From save-scummer to Ironman

Let’s start with a confession, shall we? Ladies and gentlemen, I am a save-scummer. Yes, I will shamelessly abuse save mechanics to achieve goals, to ghost a level, to make the best kill, to keep that health bar full or – depressingly frequently – just to beat the #£%&ing level at all.

Stealth games are my biggest failing here. Love a good stealth-em-up, me. Thief, Commandos, Deus Ex, Hitman, the whole slippery, shadowy lot of them. Even Dishonoured when the voice acting manages to not induce crippling boredom.

The problem is, I’m really just a bit crap at them. Commandos was an exception there, but when you consider that the player had total situational awareness and combine that with the slow, careful pace it was often more a logic puzzle than a combat game.  Other than that, call me Captain Ineptitude. Skulker McDeadthief.  Agent Clompenboots.

Hence save-scumming, the ancient and noble art of mashing the reload button until you make it another five pieces down the corridor and saving again. Save-scummers. You will know us by the trails of faded F5 and F9 keys.

But perhaps there is hope…

Enter XCOM

XCOM is something of an odd beast. To a newcomer it is opaque, unforgiving and brutally hard. Without a guide or a walkthrough your first few games are almost guaranteed to end in failure as your overall strategy unravels. Without prescience, how is the player supposed to know just how critical early satellite coverage is, at the expense of almost everything else? Or that avoiding advancing the plot can be strategically important?

It took me four attempts to beat the game. The first two were abject failures, tactically and strategically. The third, thanks to liberal use of saving, was tactically perfect but strategically flawed. Deaths were zero, captures and loot high, but that couldn’t save me from making some choices that would come back to haunt me. Save-scumming couldn’t help here. The fourth game was the charm. Save-scumming (and, by now, some actual skill on the battlefield) combined with a solid overall strategy. The game fell before me.

After that the game inverted on me. Previously, the tactical play had been simple, the strategic play difficult. Now, the strategy was a solved problem, more or less repeatable barring a few quirks and hiccups. But the enemies on the ground could still, as they say, wreck my shit, sending me scurrying for the last autosave.

Men of Iron

An “Ironman” game is one which allows no saving, except to exit the game. No reloads, no do-overs. The terrifying polar opposite of my normal style.

XCOM offers an Ironman mode. Should I? Why the hell not. I honestly expected to crash and burn a few missions in, but no. It went well. Good opening squad, a nice series of missions set my build and research order off nicely. The right missions came at the right time, and I kept my soldiers alone. All of them. When the end boss died I had lost not a single soldier.

It was probably my greatest gaming achievement ever, the one I’m most proud of. To put this in perspective though, it isn’t an achievement. Literally. There isn’t an achievement for doing an Ironman game on normal difficulty. But to me it’s up there with getting past “Doing things the hard way” in VVVVVV.

I loved it, and the moment when that last shot hit and the game ended will stay with me for a long, long time. But honestly, it was harrowing. It kept me up at night. I refused to play if I felt tired. When as moment’s inattention almost cost me two soldiers it took a frankly worrying amount of time for my heart rate to drop to safe human levels.

I’ve been gaming for a long time, and that’s the first time a computer game has got anything approaching that level of response from me. Only tabletop roleplaying, where life and death can hang on the next roll of the dice, where your friends are watching, and there are no second chances…

Would I do it again? Maybe. Has it cured me of save-scumming? No. So… Why write all of this? Because now I know what video games are capable of doing on such a visceral level it is clear that the future of gaming is a wonderful, terrifying place.

I can’t wait to see what’s coming. But maybe I’ll save first…

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