I Am Ironman

XCOM.

When I finally sat down to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown (a franchise completely new to me, in a genre I don't dabble in very often), I was offered a pair of options upon starting a new game. The first was the difficulty, and I chose Normal, this later turning out to be a mistake because I suck somewhat at strategy games. The second was “Ironman” mode.

Ironman, for those of you who haven't played XCOM before, is a game mode in which you are assigned a single save slot to record your progress, with no control over when it saves. This essentially means that you are permanently tied to every single decision you make in the game, and cannot simply "re-do" that fourth mission because the soldier you named after Mary from work died to an alien's beam weapon. No backsies.

What struck me as odd about this option was that a lot of the XCOM players on my Twitter feed would turn it on when playing through the game for the second time, rather than the first. It was something I chose without hesitation on my first play, though, and this is primarily for one reason: In any game, I believe all my choices should be permanent, by default. Because when they are, it starts to feel like my interaction with games matters.

The problem this raises is that some people make mistakes, and not just tactical ones. Taking the wrong option on your soldier's talent tree. Buying ten vests of carapace armour instead of one. These are understandable mistakes, but there are of course ways to design the game around them, to ensure that these mistakes cannot actually be made.

But on the battlefield, you'll learn a harsh lesson from Ironman. As many of you have done, my squaddies were named after myself and those I know. Watching them die was a painful experience, and because it was permanent, I learned from it very quickly. There was no going back, reliving the same memory fifty times until I completed the mission, to the point where risk was a minor inconvenience.

When commanding forces on the battlefield, some of them will die. Bad luck, inexperience, being out-maneuvered. This is part and parcel of becoming a better wargamer. By learning your lessons using the same conflict time and again, you are teaching yourself nothing whatsoever that will be useful outside that exact conflict. Being forced into new, unfamiliar territory, constantly wary of the permanency of your actions, will mould you into a more fluid and wise leader. You are no longer “quick-save-quick-load” Bob from Accounts. You are a war leader, but one who operates unassisted by years of military campaigns in the XCOM world, with no team of advisors to hand. You will make decisions that will result in death. But you will accept it, and learn from it.

What I want from games, as the industry progresses, is realism. It frustrates me to hear people say that I'm being ridiculous, claiming that lightsabers shouldn't have a stopping point, or that there should be no sound in space, because aliens and spaceships exist. The latter two are entirely possible. The former two break my immersion. The same goes for Ironman mode — I don't see the disadvantage of learning as we do in real life, from mistakes we can't take back. Playing through XCOM as a commander who, as far as the game world is concerned, seems to have the ability to see into the future, almost like they’d failed at this exact mission ten times before, spotting all aliens ahead of time and positioning everyone perfectly, is completely ridiculous. Finishing the fight bloodied is a story, and one that is deserving of some respect.

To me it seems like a disservice to those on real battlefields, to have games that represent armed conflict in such a way that death means nothing. It would appear that roguelikes have reached the point of save-realism long before military games have done, each death a permanent event that requires you to generate a new persona with which to deal harm to your enemies.

Permadeath has been a part of games design for some time, but rarely as often as it is now with the rise of the roguelike and games like XCOM charging into the mainstream. It’s changing the way that the more reluctant of us play games. Minecraft now features Hardcore mode - die, and the game will delete your world. Diablo III's hardcore mode (a traditional feature dating back through the series’ history) does the same with your character. There's a message in the “hardcore” naming convention, too. This isn't an experience for those who want the escapism of Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom. This is for those who really want to sink their teeth into something that feels a lot more serious and important, who want to think very carefully and make choices that will haunt them for quite some time.

The point that some of these games are trying to make is that you're playing god with characters whom the developers want you to perceive as real people. Peter Molyneux parody Twitter account @petermolydeux once asked his followers to "imagine an action game where, upon killing each enemy, you see a 1-minute, unique cutscene flashing through their entire life." It seemed like an incredible idea at the time, and now it's beginning to come true in ZombiU, where every time you die - and death is permanent for the character you’re playing - you're given a new persona, with a randomly generated biography.

