Diversis Viribus: Diversity in the XCOM games

Diversis Viribus: Diversity in the XCOM games

By Udi Becker

With an economic value that exceeds Hollywood, the video game has established itself as both an industry and an art that are as much a part of our culture as any other form of media. As the narratives offered by games become more and more complex, the political values games reflect have begun to take a more central place in both the artform itself, and its critiques. An interesting recent case study is XCOM: Chimera Squad, the latest game in the XCOM franchise, which was released in April 2020. 

Chimera Squad is a turn-based tactics game, in which the player leads a Special Forces team policing a city in a post alien occupation Earth, essentially a sci-fi action game. Presenting a diverse cast of protagonists, in a time when video games have become a popular form of entertainment and issues of social and racial equality are salient in the public discussion, it can be seen by critics as pandering, using diversity as a marketing strategy. I would like to argue that while the XCOM games focus on action and strategy, they have historically put an exceptional emphasis on diversity, and Chimera Squad is simply the next step on the same path set by its predecessors, be they direct or indirect.

Diversity as Representation

In modern society, diversity could simply mean representation of various identities and groups (such as socioeconomic status, gender identity, age, faith, physical and mental capabilities, racial and ethnic background, and more). Diversity can also be defined as a societal value, identified with liberalism and multiculturalism, under which maintaining diversity in different facets of society can be considered both as a normative value on its own, or as a means to an end, promoting creativity and innovation, empathy and understanding, and so on.

One tool for promoting diversity is representation of diversity in media. Such representation exposes the general public to underrepresented groups, while at the same time normalizes their inclusion in society. Furthermore, it sets the societal expectations from individuals from said groups, and can influence their self-image and sense of agency; as the common claim goes, if all the scientists in movies are men and all women are housewives, the message to viewers in general and women in particular is that women have no place in the lab, only in the kitchen.

In video games, diversity can be explored from various perspectives, such as diversity within the gaming industry or among the player base. Here I will focus on diversity in the game’s narrative and mechanics.

Social diversity in the game narrative can be judged on mere inclusion of characters with diverse identities, but  also by the roles given to said characters;  a game where there are a lot of minorities will not be considered “diverse” if they are all antagonists or minor characters. On the other hand, one should not limit the use of minority groups to one side or the other, to avoid a sense of over-correction – not all villains should be of the same minority (or majority) group. The challenge is to create the right mix of roles for representatives of different groups and identities. If the game takes place in a modern and Western society, we could (or should) expect ethnic diversity among different professions (shop clerks, police officers, evil overlords, and so on).

But back to the aliens.

Two Trios

The year is 1994. The game X-Com: UFO Defense (or UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe), is released. The plot of the game starts in the distant future of 1999, after fear of an alien invasion led the nations of the world to establish an international force to fight off the alien threat. The game focuses on this force, which the player controls. The game received positive reviews and a series of sequels. I will focus on this game and its two follow-ups – Terror from the Deep, from 1995 and Apocalypse from 1997. 2012 saw the release of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a “reimagined” remake of the 1994 game. This game had two sequels: XCOM 2 (2016) and the aforementioned Chimera Squad (2020); three squad-based tactical combat games, to be compared with the original games.

It is interesting to compare these two “trios” (almost trilogies, but not quite) side by side. In both cases, these are strategy games that are identified as the basis for action spin-offs. They have a similar premise of fighting an alien invasion, with gameplay consisting of strategic management and tactical turn-based battles. In both trios the first two games are very similar to each other and the third game is different in various aspects, both in the narrative and the game mechanics. If we focus on the issue of diversity, we can find various similarities and differences.

The Similar: Protagonists

In the first two games of the original trio, the player oversees an international force fighting the aliens. Emphasis on international: the soldiers that the player controls come from different countries and ethnic backgrounds, and can be men or women. The soldiers as a whole are randomly generated, and each soldier has their own attributes, which are also determined randomly and independently of race, ethnicity, sex, and gender.

For its time, presenting a united Earth against the alien threat, using a military force with no consideration of ethnicity, nationality, or gender, was nothing to laugh at; it represented ideas of a universal world order or even manifested post-historical tendencies, echoing post-cold war concepts such as Fukuyama’s End of History, and a progressive stance on incorporating women in fighting forces, a topic which is debated to this day.

Transitioning to the 2012 and 2016 games, we will see the same thing, soldiers from all over the globe. Every soldier has a small flag of their home country as an insignia; some have audio lines with accents or in their countries’ languages. When their squad embarks on a mission, the player can see the unified nations of Earth standing together against the extraterrestrial invaders. In the new games, the player meets staff members in the XCOM organization, who also come from diverse backgrounds: In the 2012 XCOM, the chief engineer is an older man of Asian descent, and the chief scientist is a white woman with a German accent. In XCOM2, the chief engineer is a young woman of Asian descent and the chief scientist is a black man, with a North American accent. In both games the tactical officer who assists the player is the same American white man.

Each of the third games, both from 1997 and 2020, takes place in a single city, so the soldiers are not given a defined nationality. The newer game has dubbing and biographies that may hint at or elaborate on the origin of each character, while the 1997 game had neither. Both games shift from their two predecessors with a difference in an important facet of the narrative- the composition of the city population and of the soldier roster. More specifically- they include alien elements in them. 

