Love Letter

XCOM 2 (Firaxis)

My one big love of 2016 was Firaxis’ XCOM 2. This game managed to look good, sound good and feel good in all the right ways (if you’ve got that soft spot for guys shooting slimy aliens and crave a healthy dose of military sf every now and then). And it got me invested in my underdog crew and my beautiful stolen starship on a level I seldom experience with a game.

XCOM 2 - Dr. Tygan

Your chief science officer is also fond of oozy-snotty-slimy-wimey stuff.

X(-)COM has been reigning supreme in the Earth-vs-Aliens genre as long as I remember, but this latest installment even beat the one time my character in a pen & paper UFO campaign owned a collection of more than 40 samples of oozy-snotty-slimy-wimey stuff. Dr. Tygan would have been proud of me!

Anyway, bad news for XCOM veterans: You fight a guerrilla war now, and nothing else has changed; the aliens are out there, and they are scary as hell and bear no love for humanity. It’s your job to face this threat. Against the will of (most of) humanity, that is, and without government funding.

One thing I like more than anything else in gaming is when game mechanics and storytelling go hand in hand. XCOM 2 does this so beautifully you’ll want to cry: you’re operating on very limited resources, just barely staying afloat. Strategy games aren’t exactly known for their quality stories, but XCOM 2 starts with giving you a bunch of memorable characters with their own quirks and in-jokes. You just gotta love grumpy Central, missing his old sweater and giving the general impression that he would kick the aliens back to where they came from single-handedly, if he could just bring himself to leave the Commander’s side (and the Avenger’s bar).

Everyone complains about how I fly the ship, but I don’t see anyone other than the autopilot stepping up.
– Central Officer Bradford

There is also a fascinating level of equality and diversity going on here, which really is something for a game in a typical boys’ club genre (militaristic, strategic, round-based). It starts with the Commander, who gets to play a bigger role this time, apart from being the substitute for the player. Very cleverly, the Commander’s gender is never stated, nor is it ever shown clearly. With this, you’re able to really step into those shoes, and for me, it makes all the difference. Shout-out to all my fellow female Commanders out there – Vigilo Confido, ladies!

And it gets better when you start recruiting rookies from all over the world and all walks of life. They’ll wear scarfs and bandannas and hockey armor and whatever is close at hand when you have to join the resistance against the alien overlords of the Earth in a hurry, but there’s not a single high-heeled amazon or boob window to be seen.

Most of Earth’s population did fall for the aliens’ propaganda, though, enthralling them with – no jokes – yummy free burgers and, ok, super high end health care, too. So your bunch of misfits has to take to the field. This is where the real magic happens: XCOM 2 gives you all you need to tell your very own war story: cinematic shots of your squad in action, heroic debriefings for the survivors, a sad memorial for the deceased, a range of voices, personalities, idle actions and fancy nicknames. And if you’ve got the smallest spark of a storyteller in you, you’re going to dive into the narrative. You’ll crave the moments when they make the day, and yell at them (often!) for messing up a perfectly good shot. And in the end they’ll be the heroes of YOUR story, and that’s what emergent gameplay is all about, I’m told.

Screenshot XCOM 2

This is one mean game.

I even enjoyed the (probably buggy) extra time when your squad is delivered to and from their missions, idly fidgeting around, mood strongly depending on your leadership skills. You’ll want to be a very committed Commander. And this game is mean. If you produce a strategic fail or even a wrong click, you will be punished. The enemy will shoot, burn, poison and mindfuck the shit out of your guys, and friendly collateral damage is also a thing. At crucial events it is not entirely impossible for you to realize you botched your whole campaign.

As you gradually unveil the secret of the alien rule, your story comes together so beautifully that it hurts a little when the ending hits fast … and not completely satisfying. It has its moments, but the suspense created beforehand seemed to hint at something larger. I would have liked to see a twist, something more ambivalent, some more struggle. More struggle, you say? Isn’t this a mean bastard of a game already? Well, if you don’t rush your campaign, you’ll have developed everything to the max for the endgame, and that’s when things become kind of evened out between you and the aliens.

On the other hand, I had lost my heart long before this point, and I guess I’ll have to try out this new Long War mod I keep hearing about and raise another bunch of rookies to heroes.

Digger (Ursula Vernon)

I fell in love with Digger on the first pages of the comic, where the eponymous wombat heroine heads straight into trouble by doing what she does best: digging a tunnel. Alas, this particular tunnel was no masterpiece, so she gets lost and finds herself in a strange new and utterly wombat-free land. It took me a while to realize that Digger was a heroine (those wombat boobs are kind of hard to spot when you don’t expect them …), and I absolutely loved the fact that “it” turned out to be a “she”. A big share of the powerful, cool and odd charaDigger - Ursula Vernoncters of this graphic novel turned out to be a she. It’s a revelation to meet such a gathering of fine and engaging female leads in an adventure story, among them Grim Eyes (a warrior from a matriarchal hyena tribe), Murai (a destined but troubled human heroine) and Surka (a shrew with a new calling).

Yes, that’s a lot of furries! They inhabit quirky and well-rounded societies; and against the bigger backdrop of the odd world Digger finds herself in (filled with useless oracular slugs and hero vegetables, among others), they seem like the most ordinary people whose lives are turned inside out.

Although Digger is a comic, there’s plenty of text, and most of it put a big smile on my face. Digger’s witty commentary on the events made me root for this practical, down-to-earth heroine. As she is hauled into a story of epic dimensions and – for a wombat – terrifying mythical and magical qualities, her deadpan comments keep everything grounded. Aren’t we all wombats here, far from our comfort zone and thankful for every remark to put things into perspective?

What good is a god that does not fossilize?
– Digger

Digger is indeed somehow reminiscent of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, and, while we’re at it, also of Jeff Smith’s Bone (in structure and premise). Both of these could inspire a love letter of their own, so for me that’s a big fat bonus. Snarky jokes, witty comments on religion, mythic overtones and sheer epicness aside, Digger goes right into the feels with its unusual cast of characters. It explores themes like domestic violence and ethical education in a graceful, unobtrusive way – and that’s something I have rarely seen done in fiction.

I stumbled upon Digger quite late – it had been published completely then (so I could just tear through reading day and night), it had won its Hugo Award, and it had – to my great disappointment – already finished its crazily successful crowdfunding campaign for a printed omnibus edition (which I still got afterwards, so not all was lost …). I’ve read it multiple times since then. After the first rush of excitement, I’m now able to fully appreciate what an effort it must have been to finish this huge, unwieldy thing. At nearly 900 pages, you need quite a solid table to read the omnibus edition. If they would offer a digital edition someday, I’d go for it immediately, as much as I love to have the big tome with the pickaxe on my shelf.

But back to the travails of the fabulous Ursula Vernon, creator of Digger. It was published as a webcomic, an unplanned work of someone with nearly no experience in the graphic novel field (see this old, old interview). The way the story unfolds, this is quite unbelievable. Kudos to Ursula, for pulling it off over the course of years without getting tangled up in the plot. Yes, there are some meandering parts of the story, but they fit into the whole quirky style and add depth instead of dragging on.
Digger - Ursula Vernon
So, Digger. One of the best things that happened in my life. It showed me how strong female characters could really look like and how the best thing in fantasy still is to get thrown into a world where anything can happen. Not that Digger would approve of it. But I do, a lot, and love this marsupial fiction with all my heart. Or with all my liver, if you’re more inclined to the hyena side of life.

Digger (Ursula Vernon)
Webcomic: 2004 – 2011: start reading here
Omnibus: Sofawolf Press 2013
Paperback (6 volumes): Sofawolf Press 2005-2011