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Operation: Burning Ember
Date: September 20, 2015
It was supposed to be a routine capture mission. A scout-class UFO had been taken down in a nearby forest. Intel said to expect a handful of scouts making trouble for us, with a chance of light assault troops. We’d learned not to take any chances, though. The Skyranger was fully loaded with six squad members when we left XCOM. Nuke and I carried the heavy weapons and explosives; Warlock could hit a caterpillar off its leaf from a mile away with that new plasma sniper rifle of his; Smash and Cargo had enough gear, ammo and medkits to support us for two weeks if anything went sideways; and Wolverine was anxious to get back in the action after being cleared for duty by the medbay.
We landed and began to survey the crash site. As we approached, a trio of small grey aliens burst out from behind a panel and fired their weapons at us. Wolverine was quick enough to take two of them out before diving out of sight. Cargo snuck up behind the third and knocked it out. Bringing back these specimens would shut up the boys in the lab for a while. But then we heard something new.
Rule Four of XCOM: new is bad.
It stood on two legs, head and shoulders above all of us. Arching its armoured back, it screamed at the empty sky above us through some sort of breathing apparatus. Its howl hit us like the heat from a blast furnace. The unidentified creature leapt from the burning wreckage, holding a gun so big it reminded me of a battleship’s turret. Before anyone could even react, the thing charged at Nuke. She was taking cover behind a fallen tree. That beast’s gun blew a hole through the log and caught Nuke center mass. Our armour can absorb a shot of plasma, maybe two. She… she didn’t stand a chance. She screamed in pain and then the giant thing screamed in victory. The five of us unloaded every round we had into the thing. Finally, it fell to the ground with a thud that sent a shockwave through my boots. Whatever that thing was, there are more of them and we need options.
Col. Paul “Papa Bear” HernandezOne of the things I love about story-focused games is their ability to make me care about the characters. Rich backstory, quippy dialogue, and a threatened humanity is a recipe I’m familiar with and always hungry for.
I always thought randomly generated characters were inherently less interesting. After all, how can a soldier created from a “randomize” button compare to the experience of leading Link to a climactic final victory against Ganondorf or guiding the morally convoluted Geralt of Rivia to save the realm from the icy grip of the Wild Hunt?
I changed my mind after playing XCOM: Enemy Within.
The tutorial mission leaves you with a single squaddie who watches helplessly as aliens kill his three team members. The game randomly gives him a name; my guy was called Paul Hernandez.
Though I had not impacted his appearance, back-story, class, or dialogue, Hernandez’s value to me became apparent after a few missions.
XCOM is known for its unforgiving and relentless difficulty. Even on the easiest difficulty, a single brash move or forgotten command will inevitably leave one of your troops dead on the battlefield. As the incorporeal commander of XCOM, I believed the lives of my troops to be important to the game, but ultimately without consequence to me. Whoops.
This assumption of mine wasn’t tested for a while; I accomplished dozens of missions, all without losing a member of my squad. There had been close calls to be sure, but medics had always arrived in time to stabilize and save my soldiers.
As characters gain experience, they gain ranks, unlock new skills, and—more importantly—earn nicknames. Paul Hernandez was given the designation “Papa Bear” when he became a sergeant, and for some reason, this instilled some fond feelings in me.
I imagined him earning this nickname from his home life and behaviour at work. I could see him playing touch football with his kids and letting the youngest one tackle him. I imagined him in boot camp, encouraging his new squad of nobodies to work together and overcome difficult tasks. I imagined him defending the members of his squad to his superiors, despite their mistakes.
My other squaddies gained characteristics too. With each of Warlock’s headshots, every close up kill from Wolverine, every time Cargo revived an injured trooper, I cheered them on.
Nuke was a heavy trooper who, at first, I only needed when Papa Bear was recovering from his injuries. As the enemies got more dangerous, I brought her along more often. Then I was sent out on Operation: Burning Ember.
Immediately upon her death, I paused the game and hovered my cursor over the “load game” option. I was so close to the end of the mission. If I reset now I might get really bad enemy placement, or risk losing another squad member. Not to mention I would have to replay 50+ minutes of tense luck-of-the-draw combat to get back to this same point. Was all that worth saving one soldier?
It’s always nice to end a mission with no casualties, but that wasn’t what tugged my thumbsticks towards a reset of the game. I had actually grown fond of her, and of all my soldiers.
I had to make a tough decision. I decided to carry on with the mission. Her name would be added to the wall of the fallen and her squadmates would avenge her death with extreme prejudice.
I was surprised at myself for pausing the game, that I even had that moment of indecision. Names have a strange power to imbue a personality: warriors of old named their blades to honour and distinguish them from other weapons; the Bible is full of examples of names changing to reflect a new calling. Abram became Abraham and Simon was called Peter because their goals—and their identity—had been redefined.
With a heavy weight on my shoulders, I train another recruit to fill the gap Nuke left behind. Every time I need another heavy trooper to assist Papa Bear I remembered the cost of my decision to carry on with the mission.
All it took was giving a nickname to a randomly generated character to open my eyes to the power names hold in our lives. So the next time I’m ready to be annoyed at the slow trainee at the Tim Hortons cash register, maybe I’ll look at his or her nametag and give my next action the same thought I gave to Nuke’s death.
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