As I stand in XCOM, several of my friends are dead. Canada has left the Council due to panic. I'm currently standing in a city where I have no chance of saving even half of the civilians. But rather than feeling totally defeated, I suppress my urge to start again on Easy. I feel like a veteran. Like I can turn to a fellow XCOM fan at a pub and say "I've SEEN things, man. I've seen things."

Comments

XCOM made me reinstall Icewind Dale. My wizard started with 4HP max. A sh*tty bettle in the basement of the tavern where you start the game killed him with a single strike.

I did not reload.

XCOM changed how I enjoy games.

oMonarca wrote:

XCOM made me reinstall Icewind Dale. My wizard started with 4HP max. A sh*tty bettle in the basement of the tavern where you start the game killed him with a single strike.

I did not reload.

XCOM changed how I enjoy games.

A hundred times this. It's just so much more emotionally charged, and it hardens you. If you're not really as invested because you can simply get a do-over, then it's not your journey as well - just the character's, and even then it feels weird and fragmented.

I'm playing Xcom on Ironman mode, but it hasn't been this big gaming revelation for me.

Hitting Xcom directly after binging on FTL probably has something to do with that. This is just how games work now.

Hmm… maybe this is why I kept restarting story missions in GW2 rather than res and run back into the fight…

I've been playing games that way for a long time. It doesn't need to be all Hardcore, though!

For example, with roleplaying games - particularly story based ones such as Bioware's Dragon Age and Mass Effect games - play like that. Don't quicksave/quickload to explore conversation options, don't redo things to get a companion you may have missed, or to avoid an unpleasant result.

Instead of playing them like games with a scoreboard, play through them as if you're actually in that situation. It gives weight to the choices you make, instead of distilling them down to the "best" or "worst" answer. I've found, since I started playing games this way, that I get far more immersed into the game. I slip out of the old metagaming mindset, worrying enormously about optimizing everything and what have you, and instead get right into the game.

This also has the side effect of hiding crappy design decisions - like those choices in games that appear to be meaningful but in fact all lead to the exact same result. When you're only moving forward through them, you have no way of knowing what other potential results were - or even if there were other possibilities.

It adds so much depth; and replayability too.

Tried XCOM classic ironman several times before realizing that it was entirely possible I would never see the second half of the game! So now I'm finishing a game using judicious reloading just to see how it actually ends! Still plan on going back and trying a classic ironman afterwards though - hopefully having been through it once, it won't bother me as much when my entire squad is wiped out . . .

Vargen: I've played FTL too, and that might be why it's not that big a change for you if it's a move from one to the other right away.

Wintersdark: That's an interesting point. I think the problem with Mass Effect, at least, is that it wasn't always 100% consistent with your own sentiments. I found that things I thought were fair were classed as evil, and not because they were - but because they were realist choices, or ones I thought were more human. I think in some ways Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade options almost parody what it's trying to take seriously, by never really allowing you to benefit from taking the human "mistakes happen," middle of the road options without consequences you don't feel fit how you behaved.

I totally agree with immersing yourself that way, too, and one of the games I did that with recently was The Walking Dead, talking through a choice with my girlfriend that we thought merited a long discussion.

My only issue is that XCOM simply isn't any of those games. Realistically, the story is at best, TV-movie garbage. But it's not important, because the individual(s) driving the narrative isn't the writing team at Firaxis - it's you, and those you play with. That's the difference between Mass Effect and XCOM - that while Mass Effect has defined storylines and subplots, there's no situation in which Ashley randomly gets shot and dies permanently out of cover. It's more like an interactive novel.

XCOM simply doesn't offer you that. "There's a scientist trapped here by hostiles," says your briefing, and that's it. What happens next is a pure tactical gaming experience, uncluttered by dense storytelling, and driven by your own choices that are mechanical in nature rather than the more easy-mode dialogue choices of the ME franchise.

