It’s been a fun trip with X-COM, exploring one of the best games of a generation from a little different angle. For this final installment, we’re going to look at it from an entirely outside perspective. When I call it “Game of the Decade” up above I mean more than just “best game of the 90’s,” but I’m saying it’s one of the best games ABOUT the 90’s.
Let’s backtrack a little. Remember when we talked about Microprose being a good influence on the trajectory that X-COM would originally take? One of those things being the name, the setting, and so forth?
Those weren’t just lucky happenstances, and this is the last and shortest lesson—how to make your game great while also making it part of something bigger.
You see, X-COM was more than a game about aliens and UFOs, it was part of the massive popularization of UFOs and Conspiracy Theories that occurred in the 90’s. UFOs had been all the rage earlier, but a combination of factors really came together in the 90’s.
The 50’s can be seen as a very gilded age of science, when the power of an Atomic Future seemed incredibly tempting, before we began to learn more and soon that perfect Atomic World seemed dangerous and fraught with risk. Reports of UFOs buzzing overhead, the first adventures into space, and a changing social climate were cracks in this perfect world concept.
The 60’s and 70’s had a very different view of the results of science, of the American space program, and of society. All the pillars of public faith were torn down, at least in America, by a huge counter-culture movement—and a legitimate set of fears, brought forth by such things as the Kennedy Assassination and Watergate.
The 90’s brought a lot of these fears back, for various reasons, and pop culture featured these elements heavily once again. To terribly simplify it, we can look at this as similar to the 60’s and point to elements of a youth counter-culture rebelling against a conservative government. The explosion of the internet also brought an entire subculture together. And in 1990, for the first time, the Hubble Space Telescope opened it’s eye to peer out into space.
What’s important is that the Microprose guys saw all these cultural movements and knew that tapping into this would make a good game even better. Identifying these cultural cues can lead to really great opportunities for striking a nerve. Here’s a good example:
Remember how the game was called X-COM in America, but UFO in Europe? In the 70’s, a British Sci-Fi show named UFO came out, a show which the creators of X-COM said was very influential on their designs. The similarities between the X-COM scenario and the plot of UFO are striking, but so is the name—UFO versus UFO: ENEMY UNKNOWN.
In America, however, there was a different cultural cue to play on:
“I think the release of The X-Files the year before the launch of X-COM: Enemy Unknown helped a little. Although we hadn’t seen The X-Files at the time, we were drawing on the same UFO folklore for the game, and this hit a nerve in the US.”
Hitting those nerves helps a lot. The X-Files was a landmark series of the 90’s and one of the defining elements. When making a game, being able to touch on those pop culture moments can make your game more than just a product. You can make it part of the cultural landscape!
It can be hard to identify them while they’re happening, but taking the time to look at the cultural landscape you’re marketing into can be extremely valuable. X-COM’s creators may not have known how to do this, and had set out just to make a sequel to Laser Squad. But Microprose knew how, and it indisputably helped X-COM to succeed amidst the competition.
Tapping into America’s obsession with the mysterious, the paranormal, the UFO phenomenon and conspiracies was genius. Not only were they space aliens coming to Earth and abducting people, but the war against them was being carried out by a covert organization, the aliens were plotting to subvert the governments through vast conspiracies, and they were in possession of strange paranormal powers in the form of psionics. They didn’t bend spoons but we could assume they were able to.
1993 was the year that “Secrets of the Psychics,” an episode of the immensely popular PBS series NOVA came out.
You can see the forces aligning behind these concepts early on. Just as a 1991 book called “Alien Liason” was a great inspiration to Gollop when designing X-COM, so was a 1991 survey on Alien Abduction a great inspiration to the creators of the X-Files:
“The show originated when Carter read Harvard professor John E. Mack’s commentary on the 1991 Roper Survey on UFO abduction, which suggested that at least 3.7 million Americans may have been shanghaied by extraterrestrials. ”Everybody wants to hear that story,” says Carter, who pitched the series to Fox shortly thereafter. “Abduction is tantamount to a religious experience.””
It’s also important to realize how these other things tie together… simple things like using the concept of a silver saucer UFO, or repeating the same gray alien that has become ingrained on our psyche as the symbol of the menacing space alien. Or, in the case of the original little gray man, the menacing space bug from the Moon. The insectoid hive culture of the Grays, or Sectoids in X-COM, can be seen taking a nod to the Selenites of “The First Men in the Moon” by H.G. Wells.
I make no claim as to the reports of alien abduction, but I am personally a skeptic on such thing. It’s just an interesting connection to point towards while on the topic of media referencing media and culture.
So, I had promised to keep these shorter.
What can we learn from this then?
You can get a lot of bang for your buck if you design your game within the movements of your culture instead of despite them. This can be difficult to do while the culture is evolving around you constantly—looking back, it seems obvious to us that a Sci-Fi game tapping into the X-Files sentiments would be a success. What analog do we have today?
What cultural shifts do we feel? What kind of fears and hopes can we tap into?
I think some companies already are looking for these threads. In America, at least, many games highlight a changing place in the world, feelings of guilt, and the lack of clear enemies and objectively moral goals. Games like Modern Warfare 2 and Homefront, where America takes a beating and our heroes straddle a gray line, can be seen in a similar light to the blasted D.C. of Fallout 3. The new XCOM game may evoke similar feelings of a “justified revenge,” fighting an unknown foe on your own territory, seeing your homes destroyed by a deceptive foe, and feelings of something lost.
Hitting those nerves can be hard, but it’s not impossible to look back and find the events that have shaped your current audience. X-COM did, and it was lucky to do so. It was a short lived success that didn’t translate to the sequels. Will the next one manage to do so?
Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell what the real cultural touchpoints are, but there’s a big benefit to be had in finding it.
Well… it’s been a long talk about X-COM. I hope you’ve enjoyed this, and if you’re interested in discussing more about the factors that lead to X-COM being the great thing that it was, stop by our forums or reply to this post. If you have any other ideas for Game Analysis subjects, please leave a comment as well!
I’m interested in doing Analysis of any game, new or old, that has good elements to be discussed. Further Analysis posts will look a lot more like a “review,” but the focus is still on looking at what the does, rather than just how much fun I had with it. I hope you find these interesting, and write in to give your ideas of what I should talk about next.
Please not Simon’s Quest.