Nerd Corps Alien Defense: Pt. 1 2

Some games tell great sto­ries because the writ­ers and devel­op­ers craft­ed a fine­ly tuned inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence.  Others allow great sto­ries to arise out of the meeting-place between a play­er’s choic­es and the game’s rules.  Games like Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, Civilization, and XCOM have lit­tle to noth­ing in the way of planned-out nar­ra­tive, but rather set the stage for the play­er’s choic­es and mis­takes and the vagaries of the ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tors to cre­ate fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries that dif­fer wild­ly from game to game.  Folks that like terms call this “emer­gent nar­ra­tive,” that is, sto­ries that emerge from the nat­ur­al play­ing of the game, rather than sto­ries which are placed there in advance.
These are the sto­ries that get told in anec­dotes from play­er to play­er over the water cool­er or on forums, sto­ries that are often just as emo­tion­al­ly involv­ing or com­plex as any­thing delib­er­ate­ly script­ed into a game.  Some the­o­rists and devel­op­ers even think that emer­gent nar­ra­tive is the pur­pose of games, that games should never try to tell pre-scripted nar­ra­tives with any kind of speci­fici­ty.  We here at the Ontological Geek would never say any­thing quite so pre­scrip­tive, but it’s cer­tain­ly true that some­times the sto­ries gen­er­at­ed by these games have an extra qual­i­ty of authen­tic­i­ty about them pre­cise­ly because they arose out of a con­sis­tent set of rules and choic­es rather than a pre-ordained path.

There’s a long tra­di­tion of writ­ing these sto­ries down in game jour­nals, or, as they are some­times called, “Let’s Plays.”  These jour­nals occu­py a space some­where between fan­fic­tion and sports report­ing — telling the truth of what hap­pened in the course of the game while adding enough cre­ative spark to make it worth read­ing.  Anyone can enjoy read­ing about Boatmurdered, or Ben Abraham’s per­madeath playthrough of Far Cry 2, or Brendan Keogh’s long east­wards trek in Minecraft.  These jour­nals pro­vide anoth­er way of look­ing at the games that inspire them, and we can learn some­thing about both the games and the peo­ple play­ing them by read­ing them.

So when Matt told me he want­ed to write a jour­nal detail­ing his Ironman Classic playthrough of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I asked him to let me dis­play it here.  It’s not the sort of thing we usu­al­ly do, but Matt’s good at mak­ing this sort of thing inter­est­ing, and if this playthrough is half as bloody as XCOM games usu­al­ly are, it ought to be worth at least a few chuck­les.

For those who don’t know, “Ironman Classic” means that he is play­ing this noto­ri­ous­ly hard game on its most noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult set­ting, which includes a fea­ture mak­ing it impos­si­ble to go back and fix mis­takes, even by reload­ing ear­li­er saves.  There is no Ctrl‑Z for Matt — dead sol­diers stay dead.  And for fur­ther excite­ment, he’s named all of these very-mortal sol­diers after friends of ours from col­lege.

So go ahead and take bets on who will sur­vive in the com­ments, and enjoy read­ing!  If you like this sort of thing, we may well do more of it.  –Bill Coberly, Editor-In-Chief

The fol­low­ing excerpts are from the logs of Commander Milich Gray, who was placed in com­mand of the inter­na­tion­al XCOM project imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing the first abduc­tions.

April 2nd, 2015

I have long exist­ed in a world of burn­er cells, whis­pered con­ver­sa­tions and ubiq­ui­tous elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance. There, each word had to be weighed and cal­cu­lat­ed before release. Things have obvi­ous­ly changed. The same women and men that would have killed me for speak­ing an errant word now encour­age a full con­fes­sion. “The world needs a record of what hap­pens here,” they said. I con­cur. Hopefully you’ll for­give me if my skills of hon­est com­mu­ni­ca­tion have atro­phied. I’ll do my best to make this read­able.

Aliens have arrived on Earth. There were no attempts at com­mu­ni­ca­tion; only casu­al­ties. It is clear that they’ve been watch­ing us from the dark of the void for some time now. Initial reports indi­cate that pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences with alien life­forms bore some fruit. The old gray sto­ries pop­u­lar­ized in our fic­tions have clear roots in what my advis­ers are call­ing the “sec­toid.” So far, their focus appears to be small-scale abduc­tions, but they are hap­pen­ing with such fre­quen­cy and simul­tane­ity across the globe that the nations, all of them, unit­ed to fund this project. They toy with us, prod at us. So far, we haven’t been able to keep them from tak­ing our peo­ple. That ends today.