Just my opinion of course. While some games are built around you not dying during the game permanently lest it wreck the world - Dishonored or Half Life are good examples - it's worth considering that maybe this is a design convention that we should now be looking to work around. To generate fireside stories in the age of the internet, rather than complaints about running the same thirty-second sequence forty-six times.

Knightsabre wrote:

Tried XCOM classic ironman several times before realizing that it was entirely possible I would never see the second half of the game! So now I'm finishing a game using judicious reloading just to see how it actually ends! Still plan on going back and trying a classic ironman afterwards though - hopefully having been through it once, it won't bother me as much when my entire squad is wiped out . . .

See, what bothered me about restarting the game on Easy rather than Normal was that all my friends would be alive again, and as messed up as that might sound, that's not what I wanted. That loss was what defined the experience for me, and to rewind that like it was nothing just feels wrong.

I love X-Com. I am, however, one of those Twitter people that played through it first on Normal, then immediately again on Classic Ironman.

It also shouldn't go without being said that I rarely beat games, let alone play one twice. That should be praise enough.

Anyway, I didn't do Ironman on the first romp for a reason that I would assume a lot of people have: they know it's hard. They know it's brutal. And (if they are me), they suck at it.

I know that the old X-Com series has a reputation for being really hard, and sometimes unfair. Enemy Unknown is exactly the same, so I had to learn how the game plays since I didn't want a mess up that I enacted simply because I didn't know how the two step move-shoot restriction works if I was a sniper to ruin my entire game.

I don't think it diminishes the gameplay experience to play through first with future sight goggles on. In fact, I am enjoying my second play through even more because I know what is in store for me as I go up the tech trees and build more and more cool stuff.

And I'm also wary, since I know what enemies are around the corner.

Sectopods will not be fun. And I can no longer rage quit from their fights.

You guys keep making me want to play X-Com. You bastards.

I remember one mission in Mass Effect 3 pissing me off because my choice had no consequence. They painted the scene that I could either help an entire species of alien at the cost of one of my comrades, or I could abandon the alien species to its fate and keep that character alive. This had me thinking for a while, because I really liked that character, but I also believe in the needs of the many and all that.

So I chose to help the alien species, and it sounded as if my character and some NPC's would die. Well, the no-name NPC's died, sure, but because I had max loyalty in ME2, the character survived.

I was suddenly emotionally ripped from the moment. I thought I was saying goodbye, but when I saw he was alive I wasn't happy or joyous. I was confused. I thought I made a sacrifice for the greater good. I expected them to be angry, feeling abandoned at the 11th hour. There was no such emotional climax. Instead, as long as you could get this character's loyalty up in ME2, you're good.

This removes all emotional value to the decision. The system can now be gamed. You can gain the support of the alien species against the Reapers and keep the character alive with nothing more lost than some random NPC's with no names.

Sometimes games have such potential, but then ruin it by being games.

ccesarano wrote:

You guys keep making me want to play X-Com. You bastards.

I remember one mission in Mass Effect 3 pissing me off because my choice had no consequence. They painted the scene that I could either help an entire species of alien at the cost of one of my comrades, or I could abandon the alien species to its fate and keep that character alive. This had me thinking for a while, because I really liked that character, but I also believe in the needs of the many and all that.

So I chose to help the alien species, and it sounded as if my character and some NPC's would die. Well, the no-name NPC's died, sure, but because I had max loyalty in ME2, the character survived.

I was suddenly emotionally ripped from the moment. I thought I was saying goodbye, but when I saw he was alive I wasn't happy or joyous. I was confused. I thought I made a sacrifice for the greater good. I expected them to be angry, feeling abandoned at the 11th hour. There was no such emotional climax. Instead, as long as you could get this character's loyalty up in ME2, you're good.

This removes all emotional value to the decision. The system can now be gamed. You can gain the support of the alien species against the Reapers and keep the character alive with nothing more lost than some random NPC's with no names.

