Death and Digital Dignity in XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

Does it matter how we view and treat the characters video games place under our control?

Written by C. Daniel Bush / Published on October 12, 2017

With the recent release of XCOM 2’s DLC, War of the Chosen, I’ve realized I have a problem letting my soldiers die. I have a nearly completely clear Memorial Board, not because I am good, but because I make liberal use of saving and reloading. I do this not only because losing soldiers makes the game harder, especially late in the game, but also because I tend to get very attached to my soldiers.

"Truthfully, had his death not given me an advantage over the aliens, I probably would have saved him . . ."
Let me tell you about a few soldiers. Since War of the Chosen reset my character pool, I started the game without any characters, and got several randomly generated soldiers in Gatecrasher. Three of the four (we don’t talk about the fourth) got promoted after that first mission. Two of these were Therese Richard, a sharpshooter; and a soldier that I came to call Duke Nukem, a heavy.
These two soldiers went through a lot in my missions. Therese and Duke almost always went on missions with each other, and they soon bonded. Some time after Therese had gained the nickname of “Bullseye,” we were in the first mission with an Andromedon when it fired its gun, instantly killing Therese.

I immediately reloaded game. There was no question in my mind. Therese’s death was not allowed. She had become more than a soldier to me. I imagined the life she must have back home, friends and family who missed her and eagerly awaited the day she would return from duty. She had a life worth living, and I was going to make sure she lived it.

But also, this was the mission where we had to kill our first Chosen, and I knew I would need a sharpshooter. As long as I had her, I was fairly confident I could beat the Chosen without sustaining major wounds. Without her, I could lose more soldiers, and this was my A team. If I lost them, I would struggle to recover if I could recover at all.

But it’s not so simple. I have not prevented every death. There is one name my Memorial Board:  Duke Nukem.

A few missions later, my A-team was down in some sewers when we encountered the Viper King. We had activated a lot of the enemy pods, meaning we were facing a horde of enemies, one of which was a boss that took an action after every action we took. One of those actions was shooting an already wounded Duke.

I didn’t reload. Yes, he was one of my better soldiers, but it put the Viper King in a good position for my ranger to get in a serious hit. I didn’t feel the same affinity for Duke that I did for Therese. I didn’t give thought to his friends or family or what kind of life he might be returning to. To me he was a fictional character from a fictional world that was all out of bubblegum, and now he was all out of life.

Why did I reload for Therese, but not Duke? I understand we are talking about a videogame, but is it healthy for me to afford dignity to people unequally in an interactive fictional world? Just because Duke was a character from another fiction shouldn’t have made him any less of a person than Therese. Truthfully, had his death not given me an advantage over the aliens, I probably would have saved him, but I let him become just another tool to further my goals.

Even in my own life, I find myself gauging people in terms of their usefulness. Cashiers exist to facilitate my  transactions. A girlfriend can become a way to sate my ego. An employer can become just a way to make more money. Regardless of how you approach a game like XCOM 2, don’t fall into the trap of viewing people as tools.

About the Author:

C. Daniel can often be found writing in the intersection of theology, psychology, philosophy, and the strange. He can be found on Twitter @CDanielBush or his blog CDanielBush.wordpress.com, which, when updated, tends to be about one of the many D&D campaigns he’s apart of.