Friday, June 28, 2013

Talkin' X-COM Blues

About a week ago, I got bored with being scared and angry all the time, and I said to myself, "Self," I said, "#FuckEverything. Let's play X-COM for an entire week." I've had better weeks, to be sure. But I've had worse weeks as well, many of them recent.

I'm on the periphery of gamerness at the moment--amusingly, now that I'm the industry news guy at SFP--and I can barely be arsed to keep track of the new console news. Something feels very after about everything these days, and I can't remember ever being as indifferent to new developments as I am now.

Sometimes, dear reader, there are simply no more fucks to give. This is time for comfort food gaming. These days, I try to avoid the really obvious candidates: your Final Fantasy Tactics, your PS2-era actioners. Basically anything I've already played on the DS. When people ask what I've been doing all these years--or how I deal with the constant inflow of uncertainty and terror--I resist the urge to answer in list form. The block of my time from somewhere in 2008 to somewhere in 2012, I remember mostly as a series of DS games: Advance Wars, Fire Emblem, Dawn of Discovery, Populous. Final Fantasy Tactics is a gimme. Clash of Heroes, I could play for-fucking-ever. Ditto Dawn of Heroes, because apparently brilliant, genre-breaking puzzle-strategy games are wedded to the "of Heroes" concept. The World Ends With You, I restarted several times, going a little bit farther into the postgame collection each time. I avoid it now mostly out of concern for the health of my screen. (Seriously, "Scratch"?) The most recent was Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, the 3D-but-not-really tactical strategy game from X-COM creator Julian Gollop. There's a lot to love about Shadow Wars, from the flexible level design, to the elevation of bodies-in-motion over of point-and-shoot, to a story so stupid you'd think Tom Clancy had written it himself. I avoid it these days because, at 98% completion, my options are to attack the 2% of the game that's so ridiculously difficult that even the FAQs have no real clues, or starting from scratch. Replaying an old game isn't quite like rereading a favorite novel or walking a beloved path, but even if there's authentic novelty to be had, it feels like an indulgence I can ill afford.

So I'm glad to have X-COM: Enemy Unknown. The Firaxis remake, not the 2K Australia FPS that's apparently never fucking coming out. (Also, there might not be any chicks in it.) Glad not only because I've wanted a viable way to play X-COM for years, but because comfort food gaming benefits dramatically from games that are old and new. The stuff that got lost along the way is minor, and the new tricks are, for the most part, improvements. But this is less about the game, and more about the way the game makes me feel, assuming they can be separated for the convenience of that sentence. We might not have to write so much stupid shit about "story" if we went full reader response and said that the way the game made us feel was the game, but then, there's something inherently repugnant in reader response theory, in the idea that we make the text in our own closed worlds. Primarily, I suspect, because it denies us the chance to bend our knee to Authority, and consequently exploit His power for our own purposes, but also because it raises the possibility that our understandings of a text only agree by coincidence: that two people use one word to describe two concepts, and mistakenly think that they've shared something.

The world ends with you, after all.

I have another one of those irritating "story" posts coming, and I shan't dwell there tonight. But tonight, we are not rational, and tonight, we are not light, and as I watch those brave little scientists and engineers and soldiers--the sheer moral weight of not only their mission, but of the mere scale of their cooperation--and I think, where am I in this bleak-but-meaningful world? Whither the humanities?

You know. Because I'm an asshole. (I also use hashtags in my internal monologue.)

But seriously. Whither cultural studies? Whither ethics, if you've already accepted that the descriptive and the normative differ only in the sound of one hand clapping? Whither history? Whither incest, water reclamation, a messy abortion read over a caesar salad?

I have some very convincing daylight answers for each one of these, of course: that the function of the liberal arts education is to help a republic maintain itself through educated citizenry; that the model was derived from methods for educating clerisy; that critical theory is born by accident, an unanticipated mutation of an attempt by English capitalists to ensure the allegiance of the middle class amid the waning power of the Anglican church. But at 3:25 AM, I throw in my lot with Crick: the fact of the question's existence answers it. "Why?" demands history. "What" demands semantics. "How" demands ethics.

How ought we live? (What was she fighting for?)

What ought we do? (What am I fighting for?)

What am I willing to do to survive? (What are you fighting for?)

What constitutes the lower limit of "survive"? (If we get through this, I'll tell you.)

Because I settled on a truth today, that's always going to be true. I would do anything for my friends. Which I think is how everyone in the world feels. Which finally makes me understand new games journalism.