Save Scum

XCOM 2 Skyranger loading screen screenshot.jpg

There are two kinds of loading screen in XCOM 2. The first is diegetic, and it appears when loading into or out of a mission. You’re shown an interior view of the dropship carrying the squad you’re sending into battle. When deploying, there’s a mission briefing projected on the wall of the cargo bay, including the code name, objective, and an image representing the terrain of the area of operation. Upon extraction, combat stats are displayed instead, giving you a qualitative indication of how successful your tactics were.

More important than the brief and debrief is the view you get of your troops. Flying out, you can see them shift in their seats, a mix of anticipation and determination on their faces. When returning to base, the mood within the Skyranger will depend on the results of the mission.

This loading screen is necessary to give the game time to load in alien combatants and procedurally generate the battlefield, but it also gives you valuable face-to-face time with the men and women under your command. It endears them to you, and it can give extra weight to any seat that might end up empty.

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As with the first game in the series, XCOM 2 is a turn-based tactics and strategy game in which you wage war against an alien menace. As the Commander of the titular organization, you’re responsible for managing resources (strategic and human), deciding where and when to strike the enemy forces, and relaying orders to individual units on the battlefield.

I played the first game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and I enjoyed it, but I never beat it. Until recently, I wasn’t sure why I ran out of steam after getting close to the end. I figured it was because some other game came along and grabbed my attention, and sometimes it’s hard to jump back into a game after you’ve put it down for a while.

I wasn’t alone in my desertion. Because so few people beat the game, the developers decided the alien invaders had won.

In the new game, they rule the world.

After only a weekend of playing XCOM 2, I abandoned my campaign and started over. I realized something else had killed my run of the first game, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t make the same mistake this time. More than momentum, it was motivation I lacked.

To be clear, starting over is not at all out of the ordinary in this series. Sometimes your decisions don’t pan out. You might assign research projects in the wrong order, or you could waste money expanding your base in ways that don’t support your strategy. More than anything, the surest way to cripple a campaign is with poor tactics on the battlefield.

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Death is permanent in XCOM. If a soldier dies, you don’t get them back, and the number of soldiers you’re able to field is limited by how many you’ve recruited. Even worse, if you’re carried far into the game on the backs of high ranking soldiers and then lose some of them, the rookies you have to field as replacements aren’t going to do as well as the seasoned veterans you just buried.

Death is permanent, but XCOM is a video game, and here you can save whenever you want to. That includes in between turns of a mission, so if something goes wrong and one of your soldiers dies, you can reload to a previous point in the mission and try different tactics, as many times as is necessary, until you get a more favorable outcome.

This practice is called save scumming. The term itself is condescending and perhaps belittling to those who play games this way, but I don’t subscribe to the notion that there’s an intended way of playing a game. Once it’s in your hands, the developer’s intentions are moot.

What I can say is that I save scummed when I played Enemy Unknown and during my first campaign of XCOM 2, and my experience felt hollow. As I recall from another game I played recently, it’s possible I was even being disrespectful.

Undertale is a retro-styled roleplaying game released on PC last September, and it took the internet by storm for a number of reasons. It has a quirky sense of humor, a memorable cast of characters, an innovative take on turn-based battles, a phenomenal soundtrack, and it was made almost entirely by one guy. It also has a lot to say about what games are and how we play them.

Unlike most RPGs, Undertale lets you forgo leveling up your character by allowing you to spare every enemy in the game. When you encounter a monster, instead of fighting them, you can choose to act in a certain way that will make them lose their will to fight, giving you the opportunity to show them mercy. You can even do this during boss fights.

How you play the game has a direct impact on the story and how the characters interact with you. Friendship is a central theme, and when you’re first playing, you don’t know what actions could prevent you from befriending an important character or cause you to lose a friend you had previously made. That the game even asks you to think of these sprites and monsters as more than constructs is telling, and it’s no surprise that most players will end up feeling attached to one or more members of the cast.

Now again, Undertale has save points. If you feel like you’ve made a mistake, like if you “accidentally” kill a boss because you can’t figure out how to spare them, you could just close the game without saving and reload from the last save point.

But the character will remember.

