The Pragmatic Decisions of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

XCOM Enemy UnknownOne of the most consistent themes through XCOM: Enemy Unknown – particularly through the game mechanics – is that decisions can be very costly.  The loadout of your squad members – should you bring a medikit, extra armour, or the arc thrower? How you level up your squad – should you choose the evasive ability or extra damage perk when your Assault soldier gets promoted to Sergeant?  Who you bring to missions – should you bring a veteren solider (who is more powerful but if killed sets you back severely) or a rookie solider (who is less powerful but would benefit from the experience)?  The missions you choose to take and thus, the missions you choose to forgo.  And even, how carefully you spend your money and your research and building options.  All these game decisions make a significant enough difference to determine mission success or failure; game victory or game over.  Decisions are costly.

Naturally, when decisions are costly, you end up calculating things down to each meticulous detail.  There is no room for naive ideology.  Each decision needs to be made by cold hard pragmatism.  I choose to mount a rescue mission in China instead of Canada because what China offered me was more helpful to me than what Canada offered.  I chose to help Brazil and not Australia because Brazil was closer to pulling out of the XCOM project, and I really needed their funding support.  It sounds cold, but it’s all for the greater cause.  I need every edge to help me succeed, because if I fail, Earth fails.


Or so I thought. The point when I realized something had gone wrong with my pragmatic decision making was near the end game, where I had launched satellites to every country except France.  I had already constructed the last satellite and it is ready for launch – but I held back from launching. At this point of the game, I didn’t need the income and the funding from France. But I knew if later France became “hot” because I ignored a mission there, I can launch the satellite to make France favorable to me again. Perfectly pragmatic decision. Until I stopped to think – I am intentionally exposing the people of France to alien attacks because…of my own political gain? What had I become?

Dr Shen and Dr Vahlen

Dr Shen and Dr Vahlen – not the best of buddies.

Throughout the game Dr Shen and Dr Vahlen act as the angel and devil talking in your head about pragmatic decision making.  Dr Vahlen is excited whenever you uncover new technology which can gain you an edge over the Aliens.  Dr Shen is worried that we are losing are humanity, the more alien technology we adopt.  Even the grotesque alien autopsies and the interrogations (which all result in death of the alien) whisper the question: “do the ends justify the means?”  Yet, when faced with an alien threat, when your own survival seems to be at risk, was not the answer a resounding “yes?”

I’m a Singaporean.  We know something about pragmatism – it’s pretty much our country’s ideology.  Do whatever it takes to survive. If it works, then it’s right. It’s also what I think is a huge problem with churches in Singapore. The pragmatic church asks “How can I get more people to come to my church?” instead of “How can I build a faithful church community?” The pragmatic church says “If many people come to my church then we are doing something right” instead of asking “What does the Bible say about what church ought to be?” The pragmatic church is more concerned about making people feel comfortable than faithfully discipling believers to be more like Christ.  The pragmatic church values results more than faithful obedience.  

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

(Galatians 1:10 ESV)

[SPOILERS] At the end of XCOM, it was revealed that the aliens you were fighting were actually victims, who were abused by a more menacing alien race.  Did that make the player think twice about his previous interrogations (i.e. torture) of these poor abused aliens?  Probably not – he is probably thinking about the sequel, and how he will have to defend humanity against the more menacing alien presence.  The heart hardens and the justification never ends.


The real victim – abused by other aliens, tortured and killed by humans.

That’s my real fear about the pragmatic church – where will they draw the line regarding pleasing God and not pleasing man?  Will the line keep shifting, will they keep justifying the means with the ends, until there is no line left at all? And if so, what would the consequence of that be?  Can a church justify itself out of heaven and into hell – until it can no longer be called a church?

What kind of church will we decide to be?  After all, decisions are costly.


15 thoughts on “The Pragmatic Decisions of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

  1. Yann, this is an excellent synopsis. I started the game late Sunday night and just got in a second round last night. I’m loving every moment of it. But I’m just starting to realize how much Dr Vahlen is like a devil in your ear. I didn’t even connect the dots until you pointed it out (I’m slow like that).

    Thank you for the spoiler warning. I skipped over that section, as I’m only a few hours into the game.

    As our generation comes into our own, I think that pragmatism is becoming the motto of much post-modernism (the over-arching question of ‘what do I do with my parent’s Modernism?’) . The difference, I believe, is that we young Christians absolutely loathe inauthenticity. And if you’re not deciphering things based on the truth of scripture (and faithfully embodying Christ’s desires), there’s a problem. And yeah, I’m pretty sure Singapore is in a similar boat to us in that department.

    Sidebar: How are you naming and working with your troops? I named them all after my closest friends and family in my church family (and tried to make everybody look like them). It’s probably not gonna help with playing the game fluidly – lots of quicksaving and all. But it certainly will help me keep everybody alive!

  2. I am guessing you mean the common term “pragmatism” rather than the philosophical kind (which is much more nuanced and does not preach a message of cold rational thinking. William James, for sure, did not encourage this). And Joshua, I assume you mean “modernist” in the sense of the late 1800s and early 1900s; modernism isn’t bad in itself, but seperated from faith became a massive catastrophe. The intellectual debates of that time are really fascinating.

