Last year’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my favorite games, largely because it left so much room for play sessions to turn into their own little emergent stories.
This week, a huge expansion to the game, called Enemy Within, was launched, and I’ve delved back into the game to try out the new stuff. The other night, I suddenly found myself playing until about 3 a.m. because one mission grabbed my attention and arrested my ability to think of anything else for a good hour — the emergent narrative, about my squad of soldiers fighting to repel an alien invasion of Earth, was in many ways akin to the horror and tragedy of films like Aliens.
Since it was so tense, my favorite experience with the game so far, I ended up laying it out on Twitter across something like 30 updates. I didn’t realize it would be as long as it was until I was midway into it, but I couldn’t just stop in the middle — I still found it too compelling. Because it seems like such a great example of some of the very interesting storytelling only games can do, I thought I’d put it up here, with a little more context.
Some backstory for XCOM uninitiated: in Enemy Unknown (and Enemy Within), players are in command of the XCOM project, a secret multi-government organization that fields troops to fight the alien threat. You spend your time on missions commanding a squad of as many as six specialized soldiers, and you also gather alien artifacts and information to research new technologies to make your guys more effective. The game itself is turn-based, but the narrative is a little more action-centric.
Here’s the after-action report, as it originally appeared on Twitter. I condensed it into paragraphs to save you from scrolling so much:
My six-trooper XCOM squad was wiped out last night. They heroically completed their mission even when it was clear survival was impossible.
We discovered a Canadian fishing village that was destroyed and seemingly empty — but soon it became clear it was overrun with chrysalids. Fighting through the fishing village, the team found chrysalids had used fish as incubators. A fishing boat had run aground nearby.
(Quick aside: Chrysalids are aliens enemies in the game that are more like animals than their humanoid counterparts. They carry no weapons, but move quickly and attack with slashing forearms. Characters they kill reanimate as zombies, and then eventually explode to release a new chrysalid — a lot like Aliens antagonistic creatures.)
The boat was the infestation source. As the team moved to investigate, they discovered a whale carcass the aliens were using as a hive. Chrysalids began hatching from the whale. Orders came down to board the ship and reactivate its transponder, IDing it for air strike.
The team had had a tough fight to the boat. Some were injured. It was decided one man should attempt to stealthily reach the transponder. With sniper Col. Guzman providing cover, the team boarded the boat through a hole in the hull, hoping to distract the chrysalids. Meanwhile, Sq. Pascal, already injured and low on supplies, was chosen to make the run on the boat’s upper deck to the bridge.
Guzman managed to snipe one chrysalid as Pascal raced across the deck aft toward the bridge, narrowly saving his life. Inside, remaining team members deployed explosives to try to weaken the chrysalids, but their quick movements made them tough to hit.
Pascal barely made the bridge as a chrysalid leaped up to the deck; Guzman fired a reaction shot. It went wide by inches. Steps from the button, Pascal was torn apart by the chrysalid.
The speed attempt a failure, the team was now scattered around the ship, with chrysalids amassing in force. They regrouped on the foredeck. With ammo at a premium and chrysalids approaching from several directions, the team used their remaining supplies to blast a hole. Sgt. Williams, a natural sprinter, was chosen to make the run to the bridge as the rest of the team grouped on a nearby catwalk and covered. Williams was attacked en route, but heavy weapons, shotgun fire and sniper cover kept him alive. Medpacks and explosives were exhausted. Injured but alive, Williams activated the transponder, starting the clock for incoming air support to wipe out the village.
The five team members now had to reach exfiltration before the strike wiped them out. At this point, chrysalid forces outnumbered them.
(As any XCOM player well knows, chrysalids in large groups are extremely difficult to deal with. They’re already are tough enemies with thick carapaces that resist bullets, and they’re best dealt with using concentrated fire to bring them down before they can hurt anyone — and they can hurt characters very badly. Fighting multiple chrysalids severely limits the chances of getting all your troops out of a skirmish alive.)
Still fighting on the catwalk, the team had managed to fight off several attacks, but now they were cut off from Williams by chrysalids. Without demolitions, first aid, or an abundance of ammunition, the team went into full retreat, leaving the ship and taking to nearby docks.
Chrysalid attacks now scattered the remaining five XCOM troops. Guzman was trapped on the foredeck. Williams was far aft. As Williams narrowly escaped attack and left the ship, Guzman moved further north into the village, where chrysalids were hatching from fish. It quickly became apparent Guzman could not avoid chrysalids between her and exfil. She took to a rooftop and provided sniper overwatch.
Guzman managed to kill one chrysalid before a second leaped to her rooftop and killed her.
On the docks, chrysalids on the ship were still on the main deck as Williams reached the remaining three team members there. However, a tactical error left them trapped. In order to leave the docks and enter the village, they needed to circle back toward the ship. Meanwhile, two chrysalids — one responsible for Guzman’s death — were approaching from the village side, pinning the troops in.
A running gun battle ensued. Assault troopers Col. Whittier and Col. Gonzalez took point, while Williams and Sgt. Paulsen covered the rear. They killed two, but couldn’t cut back through the village proper, and had to swing north. Enemies dropping from the ship killed Williams. More enemies had hatched from the whale and were leaving the ship as the three team members ran north, all now hurt. None had ammo.
Stitched into the corner of the village, the team desperately tried to reload as chrysalids gave chase. Two surrounded and killed Gonzalez.
Whittier and Paulsen had stocked weapons, but not enough firepower to make a dent in the ranks of the chrysalids. There was nowhere to run.
They managed a stand as the timer ran down, but were soon overrun. Among the attackers were the zombified remains of their squadmates.
Seconds later, fastmovers blanketed the village. They reported total destruction, and zero alien activity.
It is unclear if the XCOM project or the war effort can withstand such a total loss of high-ranked personnel, though. Its future is in doubt
I actually was able to replay the mission a second time later, from the point when Pascal was murdered. Instead of allowing the troops to scatter, everyone regrouped at the foredeck and fought off advancing chrysalids, moving slowly instead of running for it.
The five-soldier team made it off the deck of the ship and back into the village proper, with chrysalids spawning from the whale as well as out of fish hanging from the docks. As a group, the team blasted a pair of chrysalids — one on either side, and moved up. Another pair attacked, and again, the team fought them off with no injuries. But the timer was ticking.
More chrysalids were closing in from behind, and there were mere seconds remaining before the airstrike. The team was out of ammo and supplies. With no other choice, the team sprinted for the exfiltration site, with chrysalids pursuing just out of range.
The clock ticked down. On the final turn, with no time left, all five team members made it Skyranger. As it lifted off, bombs swept across the village and the ship, annihilating the chrysalid infestation.
In this timeline, XCOM goes on and Earth still has a chance — for now, anyway.