Monday, April 27, 2020

X-COM: Chimera Squad and Fake Difficulty - A Game That Finally Does It Right

I don't have a tremendous amount of Dungeons & Dragons experience. I've played one long campaign of 3.5 edition and am currently playing through a 5th edition campaign.

One thing that quickly stood out to me between these two games is the amount of meaningful decision making 5th edition allows players versus 3.5. My biggest complain with 3.5 is that I would move my character, roll the dice, get a low number, frown at the dice, and then announce "And now my turn is over". This was always followed up with the DM or another player remarking how "you should roll better". At first I assumed we were all joking in jest at the absurdity of rolling dice to see if we could have fun that turn. Then I realized, they actually meant it. There were honest to god people in the world who didn't know the difference between playing poorly and rolling poorly.

In the last ten years, I've come to learn that this is a widespread phenomenon.

With 5th edition I've encountered this situation exactly once. And on a fighter no less, which historically has been a fairly brainless class to play. At only level 3, I have a wide variety of attacks, support, utility, and even just flavor options I can do in the middle of a battle. If I roll low on my attack dice, I can use a maneuver and try to boost that up. But I can only do that so many times, and at the cost of other options, and thus, is a meaningful and interesting decision.

I'm to understand that this move from relying on random dice rolls to actual player agency was a main driving point behind development of the 5th edition. Thank the Gods. It got to a point I was  half-dreading when D&D night rolled around, because it was mostly going to be 3 hours of rolling dice and bickering about the rules. Now it's a puzzle to solve every turn (in addition to bickering about the rules).

I picked up X-COM Chimera for $10 on a lark. I'm glad I did. It's the 5th edition version of X-COM.

Someone usually pitches a fit when I say it, but the original 1990s X-COM games, and even the 2012 remake, were really just dice rolling simulators in the guise of strategy games. I'm not pretending that there weren't meaningful decisions being made, but the lack of knowable information combined with the heavy randomness meant that player agency was never as important as the games put on. X-COM was always played best as a "here's a chaotic, potentially unwinnable situation, make the best out of it" rather than "here's an actual video game meant to be played by human beings, you can use your wits and learning to win".

Increasing the difficulty always made this worse rather than better. In the early 1990s games, the AI was rarely "smarter", the game just punished you more for mistakes, whether those mistakes were avoidable or not.

I'm playing Chimera Squad on Normal and it's so much better in this regard. Now, mistakes, or just getting unlucky does mean you are irreversibly screwed. It just puts you into the "stuff went wrong, and now there's chaos, use your wits and learning to find a way out of it" mode. It's the actual fulfillment of what the original games would have been in more capable hands. The extra 20 years of game design progress shows. The reviews I've read online want to complain about normal being "too easy" when they really mean it's not "needlessly punishing". The more difficult modes exist for these people, who I presume have reservoirs of free time they happily throw at an experience designed to make them frustrated.

I play video games for many reasons. To be challenged? Very much so. To be frustrated? No. And I think there is a lot of people who let that difference get away from them I think those people tend to be the ones who play games the most and tend to be the most vocal. So we develop this idea that a needlessly punishing video game is the normal instead of recognizing it as the filler that it is. I remember when Super Meat Boy and Dark Souls each came out and you can see large swathes of the Internet realize what an actual challenging game looks like. It took nearly 40 years, but we are finally moving on from the fake difficulty of quarter eating arcade machines to games designed to challenge and entertain actual human beings.

A challenging, potentially unwinnable game can be fine. Video games are art. They should be allowed to encompass a large variety of the human experience. But leaving behind the "radical, this game is going to kick your ass" ethos of the 80s and 90s is a good thing. Frustration simulators are being relegated back to the niche where they belong, instead of being secretly crammed into every release.

Despite our best efforts, video games are evolving as a medium.


  1. Great post Everwake; I think it has triggered the seed of an idea for a post taking counterpoint even though I don't know how much I agree or disagree with your premise here yet. Still processing.

    I guess the thought that strikes me through all this is that even despite the RNG elements of the base XCOM games there are *absolutely* skills required (perhaps more around risk understanding and management?) otherwise you wouldn't see the likes of ChristopherOdd being able to *consistently* beat the most challenging game modes.

    Interesting stuff in any case!

    FWIW, I didn't like XCOM: Chimera Squad as much as you have. Not yet at least. The character voices really grated on me to start with which is never a nice introduction (although I got used to it fairly quickly, I suppose) and then on top of that the limited scope of the maps started to irk me as well.

    I freely admit: I'm quite biased against mobile games (as a rule, some break through this but it's rare) -- and the scope of the game seemed more constrained by an eventual desire to take this to mobile more than anything else.

    The room to room nature therefore was irritating (despite the fact I actually do quite like the breach mechanics!)

    I think this is just one of those things I'll end up coming around on, but my grumpy old man routine is going to have its time in the sun first. ;)

  2. Perhaps I didn't bracket it hard enough, but I also wouldn't say that the XCOM games are skill less either. I'm quite confident that there can be a very high skill cap relative to other simpler games.

    Perhaps I should trot out another post myself to clarify what I mean. There can be plenty of skill in a high RNG game, just like poker. My primary issue is that, as a player, I want my decision making to be the primary decider as often as possible. We know that poker has tremendous skill, but we also know that you have to fold hand after hand after hand before you get to actual interesting game play. Technically, folding 30 times in a row could be a highly skilled decision. But it's not good gameplay.

    I have no doubt the skill level of high level XCOM players, particularly the newer games that are better designed. But on a macro level, the moment to moment decision making is lacking, and I believe it's because RNG and hidden information combine to make decision making more guesstimating.

  3. In the abstract on this, XCOM uses RNG to enable binary decisions. The information you see either works, or it doesn't. The fact that these binary effects compound (due to the turn structure), means that you can easily encounter cascading failure states that are near impossible to recover from.

    This makes the RNG aspect extremely high risk/reward, which can work if the game balance accounts for a certain amount of failure. The first XCOM did. The rebooted XCOM did not. XCOM2 did not at launch, but brought more balance through the use of AE attacks (e.g. guaranteed damage).

    Look at this differently. The win state for players is all survive with no injury, all enemies die. That impacts the next mission (enemies on the next map are not impacted by previous map), and so on. The win state for the NPC is that they wound a single player, as doing that again every mission causes a cascade failure. Players have to play "near perfect".

    Chimera addresses this further, as its quite hard to chain cascade since you can only make 1 bad roll at a time. Phoenix Point does this further, as the RNG is focused on range of effects and less so on if the effect lands at all.

    This is a neat post :)