    But yes, back to topic! I see this same problem springing up in the New England churches. Theirs, however, has the disguise of pious church-building, when it seems they are manipulating people into the Church for their use of free labor. That’s a terrible way to put it, but it does: you keep the masses at a base level of Christian understanding, and they can’t help but think their pastor exists as some sort of Godly authority figure when he says “we need help with this!” That seems the opposite of what Paul teaches us to do, in any event.

    I lament this; in fact, teaching a class at my Church made this so apparent that I feel I do need to do something about it. I just don’t know what yet!

    Also, don’t name me one of the soldiers – I don’t want to die!

    • Yeah. I’m afraid I mean any kind of modernism. Not really a fan of the stuff – even if I have to use some of the base theories for a lot of my web design. I especially don’t really like Christian Modernism. That’s where I take up a lot of issue – probably less than informedly: part of the problem of postmodernism that we’re all overly familiar with. Anyway, yes. I will name you one of the soldiers. But don’t worry. You’ll be halfway down the list as a rookie, so you may never see action! Don’t worry. I won’t use you as a red-shirt. 🙂

      • Perhaps you should actually write something about modernism, maybe? I’d actually like to see both what you think it is, and why it is bad. Though I have absolutely no idea where you could write that.

        And thank goodness I’m a rookie. That’s probably the same thing that would happen to me in real life.

  3. Yes, by pragmatism I was referring to the ethical concept of the ends justify the means – actually it’s just consequantialism, but people don’t use that word often. I wasn’t referring Pragmatism was a philosophy of epistemology, no. The word “pragmatism” is regularly heard in Singapore, and has also appeared in talks about church recently, which I felt it was more appropriate.

    Pragmatism has a special place in Singapore’s social-political history. We were a nation (as far as I know, the only one) who never wanted independence but got it. As a result, our founding fathers developed a national ethos of “we must survive at all costs”, often preaching messages such as “we are surrounded by Muslim nations who may attack us anytime” and “we can only depend on ourselves for our own survival” when we teach our young in schools. If America was founded on Liberty, Singapore was founded on Survivalism – and closely related to that was pragmatism.

    I don’t name my troops – I like the default names and the authenticity of the names to their ethnicity. I have no idea how to name a soldier from Nigeria or Egypt. I tend to use the default name most of the time for games in general – could be an Asian playing a game made for an American audience thing. I’m playing through Mass Effect trilogy now, and I tried calling myself Yann Shepard. Didn’t quite feel right, even if I changed my face into an Asian one, so I stuck with John.

    I also played the game in Ironman mode, so maybe I was emotionally insulating myself against the inevitable loss of my troops. I did feel particularly sad when my high ranking officers died (I think I lost 4 or 5 Majors) – but I wonder if the sadness is because I lost a useful soldier, or because I lost an individual whom I had gotten to know well over several missions? The questions the game forces you to ask about yourself….

    Can both of you elaborate by what you mean of modernism? I have never heard of “Christian modernism”.

    • That is an interesting way to found a country. I hadn’t even thought of such a thing at all – thanks for the info! I seem to be learning a lot about Singapore 🙂

      Modernism, to put it simply, is the movement that arose out of a rejection of Enlightenment rationality and reason. Christianity, naturally, was rejected in modernist thought, as well as many “outdated” forms of thinking. The socoioeconomic development of the world demanded change. In other words, a rejection of any tradition and making things into something new.

      I guess American Christianity was affected by this to a degree, especially if you think about Catholicism and Vatican II (not specifically American, though certainly encouraged by Americans), liberal denominations of Christianity springing up rapidly, and all of that. Course, the rise of the religious right in the 1980s countered it in the religious sphere, but it’s highly influential (though better seen in art and such).

      Honestly, I want to know what Joshua means by “Christian Modernism” – I imagine it’s more specific than what I’m saying here.

      • You probably won’t find the term “Christian Modernism” anywhere. By it, I’m probably just referring to a lot of the culture and conventions of 20th century American Christianity. Most notably, treating the Church like anything other than a family (especially as a business). Modernism and Enlightenment thinking had a lot of direct responses, most notably Fundamentalism. So in a weird way, you could say that Fundamentalism is a kind of “Christian Modernism.”

        But it goes deeper than that, all the way down to the way we do things and relate to one another. A lot of the good that’s come from Brian McLaren (believe it or not, there actually is some), is related to his criticism on Modern conventions of the church, like rejection of tradition, emphasis on “leadership,” and pragmatism (or consequantialism as Yann pointed out). The biggest gripes I have with Modernist practice is the focus on success, progress, and “what works” and having an absolute lack of authentic relationships.

        Forget the terms. I just want to be real, and connect with people in real ways. I want stories of life in Christ walked out together (especially ones in the making).

    • Yann, how are you able to play the game on Ironman Mode? Isn’t that like worse than insane? Did you already beat it once? I’m playing on easy and while I’m keeping my crew alive, I don’t feel like the game is lacking in challenge!

