An Alien-Focused XCOM? Firaxis Talks Possibilities

By Nathan Grayson on September 27th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

I recently had the chance to chat with XCOM: The Enemy Within senior game designer Ananda Gupta, and I was immediately faced with a crushing dilemma. Adam had done his job too well in a previous interview and discussed everything (XCOM-related) ON EARTH. I was stumped. I was about to hand in both my hands and my ability to ask questions to the Intergalactic Journalism Police when it hit me: if Earth’s no longer an option, then the only way out is up. Space! So Gupta and I chatted about aliens and the possibility of an XCOM campaign starring said nefarious extraterrestrials, and it was absolutely wonderful. [Warning - some XCOM: Enemy Unknown spoilers ahead.]

It’s really, really hard to portray aliens realistically.

The idea of an alien campaign is really good, but it would have to be pretty different from the systems we have in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Within.

This, in part, stems from the fact that humans have never made contact with aliens, so we’re maybe a teensy bit lacking in the reference materials department. Also, we’re terrible at understanding (let alone conceiving of) things that aren’t just like us, so we tend not to try. The result? So-called “aliens” that walk like us, talk like us, and never stop doing calibrations like us while we silently, painfully pine for their bizarrely species-compatible affections. Don’t get me wrong: humanoid aliens have their place, but they hardly constitute boldly going where no man has gone before.

However, ever since the original X-Com and all the way up through Enemy Unknown/Within, the XCOM series has pitted humanity against lifeforms we can’t hope to understand. They greet us not with a scaly handshake or a polite, five-tongued “How d’ya do,” but with the one language we both know quite intimately: violence. The effect is spine-tingling and drenched in dread. How do you take your extraterrestrial intrigue? With one lump of white-hot horror or two?

That, in part, is what makes XCOM/X-Com so very special. But what if the dynamics were switched? What if we played as the aliens and carried out some mysterious plot(s) against a frightened yet fearsome human populace? Could it even be done? Firaxis’ Ananda Gupta can’t help but ponder the idea, but he thinks it’d take some serious work.

“That idea I think is very interesting from an abstract point of view, but when you think about the blanks that’d have to be filled in, [it gets a lot more complicated],” he begins, contemplative.

“Like, who’s the alien equivalent of central command? I actually think StarCraft fell victim to this a little with Heart of the Swarm. You have this English-speaking British-accented tentacle woman who talks to you about stuff. So I’m Kerrigan, I’m the Queen of Blades, which is really neat, and she definitely has a very alien feel to her – and yet, she’s surrounded by all these English-speaking aliens. Admittedly, they had very cool voices. Blizzard tried very hard there. But still, the Zerg didn’t seem all that implacable anymore. They don’t seem like this giant inexorable force so much as a commander and a ship and a computer. They’re a lot like us. They just have a bunch of pets.”

“Do we completely obey this rule? No. In the final mission, the aliens talk to you and kind of reveal what they’re here for and so forth. So even we don’t fully adhere to keeping the aliens alien, but we try to do it as much as possible in the game.”

The question, then, is whether or not there is a right way to do this at all. Can aliens still be alien if you get to take a prolonged stroll in their skin or decide their every move as part of some nigh-omniscient hivemind? That’s the big challenge, but Gupta believes it is, in fact, solvable. In his eyes, there’s already even a blueprint of sorts.

“I think one of the most ingenious ways of doing that was from the original Alien vs Predator 2 game,” he continues. “When you’re playing as the alien, all of the information that you get about what you’re supposed to do and how to play the game is from Weyland-Yutani records that sort of abstractly describe the behavior of aliens in a scientific manner. There’s a part where you’re a juvenile alien and you have to grow, and there’s a regulation that says, ‘No pets allowed.’ And you realize you should find whatever pet was let in there so you can eat it and grow. All the background information was communicated through the eyes of the other species, and in that way playing the alien also felt alien. It didn’t reduce them at all.”

But AvP 2 was a first-person shooter, and XCOM is very, very not that (even when it tries to be). Gupta’s well aware of that fact – probably more than most – and he’s frank about the situation even as his gears churn for a solution: “What Aliens vs Predator 2 managed is very hard to do, and it’s highly aesthetic-dependent. So I don’t think we have as good of a path for that.”

