I surprised myself over the last couple of weeks by experiencing a sharp, penetrating sensation that wasn’t my appendix rupturing. Instead, it was a long buried sense of anticipation, a particular giddiness that feels a little bit like a kid realizing he just might get the #1 toy on his Christmas wishlist. For me, this feeling came when it was announced that XCOM: Enemy Unknown was an actual game, in development that was going to respect the roots of the original. It is, for better or worse, going to be a strategy game, on consoles as well as the PC, that is turn-based.
I’m primarily a console gamer these days when I’m playing purely for personal recreation. Obviously I use a computer on a daily basis for working, but it’s not a gaming rig. It can handle e-mail, some word processing and the usual requirements for internet usage. It cannot run Star Wars: The Old Republic, never mind something like Crysis. However, that’s not to say I didn’t have my run on PC gaming. During the 90s I was in the thick of it, from the LucasArts point n’ click adventures to Civilization, from Wing Commander to Mech Warrior. And yes, somewhere in there, the mesmerizing, intimidating, brutal, complex experience that was the original X-Com: UFO Defense as it was known in North America. Some of those genres those games belonged to are dinosaurs now, such as the space-sim combat games, and others, like turn-based strategy games are on the ropes, in danger of extinction.
It’s disheartening in some ways, to think that back when gaming platforms were more limited and less powerful, the variety of game types available—and quality of those games—was more substantial. There was a time when some games thought it was perfectly fine to give some breathing space, to actually let players think about what they wanted to do next, and not just for the next few seconds, but the next few minutes or hours. Long term plans, strategies, the ability to lose a battle, but not the entire war. These are all things that games like X-Com offered to players, but much of that complexity and nuance has been lost in the emphasis on fast-paced, “adrenaline fuelled”, moment-to-moment gameplay. For some reason, many games have gotten stuck in the rut of “If it’s not fast, it’s not good.”
Despite this fixation in the digital arena, you still have games, in the real world, like pool and poker, which have not only survived for decades, but have become popular enough to televise. They still sit comfortably alongside “real time” competitive games like basketball and football, and are in no danger of being squeezed out because they’re “too slow.” Chess is turn-based, and is over 1500 years old; no one has ever thought it needed to be turned into a first person shooter in order to engage a contemporary audience. If the real world can comfortably accommodate both real time and turn-based games, why can’t videogames do the same thing?
I hope that XCOM is given a proper treatment by Firaxis, and I hope that it manages to sell enough to make a tidy profit, and ensure the continuation of the series and genre. Given the current climate of the audience, it’s a foregone conclusion that it won’t sell in blockbuster numbers. But if it can get a small, dedicated audience back, if it can tap into the same players that didn’t walk away from Dark Souls, it can prove that sometimes a game doesn’t have to have things exploding in real time, requiring real time response, in order to create tension, excitement and even fear. It might just prove to players that occasionally, taking the time to think out a move, to plan and improvise an ongoing strategy, can be as fun—perhaps even more rewarding—than simply turning a random corner and shooting a guy in front of you. Escapism doesn’t have to mean turning your brain off. It can mean stimulating it with something other than work. I hope XCOM: Enemy Unknown will give more people that insight.