Ruiz is Dead


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.