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.
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.”