Serotonin: What’s in a name? XCOM can tell you

March 27, 2015


If I haven’t mentioned it before, here it is: I’m terrible at anything tactical. My ability to process information quickly and act before my opponent has been one of my major strengths in education, sport, theatre and, of course, games. Inevitably, when the playing field levels and my initial advantage is over, I suffer. Whether I don’t enjoying a slower pace, or lack strategy, I tend to struggle in this type of competition. “Slow down,” my teachers told me, “you don’t have to finish the test first.” No, but what could looking over my work and taking my time possibly do for me?

Finesse is never a factor in tactical games. It’s a style in which you’re given ample time to make decisions. Every movement, every upgrade and every attack is made with all the information available, like a pile of books dumped on your desk with no clocks in sight. Take your time.

Acting quickly doesn’t help. If anything, moving with haste is a horrible mistake. Oh, I’ll just run my soldier over here… oh, I didn’t take the time to swing the camera around to the right, and an alien behind the truck just fatally wounded my favorite sniper? Maybe I should have taken my time.

Serotonin74 - Screenshot1

There needs to be a pretty good hook involved if I’m going to enjoy a game I’m traditionally awful at. Thankfully, XCOM: Enemy Unknown has a very, very good angle that immediately sucked me in. Not only was I able to name every single member of my army, but I was able to customize their appearances to my liking. This isn’t something I’m used to seeing in tactical games and the appeal of creating a squad of my best friends was too strong to resist. I jumped into the deep end, and it took me 22 hours to climb out.

One of the problems I have with other tactical games is that I just don’t really care about half the units I come to control. Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling Together’s plot was so intricate and complex I had a hard time following it. A long-absent character showed up, but the dramatic twist was lost on me as I forgot who they were in the first place.

What’s in a name? It meant I had a way easier time remembering, caring and ensuring each soldier had a chance to shine.

I immediately cared about everybody I controlled. These weren’t just grunts to be used as cannon fodder, but digital representations of the people I cherish the most in real life. Each soldier was an opportunity to try and recreate their face. I felt it was my duty to keep them safe; losing a soldier to permanent death was not an option. It resulted in a lot of saving, loading and playing the game on easy, but it was well worth it.


I felt guilty leaving a friend from university on the sidelines, so I spread the love and tried to give everybody an equal chance at helping me defend the earth from the alien invasion. I giggled when my strongest friends were labeled as supports, whereas my decidedly-not-heavy girlfriend was tagged with the “Heavy” class. I re-loaded my save quickly on that one and thankfully she became an “Assault” class with a few minor move changes.

I was further impressed when I was given the option to add a nickname for all my units. This tiny, easy-to-implement feature added exponential enjoyment. Of course, I had nicknames for everybody; some I hadn’t thought of since grade school. The default nicknames were badass: Shadow, Mad Dog and Nitro were a select few given to me. But, those aren’t my friends’ nicknames, so out the window they went. I replaced them with such gems as Fuzzy, Pretty and Chowduck. I smiled every time I selected a unit, remembering the origins of their nickname and how I was going to get Dobbo out of this particular mission alive. I’m not letting Dobbo die! Random Sniper McGee is expendable, but Dobbo is not (Side note: I swear one of the game’s designers used his real-life face for a model).


Why don’t other tactical games implement this? To be fair, this game is now two and a half years old, and I don’t play that many tactical adventures. Maybe it’s become commonplace? I can only hope. If I’m in charge of controlling multiple units on a battlefield in a life-or-death situation, the least the developer can do is let me name my grunts.

We attribute our own experiences and people to fiction in order to personalize the experience. We like the idea of putting ourselves in the protagonist’s shoes, so why not label them officially?

I’ll admit I didn’t identify with the characters in the same way I did with Welkin, Largo and the rest of the cast from Valkyria Chronicles. The difference there is the voice acting, character arcs and overall story were so strong I didn’t need to artificially stamp an importance on them. I felt a kinship from the first cut scene. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is critically praised for many things, but plot isn’t one of them. With the upward trend in the quality of video game writing and voice acting, it may be harder to implement a system where you can re-name your heroes. But it absolutely worked in XCOM for me. What’s in a name? In XCOM, it’s nearly everything.