Sometimes games have such potential, but then ruin it by being games.

Sure, but that's just realistic. That character liked you so much that it was inspired to not die. Pretty standard behavior, really.

More roguelike-likes is what the world needs. I'm all for it. FTL, Dungeons of Dredmor and Dark Souls have given people a taste of these games that I hope turns into a love like I have for roguelike and roguelike-likes. Choice and consequence is thrown around during the PR hype cycle, but it rarely turns out as deep and impacting as they make it seem. Roguelikes are meaningful choice and consequence in a myriad of forms.

Now, as much as I love a proper roguelike such as Angband or Stone Soup, the structure of a typical roguelike can be rather limiting. That's what makes the rise of roguelike-likes and hardcore/permadeath/etc modes so wonderful as we get roguelike ideals in a wider range of game types.

A discussion about permadeath would be incomplete without a mention of Ben Abraham and Far Cry 2. Ben wrote a series of blog entries about his play through of FC2 with self imposed permadeath. The results were striking. Worth a red, for sure.

I'm quite happy making real, permanent choices in real life to care about having games be more realistic, permanent choices

I played through XCOM on Normal and reloaded a BUNCH of times. Mid-mission, post-mission, whenever. I did it because I want to have a fun experience, I didn't want to stress about losing my top guys/gals who I had sunk hours into equipping and building stories around.

CY wrote:

To me it seems like a disservice to those on real battlefields, to have games that represent armed conflict in such a way that death means nothing.

I found this line to be fairly offensive as it implies those who don't go the permadeath route are trivialising real combat. I'm playing a GAME, where I can only move turn-by-turn, and I fight ALIENS. I'm playing a game with fictional soldiers fighting a fictional war against fictional aliens.

I started a game of classic Ironman but I found I wasn't having fun because of the permanant choices.

For me, there's two parts of this:

First, permanent decisions change the shape of the way the game is played. Reloading to fix bad decisions or bad luck makes the individual decisions less meaningful. Some people don't like having to make hard decisions, but I do.

Second, games that have permadeath are forced to have a more graduated support for failure. If the player fails, there needs to be a way to recover that isn't quite so pressing when you can just make the player do a save-reload cycle. This, to me, is the big thing: I hate the save-reload cycle. I'd rather keep progressing through the game, even if at a disadvantage.

Now, if the game is unbalanced enough that failure means replaying the whole game, that's not as much fun. (Roguelikes get around this by making it about your meta-progression as a player rather than about the story, per se.) But there are lots of RPGs and shooters that require save-reload to progress. And if it doesn't autocheckpoint and I forgot to save for a while? That is permadeath, in a bad way.

Upon further reflection, I'd like to have a "rewind 3 turns and quit the game with no reloading for 6 hours or so" button. Living with my decisions is one thing, but wrecking a whole campaign because I didn't realize how tired I was until I started doing dumb things...

One thing I should mention is that XCOM is also buggy, which can completely f*ck you over and you did nothing wrong.

I think I'm probably less inclined to like/enjoy permadeath if the turnartound time on a new game is quick. FTL was great as you could get back in and to the same spot quickly.

garion333 wrote:

A discussion about permadeath would be incomplete without a mention of Ben Abraham and Far Cry 2. Ben wrote a series of blog entries about his play through of FC2 with self imposed permadeath. The results were striking. Worth a red, for sure.

Thanks for the hint Garion.

I tried Ironman in my 2nd playthrough. My problem was that all too often good soldiers would die through no mistake of mine, just bad rolls of the dice and the boosts that aliens receive from the Classic difficulty setting. In the end I found it too frustrating, but of course YMMV.

CY wrote:

Wintersdark: That's an interesting point. I think the problem with Mass Effect, at least, is that it wasn't always 100% consistent with your own sentiments. I found that things I thought were fair were classed as evil, and not because they were - but because they were realist choices, or ones I thought were more human. I think in some ways Mass Effect's Paragon/Renegade options almost parody what it's trying to take seriously, by never really allowing you to benefit from taking the human "mistakes happen," middle of the road options without consequences you don't feel fit how you behaved.

