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How XCOM enables players to tell their own stories Exclusive
How  XCOM  enables players to tell their own stories
October 15, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 15, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Programming, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Letting players take a role in their own narrative is often key to the game experiences they remember most. With XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the development team saw the game as a platform for players to create their own stories -- they wanted to encourage an internal narrative to unfold each time they play.

Similar to its classic 1994 predecessor, the turn-based tactical game lets players manage squads against alien invasion, but offers a degree of control over the names and attributes of soldiers, who are permanently lost when they die.

"XCOM has really forced me to analyze what internal narrative is," says Firaxis producer Garth DeAngelis. "On the surface, it's simple; it's the story that emerges in the player's head over the course of a game. It's not explicitly written by a professional, so it isn't told to the player in a traditional sense."

Instead, DeAngelis conceives of "internal narrative" as an environment where the game's mechanics naturally lend themselves to personal storytelling. Multiple playthroughs of XCOM can feel very different -- "not just necessarily due to the procedural systems we coded into the game, but also because of these stories that would seemingly materialize out of nowhere," he says.

You are the story teller

Games like The Elder Scrolls series also support emergent narratives; DeAngelis remembers a moment in his experience of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind that affected him so profoundly he wrote about it in grad school: Short on cash, he was looting a regal armoire when he realized he wasn't alone in the room. He had to make quick work of the resident, but managed not to alert any guards.

"As I took his items, I discovered that he was a well-known aristocrat in the town," he describes. "I changed costumes and slowly made my way to the overworld, praying I could escape before anyone noticed. I was a dozen yards from the exit, when a guard made a beeline for me, sword still sheathed. He confronted me and whispered 'I've got my eye on you'... then he walked away."

Guards used random lines on players all the time in Morrowind. "In fact, they probably said that particular line to me before for no particular reason other than to sound dutiful, but because of the mini-narrative I was weaving in my head, that line of dialogue, at that exact moment, had an enormous impact on my experience," DeAngelis recalls.

He believes imagination is a quality toward which gamers are particularly oriented. "We, as developers, just give them the framework to go wild," DeAngelis says, recalling earlier video games where players had to be especially imaginitive to believe in game worlds and bring them to life in a time of crude and simple graphics.

"Now that we have incredibly advanced art, we're not necessarily relying on the players to fill in the blanks visually; instead, we should enable them to fill in the blanks elsewhere, perhaps emotionally," says DeAngelis. He points to friends who play Arma 2 mod DayZ and come away with stories about incredible bonds among comrades -- and the impact of treachery.

"And this game has no writers," he points out. "This is a game where the players are writing the backstory and motivations of a villain, who happens to be another player! How cool is that?"

xcom 1.jpgThe XCOM: Enemy Unknown team has a writer, though, and an over-arching storyline. How does the team balance the craft of that gameplay-oriented narrative with the writer's work? "It helped that our game was clearly divided in two: we have the strategy and combat layers," says DeAngelis.

"For the external narrative, we had a few writers collaborate on this exclusively, and this happened on the strategy layer," he says. "The aliens have a specific goal, and there are intense, cinematic-driven moments throughout the course of the game that the player can trigger."

"We certainly have an overarching narrative, with the traditional story points that writers have mastered," he continues. "This external narrative is generally high-level and delivered when the player is in their headquarters, conversing with different personnel. And actually, the external story is very important to the internal stuff. It's the framework for the player to conceive their own story elsewhere."

The fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set in a recognizable near-future world is "critical" to making it easy for players to empathize. "All you need to say is 'alien invasion', and this collective social consciousness will somehow be on the same page, just from two words," he points out. "But the cool part is no two people will have the same exact preconceptions of what an alien invasion entails."

"And this framework sets the stage for the player's creativity to write their own internal narrative, the story that's a bit more intimate and emotional, and this seems to emerge when the player goes onto combat missions," DeAngelis continues. "In XCOM, at least, it's so disconnected from traditional writing; there's no character-specific dialogue, or soldier backstory. In XCOM, there is no archetypal video game hero. To many gamers, that's such a foreign concept."

