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Raised By Screens, Chapter 15 – UFO: Enemy Unknown (2)

My heroes

Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.

As I said in the last chapter, I had no conception at the time that UFO: Enemy Unknown was or would be an especially important game to me. Instead, it grew in stature in my mind over time, and it wasn't until I began writing about games for a living that I even became aware that it was similarly treasured by many of my contemporaries. Over time, UFO's repute has snowballed in my mind. I think my own fondness for it may even have been exaggerated across the years - this false belief that it was some 'lost' game that only an elite few ever knew of, that it created a standard that nothing since has ever matched.

By this point, attempting to extricate exactly why I loved it then from what I now know of it, and its reputation, is an impossible task. Right at the centre of this twisted knot of nostalgia and lionisation, however, is some sense then as now that it was more than simply more flashing pixels on my monitor, one more distraction in the seemingly endless parade of 256-colour delights - instead, UFO was a project. An investment, something to take over weeks rather than days, something to plot and worry about as intensely when I wasn't playing it as when I was. In the most obvious way, this was the expansion and improvement of the home base, but it was also nurturing soldiers in the field - long-term investments who would become heroes if only I could keep them alive for long enough.

As much as I might understand UFO more now, what I can't ever have back is the simple innocence of not knowing what was going to happen, and particularly which toys the game would eventually gift me if I could survive long enough. If I play UFO, or its modern-day successor XCOM, today, I have specific goals in mind. I know I have to research plasma weapons because they're necessary to battle the tougher aliens; once, to be offered the option to research plasma weapons meant 'Oh my God, no way!' Followed shortly by asking my dad was plasma was.

Flying armour, my very own UFO, psychic powers, trips to Mars: teenage boy-pleasing tropes they might be now, but back then I could hardly believe what the game was giving me. The pathetic excitement with which I bounced into class, blabbering about all this to the Sonic and Mario players who comprised the bulk of my peers, doubtless did little for my already minimal social life.

Yet now I look back and think them small and sad for thinking a hedgehog in trainers to be the height of cool, while I was immersed in a world of strange science and desperate, no take-backs battles. All they had to do was repeat levels, while I had to suffer loss.

UFO was, I think, the first time I'd experienced the permanent death of named characters in a game. I can dimly recall the shock of the first time I lost someone. I uselessly tried to use a medkit on them, I tried to have my other soldiers carry their fallen allies' bodies around in their backpacks in case something could be done back at base, and I agonised over whether to reload a savegame from hours previous. No, gone forever. And the simple knowledge that lost soldiers would be gone forever made me feel so much closer to these big-haired, mostly mute drones than any other game characters, no matter how much marketing had gone into creating the big personalities of SEGA and Nintendo games. I had to protect them. I had to protect my friends, or I would lose them.

Where others named UFO units after family and friends, I stuck to their randomly-generated, multi-national names. I don't think I liked enough real-life people to put them on such a pedestal, but nor was I malevolent enough to want to watch avatars of those I disliked die horribly. I preferred to create a new, private community for myself, to get to know new people who existed just for me.

Favourites inevitably emerged, a combination of heroic deeds and being blessed with better random stats, and were given first access to improved weapons and armour. Those that made it to the game's latter stages, who faced down its most fearsome foes and who boarded that ship to the final showdown in Mars, felt like family. I can't remember their names - though the nominal leader had the forename 'Anatoly', and there may have been a Sam - but I can remember their meaning.

I can remember my mindset switching, on Mars, from 'protect everyone' to 'get the job done, no matter what.'

I can remember just two of my soldiers entering the last chamber, their comrades' bodies littering the corridors outside. I can remember firing a final missile at the giant, evil eyeball.

I remember pride, and devastation.

I wish I remembered their names. I feel as though they're still in my mind, just out of reach. If I replayed UFO enough times eventually I'd see the same names appear, and I would recognise them immediately. My heroes.

I've never been able to recapture that attachment in either X-COM or XCOM. You never forget your first time. I forgot much about UFO, which I relearned years later with a cooler mind, but I never forgot how I felt about the men and women I sent to Mars.

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UFO: Enemy Unknown


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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.