      Yeah, I definitely felt obligated to name all of the characters after friends and family. I was intending to keep my wife’s character out of active duty, but somehow she’s become one of my most potent heavy gunners. Not sure how that happened.

      I want to write about the game at some point because I’m REALLY REALLY enjoying it! It’s truly one of the best games I’ve ever played. Though, that might be skewed by my preference for tactical RPGs and the related scarcity. Although, Fire Emblem Awakening is coming out soon, too! It’s rare to see two awesome tactical RPGs in rapid succession. Though, since it’s on 3DS, it’ll be a long honking time til I play it. Which is fine because I have too much to play as is.

      Anyway, Yann, are you still playing XCOM or is this write-up your final act in the experience?

      • I didn’t play Ironman on my first play-through of course. I played normal difficulty in my first playthrough and my squad was completely wiped out when I launch an assault on the enemy ground base. I thought I had a good enough feel of the game to restart and play in Ironman (Normal difficulty). I wanted to play in Ironman because that’s how I felt the game should be played – perma-death in every sense of the word. Your decisions are so much weightier, and your mistakes so much more costly. Early and mid-game is really tough because your economic and research decisions matter as much as your tactical combat decisions. But late game, when your squad level and technology maxes out, it becomes more routine.

        Yeah, XCOM is a treat for tactical RPG lovers like myself, especially when you’re a PS3 player – a platform which has too few tactical RPGs. It’s not without weaknesses though – I felt the story wasn’t great, and the types of enemies are few.

        I’ve completed the game a month ago, and I’ve been trying to complete the Mass Effect Trilogy over the past few weeks (I’m halfway through ME3 now). Will publish an article on Zach’s blog on the ME Trilogy when I’m done.

      • (This is in reply to your comment at the end of the thread above)

        Honestly, it took me a bit to figure out what Ironman mode even was. Now that I know, I’m sure I’ll play the game on it for my second play-through. I’m a baby, playing on Easy right now. PS3 also has Valkyria Chronicles and Disgaea 3, as far as SRPGs go, but this is really light years beyond those in my mind. And while XCOM doesn’t have a super compelling built-in narrative, I’m finding the story way better than most games simply because I feel like it gets shaped by my choices and developments. Right now, I have to build a new department to move the story along. But I keep putting it off because I have other things I want to do first. I’m not sure how that hurts or helps the story at large, though.

        Glad to hear you’re playing through the ME Trillogy! Same character model the whole way through? Consistent decisive developments? That’s one thing I hated, was that I couldn’t play all 3 with a consistent system/saves. Also, I hear that 3’s overall developments are seriously shaped by the DLC: especially the one where you get the Prothean. Also, the Leviathan DLC is supposedly a crucial gamechanger. Do you have those? I didn’t. And I was kinda sad that I missed out.

      • Yes I played with the same character imported from 1 to 2 to 3. (The PS3 version of ME1 just came out a few months ago), and I’m playing all 3 games back-to-back to get a good feel of the narrative flow. I haven’t bought the DLC – I might later on I guess, but yeah, EA really wasn’t very nice about having DLC which alter the “canon” storyline.

        As for PS3 SRPGs, I absolutely love Valkyria Chronicles; it was the first game I completed on my PS3. It’s not as tactical as XCOM, and the RPG elements are light – but it’s such a charming game overall. One of my PS3 all-time favorites. I have both Disgaea 3 and 4, but found it quite hard to break into the game – learning curve appears too steep. There’s also Rainbow Moon – a PSN release last year, but not sure if I ever have the time to check that one out.

      • Yeah. That’s how I felt about the DLC, too. But everybody I heard who played the game with the DLC said it made for a better experience. And mine was pretty hackneyed (with none of the characters from the previous game where I put them). I’m still pretty mad that ME2 assumed that I killed Wrex in the first game. He was my favorite character!

        Yeah. Disgaea is way too honking deep for its own good. You could play those games for like 300 hours, but it’s kind of a slog from what I can tell. I only played the first on PS2 and PSP. I forgot about Rainbow Moon! I’m gonna go investigate that one.

        Also starting to lament my lack of owning a 3DS with Fire Emblem: Awakening coming out. Fire Emblem is probably my favorite game series.

  4. Ok, I understand what you mean now. And I do not like that. Church = family, even regardless of what denomination to which you adhere (excepting the obvious exceptions).

    When did this rejection of tradition come about, really? I always wondered about this, because it isn’t merely caused by Protestant reaction in the Reformation. There must be a deeper cause to all of this than just modernism.

    I would say that, even with increased communication due to this new technology, we’re really more isolated than we’ve ever been, but that has just been an additional result of an isolation that already happened in the past.

    • Good points. Yeah. For more on the transition from traditionalism to modernism, see my favorite musical of all time, Fiddler on the Roof. 🙂

      Pretty sure the transition is a sociocultural one, not isolated to just Christians. But just an assumption.

  5. Pingback: Where We've Been - Other Places | Theology Gaming

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s