It’s about catering the perspective switch (and subsequent, on some level, empathy) to the series, genre, and medium – case-by-case, in other words. On that front, Gupta acknowledges that he’s hardly the first to ponder the problem of alien portrayal.”That issue goes back to Star Trek,” he says. “It’s like, ‘How do we have really alien aliens? Uhhhhh.’”

He stresses, however, that this is a vein ripe for mining. And he concludes with a chilling (though often lampooned) thought: humans are pretty damn scary too. Viewing ourselves through another lens, then, could make for some really interesting dynamics, even on a basic level.

“There’s a great quote somewhere about why there aren’t more things where humans are the most dangerous aliens of all,” he offers. “It’s like, ‘Humans can lose a limb and not die!’ All these things we take for granted, but aliens might not.”

“So I think the idea of an alien campaign is a really good one, but it would have to be pretty different from the systems we have in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Within. Like, it would definitely be a whole new game with a very different approach.”

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48 Comments »

  1. Kakrafoon says:

    Call me a xenophobe, but I LIKE scenarios where Earth rallies against slimy tentacles from space. XCOM embodies that to a large degree. I don’t want to play the aliens.

    • lordcooper says:

      Cosmofascist.

      • Gahage says:

        I laughed entirely too hard at that comment.

        Really looking forward to this game. I created a little web app to go with XCom: EU and am looking forward to the changes brought on by XCOM: EW

      • DanMan says:

        I love you people. xD

        *watches everyone stop laughing immediately and walk away*

        No, come back!

        *sob*

        • The Random One says:

          I love you too, Dan. Never mind those cosmophobes. Come here and give me a big cosmic hug.

    • Bull0 says:

      Yeah, in spite of how original and novel this would be I don’t want it and might even avoid it if they do it. I love XCOM. I don’t want to talk to the monsters. It’d kill the whole atmosphere.

    • Trent Hawkins says:

      I think it would be neat if it was Humans on the offensive and terrorizing an alien planet this time.

      • Premium User Badge

        welverin says:

        This is exactly what I was thinking while I read the article.

    • LintMan says:

      @Kakrafoon : Yeah, I’d much rather have Firaxis expand the depth and variety of the existing gameplay than to add a gimmicky “play as the aliens!” campaign.

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  2. aethyrium says:

    XCOM Apocalypse pretty much does this. The last half of the game you’re fully on the offensive, invading the alien dimension with your aircraft and sending in landing teams to capture objectives and destroy their city.

  3. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    It’s difficult but not impossible to imagine organisms that don’t conform to standard forms. I feel like I’ve been bringing it up a lot lately, but anyone who reads B.P.R.D. (and more generally is familiar with the works of Guy Davis) has been exposed to a lot of weird shit that tends to be internally consistent without ever making much sense.

    The big problem is how to make motivations truly alien. There must always be a reason for an organism to exhibit a behavior. You might not reveal the motive, but it’s impossible to avoid a scenario in which you can’t think of some explanation, right or wrong, that explains why something is occurring.

    • Turkey says:

      God, BRPD and XCOM would be a match made in heaven.

      • Drinking with Skeletons says:

        Someone needs to go to Guy Davis, write him a check, and demand he design monsters for a videogame.

        Someone also needs to adapt The Marquis as an Arkham City/Assassin’s Creed-esque title.

        • Turkey says:

          Well, Del Toro had him doing monster designs for Pacific Rim, so hopefully he’ll do some game design stuff in the future?

          • Drinking with Skeletons says:

            It’d be nice. I know that Duncan Fegredo did promotional (concept?) art for Blizzard on D-to-the-a-to-the-blo 3 (I’m getting real tired of RPS’ refusal to let me use that name in comments) so I don’t see why Guy Davis couldn’t be tapped. After seeing the grotesque sexualized demons of the Marquis, it seems like he’d be an obvious choice for a Dante’s Inferno sequel.

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      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      I keep bringing this up, but only because it is so good.
      Truly alien aliens: Blindsight, by Peter Watts. So alien they consider human language a weapon, and the early broadcasts of radio and TV to be an attack – and for a plausible reason, given their nature.

      • Werthead says:

        China Mieville did something not a million miles away from that in EMBASSYTOWN as well.

