Mechanics as Storytelling: XCOM 2's Time Limits

A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander

            To say that the turn timers in XCOM 2 were received poorly would be an understatement. A quick glance at the community forums and internet discussions makes it plain that players didn’t want to be rushed through missions. This led to the rise of mods designed to remove those timers rather than play through the game in the way the developers intended. Two appropriate descriptors for the mechanic would be unpopular and controversial – but not necessarily bad.

            Turn timers were introduced in XCOM 2 in order to lead to more interesting and engaging experiences. The idea was that players would be forced to make difficult decisions as they rapidly advanced while encountering challenges that would force them to think quickly and take risks. This was meant to counter the slow, methodical, and often boring gameplay from the previous title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While it may have been good game design in that it facilitated intended play, the fact remains that it made a significant group of fans enjoy the game less.

            Regardless of the quality of the feature or how it was received, the turn timers do contribute to the game’s story in an interesting way. In order to get a clearer picture of how this mechanic plays into the narrative, we also need to consider the other time limit introduced in XCOM 2 – one that received less attention and far less controversy. We’re referencing, of course, the Avatar Project.

            The Avatar Project is a game-wide timer that advances periodically. It functions as a limiter on the entire game since if it finishes the player instantly loses. While the timer will advance automatically at times, it can be countered by pursuing main story missions and destroying special alien facilities. This incentivizes players to put greater priority on taking out Avatar sites as they represent the greatest threat in the game. Doing so will often divert attention from other tasks, such as obtaining supplies or recruiting new staff, and can throw off players’ rhythms at crucial moments.

            The turn timers in individual missions function in a very similar way to the Avatar Project’s timer, albeit in a more short-term manner. Just as Avatar forces you to make difficult choices, so too do the mission clocks. You’re made to move your squad into risky territory without full knowledge of what’s waiting for them, reacting to the threats as they appear. Taking a chance could mean losing a valuable soldier, but it could also be the only way to succeed.

            Contrast these systems to Enemy Unknown, where a slower paced narrative and the absence of turn timers led to a more methodical game. You were encouraged to preserve your soldiers’ lives in the field.  Back at base, there often wasn’t much choice to be made regarding which missions you’d follow and which research projects you’d pursue. It lacked the urgency and desperation of XCOM 2 and felt much more like you were in control of the situation.

            This schism between the two games is where the story is told. Enemy Unknown saw you take charge of a highly advanced military outfit with every country on the planet providing you resources and support from the word go. XCOM 2 puts you in the role of resistance leader, forcing you to scavenge and scrap for resources and establish connections in regions before you can get any supplies from them. You’re no longer the global organization funded by well-connected donors, but an underdog who’s been on the back foot for a while now. As the game’s intro informs us, the aliens have already won. This means that from the very beginning, the player is at a disadvantage. Nowhere is this feeling better encapsulated than in the game’s time limits.

            Turn timers in missions force these encounters to feel meaningful and impactful. They make you carefully weigh the consequences of every decision as you now have much more to lose, regardless of what action you take. The Avatar Project as a whole is a looming presence, constantly nagging at the back of your mind. It forces you to spread yourself thin as you race to reach areas with alien facilities and destroy them. Every second counts, and it portrays the experience of resisting a vastly superior foe extremely well. The desperation and urgency of your actions in the narrative are made real through the gameplay consequences of the time limits.

            This story is not one told through cutscenes – the XCOM 2 lore and the cinematics are all pretty straightforward and don’t have much emotional weight. What it does manage to achieve is something that only games can really do – it tells a story using not words or images or sound, but using the systems you interact with and the feelings they elicit. You’ll never see your soldiers share your own frustrations and apprehensions through their dialogue or animations, but you’ll feel it all the same. It’s a story you feel instead of read or view as you do everything you can to hold onto the last hope for humanity’s future.

©2019 by Daniel Alexander