1962: The Year XCOM Makes Contact

2K Marin's lead narrative designer, Erik Caponi, talks about the challenge of weaving tactical gameplay and a 1960s alien invasion into a coherent whole.

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The year is 1962, and the United States has a lot to worry about. Abroad, the Cold War has created an international standoff between superpowers, while at home, the trust Americans once placed in their government is quickly turning to doubt and skepticism. Tensions are peaking as the entire world waits with bated breath for the powder keg to blow. And it did, but the spark didn't come from a bomb or a gun. It came from a previously unknown enemy lurking in the stars; one that may spell doom for all humanity.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified tells a story of a country grappling with fear from all sides. "We wanted to take that time period and look at what it meant to society and the people in it," said Erik Caponi, lead narrative designer at 2K Marin. "[The 1960s] were a time when people's view of government and the world changed drastically." Caponi, an industry veteran since 2004, has helped mold the worlds of The Matrix Online, Fallout 3, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Now he's looking to tell the origin of XCOM and its extraterrestrial conflict.

"In my experience, the stories I've told myself in games have been far more engaging than in movies where I sit down and have everything dictated to me. That's not to say movies aren't an incredible storytelling medium, but it's very different to be told a story and to be part of one."--Caponi, on stories
"This could be the first time XCOM is activated as an organization," Caponi said, adding that The Bureau was always planned as a prequel to the original X-COM series released in the '90s, as well as to the remake XCOM: Enemy Unknown. "It's good that [Enemy Unknown] came out first, since that was important in reestablishing the franchise. Now we can come in and start to fill in the XCOM universe."

The Bureau is a game of firsts for the XCOM franchise. The top-down camera has been brought down to a more intimate, third-person perspective, and The Bureau's story will be a more character-focused tale than past narratives. "I actually think of The Bureau as an RPG in a lot of ways," admitted Caponi. "There are player-expressive systems, dialogue choices, and ways for the player to express choice and interact with others." These choices aren't just cosmetic. XCOM has always been a game of high stakes and serious consequences, and while Caponi couldn't go into specifics, your actions will be reflected in the game's conclusion.

While player choice is important to Caponi, he is also well aware of the challenges it creates when storytelling. "You want to avoid the common game problem of 'Oh my God! The world is going to blow up in 10 minutes! Let's go do a side mission,'" he joked. To help prevent this, the team has designed the story-driven missions to be self-contained, similar to episodes of a television show. They will have their own pace and tension throughout, but in between missions there will be some downtime when the world isn't on the brink of destruction.

Is this storytelling style the best way to tell XCOM's tale? Caponi isn't sure, but it's the one he's sticking with. In his opinion, if you're making a movie and encounter a problem with storytelling, chances are someone else has encountered--and solved--that same problem before. Video games are still a young medium, and don't have such a volume of references. Designers are still solving those narrative problems today. Caponi hopes their solution will be an ideal match for the personalized story they're aiming to tell.

"Ideally, players will feel like [The Bureau's] story is their story. One of the reasons why I moved from movies to games was because I wanted to set stages where people told themselves stories. In my experience, the stories I've told myself in games have been far more engaging than in movies where I sit down and have everything dictated to me. That's not to say movies aren't an incredible storytelling medium, but it's very different to be told a story and to be part of one."

When designing this story, one of Caponi's key sources of inspiration was The Conversation from director Francis Ford Coppola. "It may seem like a weird influence, but that movie is so much about perspective, secrets, and how that information can get scrambled--it's very interesting." (Mis)information warfare will be a crucial component in XCOM's fight against the alien menace. However, the toll it will take on Carter and his fellow agents remains to be seen when The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is released on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on August 20.

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Discussion

22 comments
Jolckan
Jolckan

this looks promising

cousinmerl
cousinmerl

looks good - I'll wait for the review first.

-HCMF-
-HCMF-

Not sure about this one...  Hopes are high, but I have been burned before when they change up the Xcom formula: interceptor anyone?

squidshoggoth
squidshoggoth

hmm, third person tactical shooters don't really have a good track record, especially BIA. The only two successful and acceptable game series that come to mind are ghost recon and rainbow six, guess we'll see how they handle this approach to things in coming weeks.

Falru
Falru

Really hyped for more XCOM. This storytelling scheme is pretty much what they used for the previous one. It really works well, you feel like alien invasions are more of a "top-secret, hidden-in-the-background" kind of deal like they always are in Sci-Fis. It's only when shit really hits the fan that the story feels like it suggests imminent doom.


Third person Strategy sounds like a much better fit for this series. What with the emphasis on cover and line-of-sight shooting it makes more sense for you to be able to see the game from your units' perspective. Valkyria Chronicles is an excellent combat system that they could draw influence from in terms of moving units/giving orders.

HapiJoel
HapiJoel

Can't wait to get me some more X-COM :D

Looking forward to trying out the new perspective, should be fun!

Godsire-
Godsire-

Is there anyone out there who DOESN'T think this game is going to suck ass?

I am picturing 'Walking Dead: Survival Instinct' kind of crap here.

pohman
pohman

is it sand box or open world?

DrizztDark
DrizztDark

Liked the new xcom a lot but I would like them to go a lot more complex next time.. This one looks pretty cool tho

the_big_doggg
the_big_doggg

2012: The year X-Com stopped being relevant when it was turned into a dumbed down console game.

Vertigem
Vertigem

I allways loved the XCOM series, the immersion and playability it provides is all I look for in a game. Unfortunately the latest Console driven trends have pushed for gameplay simplification for the mainstream public. I miss the old days.

debryson
debryson

@the_big_doggg Like Bioshock was a dumbed down System Shock?? 

oh wait both those games are excellent. 

just like Xcom 2012 and the original are excellent

pr0teu5
pr0teu5

@the_big_doggg Oh,do share with us your super wisdom, how does a game change from FPS to 3rd person tactic shooter could be "dumbed down console game"? Or if you mean the last Xcom, then also share your knowledge of gaming mechanic to prove that it was "dumbed down"?

debryson
debryson

@Vertigem Why do you trolls say that about X-Com but not about Bioshock? None of the PC trolls ever responds when I ask that.

pr0teu5
pr0teu5

@Vertigem Rubbish! How many xcom games have you played? I had them all(pc). Other then the first xcom and the one came last year, all the rest are pure junk!

Ppl always like to say "console....", as if it some how mark them as some how better then others when they are doing the same thing(in this case play the same game). If you dislike like something about a game, point out the problem  directly, not on some vague comment:"well, it's a console game,so it must be stup1d".
-I don't own a single console(not after 8 bit Nintendo).

Aletunda
Aletunda

@Vertigem Never played the originals but I think the newest game served well, had enough elements to make it interesting and challenging.

Sutava
Sutava

@debryson @the_big_doggg Oh lord of Strawman arguments, System Shock and Bioshock were not mentioned in his post, and Bioshock recaptured everything awesome about System Shock.   X-Com 2012 captured NOTHING great about the original X-Com and it sucked major dung, like your logic