Valkyria Chronicles vs X-COM: An examination of narrative purpose in design. (No spoilers)

I am one of the people in charge of the video game club at my college. Every week, a member demonstrates a different game for the others to try. Sometimes the different games showed by the membership sparks conversations and inspires someone to show a different game the next week. This was the case when a couple weeks ago I showed Valkyria Chronicles, a squad-based tactical jrpg. It provoked a lot of discussion (some of which unfortunately was just anime bashing, but we did agree that bashing =/= critique) and inspired someone to demonstrate X-COM: Enemy Unknown as a counterpoint turn-based squad tactics game to compare it to.

Before I go on, let me say a little about each game. Valkyria Chronicles is a story-driven game set in a fantasy version of World War II in which your neutral country is invaded. It has protagonists in your squad who play major roles in cutscenes throughout the game and an overarching plot direction and message. X-COM is a somewhat futuristic game about defending Earth from invading UFO aliens. As you may have guessed from that description, it’s more focused on the gameplay of killing and trying to avoid being killed by weird and fantastical aliens. It delivers more of a tone (that of struggle against unknowable and bizarre) than a continuous plot.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit my own bias: I like well-done story in games, and I like games whose stories are a major part of them. But this post isn’t about which game is better. It’s about how their main focus is supported by their designs. The assertion of the guy who showed X-COM that it was a better game in my opinion says more about him than it does about the game, and not in a bad way; he’s just the kind of guy who prefers getting straight to the action, who focuses more on his own actions. Likewise my preference for Valkyria Chronicles says more about me than it does the game; I like watching events unfold in front of me, even if I can guess the end result in advance, and a get a great deal out of hearing stories based on knowledge (in this case history and culture) that I’m familiar with. (As a side note, these differences in our personality were borne out by how we showed the games: I spent a long time on the tutorial with people, before showing a short bit of the later game, while he chose to show only a brief amount of the beginning of the game and then jumped straight into the later more complex parts. His method was in practice much more effective for our limited time slot.)

The differences between the two games really did show how they were designed for different purposes. They felt like completely different games, but in fact they shared many of the same mechanics. The most apparent difference was the interface. In Valkyria Chronicles, you are given a map that looks like it was made out of paper, with your squad members marked in abstract on it, and when you move with them, the camera zooms into a real landscape, and takes third person behind their very non-abstract forms while you move. X-COM on the other hand is played top-down at all times, zooming into a cinematic angle only rarely and for a few moments. This relates back to their framing mechanisms: in Valkyria Chronicles, you move from event to event, by selecting tabs and images in a history book; in X-COM you are designated as an avatarless commander of the X-COM project, and enter battles by scanning for aliens on a globe in headquarters. These design decisions facilitate different experiences: In Valkyria Chronicles, you are watching and interacting with the unfolding of history, while in X-COM you are directly managing the fight of aliens in real time.

These differences extend to much smaller mechanics too. During the VC showing, much was made of the mechanic of interception fire, a mechanic that meant if you walked into the line-of-sight of an enemy on your turn he would shoot at you (and vice versa for your soldiers on his turn.) In X-COM, you must deliberately sacrifice an attack action to do this. Neither of these mechanics is objectively worse than the other because they facilitate much different battle experiences. Valkyria Chronicles is simulating warfare in the early to mid 20th century, when the machine gun’s static entrenched lines were a force to be reckoned with, and required slow-moving armor (tanks) to penetrate. The battles were directed: You start with your squad at point A, have an objective at point B, and have to figure out how to penetrate enemy lines to achieve that objective. X-COM is trying to be less directional and more suspenseful. You’re dropped into a map, and you don’t know where the aliens are. Interception fire just wouldn’t work in that situation: the moment you finally found an alien you’d be dead; they’d always have the jump on you. Likewise however, removing interception fire from Valkyria Chronicles would remove an element of its historical atmosphere: the terror of the machine gun; if you stay too long in view and range of a machine gun, you WILL get mowed down.

Finally, the way these games handle characters, though quite similar in many ways, shows the difference of focus. Valkyria Chronicles values its characters as people the player can feel things about, while X-COM is interested in what its characters implicitly show their players and allow them to do. While both games share mechanics such as unique character abilities and preventable permadeath, Valkyria Chronicles has its abilities tied to the characters’ personalities and voice acting for all of its characters, so you actually hear every character’s last words if they die; X-COM’s characters are instead diversified through nationality, showing how the X-COM project draws resources from across the globe, but their character models are generic for their ethnicity, and the main visual difference between them is the armor of their class which indicates how you play them in battle.

As previously mentioned, I prefer Valkyria Chronicles over X-COM: Enemy Unknown for its story and characterization. That isn’t because it’s better, it’s because it’s what I want. But one doesn’t have to prefer either. With even small differences in design choices, these games deliver fundamentally different experiences from each other, and they both do so very well.

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