I replay XCOM a lot. It’s the game I return to most often when I’m between games, when I just have a short amount of time to fill, when I don’t know what else I feel like doing. And as I approach the mid-point of my umpteenth playthrough, I realise my attitudes and priorities have shifted.
In early playthroughs, I valued each soldier as an individual. I would use the save scum feature shamelessly to ensure each and every one made it back to base after a grueling terror mission. Critical injuries? Not on my watch! No soldier of mine is suffering the pain and indignity of a will reduction. Every single one down to the greenest new recruit gets the best armour, a well-supplied medic is never far away, an injured soldier is swiftly moved to a secure spot with good cover to ensure their survival.
I knew the full name and nickname of every rookie, every colonel, be they sniper or support. The first time I created mecs and used genetic augmentations, I felt guilty. My soldiers’ bravery and diligence was being rewarded with mutilation and mutation.
As I play on, trying to master harder difficulty settings and specific targets (like not letting those ruddy cheese-eating surrender monkeys go into panic mode and leave the council at the first sign of trouble) my relationship with my troops has changed. Rookies are now all nicknamed ‘fodder’. They’re shoved to the forefront of difficult re-cons and bomb-disposals; tasty treats for chrysalids, target practice for muton elites. A squaddie dies, even a good one, well, that’s war. Soldiers die in wars. They’re contributing to the greater good – I’ll just draft in some fresh blood with my next payment from the council.
I care less about injuries – a few hours, days, weeks in the infirmary will see them right. I care more about the comforting interface of my base. The colour-coded map of the world that lets me know which countries to pander to and which to ignore. The messages my second-in-command filters through to me – missions, medals, requests. The grey market where I sell off alien corpses to god-knows-who for who-knows-what. That’s not important. The cash is important, because there’s never enough. I always need more satellites, more uplinks, more research, more weaponry.
Medals are no longer an honour bestowed on the worthy, they’re a crutch to hold up the weak and weary, worn down from too many close calls. Will reduction after an encounter with a cyberdisc? No worries, slap a no-panic medal on them and they’re good to go. The infirmary is always full, but that doesn’t matter, because the barracks are too. Improved armour is put on the backburner. After this pistol mod. After this plasma rifle. After this rocket launcher.
As I found myself saying to a sniper suffering a rifle blast to the face “Well, you kind of deserved that – if you hadn’t missed, he wouldn’t have shot you,” I started to wonder, is this what happens to our political elite? Faces and names turned into unfortunate statistics as soon as the bigger picture comes into play?
Calm down dear, it’s only video games.