Post Script

The fickle dra­mat­ics of chance


The suc­cess or fail­ure of an en­counter in

XCOM can rest on the odds of a shot land­ing on a key tar­get. If your war­rior has a good weapon and is at the cor­rect range, and the en­emy is in poor cover, you might have a 75 per cent chance of suc­cess – a fact the game clearly broad­casts. How­ever, fully un­der­stand­ing the odds does noth­ing to mit­i­gate the sense of raw out­rage when the shot goes wide. We got ev­ery­thing right: the po­si­tion­ing, the char­ac­ter build, the choice of shot. Doesn’t the game owe us vic­tory?

Games can be very flat­ter­ing and ac­com­mo­dat­ing, and wary of con­fronting play­ers with the re­al­ity of to­tal fail­ure. XCOM has no such qualms, and con­sis­tently ex­ploits the gap be­tween our log­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of odds and our more in­tu­itive (but wrong) as­sump­tions of how chance op­er­ates for dra­matic ef­fect. XCOM tugs the su­per­sti­tious part of us that sees con­spir­acy in a bad beat. In this emo­tion­ally charged headspace, a streak of against-the-odds crit­i­cal hits be­comes karmic ret­ri­bu­tion for past crimes com­mit­ted by the ran­dom num­ber gen­er­a­tor.

It’s a kind of mad­ness, to ap­ply the stan­dards of uni­ver­sal jus­tice to a ma­chine that rolls dice, but XCOM 2 ex­pertly en­cour­ages this sort of think­ing. A game of chance with­out mean­ing­ful stakes isn’t in­ter­est­ing, as any­one who’s tried to play poker with Mo­nop­oly money will know. Your sol­diers are the stakes in XCOM 2. A de­tailed suite of char­ac­ter cus­tomi­sa­tion op­tions in­vite you to be­come at­tached to your peo­ple. They are lively, per­son­able, and must be pro­tected and nur­tured over many bat­tles if you want them to reach their po­ten­tial. See­ing one killed in a trice feels aw­ful. In that in­stance, ra­tio­nal math­e­mat­i­cal un­der­stand­ing gives way to dis­may, anger at the dice gods, and an urge for re­venge. It makes for a very en­gag­ing strat­egy game.

Used in such a way, chance is an ef­fec­tive dra­matic tool, and it’s pow­er­ful be­cause it’s so in­scrutable. When a game tells us that the shot will land 75 per cent of the time, should we trust it? We could run the sce­nario a hun­dred times and not see a 75 per cent suc­cess rate. Here, sus­pi­cion starts to creep in. Are en­e­mies play­ing by the same odds? Is it re­ally a one-in-four chance?

Th­ese are very rea­son­able ques­tions. Sid Meier gave a talk at GDC 2010, fit­tingly ti­tled ‘The Psy­chol­ogy of Game De­sign (Ev­ery­thing You Know Is Wrong)’, in which he con­fronted the prob­lem of play­ers in­cor­rectly un­der­stand­ing odds in com­bat sce­nar­ios. He sug­gested that the de­vel­op­ment team tweaked be­hind-the-scenes odds to bring them in line with what play­ers as­sume ought to hap­pen in an en­counter with a 75 per cent suc­cess rate (play­ers as­sume a greater chance of vic­tory). It’s an in­ter­est­ing ad­mis­sion. For the sake of en­ter­tain­ment, player ex­pec­ta­tion trumps math­e­mat­i­cal truth. It would spoil the fun to peel back the cur­tain and know for cer­tain whether sim­i­lar trick­ery is at work here, but given the num­ber of sol­diers who died dur­ing our re­view of the game, we would guess that there are no such cod­dling mech­a­nisms in place. XCOM 2’ s dif­fi­culty makes sense given the un­der­dog sce­nario it presents, but it demon­strates how chance, and warped player as­sump­tions, can be used as a ma­nip­u­la­tive tech­nique to cre­ate a sense of strug­gle.

A heavy re­liance on chance me­chan­ics can be risky, of course. If a mil­lion peo­ple play XCOM 2, a few may well ex­pe­ri­ence ex­tra­or­di­nary runs of good or bad luck. For th­ese out­liers, the game bal­ance may be sig­nif­i­cantly al­tered. XCOM 2 gives play­ers a few life­lines in the event of a bad streak, such as the op­tion to buy ex­pen­sive, lev­elled-up sol­diers to re­place losses, and the­o­ret­i­cally, as in a long poker tour­na­ment or a game of test match cricket, the odds ought to shake out over time. It’s hard to be sure, though. In this sense, the de­vel­op­ers could well be play­ing their own game of chance.

All but one of th­ese sol­diers have died since this screen­shot was taken. Were their deaths the re­sult of bad de­ci­sion-mak­ing, or just plain bad luck?

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