Before delving into the issue of alien inclusiveness, let’s elaborate on a change between the two trios- that of alien enemy units, specifically their sex and gender.

The Different: Sex, Gender and Aliens

As mentioned, the premise for all six games is at its core the human fight against aliens. The two trios differ, however, with their approach to the aliens themselves.

In the games from the 1990s, aliens did not have a clear gender. They were, well, aliens. In in-game “encyclopedia” entries for the different types of aliens, there were descriptions that mentioned concepts like a-sexual reproduction, or removal of the reproductive system from alien soldiers. In the later games, and especially in the 2016 XCOM2, one can find sex and gender characteristics in the aliens. Specifically, an unequivocal reference to the existence of female aliens: The “Snakeman” race, which has been described as having asexual reproduction in the original games, and who “evolved” to the enemy unit “Thin Man” in XCOM, has been replaced in XCOM2 by “Vipers”. While Thin Men are humanlike aliens, dressed in male-coded suits, “Vipers” are identified in-game as female, and have been given external characteristics traditionally considered feminine. So is the robotic “Codex” enemy type, which is visually presented by a nimble female shape. The “Berserkers”, an alien race from XCOM2 has been described by the developers as such that all the individuals we encounter from it are female. Even among the human-like soldiers in the game, “Advent troops”, there is an explicit reference to the fact that some of the soldiers are female. The expansion XCOM2: War of the Chosen (WotC) adds more enemy types, some with a declared gender: the Viper King (described as the only male Viper), and the Berserker Queen and Archon King. “The Assassin”, a named antagonist in the expansion, is designed with feminine characteristics. It should be noted that even including these representations of female aliens, many more aliens are still coded as male or without relevant characteristics.

In Chimera Squad gender diversity among enemy units is even more pronounced. Women and female-coded alien units appear in the various factions the player meets during the game, including the leaders of two of them. The theme of female aliens is also noticeable among the game protagonists, as the soldier squad includes the friendly Viper Torque (who is a female-coded alien), and Zephyr, a human-alien hybrid coded female.

As I have just mentioned the inclusion of aliens in the ranks of the protagonists, we should discuss another facet of diversity in the games: the acceptance of aliens, their inclusion in the general public and their transition to playable characters.

Aliens of Two Cities: Growing out of the Antagonist Stereotype

In the first two games in every trio, the aliens were strictly the enemy; evil, bent on world domination and the subjugation (if not decimation) of humanity. They were not only dehumanized as aliens, but also as peons with no agency, with many under the mind control of other aliens. It is worth noting that adopting alien technology is a factor of all the games in the series, including the option to train soldiers using alien technology to hone psionic abilities, similar to those of some aliens (which allows your soldiers to control the minds of aliens). Nevertheless, the protagonists and their allies are always human. 

This dichotomy changes in the third game of each trio- Apocalypse and Chimera Squad. While the first two games show humanity fighting the aliens as two distinct groups, both third games are set after the end of the war with the aliens, on an Earth that now includes aliens as remnants of the invading forces. In both games, some aliens are portrayed as regular folks, trying to live their lives, just like humans. The in-game society appears to have integrated the aliens into it, to an extent, treating them similarly to human minority groups.

Gameplaywise, both games add aliens to the general population and the soldier roster. Apocalypse introduced the concept of human-alien hybrids, the result of genetic experiments involving cross breeding humans and an Alien species. They are represented by their own faction in the city where the game takes place, and can offer recruitable soldiers with greater psionic abilities. These hybrids could also be part of the enemies fighting the player. Chimera Squad goes a step further in humanizing the aliens, but before elaborating on that, allow me to set the stage chronologically.

The reimagined games went back to a purely human starting point. XCOM2 introduced human-alien hybrids as enemy units, bred and indoctrinated by the aliens, unlike the hybrids from Apocalypse. XCOM2 hybrids were dehumanized to an extent, not only through the narrative, but also in their design: while the hybrids physically resembled humans, their faces were always mostly covered, and they used an alien language. Protagonist soldiers, in contrast, spoke human languages and rarely used helmets, even while using heavy mechanized armor. This decreased the player’s ability to recognize them as human and helped clamping them together with the alien “other” (or even worse, as unnatural abominations).

The identification of aliens as merely antagonists has changed somewhat in XCOM2: WotC, which included a resistance faction of renegade hybrids, which the player could recruit to fight along their side. This faction spoke English, and their leaders appeared without their helmets, to help in humanizing these past enemies.