What's in a name?

The team's loyalty to the original XCOM (lead designer Jake Solomon is a "gigantic fan") also helped keep the mechanics that encourage internal narrative intact. That it was so possible in the original game is part of why the series still has a fanbase close to two decades later, DeAngelis suggests.

"I've done playthroughs with family and friends which were surprisingly emotional - losing my mom was heart-wrenching! But then I created more light-hearted and daft playthroughs with 80's action movie heroes," he says.

So you can name a character after a relative and customize their look. So what? "In our world, it actually means something because of the possibility of permanent death. In XCOM, your soldiers can die, for good. This possibility, this weighty consequence, is the key when shaking hands with the player," he says. "They know we'll provide them the framework for a rich, fun experience with dire consequences, and if they want to deepen their emotional connection to that experience, they can opt in with their imagination and save the world with whomever they choose to create."

However, many players today ultimately prefer to participate in designed experiences -- "emergent narratives aren't for everyone," says DeAngelis. "Obviously, I'm the type that embraces emergent narrative, even when I don't re-name my units."

xcom 2.jpgThe game's random name generator will choose names that suit, and that clean slate can become its own fun for players that want to imagine their own stories around these strangers. DeAngelis once had two female snipers that appeared to partner over 20 hours together, and one of them rose to incredible statistical heights after the other was killed. DeAngeli fancied her motivated by revenge.

"Ironically, before working on XCOM, I would have polarized a large segment of gamers and developers by shouting, 'tightly-crafted stories are the future!'," he says. "I mean, I'm still a huge fan of well-written video games, like Quantic Dream's work, and BioWare's of course, and I still strongly believe there is a future for those types of games."

"But now I know that's not the only way; there's a broader future in storytelling through game design, not just great writing... So why not talk more about emergent narrative as well?" he suggests. "After experiencing games like these, I would argue an internal narrative can be just as emotional, if not moreso, than a linearly-written experience."

Personally, DeAngelis thinks it'd be interesting to see someone try integrating interactive stories with the real world a little further: "Whether it's through social networks or some platform that hasn't even been built yet; but the idea of putting people in your real life, and making them this fantastical character in an alternate universe, there's a weird appeal there for me," he says.

What if a game could borrow real-world information about people in your life and use it to breathe life into characters? "Ah, saying this out loud, it is certainly a crazy idea," DeAngelis adds."But more realistically, short-term, I'm just excited to see games like XCOM, Minecraft, and FTL that have these foundations to enable the player to interact with the game's mechanics and, in the process, build their own personal story."

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Jeremy Reaban
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Is this really new? While you couldn't customize your soldier's looks in the original X-com games, you could customize their names.

Indeed, the manual for X-com featured a soldier named for a band member of Stereolab

Anyway, I'm glad X-com is doing well, but it seems a bit sad that the original designers of the original game have been overlooked and reduced to doing handheld games.

Kris Graft
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"Reduced to doing handheld games." What a ridiculous thing to say.

Anyhow, pretty much all I did yesterday was play the new XCOM. It was weird but _totally welcome_ to be playing a strategically deep, high production value, turn-based tactical game on my TV. Good job to 2K and Firaxis for making this happen at all.

august clark
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There is a really nice nod to the devs of the original, just before the endgame of the new game. It made me smile at least.

Kris Graft
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DeAngelis' repeated use of the word "framework" here is important to note. When you're playing the game, and thinking in terms of how the designers employ that narrative framework, you begin to see the rather brilliant scaffolding that facilitates emergent storytelling, from the ability to edit soldiers, to permadeath, to the way you can make decisions based on geography.

Then you have these smaller, somewhat modular cut scenes that show interactions with people like your head researcher and engineer, that help nudge the emergent story along. But these scenes never seem too heavy-handed, because the game's scripted characters live in the same narrative framework as the player, if you know what I mean. They just add some context and texture. It all fits together nicely, and is really well-done.

