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Pixels & Bits
posted 2/7/2013 by
by Randy Kalista
The Skyranger VTOL aircraft burns its thrusters down into the landing zone. The belly of the aircraft yawns open and four XCOM soldiers stomp out in bulky armor. They’ve got their fighting faces on. The fog of war recedes to about 50 yards down their field of view. I move my squad to cover behind open vehicle doors, tree stumps, cargo crates, bus stops--whatever’s available in short order. They go into overwatch mode, waiting for any aliens to flush out from behind cover, ready to pop a cap into any extraterrestrial looking to get their wig split.
I know these XCOM soldiers. Some personally, and some by name only, but I know them because I named them. Major Chuck Husemann is my long-suffering editor in chief here at Gaming Nexus. I worked with Corporal Kyle Byers at a musical instrument retail store before it relocated to the greater Los Angeles area. Squaddie Tina Amini is a Gaming Nexus alum and, nowadays, writing for Kotaku and handing out Spike VGA awards. Rookie Sean Nack is an old college buddy, back from the war in Afghanistan--but then again, maybe no one comes
all the way
back (etc., etc., insert requisite generalizations about soldiers and my complete lack of understanding re: re-entry into civilian life).
XCOM: Enemy Unknown does a million things right on a technical level. Base building is snappy but involved. Squad tactics are smooth but solid. Research is meaningful, engineering is engrossing, and combat is white knuckled.
Despite all that, it’s the names of the dead I always hear about. You can customize each and every soldier’s name, and many people do. Which is why, on Twitter, I hear people eulogize the loss of friends, co-workers, stand-up comedians, WWE wrestling legends, YouTube executives, Ron Swanson, and even Michelle Obama.
I’ve lost so many people. I’ve long since run out of names. My B team--the soldiers that take the field while my A team is commonly hospitalized--is now seemingly composed of news blips and Jeopardy! categories: Fiscal Cliff, Gaming Nexus, Literary Classics, Gun Control, Blame Parents, and Common Cold. Who knows. All I know is that Common Cold’s a killer. But, soon enough, they will be 144 characters’ worth of dead and gone in my Twitter feed. “RIP @FanFic #ugh #neverlikedyou.”
But my A team is different. They’re worth the saved-game reload when a mission goes FUBAR.
XCOM Corporal Kyle Byers is a blond, bouffant-haired white guy with a soul patch. In real life. So it’s a good thing the minor cosmetic alterations you can make to your XCOM soldiers certainly cover the blond, bouffant-haired white guy with a soul patch variety. I met the real Kyle Byers in college. He dropped out of med school to become a writer “because studying to become a doctor was too easy.” His words. He also sat on the panel that handed me a small, collegiate award for one of my short stories. You haven’t heard of it. The award
XCOM Squaddie Tina Amini is olive-skinned and rocks a raven ponytail. She got me my second paying gig as a writer for Complex Media. We’d bounce ideas off each other all day: casting calls for an Assassin’s Creed movie, GTA V pop-up videos, gaming interview questions for rapper A$AP Rocky, Halo Xbox giveaways. Complex is where I also acquainted myself with the finer points of crafting top-10 lists for cheap clicks. Top 10 nude mods for The Elder Scrolls. Top 10 Banned Video Games In Germany Because Hitler. Top 10 Things I’d Do To Alison Haislip In A Furry Outfit. Her in the furry outfit,
, #ugh #neverlikedyou.
Thankfully, Tina Amini shot down nearly every single one of my top-10-list ideas.
XCOM Rookie Sean Nack crops his hair the shortest and keeps the closest shave. He dropped out of college because he wasn’t being shot at enough. He joined the US Army infantry and fought in Afghanistan for 16 months. His right forearm acts up once in awhile because he held on too tightly “the second time” he was blown up in a Humvee. Sean Nack and I spend holidays together. Every day that he’s been out of the armed services he’s rededicated to getting back in.
XCOM Lieutenant Chuck Husemann is a brawny black guy with a Puck-from-Glee mohawk, which looks nothing like him in real life, but hey,
. He’s known me now for ten years, even though we’ve never shaken hands and never seen anymore of each other than thumbnail pics. All I know of him I’ve gleaned from emails and social media. He cycles, he works for a marketing company where everyday is Bring Your Dog To Work Day, and he’s gone to enough hockey games to actually gain Canadian citizenship.
I don’t typically name video game characters after myself or those that I know. I’m not usually interested in knocking out that fourth wall between the video game and the audience. But XCOM is different. The barracks can house a hundred soldiers, but those 100 soldiers don’t matter. Not until I name them. Then they matter. Then they’re no longer just pixels. Giving those digital soldiers names from real life ensures exactly that: they’ve crossed the line from purely digital constructs into something straddling the imaginary and the literal. With names I know, there’s now a connection between their digital avatars on a game screen and their carbon-based counterparts here in the real world. Even, I’d argue, my high-concept soldiers, like Amazon Reviews and Kim Kardashian’s Marriage.
No, I won’t cry when these soldiers die from an alien laser beam to the forehead (or to the kidney, because they probably flanked me). The illusion isn’t that impenetrable, even though I’m actively contributing to their illusory nature. But I notably flinched last night when Lieutenant Chuck Husemann bit the bullet. I know I’ve been talking about him like he’s still here, but he’s gone. I can spend the dollars to hire more soldiers. That’s not the problem.
The problem is replacing the history I have with the real-life Chuck Husemann, a ten-year
that’s invisibly baked into that particular XCOM soldier’s backstory. Like the time Chuck had my back when I was verbally accosted by an angry public relations agent. Or the year-after-year attempts he’s made to get me to attend a Game Developers Conference, a Comic-Con, an E3, or a PAX. The thousands of dollars’ worth of review material he’s mailed to me, and the hundreds of emails I’ve sent him, apologizing for yet another blown deadline.
So I raise up a theoretical glass to the late (black, mohawked) Major Chuck Husemann, and to all the XCOM soldiers I’ll inevitably lose very, very soon. #wehardlyknewyou.
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