I have been pro­vid­ed with unusu­al recruits for this project. Apparently, the group of them were at the site of a pre­lim­i­nary abduc­tion about a year ago, just as we began to under­stand the out­line of what was com­ing, if not the scale. At a remote cabin in Minnesota, a group of Americans between the ages of 23 and 30 (whom had gath­ered togeth­er for Dungeons & Dragons, accord­ing to the dossier) were beset by an alien force and, some­how, repelled them. Upon the death of its pilots, the alien ves­sel explod­ed; this had odd effects on the phys­i­ol­o­gy of this group. Since then, most of them have been wards of the gov­ern­ment. We’ve been train­ing most of them. A few of them fled, but news of the attack leaked, so most run­ners were snapped up by other gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tions. Those we kept have been allo­cat­ed to cer­tain bases depend­ing on their strengths and train­ing, but most impor­tant­ly all of them have proven resis­tant to sug­ges­tion and, in the most extreme cases, any form of hyp­no­tism and mind con­trol. That trait makes them the sol­diers that the XCOM project needs.

Already on hand were Joedd Biggs, Bill Coberly and Erin McNeil-Coberly, who, due to issues with paper­work char­ac­ter lim­its, will hereto­fore be referred to as “Erin McCoberly.” Their ini­tial foray against the aliens went well enough that I felt com­fort­able mak­ing them full mem­bers of the squad. I intend to put Recruit Biggs’ large frame to work with an assault load­out. Recruit Coberly has been assigned a heavy machine gun and an RPG. Recruit McCoberly has grad­u­at­ed from our sniper pro­gram, hav­ing shown an apti­tude for focus and pre­ci­sion. We’ll need it. To round out the ini­tial squad, Recruit Matthew Schanuel just arrived this after­noon, though we haven’t had time to ascer­tain his strengths. They’ve taken to refer­ring them­selves as the “Nerd Corps.” There seems to be some his­to­ry behind the name.

As I greet­ed the new recruit, klax­ons blared. News of abduc­tions poured in across the globe, and I had to cut the meet­ing short. As Schanuel ran to get out­fit­ted, I ges­tured for Coberly to come and stand next to me. I’ve found a friend in the insight­ful sol­dier, and I want­ed his input. Egypt, France and South Africa lit up across the osten­ta­tious holo-globe that dom­i­nates the cen­ter of Command — all tar­gets, all in need of our help. Moments later, offers appeared. A piti­ful game played out, each gam­bling resources, hop­ing to be the nation spared. A French Nobel-prize win­ning sci­en­tist, along with her team. Four indus­tri­al engi­neers at the top of their field from South Africa. A breath­tak­ing sum of Egyptian pounds. My con­fi­dence fal­tered, my con­science caught between our needs and the lives on the ground — I am unused to com­mand on this scale. Coberly noticed. “You know, ever since I saw District 9, I’ve want­ed to go to South Africa. Seems like a whol­ly appro­pri­ate time to do so.” He smiled, star­ing at the globe. We could use the engi­neers. Bloemfontein it is.

As I write this, the Skyranger is en route with our four sol­diers on board. Somebody has taken to call­ing this “Operation Severed Mother.” Somebody needs a les­son in preser­va­tion of morale…

OPERATION SEVERED MOTHER — April 2nd, 2015, 9:12pm — 9:20pm SAST

None of us were pre­pared. Not one of us.The “Nerd Corps” land­ed in a con­struc­tion site and moved in qui­et­ly. Coberly was the first to make con­tact; he stum­bled upon a pair of the sec­toids, sent them scur­ry­ing into the empty husk of a near­by half-constructed build­ing. I think he pan­icked. He threw a grenade in, blow­ing through some of the brick and plas­ter deep­er in, behind a dump­ster on the out­side. They did­n’t watch the hole.

A sec­toid slipped through. It moved right behind Coberly; he did­n’t have a chance. The plas­ma melt­ed much of his face. I saw the body.

