Monday, December 10, 2012

XCOM: is it survival horror? Hafta think.

at 4:42 PM
Let me note that I'm again referring to Enemy Unknown, though this discussion will also mostly apply to the original UFO Defense, and it is specific to the higher difficulties, though not necessarily Iron Man mode (for those who haven't played the game, Iron Man is a one-file-only auto-saving mode that prevents the practice of "save scumming", i.e. reverting to an earlier save when you're losing).

As usual, we need to start from a definition of survival horror. Seriously, at this point it won't be long before I've defined just about every genre ever, I'm moving at such an annoying rate. Horror is something in which video games can really excel beyond any other medium, because the player has a much more vested stake in the action. They can't look away from the screen, because the character in the horrifying situation is an extension of themselves. Yet that notion is not what makes the genre - that's why there's that whole other word in the title. Horror can show up in action games like RE4 or Devil May Cry, RPGs like Shin Megami Tensei, or shooters like DOOM. Survival is the real gameplay meat here. Survival. What the hell does that mean. Not dying?
That creature you see before you is the antithesis of survival
That's quite the insight, "not dying". But that's common to nearly all games. If all we want to do is survive these games, surely dying must factor in more prominently than it does elsewhere. Constant threat of death? That's closer. Survival horrors are going to go for unexpected kills. Unpredictability is part of it. That's not good enough though. Jumps scares, eh. You can unexpectedly fall into a pit in Super Mario Bros. and it'll make for a hilarious moment rather than a terrifying one. I'm gonna go from my gut here. Forget the semantics. I think... survival horror is gameplay in which every forward progress the player takes raises a lethal threat to his success. A game where everything is always at risk. Because when I think about it, RE4, BioShock, and Dead Space were when the genre started to transcend itself. And why did that happen? What was lost, that made these games no longer about survival? That there were conflicts in which you felt no life-threatening stake.

Whew. That felt good. These definitions aren't always easy, because it has to be simple. If it can't fit in one sentence, you've lost it. I'm happy with this one though. Survival horror means you put your life on the line with every step. I'm not really interested in conventions and all that baggage, that's what I mean when I say the definition has to be short and snappy. We want the heart that drives the classics, so we can look at it in a new light.

XCOM is a good way to do that. Taken through the lens of SRPG, it's still a smashing game, but a familiar one. Units are fragile and expendable, weapons are inaccurate, fog of war. That about covers it. But if we look at it as a survival horror, it's a unique and expansive experiment. Now I know the other Greg out there reading is all riled up right about now and gonna tell me this is completely a writing gimmick, but hear me out. I think the game very much invites this analysis and reflects some interesting ideas back at surv-hor.
The very premise of the game is to operate a military force which ensures the survival of humanity against otherworldly invaders. On the large scale this "survival" is represented as "panic", though clearly the understanding is that if the player loses the game, civilization ceases to exist. So this is kinda like the mother of all survival games! Where the risk/progress core really unveils itself is in the individual battles. Every mission requires you to deploy 4-6 soldiers. Each soldier deployed may not come back.

You can plan and strategize and play it safe as much as you want, but in the end you just never know who might die. The situation can always escalate. This is worked into the turn-based gameplay with simple die-roll statistics. For everything that should happen, you never know that it will. This tension builds up with every move, as you ask yourself whether you want to take that step into the dark.

Yeah. I think the answer to the title is yes. XCOM is survival horror, in its own way. So the genre's not as dead as someone wants you to think you believe. There's Dark Souls too.


  1. I have very little gaming experience in this genre, but to me the "survival" part always sort of inferred that you couldn't shoot your way out, which is what made it more suspenseful. im thinking like silent hill.

    1. As in the omnipresence of a threat? I know what you mean, but I would say that strictly falls under genre-conventions derived from the definition I gave. If every step of progress has to remain dangerous, an easy way to accomplish that is by introducing a Pyramid Head style invincible menace, or Crimson Head (what's with the "Heads"?) escalation of threat in proportion to force.

      You can't shoot your way out of Splinter Cell or Metroid though, and even the notion of being able to defeat your opposition isn't a necessary element of a game, survival horror or not.