The Strategy of Save-Scumming in ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’

On Wednesday, fellow PopMatters writer G. Christopher Williams wrote about remembering to save often in Dishonored, a post that seemed oddly prescient considering my own experience with XCOM: Enemy Unknown (“Remember to Save Often”: The Meta-Game Tactics of Dishonored, PopMatters, 7 November 2012).

When beginning a new game of Enemy Unknown you’re asked to pick between four difficulties: Easy, Normal, Classic, or Impossible, but this list doesn’t do the game justice. Its difficulty is actually more varied than just those four general categories. The real difficulty level constantly fluctuates depending on how much time the player wants to invest in “save-scumming,” the process of saving and reloading constantly to ensure things go your way.

I’m very familiar with the tactic, but I hadn’t heard a specific term for it before reading this post by Neil Brown about how XCOM: Enemy Unknown handles randomness. It’s clearly a negative term, which is appropriate since it’s usually frowned upon in modern games. The save-scumming that Dishonored encouraged evoked a nostalgic feeling in Williams, and that’s not surprising considering how most modern games treat the idea. In this era of “moral choice” games, in which you’re meant to ride out your choices to a customized ending, manipulating the save system is considered breaking the game’s rules or at least breaking some unspoken agreement between player and developer. David Cage’s comments about Heavy Rain sum up this mentality succinctly: “I would like people to play it once.” For the record, I’ve only played through Heavy Rain once, but I’ve save-scummed my way through episodes of The Walking Dead, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age multiple times. So has everyone. I’m even doing it as I play through XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but to that game’s credit, it finds an elegant solution to what is normally considered a problem in games. Instead of trying to prevent save-scumming, they give the player just enough freedom to embrace it, but not enough to abuse it.

You can certainly game the save system to give yourself an advantage, even on the Impossible difficulty mode. For my first playthrough on Normal, I haven’t technically lost a soldier since I always revert to a previous save whenever someone dies. I’m essentially creating a customized difficulty level by deciding how much I want to punish myself for my mistakes. Do I keep one save at the start of a fight, thus forcing me to replay the whole thing, or do I keep two saves, one at the start and one throughout, allowing me to keep incremental progress but still start over if things go horribly wrong. It’s classic ludic manipulation, but XCOM is smart enough to prevent this from becoming a crutch.

There’s a conscious limit to how much the game can be manipulated through save-scumming. Because of how it generates random numbers, I can’t take a shot, miss, and then load a game to try again (read Brown’s post for the technical details). That shot from that position from that soldier will always miss. However, if I move the soldier then shoot, that new shot has a new hit percentage and might successfully find its target. This limitation prevents me from abusing the save system because every time I re-load a save I must change my tactics as well.

Also, the game still reserves the right to screw me over with random encounters. I might win a tough fight and return to base with a few wounded soldiers, only to be greeted with another UFO sighting. This forces me to rotate in some rookies, making the next fight harder. Then there’s always the possibility of a third encounter coming up after this second fight is done. I can still reload a save, but the question becomes how far back am I willing go?

Save-scumming during a fight is a pretty simple matter since actions and consequences play out with a few minutes of each other, but it’s harder to apply this strategy to the base building. Making a financial mistake — spending too much on satellites and not enough on armor or selling all my weapon alloys for cash thus leaving me unable to research weapons — doesn’t have immediate consequences. It’s only several hours later, once you realize how desperately low on money, alloys, engineers, satellites, etc. you are when your mistake becomes apparent. Save-scumming is a short term tactic, but the base building of XCOM is all about planning for the long term. No matter how much you manipulate the ground game, the base game can still kill you.

The developers knew that a save-anywhere system had the potential for abuse, so they designed a system that specifically prevents that abuse. It’s a deliberate system that seems to give implicit permission to manipulate saved games. The existence and treatment of Ironman mode is more proof of permission. It’s a mode in which you can only have one save file, and it’s treated as an advanced difficulty modifier. It does make the game harder, but it’s harder because it takes a powerful tool away from the player. XCOM essentially treats save-scumming as just another tactic in your arsenal.

And this makes sense. XCOM is about dealing with all levels of strategy. From on-the-ground tactics to the higher level base building and finances to the meta level strategy of save-scumming.