Games and dolls' houses are an interesting mix

Upstairs downstairs.

It must be Animal Crossing, but for some reason I've spent a lot of the last week thinking of video games in relation to dolls' houses.

Animal Crossing is very dolls' housey, of course: to a lot of people the game is really about collecting furniture and arranging it just so, and then about making sure the whole place is populated with the right people. The shock of Animal Crossing back when it first came out was how domestic it all was. Here was a game with no guns and no winning, but it had armchairs and throw rugs and one of the best things that could happen to you was earning enough money to put another floor in.

It worked, didn't it? This week I've also been playing Moving Out, which is kind of like dolls' houses in their more seismic moments. This is a removals game in which you have to clear locations of stuff and get it on your truck as quickly as possible. It could very easily have been dressed up as a burglary game, but by making it a game about removals there's an extra frisson - a dolls' house frisson - in that this domestic stuff you're lugging about should really be staying in one piece.

There is something about the stuff in these games - recognisable human stuff, but much smaller on the screen, very delicate - that seems to bring a certain power and energy to it. We know these kinds of objects and live around them, but there's a thrill in seeing them rendered in such a dainty way - and then, in the case of Moving Out, lobbed through a window.

Both of these games are explicitly about housey sort of things, though. Animal Crossing is about settling down, I guess, and Moving Out is about upping sticks. What really surprised me is that the third game I've been playing this week also reminds me of dolls' houses. It feels weird to even say it.

With a new XCOM on the way, I've been playing XCOM 2 again and reminding myself what a wonderful thing it is - particularly with the War of the Chosen expansion. In my mind, XCOM 2 is a very thoughtful, kind of grown-up game. Sure it's about alien invasions, but it's also a strategy and tactics game made by a bunch of people who have been thinking about these things forever. A lot of the time I get the feeling you're almost getting to sit in on a brilliant freewheeling conversation they're all having. So many levels are like, what if we took this one rule and just tweaked it? What if we flipped it just for ten minutes, or broke it entirely?

To that end, I've been playing a bit in XCOM 2 where there are suddenly zombies - far more enemies than you're normally used to, moving quickly. But the thing is, each zombie you kill gives you another action point. So XCOM, which is generally about these shoot-outs between groups of six or eight characters, is suddenly amped up and convulsive and filled with bodies and momentum. It's suddenly corrugated! Just because of a tweak to rules!

I got carried away there, but anyway, my point is: in my head XCOM 2 is a palace of rules, a playground of rules and a celebration of the framework and tautness that rules give games. And yet after that mission I went back to my base, and where was I?

The base in XCOM 2 is a fancier version of the base in XCOM 1 - it's another huge building with many rooms, and the gimmick is this one is actually a repurposed alien spacecraft. Anyway, you view it from the side and you rove around looking in all these rooms and making sure the right things are going on. This is part of the game's strategy layer, as opposed to the matter of tactics that spills out in the individual missions.

So the rooms have purposes - some give you things, some allow you to make things. And there's strategy to the order you build them in, where you place them, how many of certain rooms you have and who you staff there. No messing then: XCOM 2's base is still part of the playground of rules that the tactical missions belong to.

And yet as I've played I've been lingering here at the base for reasons that have nothing to do with the game. As with XCOM 1, I've been looking into the rooms and just sort of enjoying them, watching soldiers milling around and scientists working. I remember spending hours in the first game moving the camera about as marines ran on treadmills and people fixed lab equipment.

What I wonder now is, beneath the rules and the strategy and the placement game, is there a sort of bedrock of fun to XCOM that has maybe learned something from dolls' houses? From the pleasure of laying things out, a little miniature world, and just enjoying its intricacy, enjoying the illusion?

In turn it makes me think about something I now realise I've always been dimly embarrassed about - that this sublime tactical game Firaxis has made brings back distant memories of playing with action figures - dolls - in the garden. It's something to do with the size of the soldiers and aliens, the numbers of them, their plasticky artificialness, and also the strange, slightly dreamy state the whole thing puts me into.

What I've learned from all this is something I probably should have learned a while ago. Strategy and tactics games are so busy, so filled with game designer thinking, that I sometimes forget that all the other stuff of games is in there too. I'm talking about the buttons that are great to press, the transitions that convey a sense of movement and adventure. And I'm talking about the sets and characters that take me back to the earliest days of play.

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About the author

Christian Donlan

Christian Donlan

Features Editor

Christian Donlan is a features editor for Eurogamer. He is the author of The Unmapped Mind, published as The Inward Empire in the US.

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