To the squad’s cred­it, they sur­vived the flank­ing maneu­ver and turned the tables. Six sec­toids dead, and it was­n’t worth it. After a start­ing run like this… I worry about the future of the project. And I mourn, not just for Bill, but for those that will fol­low.

Included with this log are tran­scribed records of the audio cap­tured from the mis­sion.

Schanuel: So you all have been togeth­er since… god, a year ago now? Seems like a life­time.
McCoberly: What have you been up to since then, Matt? We haven’t heard from you, or from any­body, real­ly.
Schanuel: They had me out east. Heh, that’s Western cen­trism for you. I was in Tibet most­ly, neigh­bor­ing coun­tries too. They want­ed me to train with some men there. Mystics, most­ly, the sort with highly-developed men­tal dis­ci­plines. I’ve spent the last months med­i­tat­ing and fast­ing and seek­ing the face of god.
[Biggs laughs]
Biggs: Yeah, except you’re an athe­ist.
Schanuel: Figure of speech. It has been real­ly cool, though. I’ve missed you guys.
McCoberly: That sounds per­fect for you, Matt.
Coberly: It’s good to have you back, mate. What did you think of the project?
Schanuel: I’m impressed! It’s going to take a bit to set­tle in, I think; the base is mas­sive.
Biggs: We’re legit­i­mate black ops. This is so insane.
Coberly: Yep. I still feel absolute­ly absurd in this armor. Have you heard any news about the oth­ers?
Schanuel: Only bits and pieces. BDS was with me near the begin­ning, but they sent him else­where after the first month. Remember how Hastey ran? I heard one of my han­dlers talk­ing one night; the Russians have him.
McCoberly: Oh, that must be ter­ri­ble for him. [sar­casm]
Biggs: Ha! I bet he talks non-stop about their for­eign pol­i­cy.
[Skyranger comes in, ramp descends]
Coberly: Seriously, it’s good to see you, man. We have a lot of catch­ing up to do after this.
Schanuel: Absolutely. Let’s just hope there isn’t a shit-ton of them, eh?
Coberly: So long as our bird does­n’t get shel­lacked, I think we’ll be okay.
Gray: Alright, team, cut the chat­ter and form up. Schanuel and McNeil, I want you two on the sides of the gates. Coberly, take point; cover him, Biggs.
McCoberly: I don’t see any­thing. Looks aban­doned.
Coberly: Found them! Two… no, four grays!
Gray: Acknowledged. Biggs, get one before… scratch, they’ve dis­ap­peared. Stay alert, keep eyes on.
Biggs: Bill, what are you…?
[pin of grenade being pulled]
Coberly: Fire in the hole!
Biggs: Maybe warn us next time, huh?
Schanuel: I’m not see­ing any­thing else over here.
Gray: Schanuel, move up the right. We need a dif­fer­ent field of fire on that build­ing.
Schanuel: Yeah. Yeah, mov­ing up.
Coberly: Those things are still way too unset­tling.
Schanuel: I’ve got two more!
[rifle fire]
McCoberly: Yes! Got him!
Schanuel: Got the other one. That was clean! Good work.
[shot­gun fire]
Biggs: Booya! Critical hit! Guys, I think that build­ing is on fire-
[plas­ma fire, close]
Coberly: Ahhhhg-
McCoberly: Oh, FUCK. NO.
Schanuel: Jesus, Bill!
Gray: Sectoid through the wall, put it down!
[rifle fire]
[alien scream]
Schanuel: Contact down. I’ve got a med-kit, I’ve got a med-kit…
[shot­gun fire]
Biggs: Clear his throat! Brace his head while he con­vuls­es so he does­n’t break his neck! Oh, god -
[shot­gun fire]
McCoberly: Help him, Matt!
Schanuel: I’ve got it, he’s going to be all right, he’s gonna be fine.
[plas­ma fire]
Schanuel: Shit!
McCoberly: Just get him up! I’ll kill it!
[rifle fire]
[alien yowl]
Gray: That’s all tar­gets account­ed for. What is your sta­tus, Nerd Corps?
Biggs: Look out, Matt, let me get a look. …shit. Shit.
McCoberly: What.
McCoberly: Tell me.
Part 2 is here.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

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