The story of XCOM: Enemy Unknown and XCOM: Enemy Within is not told in a traditional sense. While there are traditional storytelling methods – dialogue, specific events, dramatic scenes – instead of detailing a specific fixed narrative, XCOM encourages players to ‘fill in the gaps', and create their own personalized account of what happens in the fight against an invading alien force.
We've all named our soldiers after friends and family members (or perhaps foes), but that's only the beginning of the story. Over the course of a typical XCOM game, it's hard not to imagine the personal lives of the soldiers on the front lines, and some players have even detailed their accounts in blogs and fan fiction. While Firaxis created the overarching narrative of XCOM, it's the spaces in-between where a player's personal narrative thrives.
Within that overarching narrative, players connect with the characters at HQ. Along with Central Officer Bradford, there's also Dr. Vahlen, in charge of research labs, and Dr. Shen, dealing with engineering. While these characters exist to provide information on gameplay mechanics and move the plot forward, it's hard to resist working them into a personal narrative. Just who are Dr. Vahlen and Dr. Shen, anyway?
"Vahlen, Shen, and Bradford play a pivotal role in helping to create a player's personal narrative," says Chris Sulzbach, Lead Character Artist. "While the characters you control are randomly generated, the characters at HQ have narrative impact because players know who they are and what they stand for. While other aspects of XCOM are random and benefit from that, we needed some sort of constant to ground our narrative in."
It was important to Firaxis to make the motivations of the HQ team clear without putting limits on a player's personal narrative.
"XCOM is player-driven and our characters needed to reflect that," says Greg Foertsch,
Project Art Director. "Our goal was to give enough detail to explain a character's personality and direction, but show enough restraint to let players create their own backstories for them if they wanted."
"It's easy to see a player creating a narrative for a soldier who experiences success and failure in battle. What's even more interesting is to see the player create a narrative that reflects their relationship with NPCs they interact with on a more passive level."
While Firaxis had many discussions about the motivations of the HQ characters, you won't find much official backstory within the game. "Even though we had a million ideas for each character, we had to make sure their implementation wasn't heavy-handed," Foertsch explains. "I think Shen's agenda is pretty clear. We know what he stands for and what he wants out of XCOM, although we don't shed a lot of light on his backstory."
As well as his personal agenda, Firaxis spent time thinking about their character's lives beyond XCOM HQ.
"I could see Shen being into art, architecture, and design books," says Foertsch. "If you think about it, this is a guy making the tools for a war, but they're also really cool looking. The guy knows about industrial atheistic design and he has to get inspiration from somewhere."
Imbuing these characters with as much personality as possible without restricting a player's own narrative for them requires some creativity. Firaxis chose to plant some visual clues that suggest personality and perhaps even some backstory.
"I think there's a lot of character in Shen's engineer's jacket," Foertsch says. "To me it shows he's tough and ready to work. He's a mechanic and he's about to make some damn cool toys."
As for that backstory? "We wanted Shen to be older and a little more seasoned. He's been there and seen it all. He's kind of like Clint Eastwood. He's wise, but even as an old man he'll probably kick your ass."
While XCOM's story may not be told in a traditional sense, stories that take place within the XCOM universe are being created every day. Firaxis had millions of ideas for the characters of XCOM, but largely left the reigns in the hands of the player. With nearly limitless possibilities players can construct a narrative that speaks to their unique idea of what fighting an alien invasion would feel like.
Learn more about XCOM at XCOM.com