Unlike any other game, reloading a save does not equal forgiveness in Undertale. When you show up again, the monsters’ dialogue will change to reflect their understanding, a feeling they have that this isn’t their first encounter with you. They’ll know that things went differently the first time. Some brush it off,

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others taunt you to your face,

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but either way, they know.

This memory system is only one of the ways Undertale sticks with people, and it’s something you should experience without letting yourself be spoiled if possible. My first run of that game is something I cherish, and it’s changed the way I approach other games, including XCOM.

XCOM 2’s other loading screens are also diegetic in a way. They are a message from the aliens, the kind you might expect to find plastered on telescreens throughout one of their cities. This is an example of what you see whenever you reload a save.

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The message is clear: you are failing. For every error you try to erase, every soldier you bring back from the dead, you are letting humanity down. Trying to undo your mistakes is a losing battle.

What I said before about the developers’ intentions not mattering holds true, but I still think it’s important to listen to them when they’re making a suggestion, especially one as upfront as these loading screens. This is an elbow in the ribs every time you reload on reflex, and after seeing enough of them, players might decide as I did that they don’t want to see these images more often than they have to.

While the game can rightly be applauded for its atmosphere and the mood it sets, the actual story is straightforward. XCOM is the underdog now, but by blowing up important alien facilities, hacking into alien networks, and committing other acts of terrorism in the name of freedom, your ragtag resistance movement grows and presumably overthrows the occupying forces (I still haven’t beaten the game, but there’s an Achievement that says as much).

Your immediate subordinates all have names and dialogue. There’s Central Officer Bradford, who survived the first war and would very much like to get revenge on the bastards who slaughtered his friends and defaced the planet. There’s Richard Tygan, your head of research, a scientist who worked in one of Advent’s gene therapy clinics until he defected in search of redemption. And there’s your Chief Engineer, Lily Shen, the daughter of the Chief Engineer from Enemy Unknown, who is wary of Tygan and wishes to live up to her father’s legacy by building you bigger and better guns.

You’ll end up caring about these people, but you, the Commander, are the closest thing to a main character. You don’t have a voice or even a face within the game, but you do have your connections to the soldiers that you send into battle, and that’s very important if you take advantage of the game’s Character Pool feature.

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Normally, the soldiers on your roster are randomized. They’re created at the start of a campaign with their names, faces, nationalities, and so on pulled out of a hat. You could play a hundred campaigns and never have the same crew twice.

What the character pool lets you do is custom build soldiers to insert into the game. That way in addition to the random ones, you’ll also get names you recognize (the number of pre-rendered faces and hairstyles you have to work with is a bit limited, so close approximations are the best you can hope for there).

Once you dive into this tool and add twenty of your best friends and family into the mix, that is when XCOM 2 really starts to shine not just as a game but as a story generator.

As an example, I’ll share one from my more successful second attempt at a campaign.

I had started over with a new rule in mind: I would only save scum if I experienced what I deemed an unacceptable level of casualties during a mission, and I would only save once at the start of the mission, forcing myself to redo the whole thing instead of jumping back a couple of turns. I wanted to keep myself in check, to prevent myself from abusing the save feature, but I also wanted to take the lives of my soldiers seriously. These were my kin I was commanding now, and they deserved better than trial-and-error tactics.

Using what I had learned from my failed attempt, I began from scratch, building facilities within my base in a logical order of progression. I had Dr. Tygan perform autopsies on alien corpses brought back from the field, while Shen adapted his reports of their biology into new weapons and armor. These are the standard between-mission actions of the game, but the order you choose to do them in can make or break XCOM.

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As Commander, much of my time is spent on the bridge of our mobile fortress, a stolen alien craft christened the Avenger. Along with CO Bradford, the bridge is home to the Geoscape, a holographic globe that shows you key objectives and the extent of your resistance network.

The geoscape acts more like a tabletop board game than a video game. You maneuver the Avenger from place to place, scanning for resources and waiting for opportunities to strike at the enemy. Scanning is also how the game passes time, so for every day you spend scanning, a project you’re researching will finish or a soldier will recover from wounds incurred on a previous mission.

It was late spring when I got word of a Guerilla Op that was about to take place. When Guerilla Ops pop up, you’re given a choice of three missions, and you can only act on one of them. Each mission will have different rewards, and more critically, each one counters an alien Dark Event. Dark events are projects the aliens are working on under the table, and all of them make your life harder.