Equating Paragon with "good" and Renegade with "evil" is objectively wrong and you should feel bad.

AP Erebus wrote:

One thing I should mention is that XCOM is also buggy, which can completely f*ck you over and you did nothing wrong.

That's an important note. As much as ironman play demands precision from players, I think it demands at least as much from the game. You need a very tight design to pull that off. (I personally play a more self-imposed ironman of XCOM, where I allow myself to reload when it turns out that a wall was really a hole for aliens to shoot me through, or the game misunderstood when I was trying to send my soldier due to the interface's mishandling of elevation, etc.). For this reason (and my knowledge that not everyone enjoys play the same way I do), I'm glad it's an option rather than a mandate.

AP Erebus wrote:

I found this line to be fairly offensive as it implies those who don't go the permadeath route are trivialising real combat. I'm playing a GAME, where I can only move turn-by-turn, and I fight ALIENS. I'm playing a game with fictional soldiers fighting a fictional war against fictional aliens.

I think the trivialization of violence should be considered problematic and worth our thought regardless of the context. I'm not saying that violence should bever be trivialized, but that we should stop and consider what we're doing when we make another film or game that makes violence easy (even the main way one interacts with one's environment).

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Equating Paragon with "good" and Renegade with "evil" is objectively wrong and you should feel bad.

I can't work out if this is a joke or not.

Not a joke (well, the second part maybe is ). The discussion of whether or not paragon/renegade are good/evil has come up before and I will continue to insist that it's a false equivalence.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Not a joke (well, the second part maybe is ). The discussion of whether or not paragon/renegade are good/evil has come up before and I will continue to insist that it's a false equivalence.

The problem with that, however, is you're a game designer/writer on a project intended for a mass audience, not all of whom are going to understand the subtleties and want to feel like they know what the "right" thing is to do.

The problem with this is it means we're babysitting people who don't really want to think about the choices they're making. ME conversations are almost reflex - "hit the blue one." What irked me about them was when I opted for something that was realistic, I was punished. That to me is bad game and narrative design.

Regardless of how you mean feel about Paragon and Renegade, I think it's pretty obvious that this was the equivalence that was intended by the designers. It's a shame and I don't agree with their approach, but it is what it is. They see Paragon as "super nice" and Renegade as "super not nice." Sadly, neither of those will fully equate to normal human behaviour, and therein lies the problem.

So yes, I agree, it's a false equivalence to you, and me, but to Bioware, I don't think it is. I think their view of good and evil in their storytelling is simplistic, as much as I like Mass Effect.

Sounds like I need to play both this and FTL.

Come on Thanksgiving Steam sale.

CY wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

Not a joke (well, the second part maybe is ). The discussion of whether or not paragon/renegade are good/evil has come up before and I will continue to insist that it's a false equivalence.

The problem with that, however, is you're a game designer/writer on a project intended for a mass audience, not all of whom are going to understand the subtleties and want to feel like they know what the "right" thing is to do.

CY wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

Not a joke (well, the second part maybe is ). The discussion of whether or not paragon/renegade are good/evil has come up before and I will continue to insist that it's a false equivalence.

The problem with that, however, is you're a game designer/writer on a project intended for a mass audience, not all of whom are going to understand the subtleties and want to feel like they know what the "right" thing is to do.

The problem with this is it means we're babysitting people who don't really want to think about the choices they're making. ME conversations are almost reflex - "hit the blue one." What irked me about them was when I opted for something that was realistic, I was punished. That to me is bad game and narrative design.

Regardless of how you mean feel about Paragon and Renegade, I think it's pretty obvious that this was the equivalence that was intended by the designers. It's a shame and I don't agree with their approach, but it is what it is. They see Paragon as "super nice" and Renegade as "super not nice." Sadly, neither of those will fully equate to normal human behaviour, and therein lies the problem.