E McNeill
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I don't think that this phenomenon is just limited to characters. I found FTL to be another great game for emergent storytelling, often for the same reasons: permadeath and customization. But in that game, sometimes the ship was actually the most compelling character. Similarly, back when I was playing Civilization II, the civilizations (and sometimes cities) became parts of elaborate plotlines in my head. Sometimes I'd literally be narrating my game. (Is that weird?)

Kris Graft
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No, E. It is not weird. (I'll keep telling myself that.)

Jason Lee
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This is a great point. I like to call these games "Diary Games" because of the way they make such a unique experience for each player that can be written as really compelling game diaries. To me, scaffolding also includes that baseline set of mechanics that dictate the core of the gameplay, then the emergent pieces that force a lack of resources and/or interesting decisions. In Binding of Isaac, the core of teaching the player how to dodge each enemy type, beat each boss without taking damage, and seek treasure rooms remains consistent from session to session: the core. However, having a run where no health bonuses spawn, or a run with almost no offensive powerups, or a run where keys run out quickly shifts that core and creates a new surprising situation for the player that pushes them to new challenges while still keeping a lot of the mechanical framework intact. This is what makes interesting narratives in these kind of games.

Maria Jayne
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It's a great game, although it irks me I have to keep buying soldiers to get the correct nationalities or genders. i can change their name and appearance but they seemed to overlook the sex and nationality for some reason.

I'd also like it if we could choose a soldiers class, another frustration is customizing your team and then finding out your favorite named guys are all snipers/assault and you have no medics or support.

Other than those two niggle, the game is pretty cool, mechanically it's slightly less complex than the original classic but it has polished up the visual and cinematic quality so it balances out nicely.

I don't know how well it has sold, but I'm really pleased a turn based game is getting so much attention and that it deserves it!

Harold Myles
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Not being able to choose your classes is part of the game. Just like the original you just had to buy soldiers and deal with what you got.

Play with the hand that is dealt you. That is part of the game.

The other thing about choosing gender and nationality I agree with. It has no gameplay impact so the player should be able to customize that.

Maria Jayne
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It's definitely not part of the game, classes appear to be random. In the original game there were no classes, so you basically equipped soldiers however you wanted and what you did with them made them grow into that role naturally. Anotherwords you made your own classes and chose who did what.

If playing the hand that's dealt to you is part of the game, why does customization exist at all?

It's been done because of either a lack of manpower, budget or simple lack of foresight in the option. Nothing to do with being a "feature". The only difference between the options I would have liked and the options available is that I have to bulk hire extra soldiers and then dismiss them for being wrong nationality, wrong gender or ending up a class I have too many of.

Harold Myles
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@Maria Jayne

It most definitely is a part of the game because that is how the game works. It is not an oversight. It is specifically designed that way.

It is analogous to the original. Despite the original not having classes, the original had random stats: Aiming, Health, bravery, etc..

In the original X-COM even the most basic hiring strategy would be:

1. Order 20 rookies.
2. Fire 5 of them because their bravery is below 30
3. Fire 5 more because their health is too low
4. Fire another 5 of them because their Aiming is below 50
5. Keep 5.

However, if things were going poorly you hired 20 guys and kept all of them because you needed every man, even the cowards. Both finances and desperation are factors on how selective you are in your troops. It is core to the game.

The same exist in XCOM, you hire many, use the classes you need and even make some determination based on Willpower.

Or if things are going poorly use whatever you are handed. The Officer Training upgrade 'New Guy' even makes this process up-gradable and is a core part of the game.

Matthew Doss
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@Harold Myles

Or they could have gone with a process similar to the spiritual successor UFO. The one thing that I liked in that series is being able to filter your new recruits by their stats.

I get keeping it mostly like the original, and am thankful for that. However this is the one issue which doesn't really stem from the original. Everything supports the emergent story, but I can't decide what role my soldiers are? I remember long periods of time spent in front of the originals - and although I haven't played them in a while, I'm pretty sure I decided what the role of my soldiers was based solely on their stats and what gear I gave them. My heavies also carried additional weaponry in their backpack outside of that role just in case.

