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Science in Strategy Games: X-Com

June 28th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Feature:Science

What this is about, and a list of the games.

No matter what G4 says, X-Com still stands as one of the best dozen computer/video games ever made. It trafficked in old school alien lore years before X-Files made the puny greys a menace to watch out for. It mixed tactical and strategic planning at a level of quality that really hasn’t been matched, though Creative Assembly has tried its best. And it – a game full of alien woo-woo, psychic control and plasma cannons – is the most honest and true representation of science and technology that we’ll ever see in a strategy game that doesn’t bore us to death.

We had a whole podcast about what makes X-Com special. And we could probably do four or five more. Like Civilization or Rise of Nations or Sins of a Solar Empire, it’s a game that contains multitudes and can be appreciated on many levels. It is a deeply personal game, since your choices could mean sacrificing a soldier you’ve come to rely on. It is an economic game, since you have to decided where to expend your resources for maximum short and long term payoff. It is a game with a story, a game with a message, a game with brilliant map design and destructible terrain, a game where every new alien encounter had the potential to be Omaha Beach; a lot of kids were going to get killed, but the mission was the important thing. X-Com is a thing of beauty and I am thrilled that Firaxis and 2K see fit to bring it back to life.

Often lost in all the talk about the tactical combat and the challenge of the alien menace is the scientific component of the game. This is probably because it’s kind of lost or subsumed in the brilliance of everything else. You had to build labs – that was obvious. And you had to research better weapons to take down badder aliens – also pretty obvious. Big deal.

What was not quite obvious, and what made the game special, is how the scientific advancement of your alien squashing crew was so neatly divided between your tactical and strategic levels. On the tactical level, you kill aliens and capture their bodies and hardware. On the strategic level, you investigate this hardware and the alien bodies and voila you get new stuff. As boring as this sounds when laid out like a game design doc, it had amazing implications for how a game would play out.

Every really good 4x game has the guns and butter problem, but X-Com isn’t a 4x game. And even its butter was also guns. (As we saw in Master of Orion, and will continue to see, science fiction strategy games are really invested in finding fancy ways to die). But the challenge of balancing recruitment, staffing, training and keeping the international funders happy was hard enough. Then you throw a research budget onto that – with labs eating up precious base space and dollars. Yes, experienced players know you need that research to survive long term, but the mid-term is where the rubber hits the road and maybe you skimp a little here and a little there. Sort of like post-secondary education funding everywhere. It is easy to focus on the battle instead of the war.

But then it gets good. Then you see how taking on challenges that could cost you half your crew might save the earth. You take amazing risks to capture technology that…well, it’s useless. Or it is for a while at least.

X-Com doesn’t treat science like Civilization. In Civ, you decide what you want to research, then you wait and you get it. In X-Com, your soldiers kill some badass alien freaks and stumble onto something and then bring it home for your eggheads to analyze. You might, from past experience, know what it is. But you have to wait until they figure it out. Then you have to hope you can make it and have the soldiers that can handle it. An army of mentally fragile troopers will not have much use for the psychic discoveries dug from E.T.’s skull. Yeah, you need to take some aliens alive to finish the game, but we know what’s really going on.

Science is not optional.

Science is also profitable! If you research an item and manufacture it, then you can sell it to supplement your income. (Laser Cannons, ftw.) But this all takes time and your mission might need medi-kits or grenades more. Science and technology in X-Com is a necessity, but you are often tempted to make it an option. Especially when things are going well.

In short, there’s a sense that your men and women see something, bring it back, and then hope someone can explain it to them. It’s a Stargate episode with more drama and less McGyver. And it takes more than an hour. The idea of observation/lab work/production has never been so perfectly modeled in a video game and I can’t imagine how well it would be outside of an alien environment.

Of course, like all good things, familiarity sometimes blinds you to this special quality. I had even forgot to add X-Com to the game list until Bruce Geryk reminded me. Once you’ve figured out the mysteries of the aliens and the secrets they are hoarding, then the strategic side and the science side really do take a back seat to the tactical fun. You already know the techs that will help you the most, probably, so you find ways of getting them and the amazing feeling of discovery that X-Com gave you at the beginning becomes more like an Easter Egg hunt.

I’m a weird person. I can happily discover electricity or the wheel or combustion or what have you over and over and over again in games, but once I know that a Mind Shield can be acquired by taking out the right aliens in the right way, then the game becomes less about science for me. I have the same blinders on for the amazing Alpha Centauri.