So yes, I agree, it's a false equivalence to you, and me, but to Bioware, I don't think it is. I think their view of good and evil in their storytelling is simplistic, as much as I like Mass Effect.

And I think that's crazy, when there are so many characters that are evil. Is Renegade Shep really no better than Saren, the Illusive Man, Kai Leng, Henry Lawson, Aria, or Blood Pack leadership & members? Maybe it's why you find things inconsistent at times.

If you want an example of "nice" vs "not nice", see KOTOR with its embarrassingly shallow Light versus Dark choices. Fortunately, Bioware grew up some since then.

With regards to Mass Effect, I deliberately didn't mention the Paragon/Renegade system. I feel that was one of the weakest points of the game from an immersion/narrative standpoint.

Adding points, and value to choosing one side exclusively severely damages the value of the choice, forcing players to choose between making the choices they want their character to make, and choosing the "correct" choice. There shouldn't be a correct choice.

In the later implementations it's not so bad, though, because you gain points in both paths simultaneously and don't really need to maximize on or the other. Still, I'd rather the whole system be unlinked from stat-based bonuses (though how you act overall should certainly affect how others view you).

I'm with Quintin, though, with regards to good/evil. Paragon/Renegade is about methods, not motivations, and applying good/evil morality to it is a bad idea.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

And I think that's crazy, when there are so many characters that are evil. Is Renegade Shep really no better than Saren, the Illusive Man, Kai Leng, Henry Lawson, Aria, or Blood Pack leadership & members? Maybe it's why you find things inconsistent at times.

If you want an example of "nice" vs "not nice", see KOTOR with its embarrassingly shallow Light versus Dark choices. Fortunately, Bioware grew up some since then.

But I'm not comparing them to characters who are defined as evil. Shep's scale is his own, and his "evil" isn't their evil by any means - I'm not disagreeing there. But my point is that he's also comically good and bad when you're hitting blue and red respectively. ME is a great, great trilogy, but their writing when it comes to what good and bad Shep says and does relative to the realism some actual humanity in his characterisation would bring is terrible. Adding, as Wintersdark said, points and value, just makes it even more ridiculous.

Pfft. Shep is a woman!

I'm really glad my first Normal playthrough was non-Ironman. Because I was learning the game. Like CY, I had never played an XCOM game, and while I'm no stranger to turn-based tactics, there was a lot of finer points to this game to get to grips with.

That playthrough actually prepared me for an Classic Ironman run. Had I tried that straight off the bat, I would have been frustrated as hell, from a combination of opaque design, buggy implementation and plain old boneheaded-ness on the part of the player. But now that I feel like a Veteran, with Earth saved once, I'm ready for that challenge where I wasn't before.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Pfft. Shep is a woman!

Sorry, I wasn't being dismissive - I play the default male Shep, so I think of Shep as a "he."

Jonman wrote:

I'm really glad my first Normal playthrough was non-Ironman. Because I was learning the game. Like CY, I had never played an XCOM game, and while I'm no stranger to turn-based tactics, there was a lot of finer points to this game to get to grips with.

Yeah. One of the issues with XCOM is that while your character, the Commander, is experienced, you're potentially not, so it needs to be a little more forgiving in mechanics or start you off lower than a Commander. The realism has to gel with the fact you're new to the game.

I am a big permadeath "fan". DayZ really took hold of me because of that. Likewise, FTL would hold no appeal for me if not for that tension and the roguelike "let's see how far I can get on this run" progress.

That said, I think a lot of non-permadeath games screw the pooch by not having richer failure conditions than death/fail/reload-from-save. In many cases, missions ought to be failable without dying, and that failure should impact the game. So many times, the only options are mission success or death, and so the only possible way to present a challenge is to put the player at risk of death. Failure = death, because the game simply has no other failure condition.