones, I can’t wait to get back out there.
“We were noticing a lot of players would come back and say things like, ‘I got my ass handed to me,'” DeAngelis said. “‘Man, I can’t wait to dive in again.’ When we were in alpha, after I had one of my first full playthrough experiences with XCOM, when I beat the game, I immediately wanted to fire up a new game. I normally don’t want to do this in a single player game unless it’s a sports video game, and I want to begin a new season.”
“I was thinking, ‘This could be a really cool gateway game, into sports,'” DeAngelis said.