Kitsch and Tone in XCOM:Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2

It takes me a billion years to finish games anymore. I finally just beat XCOM 2, which came out in February of 2016, so that really changes my average time to completion of a game. Only like a year this time. I was excited to start and finish this game, as its prequel XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of my favorite time sinks.

I love XCOM: Enemy Unknown because it’s super kitschy. The enemies unknown are all classic aliens – grey aliens, skinny men in black, decked out with laser guns and set against a background of bright colors. Its fairly goofy, even when played straight, an homage to jokey alien sightings.

I love this aesthetic. I love bug eyed greyliens, men in black sightings, and saucer UFOS. Earth is under threat, and while missions do feature civilians in need of rescue before a Chryssalid kills them and turns them into a zombie, or green goo covered corpses scattering the ground, its mostly window dressing. Its hokey. Its a delight. I used to replay XCOM: Enemy Unknown every few months, and part of the appeal was the simple threat of bug-eyed aliens. Classic, goofy, and charming.

XCOM 2 loses the kitsch, in a move that is unexpected, but not necessarily bad. It’s still a delight, but veers off from the joke of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Certainly, its not a grim-and-gritty game, replacing everything with grey and gore , but it takes a darker tone. Recognizable and iconic aliens are morphed into scarier forms. Classic grey aliens become taller, lankier, and more threatening, “improved with human DNA.” The men in black aliens, which in Enemy Unknown were aliens hiding in plain sight, completely lose their camouflage and become large viper-like creature, capable of both shooting your soldiers or strangling them from up close.

Civilians have names when they die, unlike Enemy Unknown. They’re still ultimately just NPCs, no backstory, no real bearing on the game other than you need to rescue at least six of them in extraction missions. But the addition of names is also the addition of stakes. You save scum, reloading and reloading the same mission,and start to feel bad when “Roberta Roberti has been killed” flashes across the screen for the fiftieth time. Poor Roberta. I’m sorry I am so bad at this mission.

Enemy Unknown was always sparse in terms of character development. We get some stock figures – the doctor, the scientist, the military man – right out of a 60s C-movie. Doctor Vahlen in Enemy Unknown has the character traits of: German, doctor. In 2, though only appearing through left-behind audio diaries and warnings, she has morphed into a mad scientist (very original – a morally-questionable German scientist). Her replacement, Dr. Richard Tygan, as well as other characters, make comments about her exuberance in alien dissections and interrogations, and her questionable moral compass. She wound up spawning a bunch of boss monsters in her desire to experiment on aliens, which Command and Tygan (himself a bit morally questionable) decry. A joke cardboard-cutout of a character is given more depth by adding in nothing more than a gritty lack of ethics.

Enemy Unknown features alien abductions and alien experimentation. XCOM 2 introduces alien experimentation that moves beyond jokey and tropey into real body horror (slightly present with Chryssalid zombies in Enemy Unknown, and now ratcheted up). Alien experimentation on humans has morphed into institutionalized surgeries, and humans are being melted down in refineries for fuel, meaning many maps are littered with tubes of green goo filled with floating body parts. After one of the end game missions, a cutscene pays where images of the alien rulers crimes are displayed to the populace of Earth – including a shot of an enormous vat filled with nearly naked human corpses stacked on one another. It’s still rendered in XCOM’s cartoony and unrealistic style, but the imagery begins to ape real imagery of real-world horrors. I hesitate to call anything in this game graphic, because it’s certainly not by the broad standard of just about every other video game out today, but compared to Enemy Unknown, 2 does ramp up the imagery.

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The Speaker standing in front of a screen displaying a pile of human corpses in XCOM 2.

A dark tonal shift from the more lighthearted small-scale abductions of Enemy Unknown, which is almost more akin to the early seasons of X-files than its own sequel in terms of tone.

The shift is an interesting one too, when compared with real world alien “history.” Earlier aliens in the 1950s included the Nordics, who were essentially Caucasian hippies from space, spreading messages of harmony and peace. Nordic sightings have significantly lessened over the years, being phased out by more and more accounts of cattle mutilations and abductions. Men in black sightings have been reported since the 1950s, showing up to hush up, and cover up, alien encounters and sightings. A trend of alien sightings becoming more and more violent and hostile as the decades pass. A game series with an evolving and deepening alien threat.

Even the gameplay reflects this shift. XCOM 2 was significantly harder for me, no longer a cruise control, put on a podcast and tune out game the way Enemy Unknown becomes as soon as you get plasma weapons. This is of course, not a bad thing, just a different thing. XCOM 2 is still tremendously fun, and has probably become my new go to replay game the way Enemy Unknown was.

I personally think the shift causes XCOM 2 to lose some of the charm and originality  present in Enemy Unknown (I know it’s a reboot, but you know what I mean). Granted, its retains a fairly unique game play style, is brightly colored, and still leans on some of the kitsch of alien sightings. I appreciate the growth and new direction, and continuation of whatever plot XCOM can be said to have. But it feels more like a big budget action film than a hokey little movie on Chiller. Earth is past the invasion point. Now aliens are a real threat. Things are dire. Its lost is kitsch, it’s Roswell tourism charm, which is really all I wanted from the franchise.

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