There’s a lot that goes into the creation of any story, but how do you balance that out in a franchise like XCOM where so many of the memorable moments come from the personalized experiences your avatars have on-mission? XCOM 2: War of the Chosen introduces new factions, The Chosen and a whole series of narrative experiences that previously hadn’t shown up in the franchise. How did it come about? We asked Scott Wittbecker, Lead Writer on XCOM 2.
How do you approach creating a fixed story that also allows for a wide-open player experience?
This is probably the biggest overall challenge we face narratively, introducing a fixed storyline with actual characters that doesn’t throw off the natural emergent storytelling that XCOM is known for. Personally, I think the most important aspect of that is leaving the soldiers alone, allowing their physical appearance, background, attitude, etc. to be decided by the player. Even with the fixed heroes we’ve introduced over the years (Annette, Zhang, Jane, Mox, Elena, and so on), at the very least we want there to be enough choice and customization involved that you never feel like we’ve forced a persona on one of your favorite soldiers. That’s meant to be entirely up to your imagination, and there’s no denying it’s one of XCOM’s greatest strengths.
And that imagination was shifted dramatically with XCOM 2. It went from hoping to repel an alien invasion to starting the sequel knowing that we lost.
Narratively, the XCOM franchise has always been campy, going back to the original opening of X-COM: UFO Defense. It can be difficult to get away from that tone with such a wild variety of outlandish enemies and technologies. While Enemy Unknown had a darker theme tied to the idea that we’re experiencing the invasion and discovering these aliens for the first time, XCOM 2 exists in a world where the aliens have been around for years. On the surface, that mystery is gone for most of the surviving human population. Although there are a lot of over-the-top sequences, I think we’ve been successful in introducing the occasional thoughtful moments along the way. The nature of XCOM in general makes it difficult to wrap a story—a soldier who is alive now might not be after the next mission, so we can’t make any assumptions about who will appear in an upcoming scene.
Do you feel the introduction of elements like Soldier Bonds (and the Photobooth feature) help tell more of those stories that personally affect the player’s choices? How?
Absolutely. Soldier Bonds, Photobooth, and how the Chosen interact with the player are just a few ways the gameplay promotes the player’s personal story. The features that are designed to enhance the player’s connection to their soldiers are usually left somewhat vague on purpose. With Soldier Bonds, the idea of a “bond” between two people could mean many different things. It’s up to the player to decide if the bond two soldiers share is friendly, professional, romantic, etc. Photobooth is about giving the player 100% total creative control in their personal story. They have an idea of who these soldiers are and what they mean to each other. Now they can illustrate their stories and share them with the world.
When you were developing the dialogue, what comes first? Were you leaning heavily into the voice actors that were cast? Or did you have a clear idea of the main characters coming in?
Jake and the designers had a specific archetype in mind for each of the Chosen by the time I really dug into their personalities, so they were shaped more by the gameplay requirements than the actors who eventually played them (all of whom did an amazing job.) For the remaining parts, we admittedly saw a great opportunity to work with a great cast of actors. Knowing each of them so well from their past work, this group had a much greater influence on the tone of their characters (resistance leaders and faction soldiers).
War of the Chosen introduces three nemesis that personally taunt the player. Explain how this is a big shift from how the XCOM series has worked in the past and why you took it in this direction.
The Chosen are the most narratively involved characters we’ve ever developed in a Firaxis title, and there’s certainly been a learning curve internally as we experiment with introducing more personality and flavor into the XCOM franchise and the studio’s games in general. There aren’t many strategy games, particularly turn-based games, that focus on a cinematic narrative component. It would be easier to develop a strictly text-based system, but as it stands each of the Chosen have roughly 600 lines of unique dialogue. And that’s saying nothing of the 10,000-someodd lines of new voice over going into the expansion overall. Taken together, I think it helps set XCOM 2: War of the Chosen apart in terms of our polish and presentation.
Speaking of all those lines of dialogue, was there a particular line or an exchange between characters that is your favorite moment? Why?
The Resistance Radio DJ (played by Jake Busey) is probably some of the craziest dialogue we’ve put out there, it was a lot of fun to write and record. You only really hear him in the Bar area, so I’m guessing it will take a while before the fans hear the full extent of his stories. I don’t want to spoil it, though. You’ll have to just play the game to hear it for yourself.
Avoiding spoilers, can you talk about some of the inspirations for the story in War of the Chosen?
We really wanted to build on the feeling of a worldwide resistance effort while also pushing the idea that the aliens (and now the Chosen) are out there working towards their goals just as eagerly as you. While the core game always referenced a fledging resistance growing across the planet, with the introduction of the factions we were finally able to put a face on these otherwise mysterious survivors.
We’ve already announced there’s a new book coming that tells more about the world of XCOM 2. Want to share any additional insights about the process – or about the upcoming book?
We typically end up with a decent amount of background history and lore that doesn’t make it into the game itself for various reasons. Fortunately for our fans who do enjoy the narrative, there are a number of supplements planned that should fill in some of those story gaps we couldn’t cover during the campaign. But you’ll have to stay tuned for more details there.
In the coming weeks, we’re going to continue chatting with the team about all aspects of the game and the work that went into creating XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. And we plan to answer your questions – and more – right here.
Do you have questions for the team? Be sure to follow XCOM on Twitter and Like XCOM on Facebook to keep up to date with the latest information on XCOM 2: War of the Chosen. If you’re looking to enlist with the Resistance, join the 2K Forums!