I’m My Own Worst Enemy: The Challenge of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

I’m My Own Worst Enemy: The Challenge of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

This week I have hijacked Peter’s blog to talk about difficulty in video games. More specifically, I will be talking about my own experience with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and how this particular game creates a challenge for the player.


Before we get started, let me explain what I mean by difficult games. A lot of games are considered difficult for different reasons. A role-playing game, for instance, can be considered difficult because of its gameplay, or because it forces the player to make hard choices throughout the story. Dark Souls is an example a game that is difficult because of its challenging gameplay, whereas The Witcher 3 could be considered difficult because of the morally complex choices that the player engages with. Both fall under the category of role-playing games, and although there are some similarities to be found, they are two very different games.
Whether a narrative is challenging or not is open to interpretation and very much depends on the player in question. Challenging, or complex, gameplay is less so, as this is simply how the game functions, and typically this is what people mean when they talk about video game difficulty. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a strategy game, a genre in which the mechanics of the gameplay usually take priority over any kind of narrative, which means that I will be focusing on difficulty in gameplay. A discussion about challenging narratives would probably require a blog entry dedicated to only that particular topic, and I will not get into that today.

Before I delve into my experiences with XCOM, let’s talk a bit about what exactly game difficulty is, and why some players find enjoyment in these challenges. What is actually going on behind the scenes, and how does it affect the player?

To make matters a little easier to understand, I will compare video games to board games. Let us for a moment forget all the technical aspects of video games and simply just imagine a game that is laid bare before us. Think of chess – there is a board, pieces that can move around on the board, and a rulebook dictating exactly how each piece is allowed to move. The objective is to ‘checkmate’ the opponent’s king by putting it in a position where capture is unavoidable. And so the game is played with two opponents facing off against each other, each with the same goal and the same means to win the game, but also with the same restrictions and limitations. It is a game of skill where your ability to understand and use the game’s rules to your advantage is what matters.

Let us return to our video game of choice, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and look at it the same way. The maps that the battles play out on have an underlying grid that very much resembles the chessboard, and your soldiers are restricted to this grid. There are rules that must be followed in order for the game to proceed, such as what actions a soldier can take during a turn. Each soldier has the possibility of performing two actions each turn. Some actions, such as firing a weapon, take up both actions for that turn. The objective is, of course, to eliminate all hostile forces on the map in order to win the battle. In short, there is a set of rules that the player has to follow in order to play the game, like in chess, and these rules ensure that neither the player nor the artificial intelligence (AI) has an unfair advantage over the opponent. The challenge then comes from mastering these rules to beat the opponent.

Unlike chess, however, video games often have several difficulty levels, and XCOM is no exception. Difficulty levels bend the rules a bit in order to give either the player or the AI an advantage. But for the most part, the game ensures that the challenge is not absolutely impossible to overcome and that the player still has a chance to win. In this case, there are four difficulties to choose from: easy – normal – classic – impossible. Easy, as you might expect, gives the player an advantage. The enemy AI is shackled and will make sub-optimal decisions, and friendly soldiers start with more hit points than usual. The Normal difficulty is designed to give neither side the advantage, no longer restricting the enemy AI or giving the player any significant bonuses. Classic difficulty is a nod to previous installments in the franchise, which were notorious for being extremely difficult, and attempts to mirror that experience. The enemy AI now receives bonuses whereas restrictions are now imposed upon the player. The Impossible difficulty lives up to its name, placing severe restrictions on the player while providing the enemy AI with extreme bonuses. This is where I would argue that the game goes from merely bending the rules to actually breaking them, creating an unfair challenge, as it is entirely possible to lose the game during the first in-game month – which is not a very long time, and barely long enough to properly start the game. An additional challenge can be undertaken in the form of Ironman Mode, where the player is only given a single save slot. This means that there is no reloading the game if something unfortunate happens – everything is permanent.

Now you’re probably wondering what difficulty I play the game on. And did I brave the challenge of Ironman Mode? Before I answer these questions, let me start by making a confession: I have never actually played XCOM: Enemy Unknown all the way to the end. Normally I play the game on Normal difficulty with Ironman Mode. However, I have braved Classic difficulty a few times, both with and without Ironman Mode. I have tried Impossible difficulty, but as I stated above, the game doesn’t always adhere to its own rules at this difficulty level, and is therefore no longer fun for me. But this is not the reason that I have not completed the game – like I said, I have played on other difficulties. No, the reason is that one of the following two scenarios always happens:

  • I get utterly destroyed by the game because I didn’t play well enough. I made the wrong decisions, reacted to the wrong things, and didn’t use the rules of the game to my advantage. In short, I played badly and lost the game as a consequence.
  • I get bored with the game. Each loss is a learning experience and you slowly begin to understand the rules of the game better each time. So what happens when you master the rules? Suddenly the challenge is diminished, or maybe even completely gone. I enjoy shooting aliens for a while, but I eventually get bored and start a new game.

Scenario 1) is pretty straight forward: I lost the game and have to start over if I want to proceed. But scenario 2) is very interesting. It is what usually happens when I play this game, and it is very closely tied to how the game challenges me. Once the game stops challenging me, I lose interest. I no longer enjoy playing it, and usually I will resort to starting a new game, possibly on a higher difficulty, in order to be challenged again.

Let me explain a bit more: once I acquire the best weapons and armor for my soldiers, there is nothing more to strive for. I have given myself every advantage that I can give myself within the confines of the game rules. In turn, the game has done everything it can to keep providing me with a challenge. But because the game still has to play fair and adhere to the rules, there is nothing more it can do to increase the difficulty once I, the player, have done everything I can do to level the playing field. And because the game cannot increase the difficulty any more, then there is nothing I can do to get better at the game. The challenge is gone and the only way I can get it back is by starting a new game. I suspect this is why there is an Impossible difficulty – I imagine you will never truly be able to catch up at that difficulty level, and the game would always be an uphill battle. But like chess, rules are everything, and if you start breaking the rules then you reach a point where it is no longer fun for the opponent. You wouldn’t cheat when playing chess, would you?

So why do I keep playing the game if I am never able to finish it? Because overcoming the challenge feels so damn good. I get better each time and am able to overcome the challenge more expertly than before. Like chess, I beat my opponent within the confines of the same rule set, making it a game of skill. XCOM: Enemy Unknown does have a certain random element to it, as most games with a lot of statistics do, but it is a random element that you can control, or at least manipulate in your favor. My personal issue with the game is, apparently, that it does not end when I overcome the challenge, and then I begin to miss it.


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