The Bureau: XCOM Declassified – Creative Director Interview
GF: The iconic alien designs are a recent development, right? The aliens looked a little different in earlier incarnations: pixelated, almost Tron-like.
MG: It’s trying to share in the same universe. Taking the same iconography, like in the UI, the valid cover, invalid cover…these little things where it’s like “the games are different, but the similarities permeate through.” That was really important to us. Especially over the course of development, with Enemy Unknown coming out when it did, 2K established a new XCOM, a new paradigm.
We also wanted to find twists — our Sectoids actually come subjugated, they have little slave collars. Our Mutons are mercenaries. We did want to establish something that felt like it came from a cohesive universe, but something that you could apply a bit of stylistic choice to. That was a big tie.
Narratively, there are a lot of ties. We’re dealing with the formation of the American-centric [XCOM] organization, and how we plant the seeds for what’s going to go International. There are some big statements about some of the essential truths of the XCOM universe, that we don’t disprove, but we enhance on top of.
GF: I like the strong stylistic choices in the game’s presentation. How did you settle on the early 60s?
MG: We started 50s. We liked the idea of the whole Roswell, perfect American dream that would be corrupted by the alien invasion. Then we realized that although that’s a cool concept, there’s something better about the American dream starting to crumble, just in the course of history. And then use that as a juxtaposition for the alien attacks.
As you move into the 60s, you’ve got the World War II generation, all these guys that went and fought evil, they saved the world, they came back. Super-prospersous, right? Jobs for everyone, the whole war economy, the GI Bill. 50s is when you have the advent of the middle class, by large — mid-40s and 50s. 60s is when you start to see that middle class — their kids — come up. We’re not in the hippie, flower-power of the late 60s, but you’re dealing with gender inequality, you’re dealing with racial issues, you’re dealing with the political situation, with NATO, with the atomic bomb, with the arms race.
It was a better lens for talking about the period, about American society at the time than the pure 50s. We were also big fans of one of the classic tenets of science fiction, which is that Sci-Fi is allegory for something real. The classic Twilight Zone episodes, the classic Trek. The best science fiction is using science fiction to get at some actual fundamental truth or posit some question that isn’t just laser guns and warping.
The 60s gave us a lot more interesting things to talk about, and to use sci-fi as allegory about. The other thing is that you can’t say no to getting into the Apollo Space Race to the moon, and all that other stuff.
GF: To what extent do you think those allegorical messages will sink in with gamers?
MG: My hope is that people grab what they grab. Everyone vibes on different things. We’re not making something preachy. Not that video games are lowball art, because they’re not, but we’re not preaching to you. If you just want to grab surface level, grab surface level.
It’s like Lord of the Rings. Some people know Saruman is an allegory for industrialism and the corruption of the natural world, and Gandalf represents order, and you start to dig in, and you say “oh I get it.” But at the same time, Saruman could just be an asshole, and he’s working with Mordor, and he needs to go out. And that’s cool too, because it’s true.
What we try to do is not create smartypants games for smartypants gamers, but make a tapestry that’s rich enough that if you’re intrigued to scratch, you can get through a couple layers before you say “OK, I know everything there is to know about this game.”