        Also, Scott Bakker (whom Watts is a big fan of) has really messed-up aliens in his PRINCE OF NOTHING/ASPECT-EMPEROR series. Whilst the trappings of the series are epic fantasy, the main enemies (the Inchoroi) actually are space aliens whose motivations are based around metaphysics, reproduction and pleasure, some of which are not fully comprehensible to us as readers, let alone the pre-medieval societies they are fighting.

      • Drinking with Skeletons says:

        I hate to praise him, given his awful personal views (best expressed in the ultimately repugnant Homecoming series), but Orscon Scott Card’s piggies from the Ender sequels were pretty interesting..

        SPOILERS

        The piggies were called such because they kind of resembled anthropomorphic pigs (think Piglet, but uglier). There was a scientific outpost that maintained contact with them basically because humanity felt some guilt about wiping out the buggers. People also didn’t understand their life cycles, so it posed a biological mystery. The piggies, while primitive, were very peaceful, until they inexplicably and brutally murdered at least one of the researchers they associated with without any explanation, guilt, or seemingly awareness of what they had done.

        It turned out that the life cycles of basically all life on their world was driven by multi-stage, insect/fish/parasite-like processions through different stages. The piggies’ final stage had them being ritualistically “torn-apart” by their fellows, after which they would grow into tree-like organisms which the remaining piggies would use as shelters. I don’t recall how they were born, but I want to say it was something odd.

        It was weird as shit and pretty interesting, but I’d like to say that this was by far the best thing about the books. There’s really nothing particularly compelling about the rest, so I don’t advocate anyone go seek them out.

        • airmikee99 says:

          I think even stranger than the piggies was the race that actually created the descolada virus, they didn’t get much coverage, but the few mentions of them were extremely weird and alien.

          • Drinking with Skeletons says:

            I was originally going to mention that in my post, actually! That was the ship near the end where they seemingly communicated in viruses and transmitted something deadly, right? I can’t remember those books very well, and I’ll be damned if I reread an OSC book.

          • Ushao says:

            Yeah they communicated in genetic material and chemicals. If I remember right, near the end they transmitted the formula of a chemical that acted like heroin on the human brain as a reply to the communication attempt. I loved that the main characters couldn’t tell if it was an aggressive gesture or not. The Descoladores definitely need more time in the spotlight but I wonder if even Card himself can’t think of a good way to write about them.

      • Xotes says:

        Whatever your opinion on lesswrong.com, they host a story called Three Worlds Collide that’s all about humanity’s first contact with two species of, and excuse me for borrowing Smingleigh’s words, truly alien aliens. This quote from a little less than halfway through sums it up better than I can.

        “It’s too hard, speaking to aliens. They don’t think like you do, and you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”

      • Cockaroach says:

        I would say solaris, by stanislaw lem, is one of the most beautiful and depressing stories about making first contact with an alien so alien; both forces trying so hard and in vain to communicate with each other. There was also the master’s voice, by the same author, dealing with scientists receiving a transmission from many light years away, and trying to decipher its meaning and intent. However, i could never finish that one, the writing is just a little too dry.

  4. tattertech says:

    The last point reminds me of one of the aspects of Mass Effect’s backstory I enjoyed. Humans suddenly connect to the rest of the galaxy, get smacked around by aliens, and then do what humans do. They regroup, adapt, improvise, and then become a major threat/power such that they’re forced to be given a higher level of access and position than other species who have been connect to the rest of the galaxy for hundreds of years.

    There’s something always a little fun with the idea of meeting alien life and then finding out we’re actually the badasses (although there are exceptions in Mass Effect in some ways). Twilight Zone enjoyed that approach a few times.

    • The Random One says:

      I’ve been trying to coalesce a sci-fi setting for years in which humans are essentially the angry armed guys of the galaxy, like the Krogan in Mass Effect or the Klingons in Star Trek or, hell, orks in your fantasy world.

  5. vecordae says:

    Playing as the aliens in an X-com game is certainly doable.

    Gupta’s point, in that being the alien makes them less alien, especially when you need to use human methods of communication to help the player along, is absolutely spot on, but it also points the way to how one could accomplish this.

    The player plays a human being. Captured by the aliens as mankind starts to really push back against the invasion, memory wiped, gifted with psionic powers, and commanded to direct some of the alien’s operatives on earth. From the player’s perspective, communications with the aliens are cryptic and often inscrutable. The atmosphere can remain alien and oppressive because there’s never enough familiarity with the player’s overlords to make them human. Eventually, the player can make some big decision, like turning against the aliens or putting the killing blow on the Xcom initiative, I suppose, but there you go. Mechanically, it wouldn’t be much different. The biggest challenge is simply getting the presentation right.