I acknowledge that this all totally absurd and I am not normal.

It is impossible to reflect on X-Com without seeing how intricately constructed it was. Every piece had a purpose and reflected back on another piece. When we talk about games as systems, this is probably one of the simplest and clearest and least math intensive examples, but also one of the most elegant. And it demonstrates how easy it is to forget true greatness when it is blended with a lot of simply awesome.

If Firaxis screws this up, I am laying waste to Maryland.

Next up, the only traditional RTS on the list and for very good reason, Age of Empires.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Science in Strategy Games: Master of Orion series

    […] up, X-Com and why it could be the most scientific strategy game ever […]

  • Rob C

    I’m one of the 5 gamers who enjoy strategy games that never played X-COM, probably because space & science fiction usually aren’t my thing. Then I read a piece on a classic game and want to play it. I tried that with Master of Orien, but I just can’t play the old pixelated games anymore. How do you do it? I imagine when you write these articles you go back and play the games, at least for a bit.

    So, you did it again. I want to play X-COM but I don’t think I can stomach the graphics. You should only be able to write about games that aren’t ugly :-)

  • Bruce

    ” It trafficked in old school alien lore years before X-Files made the puny greys a menace to watch out for. ”

    Actually, I think the first X-Files episode aired before X-COM was released.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Actually, both 1993, but X-Files didn’t dig deep into the alien stuff until season 2, IIRC. And X-Com was in development before any of that hit the public mind.

  • Alan Au

    X-Com science is charming in many ways. From a mechanics standpoint it’s really just another slider, but it’s implemented as individuals on your employee roster. They require salaries, beds, and lab space, and they don’t know when they’ll make that breakthrough. It’s science humanized and made personal, just short of actually naming individuals and assigning them to operate centrifuges and mass spectrometers.

  • Chris Floyd

    It helps that X-Com science is really reverse engineering, not blue-sky, Eureka type science. Sure, not all the things you “discover” are based on alien artifacts, but that’s the model that informs the whole system. That’s not to knock the game, it’s just more evidence that pure Copernican/Newtonian/Einsteinian science is hard or impossible to model in game system that are also fun.

    Great post. I had forgotten about this series, so I’m looking forward to more now.

  • Dan K

    I loved the game, and agree with all your points. I do think the science ended up being one of the game’s biggest weakness. Because the science tree was fixed, the replay value of the game dropped dramatically as you essentially “solved” the game by solving what research you needed early to make the game easy. The game was about the unknown. A solved science tree removed the doubt. A randomized tree would have made the game a mystery every time you played it.

    I hope Firaxis catches that in this next iteration. “So you thought Laser Cannons would be worth a lot of money this time, eh? Well this time you can’t even unlock Laser Cannons! Needle guns and sonic weapons instead!”

  • 0107.12 Supplemental

    […] silicon wafers, but it’s hardly up there with how X-COM dealt with science as a resource, argues Troy Goodfellow over at Flash of Steel. I’m inclined to agree, and wholeheartedly approve of his intention […]

  • Anders

    Really wish you guys would take a look at http://www.xenonauts.com/

  • Peter S

    Nice writeup, Troy!

    When I read “Then you throw a research budget onto that – with labs eating up precious base space and dollars”, I immediately thought of laser cannons, but then you addressed that point further down. XD

  • C Lowery

    The only issue I have with research in X-Com is the scale. Once you know what you are doing, it takes a little less than a year to go from Guile haircuts and handguns to mind control, plasma weaponry, and manned flight to Mars. I’ve even watched a speedrun (despite the fact that my time on earth is limited and someday I will die, I take perverse pleasure in watching other people complete strategy games very quickly) where the aliens are sent packing by March, less than 90 days from the point where mankind’s most advanced weapon is a grenade with an apparent and literal dead-man’s trigger.

    But that is a very minor complaint about an absolutely wonderful game. My absolute favorite touch is the profitability from selling advanced death machines to private concerns. The tacit understanding that you are selling those laser cannons to dictators and sectoid corpses to the perversely wealthy to be ground up and used in aphrodisiacs is a wonderful little detail that really drives home the moral ambiguity the game creates.

    Also, my favorite little detail that signifies the game was made in the early nineties: The mushroom cloud explosions are made from layered stylized skulls that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a horrible Image comic.

  • ShadowTiger

    Don’t forget to link your new articles to the main list… its useful for sharing to other people!