Despite being a huge fan of challenging games, overwhelming failure used to drive me insane. Losing thousands of souls by walking off a cliff in Dark Souls 3, for instance, caused my blood to boil more than words could describe.
Odd, then, that I chose to pick up Firaxis Games’ excellent, hard as nails, turn-based tactical warfare sequel, XCOM 2. In fact, I bought the game because it was on sale on PS4, and I’d driven myself crazy over reaching defeat in countless Overwatch ranked matches. I knew very little about the XCOM series as a whole – all I knew was that defeat was, allegedly, inevitable.
Just a quick refresher for anybody unaware: XCOM plays as an isometric, squad-based strategy game, where you assign two moves to each of your soldiers per turn. After these are expired, it’s then the alien’s turn to fight. Oh, yeah, there’s aliens. The whole world’s been invaded, in fact, and it’s your job to fight back while juggling the meta game of researching new technologies and building up your base. So no pressure.
I threw myself in largely blind, chucked the game on a low difficulty level to learn the ropes, and…got my arse handed to me. When each of your soldiers die in XCOM 2, they’re gone for good. Permadeath. So if you spent several missions training up a melee-wielding Ranger, it only takes one wayward laser blast to remove them entirely. Sure, you can reload save points, but where’s the fun in that?
I got acquainted with this whole permadeath thing very early on. In XCOM, if you position your soldiers behind anything that isn’t a tall, solid surface, they’re at high risk of being shot on the following turn. “Half cover?” I thought. “Yeah, that’s gotta be fine.” Nope. So many of my soldiers died via this process that I thought the challenge was insurmountable.
Just around this time, I came to the realisation that my current playthrough was unwinnable. This has never happened to me in a game, really, and so this unfortunate revelation came as something of a surprise. To put it simply: my experienced soldiers had all died, and so I could only send bog-standard recruits on missions. They’d be underpowered and rapidly killed by the ever-strengthening alien threat, and I’d fail the mission. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, I was forced to begin the entire game again. Bearing in mind I’d put about ten hours in by this time; it wasn’t exactly a high point.
And so I repeated the process again, chugging my way through progressively more difficult missions, until I reached a similarly stony brick wall. But you know what? This time, I relished in it. I’d come to accept that dying again and again was just a part of the gameplay, and even playthrough-ending fuck ups like mine were to be learned from. I started positioning my guys better; I started using one turn for movement, and the other to establish an ambush. Things finally began to sway in my favour.
It might sound like hyperbole, but this changed how I approached things in everyday life. XCOM 2 showed me that supposedly crushing loss can be handled, and I found myself dealing with things better in real life. My shockingly poor WiFi needs replacing, but I’ve just signed up for a yearly contract? No worries – I can get this sorted. I’m entering the most important year of university, and need to work out what I’m doing with my life? Got to take it in my stride. They’re tenuous links, sure, but you get the idea: XCOM changed how I viewed things.
Maybe once I finally complete a playthrough of the game, I’ll give it yet another go on a higher difficulty setting. I’ll probably get absolutely wrecked from the get-go, but I’ll evolve my playstyle to suit the harder challenges. Like in life, humans can typically get used to anything – no matter how uncomfortable it might first seem. It might seem odd that it took a game about blasting aliens with laser rifles for me to understand this, but I’m sure happy that I did.
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