Or as they say “All your base belong to us.”
As a writer, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard when it comes to tension is “Just when everything seems peaceful, have the bad guys kick down the door.”
It instantly catches the heroes off guard, robs them of their safety and security, and forces everyone involved to think… what do we do now? It’s seen in countless stories (including some of my own works) as well as movies and TV shows. In the medium of video games, it’s often a memorable mission that pushes the player and the game’s characters to the limit.
I can already think of several video games that employ the base defense in a way where it is completely memorable. It sticks with you as a bright spot in any campaign, and it really has some epic storytelling potential.
We’ll be looking at several base defenses in video games such as XCOM and Darkest Dungeon, and figuring out why people remember these missions so well.
So let’s get going with it.
Let’s Define What it Means First.
There is a fine line between a base defense and a siege defense, and many people get the two confused.
A siege defense is typically defending against a siege assault, and a siege is defined like this
“ a military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling the surrender of those inside.”
Basically, with a siege, the defenders often know that the enemy is coming, and a siege assault isn’t sudden. Sieges are used to wear down a fortification and its defenders, and the assaults often happened when enough time had passed. The defenders have adequate time to prepare traps and support, shelter noncombat personnel, and prepare their positions to stem the flood of attackers.
Base Defenses, in the context of videogame missions, are surprise ambushes by a superior enemy force in the headquarters of the heroes. The defenders are often scattered, overwhelmed, and most of the time the enemy is already inside the team’s headquarters so outside and perimeter defenses are either unable to provide aid or have already been circumvented.
The Home has to Matter
Again, this also matters because an ambush can happen from anywhere to any position. For it to truly be a moment of tension and desperation in the story, the location has to be taken into account.
A home for the characters can mean many things, but above all, it means safety and security. It’s a place where they can kick their shoes off, take their time to unwind after a mission, and the characters/the player can really work on micromanagement before the next big mission.
In XCOM, it’s a place where players can hire soldiers, customize them in terms of looks and gear, research new technology in the fight against the alien invaders, and prepare everything for the next mission.
In Darkest Dungeon, the Hamlet serves the same purpose, where players can recruit heroes and customize their looks and abilities, buy upgrades and new buildings, and heal heroes who have undergone stress from their repeated forays into the haunted area beyond.
Basically, in a world where everything wants to destroy your gaming characters and every mission is a stress filled and well thought out gaming session, you learn to look forward to the calmer personnel management of both games in their bases. It’s relaxing and you as the player feel what the characters feel, a chance to relax and calm down.
Which makes it all the more terrifying when the enemies you’ve been attacking for the entire game put you on the defensive. That’s why base defenses are so memorable because your home and the only bastion of calm in the game is under attack.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on the first thing that makes the missions so memorable. The surprise.
A Surprise is the Only Ingredient
Having an enemy force kick down the door is often a one-time thing for most video game antagonists, where they throw everything they have at the heroes who have foiled their plans for world domination so often. For video games, the base defense is often not prepared for and is instead a mission that can happen at any time, or when certain criteria are met.
This surprise makes it memorable, as it will possibly happen only once in a campaign, and failing to fend the invaders off will have negative consequences. This can be anything from a game over to the loss of buildings, upgrades, characters, or valuable allies.
Sometimes it can even happen after failed missions or moments when all you want to do is relax and start to take it easy… then the alarm bells start ringing. If your heroes are wounded, under-equipped, and ill-supplied then you know it’s a base defense done right.
It’s that desperation that makes the defenses so important and white-knuckled. It doesn’t have to be a last stand if you do it right, but that doesn’t mean it's going to be easy.
New fighters enter the Fray
Every videogame has its characters who mostly hang out in the base for the entire game. They offer advice, help tell the story, and act as mission control units for the missions. However, when the base defense starts they become something much more. They are put in danger, and they fight back.
XCOM: Enemy Within has Base security personnel. These are little more than glorified security guards armed with conventional rifles, pistols, and frag grenades. They are under armored, have the stats of rookies (the lowest rank soldier in the game) and often come into play when your soldiers are wielding plasma weapons and power armor, and the alien invaders are the toughest.
Your regular squad of epic soldiers is stuck in the base and blocked off, and instead, you get a randomly picked selection of your troops and two or three security guards. Then it’s up to you to think creatively and fight smart until reinforcements can arrive.
In XCOM 2, when the Avenger (your mobile aircraft headquarters) is grounded by a UFO and attacked by the Alien forces, there is a building that can be built within it to give you access to powerful XCOM turrets. These four turrets sit on the ramp of the ship and can allow for some interesting maneuvers to be made.
They can either serve as a last line of defense while your soldiers push forward and access the objective, or can pitch in and take out the objective themselves, leaving your troops to hold the line against the waves of alien reinforcements.
Both games make the base defenses memorable by adding new units that you can use in the mission, sometimes units that you won’t use or see anywhere else.
There has to be a Clear Cost
Finally, the last thing that makes a base defense memorable is the clear cost involved. If the heroes fail, then the home that mattered so much to them is destroyed, along with everything in it. XCOM subverts this somewhat by having a failed base/Avenger Defense be nothing more than a game over with a chance to restart.
Not so with Darkest Dungeon.
The “Brigand Incursion” event sees an army of bandits and outlaws (who you’ve traditionally fought in quests outside of the Hamlet) attack the Hamlet under a powerful new leader. If the mission is skipped for whatever reason, then three building upgrades are randomly destroyed, and there is a chance for the Bandits to attack again.
Since building upgrades are the foundation for the game and losing them will cut back your progress in the rest of the dungeon areas, skipping the event and hoping it will go away is not the best idea. But if your heroes fight and end up having to retreat from the mission, then one of them will die.
Much like in XCOM, higher level soldiers matter, as the enemies are already quite tough at this stage. So whether you lose the mission due to skipping, retreating, or the loss of all your heroes… the rest of your Campaign will suffer for it in some way or form. In other words, victory is the only possibility, and even then a hero could die.
So Where’s the Story?
By now you probably know the risk and emotional impact of a video game base defense. Sure it can send tension skyrocketing, it can derail a campaign, and even the tiniest of mistakes can result in a crippled campaign that will take some work to get back from.
So where is the story? The tension can’t all be it, can it?
Well, the story is the defense itself. All your heroes, soldiers, and old and new faces alike will have to fight harder than ever before to survive the attack upon their home. It’s a desperate last stand against these overwhelming odds and it’s up to the player to turn it into a winnable battle.
It’s up to the player to create the story. Whether your heroes are attempting to drive the enemy away or just attempting to buy themselves time, when you play those missions, every single move and every single action will need to be analyzed.
Maybe one character will clear a path through his enemies and allow the rest of his friends to retreat. Maybe one hero will tank and take the damage met for his allies, and maybe one lucky shot or stab will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I’ve seen it all happen in my own games.
Base Defenses are not an attack or a mission with an objective, it’s just another story of survival, and that’s a story all on its own.