The meaning of death in XCOM: Enemy Unknown – what happens when we die in a game?

In XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012), you are the commander of the eponymous Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, formed of the NATO-style Council of Nations. Your task, through careful resource management and turn-based combat, is to defend the Earth from alien invaders. If you botch a mission, panic rises in the country that you failed. If that country’s “panic level” reaches critical mass, they withdraw from the Council which means a loss of funding. Less funding makes it harder to upgrade weapons and armour, and replace the soldiers you’ve lost. It’s very easy to find yourself in a downward spiral from which there is no recovery: if eight countries pull out of the Council, XCOM is shut down, humanity defeated and the game over.

Say you were playing Call of Duty, or Resident Evil, or The Walking Dead, and you’re confronted with a quick-time event – press X to not die – and you freeze up and miss X. And you die.

Click mouse to not die.

In both these examples, what happens next? Typically the game reloads from a previous save state – usually a checkpoint – and you have another go. This time, you know what’s coming, you hit X in time, and the game progresses. Or, in the case of XCOM, you manually choose a savegame to load, and hope you do better this time. Maybe you have three or four different backup savegames on the go, to cover yourself in the event of in-game catastrophe.

I chose XCOM as a specific example here not because I can’t stop playing it (1) but because it is noticeable for one of its difficulty sub-settings, known as Ironman mode. Playing XCOM on Ironman, there are no backup savegames – the game saves automatically after every action, overwriting itself. Brainlessly moved one of your soldiers into an enemy ambush? Forgot that the burning car you’re cowering behind will blow up at the end of the turn? Tough – you’re stuck with your actions. Ironman XCOM plays out like science fiction chess: once you’ve taken your hand off the piece, there’s no going back. And when those eight countries leave the Council, there is no reloading of an old save. You have to start the game all over again. Your role as commander is finished – you failed. Better luck next time.

This is quite a unique mechanic in today’s games – arguably, games of this century. Even though death is a big part of gaming, what does it really mean to “die”? Consider a specific example: early on in The Walking Dead: Episode 1, your character Lee Everett is attacked by a zombie. As it crawls towards him, you have perhaps 10 seconds to do three things: find and pick up a shotgun, then a shell, and finally aim and shoot the zombie. It’s the first of many tense moments in the game, but very straightforward (2). Yet it is, of course, entirely possible to fail to complete these three actions, and the zombie will reach Lee and he will die.

And then? Assuming you don’t turn the game off in rage/fear, it will reload from a previous checkpoint – mere seconds before the above incident – and you play it out again. Only this time, the game doesn’t have the element of surprise. You know what’s about to happen, where the items are, and (probably) what to do. So you grab the shotgun, load the shell, shoot the zombie and the game goes on.

Imagine the same thing happening during a film – the viewer doesn’t understand a plot point so they rewind a few seconds and watch it back. But the experience is now broken: the viewer has come out of the world of the film and back into their living room. It is curious that this is not true with games – the mechanic of die and try again is a totally accepted one, even in games that are as narratively-focussed as The Walking Dead, described by IGN in their review as “a deeply personal and emotional experience”. Yet in a game so exquisitely focussed on death – one that trades on the emotional impact of losing people with whom you had bonded – it never jars that your own character, Lee, can be resurrected at a moment’s notice.

One of The Walking Dead's more serene moments

Lee and Clementine, The Walking Dead

Does this “checkpoint mechanic” remove all challenge from a game? One could playfully suggest that little or no skill is required to beat a game like The Walking Dead. Like a rat in a maze, given enough time the player will work out what they’re doing wrong and reach the end. But perhaps that is missing the point for this example, which is more of an interactive movie (not quite a “choose your own adventure”, as the key points of the story are unaffected by the player’s in-game choices) and is to be enjoyed rather more passively than most other games.

Could the same suggestion be made of a game like Call of Duty? Yes, to an extent, albeit only on lower difficulties. Some dexterity is required to perform actions like moving, aiming and firing in order to reach that next checkpoint, and on Veteran level Call of Duty is unforgiving. Other games like Dark Souls (2011), and Ninja Gaiden (2004) have virtually traded off the fact that they pose significant challenges (where failure means death), whereas Battletoads (1991) gained notoriety for the ridiculous reflexes required in order to survive certain sequences.

Death and difficulty, then, are intrinsically linked. Nonetheless, there remains the paradox that as unforgiving as a game can be, the norm is that the today’s players get a second chance. Indeed, they get infinite chances: as many as they can stomach before cracking it or cracking up. In Ninja Gaiden – which ruthlessly separates the hardcore player from the casual – a struggling player could, with appropriately ninja-levels of patience and dedication, master the requisite skills to complete the game. Death is merely the temporary punishment for failing to be “good enough” to win.

There is a certain macho prestige to these hardcore games, which is also the case with XCOM’s Ironman mode. Even the name “Ironman” conjures up courageous imagery: take your pick from superhero Tony Stark or the Ironman triathlon. Ironman mode, along with Dark Souls et al, is clearly not for wimps. These games hark back to a time when games existed chiefly in arcades and were routinely difficult. Back then, of course, death was the arcade game’s business model: if a player coasted straight through with their first credit then they wouldn’t be inserting a second, third… hundredth one (3). Unquestionably, skill was required to rack up the top scores in the arcade.

This progress/total failure balance in XCOM throws up several unique sensations while playing. In the first instance, Ironman mode is not a relaxing experience given how aware the player is that they will be punished for their mistakes. Secondly, it is surprising – almost disturbing – how much you begin to care about the soldiers you command. Even on “normal” mode, you develop a bond with your troops as they progress from green rookie to powerful colonel. Each soldier begins with nothing more than a name and a nationality, but as they become more experienced they are assigned into one of four classes (sniper, heavy, assault, support) and may even earn nicknames that add yet another touch of personality. XCOM does an excellent job of making you care about randomly-generated characters that have no personality outside of what you invent in your head.

