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.

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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.

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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."

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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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