    • Shadow says:

      That’s a lot like Sarah Kerrigan, ultimately. A lot.

      Portraying truly alien extraterrestrials and worse, playing as them, would be excruciatingly difficult to accomplish without making them feel human because the player (and the developer too!) is human and thinks and acts like a human. How can you come up with something you aren’t supposed to comprehend in the first place?

      Living beings completely removed from our planet would have unfathomable motivations, logic and ways of thinking, and if the protagonist aliens were truly aliens, the player wouldn’t know the first thing about what to do as them. Aliens wouldn’t be supposed to make the least bit of sense to a human. It’s true that logic and motivation can fundamentally derive from the organisms’ natural context, but as soon as you begin to understand them, they become a lot less alien, and that crucial mystery the creator is striving for is lost.

  6. subalterngames says:

    We must not let the aliens be raman, or else we might feel bad about blowing them up.
    http://ansible.wikia.com/wiki/Hierarchy_of_Foreignness

  7. Nick says:

    Hmm, no thanks.

  8. Ravenholme says:

    ‘ “There’s a great quote somewhere about why there aren’t more things where humans are the most dangerous aliens of all,” he offers. “It’s like, ‘Humans can lose a limb and not die!’ All these things we take for granted, but aliens might not.” ‘

    Someone has been reading through the “Humanity, Fuck Yeah!” articles on 1d4chan (I think it’s there, anyhow)

  9. Synesthesia says:

    he, i found it.

    http://imgur.com/zcJaShM

  10. Lemming says:

    Why not? May as well stamp out the last remaining shred of something resembling horror in this series.

  11. NotToBeLiked says:

    These ideas might be interesting if a really good XCOM game had been made that had very little to improve on, so a completely new direction was needed to keep things interesting. The thing Firaxis released was a buggy and simplified version of that game however. So perhaps they should focus on making a proper game first. Or are they planning on doing the Civilization thing where they remove major features of the previous game in a new iteration (streamlining! accessibility! no one uses those things anyway!) , only to add them in expansions later on?

    • Talksintext says:

      Well, there’s always Xenonauts, which is an upgraded, more complex, and more difficult version of X-COM:EU, with almost the same gameplay/graphics (but HD, etc). Should be finished within a few months, as it’s somewhere in beta now. Definitely will appeal to fans of the original far more than Firaxis’ take.

      Basically, what I’m saying is, major studios have shown they no longer care to make decent games, Firaxis apparently included, and you just have to assume each iteration of old series is going to go downhill, particularly old franchises that are dusted off. 6 years since Firaxis released something that was wholly acceptable to a more hardcore audience (BtS expansion)…

      DX:HR is the only mainstream series whose release has really satisfied me in the past 5 years. Kudos, though Thief looks to be a return to the norm.

  12. Premium User Badge

    cog says:

    What about the Lovecraftian version?! They got my hopes up with the greenish logo in the teaser, and then it turned out to be mechs. Is it too much to ask that my squadies get devoured by a Shoggoth every once in a while?

  13. Universal Quitter says:

    I think I’d much rather play an xcom-like game where humans are the evil alien conquerors, as opposed to playing as the aliens attacking Earth.

    They’d have to be advanced humans, though, not Avatar-esque rednecks in space.

  14. HisDivineOrder says:

    Well, Farscape did a reasonably good job of giving the viewer alien-y aliens instead of the Star Trek aliens as people with funny ears or brows.

  15. sidhellfire says:

    Firstly they nuked fan made UFO:The Two Sides because “legal reasons” and now they’re simply leeching on idea.

  16. JeepBarnett says:

    This is pretty much the premise for my Freshman year game, Invasion Squad XIV: http://www.jeepbarnett.com/invasionsquad/index.html

    For a long time I had forgotten how much it was inspired by X-COM. Playing the new one brought back so many memories of working on this game. The gameplay focuses mostly on harvesting resources from Earth, building up your airforce, and researching new tech.

    Anyway if you try it out, keep in mind it’s amateur work, so a little buggy and unpolished. I’ve always thought it could be fun to remake this game knowing everything that I know now.

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