The upshot of this is that the player will actively seek to protect their “favourite” soldiers, and will wince when they die (which is an inevitable part of the game). Remember, if your troops die, it is probably your fault: you moved them into danger, you left them exposed, you took a chance on a 45% shot rather than move them back to safety. The longer a soldier survives, the better they are and the more attached the player will be.

This is only exacerbated in Ironman mode. The finality of a soldier’s death is at the forefront of your mind every time you prepare for a mission. Assaulting an alien base – should I leave my ace sniper at home for this one? You try and kid yourself that it makes more tactical sense to go with close-combat specialists for an interior battlefield, but in reality you don’t want to lose your sniper. Or at least, not that sniper. Take that other guy instead. Regardless of who you take, at the end of every successful mission you will let out a breath that you didn’t realise you’d been holding.

XCOM-Enemy-Unknown-11 (1)

Is Ironman mode’s perma-death “a good thing”, or is it simply a tonic to those who feel gaming has become too casual and yearn for the halcyon days where the best were separated from the dead? Consider BioShock’s controversial Vita-Chambers, where the player is regenerated upon “death”, providing a story-based explanation for checkpointed gameplay. However, any damage the player has inflicted upon enemies – before expiring – remains inflicted. This means that the player can steadily chip away at the ferocious Big Daddies, “dying” repeatedly and arriving back on the scene to continue the job. While the Vita-Chamber mechanic neatly circumvents the issue raised earlier about breaking the fourth wall by making a player re-enact the same events, it also removes any real menace from a game built on its sinister atmosphere.

The Vita-Chambers prompted such debate among gamers that BioShock’s makers eventually released a patch offering players the option to turn them off altogether. This is admirable, but somewhat obscures the fundamental reason that Vita-Chambers, autosaves and checkpoints exist in games: dying is not fun. In the main, it’s highly frustrating and, if you’ve invested emotionally in your character, can affect you in a similar way to seeing a favourite TV show character get beaten up or tortured. If this is then compounded by losing all your progress (because you didn’t happen to save, or because a save function doesn’t exist) then the frustration might reach terminal levels.

So the checkpoint mechanic exists to make games fun, by effectively making them easier. Given the booming video game industry, this is clearly no bad thing. Players want to be challenged – an easy game is a boring game – but they rarely want to be persistently punished and forced to re-do large portions of the game. Yes, XCOM’s Ironman mode provides an extreme, “no extra lives” challenge – but don’t forget that it’s a game mode that players can choose, rather than have it forced upon them.

How else do games handle death? There are of course games where you cannot die: it goes without saying that death is not a part of the vast majority of sports titles and driving simulations, but there are also many instances of character-based adventure or puzzle games where you control effectively-immortal characters. Fez (2012) is a puzzle game wrapped around a platformer mechanic – but if you miss a jump and fall, the game helpfully restores you to your previous position. Challenge removed? Quite the opposite: Fez is a brain-hurtingly difficult puzzler, using an innovative 3D mechanic, a made-up language and even in-game QR codes. Throw in frequent death for mis-timing a jump and players would become overwhelmed. Instead the game allows you to move through its serene, soothing environs at your own pace without the threat of danger.

2008’s Braid is another puzzle game whose core mechanic is one that allows the player to rewind time to undo their mistakes, even after death. Similarly, in 2008’s Prince of Persia, the character Elika “saves” your character from impending death throughout the game – freeing the player to enjoy open, acrobatically-focussed gameplay. The lack of death encourages rather than inhibits exploration and experimentation.

Like all game rules, immortality is ripe for subversion. The Monkey Island adventure games keep the threat of death away from the central character, Guybrush Threepwood, and the tone consequently comedic: swordfights end in punctured dignity rather than punctured lungs, and even an off-screen attempt to “use staple remover on tremendous dangerous-looking yak” leads to little more than Guybrush flying through a wall, cartoon-style, before diving back into the fray. Guybrush even claims to be able to hold his breath for ten minutes – allowing plenty of time for the player to solve a simple puzzle when Threepwood finds himself underwater (pick up weight, walk to ladder). Wait too long, however and… Easter Egg.

Monkey Island 2 contains the best example of this subversion. Guybrush, captured by his nemesis LeChuck, is being lowered into a vat of acid in a trap that would make a Bond villain blush. The player moves the mouse around, looking for a typically-elaborate solution to the puzzle. The only action available is to (inadvertently) trigger the trap itself, which leads to the screaming Guybrush being lowered into the acid… only to be taken back to the game’s opening scene and reminded that we’ve been playing through a flashback of Guybrush’s story up to that point.

“You honestly expect me to believe you were disintegrated in acid.” Just for a moment, we, the players, believed.


1: It’s true though: I can’t stop playing XCOM.

2: This straightforward puzzle – grab gun, shoot zombie – barely scratches the surface of the rest of The Walking Dead, that frequently forces you to make emotion-based decisions under pressure.

3: It’s slightly worrying to wonder where gaming would be today if those early arcade machines were too easy and didn’t make any money.

4: System Shock 2 (1999), the spiritual predecessor to BioShock, has its own form of Vita-Chambers in its Quantum Bio-reconstruction Devices. These are similar to Borderlands’ New-U stations, in that they need to be activated and you incur a fairly-sizeable fee every time you use one. In keeping with the rest of Borderlands’ brash, tongue-in-cheek style, the New-U stations helpfully take your genetic make-up and reconstruct your body after death. Got that, scientists?

4: Fez is wonderful. Please play it.

FINALLY thanks to everyone who threw suggestions at me for this post, on Facebook and Twitter!