It happened at about 10.05 a.m. this morning, game time. He was happy. Vaulting a burned-out car, chugging heavily in his articulated armour. He was in his element. And then he died; a jet of livid green plasma blowing him into now disarticulated bits. That’s how Ruiz died.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not a subtle game. It is a neon strip-lights, brash music blaring from your car kind of game. The enemy – the aliens who swarm across the planet – go about their gruesome work of disembowelling, destroying, mauling all that comes into their path. There is no effort to communicate with them, to understand them. A rather gooey alien autopsy – the patient was never intended to survive this violence -, is your lot. Equally, there is nothing outwardly emotionally complex about the game, with its characters who are not by any stretch of the imagination cleverly, narratively constructed. Uptight doctor, gruff engineer, macho military commander. The game revels and rolls around in the fun of the expected. And for that, it is beautiful. Addictive. The end of the world – and saving it from destruction – has never been so joyously time consuming.
After you have allocated resources, conducted research, managed your relationships with member states of the XCOM project, the game shifts from the strategic to the tactical. In order to actually prevent alien attacks, to defend against them, you need to put “boots on the ground” — troops. And it is here, among these rather generic combat bodies, that I found something that often springs up in surprising places (albeit something you can’t simply create) — negative story space. Meaning emerging through nothingness, or the spaces between other things.
Each soldier that you recruit to the XCOM project consists simply of two basic character models (male and female) that are differentiated by ethnicity, hair colour, and name. A little fiddling with the settings and you can vary these things, but not much. They have a name and a role, acquired through combat; a combat role, a way of killing. You simply allocate their weapons and equipment, before sending them off into battle. Ruiz was one of them. An old hand.
But despite this seeming lack of character distinction, and character development (only ability points and promotions – that ephemera), I found myself becoming strongly attached to the characters in the combat roster. I found that my preferred squad had become closer to me not simply because of their combat abilities, their experience. The soldiers of this squad became preferred over other soldiers.Better soldiers, in some cases. I began choosing one character who was less experienced, simply because I’d formed a liking for himin a previous mission. I was filling these generic gun-toting world-savers with individuality, with identity and all of the rich, complex things that stem from that. Like preferences, attitudes, habits.
Negative space should be familiar to you. Take, for example, an optical illusion. Here, in white, is a chalice – a cup. But look again, in the space that defines the outlines of that cup, and two faces are revealed. Now, if the illusion has worked, you should be able to tack back and forth between cup and faces, though you will not be able to unsee those faces. This is the same principle that defines the way in which we, as players, engage with the raw “stuff” of a game and construct a way of seeing the game, and of engaging with it, that is fundamentally unique and personal. It is no criticism of XCOM as a game that the soldiers are generic.Really this is the point. But this does not mean that they are simply interchangeable or disposable. The “illusion” is that we see the generic, automatic outline – the soldier – and begin to define their outsides (what shapes and has shaped them) based on our own preferences and considerations.
When Ruiz died, I had other similarly skilled and experienced soldiers in the XCOM roster. For completing the mission, I was even rewarded with a new, highly experienced soldier to replace him. But because I had seen the “outline” of Ruiz – had constructed my own relationship with him, as it were – the replacement would never equal him. My preferred team had shrunk by one crucial number. The rest were simply new and unknown personalities.
Of course, I don’t know whether the developers of XCOM: Enemy Unknown ever intended for us to worry this deeply about our “grunts”. For me, it is one of the risks of playing a game where the characters are already fleshed out, their hopes and dreams pre-cast. It was one of the let-downs of Far Cry 3 – for me -, when compared against the bright, brilliant brute of its predecessor, Far Cry 2. Whereas 3 presented me with a pre-made character – one with whom I had literally no relationship with, even conceptually (Jason “Frat Bro” Brody) -, 2 allowed the player to select their character from a roster of only vaguely developed individuals who, in practice, had no real narrative input into the game as identities. While rich, involving narratives are something that games can do beautifully well, sometimes – at least for me – all I want is a blank canvas. Ruiz – and his death – meant so much to me because I had worked his identity organically, in the negative space around him. He was also a dab hand with heavy weapons. He’ll be sorely missed.