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?