Assessing my options, the event I most wanted to counter was called Viper Rounds, which would give the alien troops poison-tipped bullets for a month of in-game time. I don’t like when aliens fire on my squad, and I like it even less when they can inflict poison-damage. In any other situation, I would have chosen that mission, but I had a problem.

The reward for completing one of the other ops was a scientist named Sam Heathcote. My brother.

When you’re making characters, you can choose whether they appear in game as a soldier, a VIP (someone you rescue from the aliens), or a Dark VIP (someone you assassinate or kidnap). I chose to make Sam a VIP, and here the game had turned him into a scientist that I could put to work in the research division. Of all the roles in game, it’s easiest to imagine my brother, the surgeon, getting excited to take a scalpel to alien flesh.

So what could I do? I didn’t want to deal with those poison rounds, but this was blood. I took the other mission and rescued my brother.

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A few weeks went by without much incident. As we approached a critical juncture of the campaign, sensors detected an enemy UFO pursuing the Avenger. It disabled my ship with an EMP blast and then launched a transmitter into the ground near where we had crashed. The beacon emitted a suppression field that prevented us from taking off, so I had to send out a team to disable the transmitter and defend the ship.

We had crashed on a plateau in the middle of a dense forest, somewhere north of New Brazil. A narrow peninsula of land extended straight out from the Avenger’s deployment ramp with a valley on either side. I could see the objective far out in the woods, but I would need to get a soldier close enough to act as a spotter for my sharpshooters.

I sent my other brother, David, forward. As a ranger, he’s skilled in stealth maneuvers and armed with a shotgun and a monomolecular blade in the event he’s discovered. He would be fine.

The rest of my units I spread out across the ridge with most concentrated on the right side. To the left I sent a grenadier, my friend Mike. This is what the aliens had been waiting for.

I had fallen into their trap. Though the transmitter was away to the right, the bulk of the alien forces had crept up from the left. Alone without anyone to provide cover, Mike was snatched down into the valley by a Viper.

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Quickly, I sent as many people as I could to his aid, convincing the serpent to let him go with a well placed shot from a sniper, but he was still stuck down in the valley. I moved him behind a rocky outcrop and held my breath.

An enemy Shieldbearer emerged from the fog and took position behind a low wall. He had Mike flanked.

The Shieldbearer raised his weapon and fired. A critical hit, but Mike was alive, albeit with a single health point.

But a moment later I got a notification saying he was poisoned. The toxic shrapnel did its work, and at the start of my next turn, Mike fell. “Not like this…” he said, clutching his chest as he crumpled to the ground.

As I destroyed the transmitter and pulled back to the ship, Bradford radioed in to tell me we were leaving a man behind. I knew it all too well, but with the alien horde closing in, there was no way I could get back to recover the body. He was lost to the Amazon, but his comrades would continue the fight in his name.

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If I continued to save scum, I wouldn’t have that story to tell. The old me would have reloaded to a point before Mike was even grabbed. I would have known where the aliens were coming from and positioned my soldiers differently instead of having to adapt my tactics.

The Mike in the game wouldn’t have remembered any of that. That isn’t how most games work, but after experiencing one game where it was the case, I find it hard to shake the notion.

XCOM in particular lends itself well to this idea. Unlike other games where I might project myself onto the main character, here I hold the lives of others in my hands. As Commander, I’m not involved in the action. I deliver orders from afar without putting myself in any danger. There’s weight to every decision, and the risk of true death gives me all the more reason to bond with my soldiers.

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After each mission, I like to zoom in and pan around the rooms on board the Avenger. There’s rooms you would expect like the lab, the hangar bay, and the bridge, but there’s also living quarters where the soldiers can relax and play a game of poker. There’s a med bay where I can visit the wounded. There’s even a bar on the ship where the squad gathers after a successful mission. On the wall of the bar is the memorial to the fallen.

As of now, there’s only one name on that wall, and though I intend to keep it that way, I’m more likely to make another mistake. The more I fight back, the more brutality the aliens respond with, and at some point, the odds will be insurmountable. Another friend will fall, and what will I do then? Do I take it back, call it a mulligan? Or do I let their death mean something to me and to the rest?

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For now, I’m determined to stick to the more dignified tactic.