Most gamers would argue that the most exciting moments in gaming are the ones that allow you to implement your own creativity into gameplay, personalizing the adventure into something exclusively your own. From building your ideal fortress in Minecraft, to customizing the appearance of your character in Skyrim, it’s remarkable to see something you create take on a life of its own, regardless if it’s really just digital information in a simulated fantasy world.
I recently had a similar experience in XCOM 2 where I became very invested in one of the characters I had created, but with one unique exception: his origin was intended as nothing more than a silly joke. Yet, what followed was something that developed almost entirely by accident, as the character organically evolved within the game’s dynamic world, achieving an individual story arc that paralleled an underdog’s tale.
It all started when I began a new playthrough on its expansion: War of the Chosen, after having just crushed the alien menace in the vanilla game. I was still eager as ever to keep playing, deciding to raise the stakes even further this time by increasing the difficulty to commander – the equivalent to hard. While looking over my new roster of rookies, a buddy of mine who I was voice chatting with at the time, jokingly suggested to customize and name one of the soldiers after him. Amused by the idea, I obliged, even going as far as making a mock biography inserted with crude jokes shared among our circle of friends.
Anyone familiar with the XCOM series is certainly aware that one should never get too attached to their soldiers during campaigns. At moments it can be an extremely punishing game, even to the experienced player who invests vast amounts of time into preparation and tactical thinking. Once a soldier is killed, that is it. There are no respawns, no battle rezs, or phoenix downs; just like reality itself, death is permanent. What’s worse, in retro-gaming fashion, players can play missions, or potentially even campaigns, that can gradually progress into no-win scenarios.
So naturally, the novelty of an in-game soldier based on a friend quickly faded – the odds of such a disposable character surviving through the tough campaign ahead were bleak at best, but he did at least survive long enough to receive his first promotion and be assigned a class: a combat specialist. However, in the participating missions that followed, to my surprise, he not only managed to consistently elude death, but excelled among the rest of his soldiers, being promoted after almost every mission. He was also the first to form a bond with another fellow soldier – who just so happened to be female – ensuring his position among my main roster. My buddy jokingly remarked: “My character has a girlfriend? He has it better than I do.” Well… I suppose someone could fare a lot worse in face of an alien apocalypse. Having earned his place, I gave him the moniker: ‘Azureknight’ – in honor of the characters my buddy names in his own games.
However, where there is triumph, tragedy is never far in its wake. It was a simple guerilla Op: raid a supply train and eliminate the small enemy force. My squad covertly inserted into the area of operations, which offered the opportunity for a potential ambush. After spotting the two enemy patrols, I ordered the squad into flanking positions, surrounding the enemy in a pincer-like maneuver to provide the most optimal killzone. The ambush was initially successful, eliminating a few targets, which splintered the enemy force, while my squad remained in the advantageous position of high ground. But then the situation turned when two enemies rushed and outmaneuvered Azureknight’s bonded squadmate, Joan ‘Scorch’ Mckay. He was the only one with a clean enough shot to potentially save her too, but at the time he had been mind controlled by an enemy psionic unit. Unwilling to let her die, I ordered the rest of my squad to focus their fire to eliminate the enemy psionic, allowing Azureknight to take his shot and eliminate one of the two flanking soldiers. I then ordered Scorch to move into deeper cover and brace for return fire, aware of the inevitability that she was going to get wounded in the following attack. The enemy soldier – possibly aware of his imminent fate – continued his aggression, as he re-positioned and then fired on Scorch, successfully scoring a critical hit that ended her life.
It was a crippling blow, not just because of how unexpected it was, but just how unglamorous her death had been. There were no high stakes involved, no situation that demanded the act of self sacrifice, nor did the situation contain any real significant enemy threat; it had just been a run of the mill grunt who just happened to get off a lucky shot. She was a vital strategic asset I had invested considerable resources and time into, having assigned her as my main combat medic for my squad, which meant her loss potentially jeopardized future missions for the rest of my soldiers.
Things were a bit tumultuous after that, Azureknight didn’t see much action for some time, requiring some downtime after a long tour of combat. The extra available slot in my squad allowed me the opportunity to expose fresh rookies to some actual combat experience, hopefully refilling the void Scorch’s death had left. Meanwhile the aliens continued to rapidly build their strength, introducing a new enemy type with every following encounter. The chosen were gradually, but effectively starving me of resources through sabotage, even becoming bold enough to steal them from right under my nose. Things culminated to the point where defeat not only became a distinct possibility, but was a likely outcome, unless I initiated a bold counterattack of my own, and Azureknight was going to have to lead the assault.
After accumulating enough intel to discover the Assassin’s stronghold, I made my final preparations and sent my best soldiers deep into enemy territory in an all out do or die mission. With no prior experience, and having withheld the temptation from seeking guidance from the internet, I literally had sent my men in blind. What transpired, was probably one of the most grueling boss fights I had ever experienced in modern gaming, and it felt like a small miracle I managed to defeat the Assassin without losing anyone in my squad; although everyone was practically out of combat for some time to recover from their serious wounds. Azureknight more than adequately served his part in this pivotal battle, ensuring victory was achieved, despite the countless opportunities for everything to fall apart, which would have guaranteed a premature end to my campaign.
Currently, my challenging campaign continues on, as does Azureknight’s prestigious military career. He leads into battle, reborn from his meek existence into a hardened veteran, whose presence commands admiration and respect. A shining example of how a well crafted video game can continue to surprise you and keep you emotionally engaged in its immersive world.
Despite how cliché it has become, the underdog tale retains the power to be as engrossing as ever, and it becomes all the more exciting when it unfolds from something you have created yourself.