Welcome Back, Commander Part 2
In the second part of my X-Com 2 review, I’m going to be addressing the most important aspect of the game: it’s story.
That’s a lie. Not that I’m going to talk about the story, because you can bet your alien plasma grenade I’ll get upwards of 2,000 words out of this thing, but that the story is really all that important. There’s a reason I speak very little about it in the first part and that’s because the draw of X-Com is, first and foremost, it’s game play. The story itself is the innocuous window dressing on a candy store. You’re here for the sugar, you can’t really be bothered that there’s a few tears in the curtain and what might be a mustard stain.
As with any discussion about a recently released piece of media and its story and narrative components, there are going to be massive spoilers detailed within. If you care about story (I know I do!) then please don’t read until you have finished. If you don’t care about story, well you could probably read the first half and know all you need to know. But I’ll give a quick summary here just for convenience:
Buy X-Com 2. It’s fantastic.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s discuss plot.
X-Com 2’s plot is awful. There’s no other way to put it. This is amateur hour at a sci-fi convention. And no, I’m not just basing this on the fact that there’s really not much too it because it’s a systems based game and not a narrative driven one. This is acknowledging that there really wasn’t going to be more words dedicated to its plot than a 10,000 word script that I could pump out in a day given sufficient motivation. No, the biggest issue is that X-Com 2 is pretty much a reskin of X-Com: Enemy Unknown. But what works wonders for game systems is a detriment to narrative structure.
One of the things I was really excited about with the announcement of X-Com 2 was this whole rebellion vibe. I thought it was a really clever idea to not only separate the reboot from its original source material (and if you aren’t a regular to this site, I loathe blind reboots over aspiring for novelty and creativity) but that it opened up far more interesting themes and ideas to explore. There could be many interesting questions asked by placing the player in essentially a terrorist role: a guerilla combat position where your foe is significantly more advanced, more established and more supplied than you are. It would be like examining The Heart of Darkness but not from some enlightened British Imperialist but from the perspective of the oppressed natives themselves. It would be easy to paint the conquerors as blood thirsty monsters but more interesting to ask to what lengths and the appropriateness of fighting back against an imperialistic force would be.
To make the questions even more topical would be to have X-Com perform missions that are, essentially, little more than outright terrorism. We’re talking about (potentially) suicidal missions sent to destroy alien centres or monuments in an effort to undermine their authority and power. You could create situations where the player stops and wonders if perhaps in the zealousness that X-Com doesn’t occasionally slip into the role of the creature it’s looking to slay. Do you put in the extra effort to save civilians that may be innocent or unaware of the machinations you struggle against? Are you willing to compromise the mission to preserve your ideology or are sacrifices important to make for the greater picture? That you could ask these questions and not have to frame it around specific game elements like your own soldiers lives could have been really interesting. In fact, one of the best small details they added was to give a name for each civilian that’s killed.
The only problem is that civilians are typically only killed by the aliens themselves.
Outside of restructuring the flow of the game, there’s very little actually gained by spinning the balance of power on its head. It never really feels like you’re “exposing the alien plot” during the course of the game nor is there really any plot to expose. As I said, this is basically Enemy Within all over again. The aliens are here “for reasons” that are never explained because they’re probably not figured out by the creators. They’re looking to mass genocide humanity “for reasons” that make even less sense now that the game has established that they went through enormous amount of work and compromise in the last twenty years to create the world you’re fighting in now.
Seriously, the whole alien plot is that they’re making Avatars for their decaying bodies. Ok, that’s fine. Ancient race dying out is a bit of trope that’s over played but it’s an understandable motivation. What doesn’t make sense is that they need to process enormous amounts of human genetic material in order to accomplish this. And when I mean process, I’m talking about Soylent Green sort of industrial work. So, the aliens come to Earth, negotiate a truce for whatever reason, go to great lengths to create massive city centres created, staffed and policed by painstakingly genetically fabricated creatures all so they can open up a bunch of “gene clinics” that are used to trick people into voluntarily entering the sci-fi equivalent of Cargill Meat Processing? Why the hell didn’t they just point their giant ass weapons at everyone and tell them to line up for the meat grinder. Or just shot them and toss them into the meat grinder?
I mean, thank god for Hitler and Genghis Khan. These two individuals have been the easiest villain scapegoats for most of fictional human history. They operate on such simplistic “good vs bad” dynamics that it’s not only brain dead, it’s creatively bankrupt to boot. It makes so the thrilling final mission where the player leads their crack squad of highly trained troopers through the alien secret facility so ludicrous as the villains attempt to vainly discourage you from murdering their asses as they attempt to explain that they’re not killing you, they’re saving you. By literally killing you.
It’s intellectually and philosophically dishonest and contradictory. It makes everything leading up to that point so painfully incoherent.
