Do The XCOM


I was excit­ed for Battlefield 3. One of the trail­ers for the game saw the play­er move with a squad through Middle Eastern city streets, wind­ing up atop a build­ing under fire from a 50cal rifle fired from a sniper’s nest in an office block oppo­site. Gradually your squad moves to a fir­ing posi­tion and pro­vides cover as you hit the nest with an RPG and… so on and so forth. Fairly typ­i­cal mod­ern shoot­er stuff, it must be said. What I real­ly liked about it was the way the play­er seemed to be a part of his squad, maneu­ver­ing with them to hold lines of sight and remain in cover. Moving along an alley­way towards a car park, the play­er didn’t just charge ahead but wait­ed while a squad­mate took up posi­tion half-way up the alley, and then sprint­ed ahead of that squad­mate, crouched, and cov­ered his fur­ther move­ment. The authen­tic mil­i­tary tac­tics appealed. And then what I got in the final prod­uct was an extra­or­di­nar­i­ly aver­age sin­gle play­er FPS (the mul­ti­play­er, ever the pri­ma­ry ele­ment of a Battlefield game, is great) in which, apart from a cou­ple of con­spic­u­ous set-pieces, the play­er is an iso­lat­ed fig­ure even with his squad around him. Trying to play in a coor­di­nat­ed man­ner with your AI com­rades was more like­ly to get you killed. Better to act alone.

What I want to talk about today isn’t so much this dis­crep­an­cy between trail­ers and full games, but rather that squad-based move­ment I found so appeal­ing. There’s some­thing almost hyp­not­ic about the way mod­ern, advanced mil­i­taries teach indi­vid­u­als to coor­di­nate their activ­i­ty: mov­ing in tan­dem, focus­ing on angles, tim­ing shots and reloads with a syn­chronic­i­ty that cre­ates a whole more effec­tive than its indi­vid­ual parts. There’re plen­ty of exam­ples of this in film, but a cou­ple of scenes leap to mind. This kid­nap scene from The Way of the Gun works to demon­strate just how pro­fes­sion­al Ryan Phillipe and Benicio Del Toro’s mer­ce­nary char­ac­ters are through their use of calm, rhyth­mic, near sym­bi­ot­ic move­ment. And this scene from Hurt Locker in which the char­ac­ters quick­ly move into rhyth­mic coop­er­a­tion to make their way through an unknown, and there­fore dan­ger­ous, indoor envi­ron­ment.

In that they pri­or­i­tize phys­i­cal accu­ra­cy, inter­per­son­al coor­di­na­tion, bod­i­ly aware­ness, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and dis­parate indi­vid­u­als falling togeth­er into a com­mon rhythm, these move­ments resem­ble a dance. Dance and com­bat might  seem sep­a­rat­ed by some dis­tance, but allow me to sug­gest some­thing that bridges that gap by employ­ing ele­ments of each: sport. Combat sports, obvi­ous­ly, most notice­ably cross the divide, with the likes of box­ing, mar­tial arts and fenc­ing being reliant on both an inter­nal sense of rhythm and an out­ward expres­sion of give-and-take (attack and defend) which fre­quent­ly slips into a sort of coor­di­nat­ed, rhyth­mic part­ner­ship, albeit shaped around adver­si­ty. This mix of col­lab­o­ra­tion and adver­si­ty cer­tain­ly isn’t absent from dance, a prime exam­ple being the break­dance bat­tles that  pit two dancers against one anoth­er in a com­pe­ti­tion of skill, style and tech­nique. Whilst fun­da­men­tal­ly in oppo­si­tion, the indi­vid­u­als typ­i­cal­ly fit their rou­tines into the same musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment and there­fore simul­ta­ne­ous­ly antag­o­nize one anoth­er whilst coop­er­a­tive­ly cre­at­ing an over­all show for the audi­ence.

Meanwhile, just about every other sport also pri­or­i­tizes build­ing a rhythm to which every mem­ber of the team (if there is one) adapts. In fact, fre­quent­ly it is the tac­tic of a defense to dis­rupt the rhythm of the attack­ing side, dis­turb­ing their flow. This is why bowl­ing in crick­et is not just a case of throw­ing the ball as hard as you damn well can, but of switch­ing up your speed and direc­tion to ruin the batsman’s rhythm, an effect you mag­ni­fy by rotat­ing fast, medi­um and slow spin bowlers. (Those of you unfa­mil­iar with crick­et should check out the won­der­ful Stick Cricket for fan­tas­tic exam­ples of this effect in minia­ture). Barcelona is the great­est foot­balling side of this gen­er­a­tion for a great many rea­sons, but not insignif­i­cant is their inor­di­nate amount of ball pos­ses­sion. Dictating the play in this way pre­vents the oppo­si­tion from gain­ing any kind of rhythm going for­ward; they are always on the back foot. This, in a sport of con­stant ebb and flow with very few breaks in the action, is a decid­ing fac­tor. So, am I argu­ing that foot­ball is a type of dance? Of course not. Nor is it a type of war­fare, but between all three there are the­mat­ic con­nec­tions. Take gym­nas­tics, for exam­ple, as a land­mark sit­ting pret­ty much bang smack in the mid­dle of the blur­ry ter­rain between sport and dance.

