He was with me from the beginning. Lone survivor from that first mission in Germany. He kept his nerve when others panicked. He got the job done despite being severely wounded. Captain Frank “Omega” Tamas. Expert marksman. Squad leader. Razor.
When Tamas died I wasn’t ready for it. It was sudden, gruesome and meaningless. A wrong turn into the path of a chrysalid. His body was torn open and discarded. There was nothing anyone could do.
I put my controller down after it happened. I thought about it for a long time.
A lot of people have already written about the underlying bleakness and despair of XCOM: Enemy Unknown (developed by Fraxis, out earlier this week). Yannick Lejacq did a fantastic write up about the game’s indifference toward death and failure (found here). But what struck me was how that indifference shook me to my core, forcing me to rethink my notions of video game mortality.
After Tamas died in such a brutal, deeply apathetic way I couldn’t imagine continuing either the mission or the campaign. Without any real forethought I had started customizing my soldiers from the tutorial. They were each known to me. Each unique despite the limited options in features. I suppose there’s real power in a name.
So I reloaded the mission back to a previous save. Tamas was alive and this time I’d keep him that way. I followed the same basic steps. Made most of the same decisions. This time my marksman killed the chrysalid that in some other reality, in some other universe had killed him.
It was a satisfying murder. Blood splatter. Green ooze.
My team returned to base. The mission was a success. I put the controller down. I thought about it again.
We aim to control so much but ultimately control so little. That’s the power of gaming. Saves. Restarts. Good endings. There’s eternity in the gameverse. A continuation, a perfection we could never know in life. I think about Assassin’s Creed synchronization as the best example of this. Continual replay until every mission is played exactly right.
But what in Assassin’s Creed is an essential feature, felt in XCOM like a perversion of the game. By saving my sniper I had undone something fundamental. I had cheated. Maybe I hadn’t cheated the game but I certainly cheated MY game.
The tragedy of Captain Tamas is not that he died, but that I saved him. By denying what would always be in our world a finality I had undone the inevitability of the moment and in so doing cheapened the experience of the game.
Here the death of squad members, the continual loss, recruitment and retraining are all essential components of gameplay. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from the fallen. We learn from death. In game as in life. This is what makes XCOM successful. This is what makes it worth the price.
In my campaign Captain Frank “Omega” Tamas is alive. I see him in the gym. I see him prepping for assignments. I see him roaming the halls. But I can’t seem to bring him on missions. He shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t belong. I know I have the option of dismissing him, or taking him along on one last kamikaze run, but he’s been with me from the beginning and I just can’t seem to let him go.