First, why didn’t the aliens simply tell us their plan? Clearly they don’t need to murder all of humanity to make new bodies for themselves. Also, clearly, they aren’t strong enough to just come in and take what they need hence the twenty years of pointless infrastructure building and propaganda spinning (unless these were just “create work” programs). They attempt to paint their actions as being of benefit to humanity, so clearly some mutual co-operation would be far more successful for both sides. Unless they’re lying about trying to save humanity in which case why bother with the last ditch misdirection? Or maybe they didn’t consider mankind evolved enough to hold a conversation with though that makes their feeble attempt to beg for their life in the final mission all the more bizarre.
Look, I get that they’re trying to set up Terror from the Deep with these games–and that Terror from the Deep is essentially X-Com fights Cthulu. However, trying to force some sort of greater continuity or franchise establishment is a self-defeating purpose. We know they’re going to make sequels for as long as they sell but you’re not going to get any coherent narrative out of all that. You can’t keep running into “bigger fish” in the universe that every enemy you face is desperately trying to beat or ward off. Just pick one motivation for the aliens and stick with it. Either the aliens are here for Imperialistic reasons, viewing humanity as little more than savages and not worthy of their time or consideration while they hide behind their technological advancements as “enlightenment” and the “right to subjugate as they see fit.” Or, they are wardens trying desperately to deal with some greater threat all the while attempting to save their stewards through their own misguided and alien “methods” that are simply misunderstood.
You either have the aliens constantly trying to talk to humanity but failing because of the huge cultural and biological differences or you have them not speaking at all. The alien representative then is either a erstwhile speaker who simply can’t seem to find the words to properly communicate the goals and desires of his creators or is just a lie used as a means of mindless pacification.
Personally, I prefer this sort of misunderstood steward angle. It creates a more complex situation and introduces greater shades of grey into the conflict. Whereas everyone basically agrees now that Imperialism is bad (and thus is probably what they were going for because of low hanging fruit and all that), I think the alternative works far better with this X-Com as rebels motif. Sure, they are justified in their violent response to the alien occupation and the actions taken by them. In this direction, humans aren’t kidnapped when “desirable genetic sequences” are identified. Instead, the humans that disappear from the gene clinics could be the ones that are simply untreatable through their medicine. Instead of that individual dying to their terminal disease or whatnot, they are then put through the alien’s Forge facility that, yes, splices their bodies with other genes to create the hybrid Advent but the individual is kept alive both individual and genetically as they are used in these cloning vats.
And, sure, you can add more fuel for X-Com’s actions by having them legitimately kidnap anyone with psychic capabilities in order to undergo procedures for the Avatar Project. That could be construed as the price of this beneficial arrangement. The Elders see that humanity is served through their more enlightened ways–their diseases are cured, peace is established and cities created to raises the standard of living of the native species well beyond that of what they found when they first arrived. The only downside is that every now and then a member or two will need to be “sacrificed” to the gods in order for them to continue to seek a biological form capable of sustaining their psychic minds or whatever. The aliens are both flawed but understandable. They are still antagonistic, especially since they would probably still see themselves above the need to explain themselves to humanity in the first place.
In this way, I’d restructure the final mission so you aren’t having the Elders blather to you in a desperate plea for their life. Instead, have X-Com traverse the facility while your experts monitoring the mission on commentating on what they see. They could come to understand that these genetic storage containers contain the life and genetic information of dozens (or even hundreds) of other worlds, stored and collected like some sort of galactic museum. The varied troops in their armies are the dominant species from their respective planets, cured and “uplifted” by the Elders to assist them in their universal search to protect and save all life they come across. Then, you could stumble upon the laboratories where it’s clear that this philanthropic endeavour isn’t just misguided benevolence but also a pressing need for them to cure their own biological failings. You could have some interesting “boss fights” here where X-Com can kill some of their failed attempts at creating a suitable form to hold them. Think psychic chryssalids and the possibilities start to open up immediately. After killing several Avatars and the facility is collapsing, maybe then one Elder would reach out and tragically explain their hubris and misguided attempts as their work crumbles around them.
You have a better narrative that can explore a specific contained theme that way. Also, it doesn’t beholden you to any sort of power creep in your franchise. The next X-Com game can be something entirely different. Instead of being invaded by these arrogant Elders, you could reset the world have it be Cthulu monsters or whatever else imaginable. In this way, each instalment would be a self contained story and the varied game play changes can easily be explained that way. As it is now, I don’t know how Firaxis will address the fact that you’ve already researched tons of advanced technologies which you won’t have in the sequel. They skirted that issue this time by declaring the first one “didn’t actually occur.”
But unless they plan on doing that every time (and given their obvious foreshadowing at the end indicates otherwise), they’re going to have to come up with ever increasingly contrived explanations or completely rework a significant portion of the game. And I don’t envy either of those options.
Also, I’d really like for one to have a story that didn’t completely suck. Not that it’s super important. But it’d be nice.