For every map you fought through in XCOM 2, there was a story behind it. Literally. Each time the team worked on an environment for the game, it started with little stories about why the rooms and buildings were laid out the way they were. Long before players got to the battlefield, the Firaxis dev team identified who lived there and what had happened. One of the artists that worked on this environmental storytelling was Justin Rodriguez, a Senior Environment Artist on XCOM 2.
Justin worked on a variety of game assets, but by far his favorite part was world building and putting little touches on each map to make the place feel “lived-in.” “When creating the environments, we made many passes to add in level design, art and lighting. Towards the end of production we would make a pass through the Small Town and Slums levels to give them a little extra decoration and color,” Justin explains. “The environmental storytelling we created for the world helped me add cool details and narrative moments in every nook and cranny of XCOM 2. In fact, during our environment art meetings, we started to share the details of the environmental storytelling with the team and it eventually became an integral part of my process when world building.” But he was very quick to add that it was very much a team effort.
Today, we’re sharing with you some of Justin’s favorite stories and Easter eggs that, if you look carefully, you’ll find placed all around XCOM 2!
While making our final pass through the Small Town environment, we wanted there to be a contrast in the stories being told here as compared to the other environments you play in. One of the ideas we thought about was how the aliens would disturb the lives of families living on earth? We imagined how over the years people would see the aliens create these giant City Centers and their futuristic technology and propaganda would entice men, women, and children to leave their homes and seek a new life with the aliens and ADVENT.
One narrative we created was about a family living in a small town: a husband and wife with two daughters that would be indoctrinated by the ADVENT and convinced to let their two daughters seek a new life in the futuristic City Centers. We decorated a home to be theirs, with the girls’ room on the second story of the home. We wanted their room to feel like it was initially decorated when they were younger, and throughout the years of alien occupation City Center tech and other furniture was added in as they got older. To add to the narrative we decided to keep the room untouched as much as possible as if the parents kept it that way in the hope that their daughters would come home, or at least come back to visit. Later when the environment team was working on decorating Slums, we thought it would be interesting to have a little apartment that was themed to look like a college dorm, and decided that the two students who lived there might be the two girls that left their small town home in hopes to experience a new, bright, life in the City Centers. When working on this space we wanted it to feel run-down and dismal, as if they felt tricked by the ADVENT to move into the Slums and never were able to travel into the new, clean, City Centers.
Another example of a narrative spanning through different environments of the game is the Slums Shrine, and Single Dad Home that we decorated in Small Town. This instance of environmental storytelling was created from a family picture painted by one of our concept artists, Dongmin Shin, to be used as decoration in Small Town. I thought it would be interesting to take this family and create a narrative about how the ADVENT and aliens would disrupt their lives. The player can see hints and clues of the family while moving through different levels. In Small Town, their home exists, but we decorated it to hint that only the father and son live there now. We had the idea that the father was helping XCOM before the aliens took over, and when the wife figured this out, she was angry and left for the City Centers. In the Slums, I built a little shrine that was decorated with a copy of the family picture. The husband’s face has a worn out XCOM stencil over it, and only the mother and son remain in frame at this little shrine. There are toys and ADVENT propaganda books collected on the floor. While the little scene can stand alone by itself, the environment team likes to think that players might see this and start making connections with other stories and decorations found throughout the XCOM world.
Not all of the stories we hid were sad, though we felt it was important to always convey hope hidden throughout the ADVENT occupied environments. In the Slums, if you find yourself near an eyeglasses store, you might spot tiny cars on some of the 3D printers instead of eyeglass frames. These toy cars are used throughout the Slums but in this story they are used to decorate the clinic and apartment above and it also gave me a reason to place them all around the environment. Above the store lives the optometrist that manages the clinic and creates the toy cars. We had the idea that this father had lost his family in the war and moved to a City Center to seek a new life. Since he only made it to the Slums, he spends his nights off 3D printing toy cars for the neighborhood children. On his back porch, he even has a drop cloth and a spray can that he left out so newly varnished toy cars could air dry. Even in an oppressed environment like the Slums, the occupants have found a way to bring joy and hope to their lives and others around them.
Next time you find yourself playing XCOM 2, take a look around and see what little narrative moments you can find while moving slowly in concealment in the Slums, Small Town, or City Center. Who knows? Maybe it’ll inspire you to create some of your own stories. Let us know!