Moving back to videogames, more recent­ly I did find a game that allows me to par­take of that mil­i­tary style move­ment I find so cap­ti­vat­ing: XCOM: Enemy Unknown. For those unfa­mil­iar, XCOM has two quite dis­tinct ele­ments to its play, which I call the inter­nal and exter­nal games. The exter­nal game involves main­ly resource man­age­ment, build­ing up a base, pri­or­i­tiz­ing research and kit­ting out your sol­diers, all the while keep­ing up sur­veil­lance for alien attacks. Once an alien land­ing is dis­cov­ered play moves to the inter­nal game, a turn-based squad strat­e­gy affair in which the play­er con­trols the indi­vid­ual sol­diers in an attempt to kill or cap­ture a given num­ber of alien oppo­si­tion. Time, and tim­ing, is impor­tant in both game types, with each hav­ing its own dis­creet rhythm. In the outer game a promi­nent clock runs at a real-time pace (with fast for­ward­ing to the next alien event per­mit­ted) con­stant­ly remind­ing you of the tick tock until your next research, con­struc­tion project, etc. will be ready. This grad­ual motion of time is punc­tu­at­ed by month­ly reports from your shad­owy supe­ri­ors, giv­ing the outer game a slow but reg­u­lar beat inside which other events come as freestyle notes both planned and unex­pect­ed.

The inter­nal game, being turn-based, equal­ly comes with a ready-installed rhythm of play. At its essence, (before upgrades, spe­cial pow­ers and so on) each char­ac­ter gets two moves. The first is posi­tion­al, char­ac­ters can move a cer­tain dis­tance to flank, take cover, etc. The sec­ond is an action, be it open­ing fire, hun­ker­ing down, reload­ing, or alter­na­tive­ly sac­ri­fic­ing the action for a sec­ond move­ment extend­ing the dis­tance of the first. You do this for each of your sol­diers, and then watch as the enemy does the same. Taking the wide view, the effect is some­what rem­i­nis­cent of the break­dance bat­tles I men­tioned above. Two sides work with­in the same rhyth­mic con­straints in an attempt to bet­ter the other. The win con­di­tions are very dif­fer­ent, of course, but the com­mon fac­tors are sig­nif­i­cant.

Of course, nei­ther Major Charles ‘Moose’ Dickens nor his com­pa­tri­ots spend their time shim­my­ing and shak­ing across the bat­tle­field in my XCOM game. Not even the sharp-suited Thin Men of the alien forces advance crouched and finger-snapping, awe­some as that would have been. But to use your squad effec­tive­ly in this game you absolute­ly must cause them to behave in a rhyth­mic, pat­terned way. Every move­ment must take into account a series of other fac­tors: Your character’s posi­tion. Every other character’s posi­tion. What they both mean to the posi­tion­ing of your squad as a sin­gle unit. What can you tar­get? What will be able to tar­get you? Every move­ment pro­ceeds rel­a­tive to every past and poten­tial other move­ment, with the land­scape dic­tat­ing the realms of pos­si­bil­i­ty with­in which opti­mum choic­es pro­ce­du­ral­ly evolve. One must impro­vise, but do so using pre-set styl­ized actions in a non-rigid pat­tern of rep­e­ti­tion. A squad’s indi­vid­ual mem­bers weave through and across one another’s paths whilst, more broad­ly, the unit as a whole undu­lates towards its goal.

It’s hard­ly a waltz, I’ll grant you. But like every art form that went through the 20th Century’s tumul­tuous peri­ods of Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction and Postmodernism, dance has been the site of so many rebel­lions and refits that for­mal­ly defin­ing what it actu­al­ly is becomes prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble and, for all intents and pur­pos­es, point­less. One of the fun­da­men­tal com­pul­sions of the artist is to chal­lenge the lim­its of their very medi­um.

Something dance sure­ly needs though (and feel free to chal­lenge me in the com­ments on this), is a body. For there to be a dance, some­one must dance. While we some­times roman­ti­cal­ly endow things like snowflakes and leaves with the abil­i­ty to ‘dance on the breeze’, what they’re doing isn’t dance because there’s no will behind it. It’s pas­sive. But then isn’t it the same for the XCOM char­ac­ters, who are, after all, lit­tle more than 1 and 0’s trans­lat­ed in a cer­tain way? That’s true enough, but what I’ve been get­ting at here is not about burly marines doing the twist. Taken as a whole, my squad is a series of limb-like extru­sions react­ing to impuls­es I send their way. The squad is me in an ambigu­ous new form, assert­ing my imag­i­na­tion on screen in a series of shapes and arrange­ments of its own con­stituent parts. If XCOM’‘s a dance, I’m the dancer.


Jim Ralph

About Jim Ralph

Jim Ralph currently resides in sunny Winchester, England. He'd love to hear from you, personally, with any thoughts on his writing or lucrative job offers.