Jack Lee
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My gaming time has been non-stop XCOM since release (with a short break for the opposite, ep. 4 of the Walking Dead). This game is incredible.

As Christoph mentions, the cinematic camera is a little wonky sometimes (especially when doing things like having assault troopers run up next to enemies for shots), but I haven't had any issues with the actual controls/UI. Then again, I'm playing the PC version using a gamepad, so maybe the M/KB implementation is less good. I like the fact that I can lean back in my chair and just hold a controller, rather than sitting forward at my desk, though.

Jason Lee
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I love the game. I hate Mutons.

I will quibble and say that swapping between elevations with mouse/keyboard is a little squirrely. THERE I SAID SOMETHING BAD ABOUT THIS WONDERFUL GAME I'M SORRY.

Harold Myles
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Yeah unfortunately I think the Mouse and Keyboard controls are poor. Especially when it comes to choosing elevation.

When I switched to controller the game plays so much smoother. Great game, but it is sad to see them neglect the traditional PC controls.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I'm looking forward to the day (soon) where we actually become the avatars in our games and level up at the same time our "avatars" do. I described what this would look like back in early 2010 in my "Third Tier of Game Development" paper. There I posit that driving, learning, and even health care could become games where we are the main characters and ultimately get paid to play these serious games:

Jonathan Jennings
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i have had a blast just reading about the game on forums so many exciting stories about players soldiers prevailing or missions gone bad, i can't wait to play myself.

Laura Stewart
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Although the article tends to run them together, I think there's too much of a difference between narrative that arises from actual game mechanics (like in Elder Scrolls) and internal player narration of a game that is challenging but impersonal.

You can, for instance, create an internal narrative while playing Tetris, but it's not one that emerges from the game's mechanics. You can rename Nier, but the game's mechanics don't allow players to create an emergent narrative (you could make an internal one all the same). The same with Dead Island.

Writers for the Elder Scrolls games should get a lot of credit for the emergent narrative possible in their world. It's not just the grand theme of the game, but the thousands of individual NPC interactions, all that dialogue and differentiation, more than just brewing potions and hunting dragons. And it comes from more than just choosing a name and a hair color.

Darcy Nelson
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This comment made me all nostalgic about the times I trudged out of the swamps near Seyda Neen, covered in muck and mudcrab guts and the silt-strider driver would give me a meaningful look and say, "Why walk when you can ride?"

Matthew Doss
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I have to say that I'm impressed with most of the ways the emergent storytelling has been treated in the new game. However, they the one aspect I really dealt with. I played with the whole "no man left behind" mentality and would carry corpses (and dropped gear) back to the ship. No possibility for relocating dead or unconscious people in this one though... makes me a little sad from the nostalgia side, but man was that time consuming (and sometimes deadly to the remaining members)!

Darcy Nelson
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Wait, this game has permadeath? Shut up and take my money!

Michael Rooney
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I'd say this game has more meaningful permadeath than most games with permadeath as the game continues after your people die and you have to live with the consequences for minutes/hours afterward.

Michael Rooney
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A couple things I wish this game supported in regards to what's mentioned. I would love if it connected to facebook and randomly assigned my most active friends names to new recruits (as an option). I love renaming my soldiers, but the interface for it makes it more difficult than it should be. Having an automatic fille would be awesome.

The second thing I'd like would be generated eulogies for your dudes. Could be totally fictitious or generated from different in game events (reviving squadmates in critical condition, how frequently they've panicked, number of aliens killed/captured, etc.).

Those two things would make me so warm and fuzzy inside.

And cloudsaves, but that's unrelated.

Robert Swift
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The new XCOM is pretty good but the more exhilarating stories are still from the original. Probably due to more freedom (e.g. free-aim with everything), more variations (e.g. grenade+explosives only rookies), more soldiers and bigger maps.

Andy Borkowski
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Fascinating article, I too was able to speak to Garth about a similar sort of journey.