Saturday, November 3, 2012

On Medkits and Suspension

"Short version: If [XCOM: Enemy Unknown] were consistent, it would be so much more than just a turn-based combat game."

The quote was from a friend of mine, JPH. He runs the pretty cool website Ninja Game Den. Our other friend McNutcase, who has a blog over here, was also involved. This pretty much started out when JPH went to Twitter to talk about how in XCOM, which is a Turn Based Game about aliens and you have a squad and junk (If you want to know more there's a lot of places for it, like this video by Total Biscuit), if you have a downed squad member with a medkit, other squad members can't run over and use the medkit to save the downed member themselves.

Obviously, in a real world situation an actual soldier could, and probably would, use another's equipment in order to save their life. However, XCOM has coding and stuff, and like McNutcase says, they used a coding shortcut to get around complications. Pretty much, when you equip an item, there is no actual item, you're just giving a stat increase or an ability to the soldier, thus no soldier can use any other "equipment" that any other soldier can unless they are also equipped with the same "equipment."

Both JPH and McNutcase stated that this creates some dissonance, as it doesn't make any sense in real world logic. And that's true. I proposed, however, that this aspect of gameplay adds enough strategic depth to make up for this. JPH disagreed, and said that without immersion any game just becomes "a meaningless pile of binary code." I mentioned that we were probably coming into the game at different angles, which spurred him into writing a new blog post (Which if it ends up making him famous I demand royalties).

The quote at the top is his self stated "short version" of the post.

JPH did pretty decently in my first game.

The rest of the post is here.

His primary point, for those of you who haven't read it (which you should), is that because of the lack of any in-game explanation for why medkits work the way they do, XCOM's sense of immersion and cohesion breaks down. XCOM is trying to create a "big, organic, adaptable story" about stopping an alien invasion or Earth, but because of this giant crack in immersion XCOM becomes just a "turn-based combat sim."

Hypothetically, I could make this argument: XCOM, like any other game, presents the player with a system in which they inhabit. The system has boundaries built within. You can't exchange items from soldier to soldier for the same reason you can't do a pull-up in Call of Duty or headbutt a NPC in Skyrim. Of course real world logic dictates that either of those two actions are possible, but the game doesn't let you preform them because of its limitations and rules set out from the beginning. It just isn't programmed into the game. The way we are still allowed to suspend our disbelief of these things is because of our, well, suspension of disbelief. (An explanation of what it is in reference to literature can be found here, as written by my friend Val) Our suspension of disbelief allows us to be immersed in a game despite the fact that we know it isn't real. It's why we buy the idea of the Jedi Knight or the magical Elf Wizard.

Now, can you see where this argument breaks down? Can you see the counter-argument? Are you currently typing out said counter-argument as furiously and fast as possible?

Please, allow me.

Suspension of disbelief, like almost everything about everything, is subjective. It can only stretch so far before reaching a breaking point, but that point is different for everyone. Some people are fine with the notion that Russia can invade the USA on a mass scale with the US having no idea (ala Modern Warfare 2 and Red Dawn) or with Batman reaching Gotham from the middle of a foreign desert with no resources of any sort, while persoanlly both of those seem frankly impossible. In XCOM, mine allows for me to not be bothered by the fact that soldiers can't trade medkits or grenades among each other, while evidently JPH's suspension of disbelief does not allow for that.

The medkit thing isn't the only aspect of XCOM that has some weird logic behind it. Satellites, which are used to calm down the panic in any country and to generate revenue, cost money to construct, but are free of charge to put into orbit or maintain. You're not going to see "XCOM: No Satellites For You" on Ninja Game Den or this site anytime soon, so obviously the suspension of disbelief is being used outside of accepting an alien invasion. But, like I said, we all have our limits for suspending disbelief, and JPH's was reached in XCOM. "But," you may ask, "why does he have a problem and you don't? Is he an entitled snob/casual who's too arrogant/stupid to understand XCOM? Or are you too stupid/arrogant?" My answer thus follows:

Hell if I know. I mean, we both have said some really dumb stuff in the past (Look at my twitter feed for 5 seconds and you'll see at least 6 #BRICKSQUAD's, and JPH said Fallout: New Vegas was bad once :p), but neither of us are stupid or stuck-up. If I had to give an actual answer, it's not that JPH isn't "liking" or "playing" XCOM right compared to me, or vice versa, I think it's more related to our mindsets.

This is a Spike card. You can tell because it's
Magic: The Gathering designer Mark Rosewater, who writes insanely good articles about game design, talks about the three different, for lack of a better term, "Psychological Profiles" that Magic players showcase: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. The full article and how these specifically apply to Magic can be found here, but for those of you who refuse to ever read any of the links here: Timmy want to play big, crazy spells, Johnny wants to play cards that allow for creativity (Either for the card to do anything or for just for some overarching theme), while Spikes just want to win.

I believe that these profiles can be generalized down into much more generic terms: Timmy want to experience something, Johnny wants to create something, and Spikes want to accomplish something. RPGs like Skyrim offer each of these players a different experience, as Timmy wants to see the game's world and experience everything it has to offer, Johnny wants to create a character and play the game his way, while Spikes want to clear all the dungeons and kill a bunch of dragons. As you can probably tell, one can find a lot of overlap when it comes to this. A player who wants to experience a bunch of cool stuff also probably wants to kill a few dragons or create their own character and experience the game in different ways.

These dudes are a Johnny's best friends
With XCOM, I approach it more as a Spike than anything else, and I'm assuming JPH is playing it more like a Timmy. I want to go a beat some aliens and JPH wants the experience of beating aliens. Okay, that didn't make much sense... let me try this again.

JPH cares about the immersion, atmosphere, and gameworld more than just killing aliens. Obviously, the killing aliens thing is probably high on his list of "things to do in XCOM" but it's more of a part of the experience rather than the entire point of the game. He's not playing to only kill aliens, he's playing to be the XCOM commander. To lead a squad of highly elite soldiers into a firefight with extra terrestrials and to take Earth back. When he sees that for some reason a sqaudmate can't pick up a downed medic's medkit and heal him, the experience breaks.

I, on the other hand, am more interested with using strategy and tactics to overcome the alien hoards in combat. The focus and excitement for me is tied to the actual turn-based combat. Yes, the experience and "flavor" of the game is probably needed for me to enjoy it as much as I do, but when I see something that doesn't make logical sense it doesn't bother me. I'm able to accept that as part of the rules of engagement and play around or with it. I doesn't break my immersion. As a disclaimer, I don't play every game like this. When I'm playing New Vegas I'm way more focused on the world and story than killing raiders, or when I'm playing the Sims I'm there for crafting a virtual life for virtual people. But for games like XCOM or the Total War series, I'm there primarily for the tactics/strategy. Can my immersion break when playing these kinds of games? Of course. If I see really bad design I get mad. If the game isn't rewarding to play or is just unfun or imbalanced my enjoyment is cracked in half.

I'm not saying all this in order to psychoanalyze JPH or myself, I do it to show one of the beautiful things about games. Magic is so successful and awesome because of the thousands of reasons and ways to play. Some people play only to deckbuild, some only to win, and others to have a lot of crazy excitement. Video Games aren't different. The reason why someone plays Call of Duty, XCOM, or Simcity can be insanely different from someone else. Competition, creativity, stress release, escapism, a social experience, and countless other reasons are what makes games great. There's something out there for everyone.

Are any of these motivations to play games more right or wrong than any other?

Like hell they are! If someone tells you you're not playing a enjoying a game right ignore them. Everyone's entitled to their reasons for having fun playing a game and no one should try and take that away.

Except for griefers. Those guys are monsters.

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