Why XCOM embodies the anxieties of modern gamers

I’ve been playing through XCOM: Enemy Within recently, and I’ve been struck by just how closely it resembles the sense of anxiety that pervades gaming in the modern era. I’m not talking about the turn-based combat – although perhaps that’s a good analogy for facing off against Twitter trolls. No, I’m talking about the incredibly tense and finely balanced resource management side of things.

There’s always stuff to do in XCOM. Whether it’s building facilities, interrogating aliens, constructing new weapons, beefing up your interceptors or genetically modifying your troops. But all of this requires resources – and you only have so many scientists and engineers, only so much money and – most important of all – only so much time. The clock is ticking from the moment you start the game, and with every passing moment panic is spreading while the aliens throw bigger and badder meanies at you. You can’t afford to sit back and take it easy – you NEED those bigger guns, those satellites, those mechs, if only to hold back the tide of alien invasion for just a moment.

The game is like a Russian doll of nested, anxious choices. Do I research genetic engineering or go for cybernetic troops? It’s hard to have both. Once I’ve picked, I’ll need to build the corresponding facility – but I need more engineers. And now I’ve built a workshop for more engineers, I need more power. But building a power generator will use all of my elerium, and I want to research plasma weapons. But then there’s this alien interrogation that looks promising and… oh! Now there’s panic in Argentina! I need more satellites, but they’re going to take 20 days and, oh crap, I need another satellite uplink, and now I’ve run out of cash and the aliens are coming aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaargh.

Alien autopsy or experimental warfare? The choice is yours!

As I was surveying my chaotic but beautifully interconnected underground base, I couldn’t help but glance across at my game collection when I realised I was feeling the same kind of anxiety that I get when deciding which games to buy or play. Like in XCOM, there’s an absurd variety of choice. I’ve written before about the tyranny of too many games – the plain fact is that there are too many games out there, too many GOOD games, for anyone to be able to play them all in their lifetime. Even playing all of the new games released in just one month is nearly impossible, especially as games get bigger and bigger. Like in XCOM, you have to prioritise the most important things, knowing that by doing so, some choices will be forever closed to you.

In the same way I end up focusing on one tech track in XCOM, I also tend to focus on certain game genres at the expense of others. I love JRPGs and strategy titles, but I also like racing games and action games. Yet I haven’t played a racing game in yonks, simply because there isn’t the time to do everything.

I wish my base was half as organised as this one. In fact, after finding this screenshot I’m tempted to delete my save and start all over again.

I’ve tried to focus on single game series, setting myself an achievable goal, like with The Year of Zelda. But even then, there are always other games vying for my attention. There’s always something newer and better coming out, and yet I only have so much time and money. Every time I choose a new game to play, there’s the nagging feeling that there’s a dozen other games that might be a better use of my time.

Should I research the Plasma Cannon or the Archangel Armour? Should I play Skyward Sword or Tomb Raider?

There’s a certain anxiety in making those kinds of choice, an anxiety that I think is – for better or worse – part and parcel of being a modern gamer. In some ways, I wish I could I could be one of those people who just buys one game annually, a Call of Duty or FIFA, and happily plays it all year without knowing or caring what else is out there. The trouble is, as a dedicated, lifelong gamer, I know enough to know I’m missing out.