Diversis Viribus

In Chimera Squad we again find aliens in the general population and on the soldier roster. Furthermore, this time they are not limited to hybrids, but include many different alien types, which were only antagonists in previous games. Unlike in Apocalypse, where the information we had on the hybrids as a group was their description as a minority suffering from discrimination, in Chimera Squad the societal role of the aliens is pivotal for the narrative: The game begins with the assassination of the hybrid mayor of the city. As a hybrid, the mayor can be said to embody the ultimate bridge between humanity and aliens, and their success in reaching elected office represents the presumed acceptance of alien races by Earth’s society. Throughout the main plot of the game, which centers around capturing the assassin, the setting exposes the player to more and more information which parallels the aliens with real-life minority groups and their struggles. Various missions and background information share with the player the hardship of aliens attempting to integrate into human society and the tension between humanity coping with the trauma of the alien invasion, and the alien individuals who do not find their place on this planet where they were deserted. Some aliens seem to dream of escaping back to space, some develop religious customs around alien artifacts and nourish a unique group identity, and others try to integrate and “pass” as humans. Using the information and narrative presented to the player, the game retrospectively takes the aliens, featured as inhuman (and inhumane) antagonists in previous games, and deepens their life story, humanizes them and gives them an understandable rationale. 

Moreover, the addition of non-humans to the playable soldiers roster is much more comprehensive than in Apocalypse: out of 11 pre-generated playable characters which the player can choose from, 6 are human and 5 are alien or hybrid. Narratively, these individuals are presented to the player with greater detail and share their personality and experience with each other (and the player) via scripted conversations. What seemed to be an objective dichotomy between good and evil, human and alien, becomes a complex arena of individual experiences and shared trauma. The player is told about the harsh treatment aliens receive from humanity in the game world, the ever-present suspicion in their motives, rejection of their religious beliefs, and the harsh lives many of them live. Ultimately, the game staunchly supports a pluralist, tolerant point of view, which is further strengthened by the game mechanics: each alien soldier has its own sets of skills, which complement others’, and allow for synergy in combat, reaching results no one group could have reached on its own. Moreover, the team members work well together. Though they may discuss charged issues among themselves, share painful experiences, and question one another on components of their identity, they always reach a state of mutual understanding and even acceptance.

When reviewing Chimera Squad’s narrative critically, it is easy to find comparisons between the aliens and minority groups in contemporary society. From the treatment of refugees in western countries to racial tensions in the U.S., from social unrest in societies after a civil war to disregard of aboriginal and native religions, the game uses the façade of action and tactical combat to raise pertinent questions for contemporary western society, on how it treats the “other”. 

And yes, Chimera Squad takes a step further from previous games in promoting a liberal, pluralist agenda of tolerance and diversity. When reviewed in the context of the political discourse of early 2020, even the act of acknowledging this discourse of identities in a pluralist society is a political act, identified with political leanings such as social liberalism and social justice. If the agenda set by the game developers was not clear enough, it is brought home by the change of emblem used in-game by the protagonists. In the two previous games, it was “Vigilo Confido”, loosely translated to “I watch, I believe”. Chimera Squad’s emblem is “Diversis Viribus”, a Latin translation for “strength through diversity”.

And again, while Chimera Squad has reached further in portraying a complex portrait of an urban, western society mistreating its minorities, it echoes similar choices done in Apocalypse, which was released 23 years before it. The fact that Xcom and XCOM2 came out between Apocalypse and Chimera Squad without developing diversity to such an extent further exemplifies the importance of the urban setting to the critical discussion of mionorities via the narrative.It is also interesting to note that the two games that present a diverse (if fractured) populace and deal with discrimination against minorities were the two games set in an urban setting, which is identified as a liberal space, when the urban setting is identified with minorities, while white families tended to move to suburbs or reside in rural areas (especially in the U.S.). A more radical approach could criticize the game creators for promoting cultural assimilation as the main path to inclusion in society: after all, the alien protagonists speak English (instead of an alien language) and are members of a police force maintaining a social order which is oppressive to the minorities they supposedly represent, in the service of human commanders. 

As mentioned earlier, this is not the only case of developers taking a political stance. Ubisoft are proud of their company’s internal diversity; Bioware games are known for including diverse protagonists from many ethnicities, races, and sexual orientations. These are just examples. For years, the gaming community and industry could not be seen as apolitical or detached from social issues: gaming had its share of controversies charged with social or political meanings. From controversies around violence in Mortal Kombat (1992 onwards) through Gamergate (2014) which brought forth questions on sexism and progressivism, to the representation of violence, sex and criminal behavior in the GTA series, games and gaming culture have been no strangers to controversy. But games didn’t just haphazardly fall into these political controversies – many have courted them deliberately to voice a political stand. In 2013, Irrational Games released Bioshock Infinite, a first-person shooter rife with warnings on the dangers of hyper-patriotism and religion in the U.S. In 2017, following the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville, Bethesda promoted the game Wolfenstein II with the tweet “Make America Nazi-Free Again.”

In this landscape, Chimera Squad has taken a bold progressive stance. However, it is important to note that this choice is built on an existing pathos in this series to promote progressive values and push the boundaries of representation in video games. While the discussion of video games as a medium for social and political discourse has grown with the rise in popularity of video games as a widely-accepted form of entertainment, I hope I have shown that video games have taken similar stances even before 2000, and done so using not only overtly via the narrative, but also using gameplay mechanics.

Udi Becker earned his Master’s Degree in Political Science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is a graduate student at Bar-Ilan University. His current research focuses on political analysis of fantasy fiction and popular culture.

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