Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown is notable for many reasons, including the realistic diversity of your squad members. Your squaddies can be from any country, have any background and, most importantly, are respectful and well crafted representations of the countries and cultures they hail from. With XCOM 2 on the horizon in 2016, we chatted with Firaxis Senior Producer Garth DeAngelis about the developer’s continued commitment to accurate diversity in the series, as well as the larger industry conversation on the topic of diversity.
Paste: Why is diversity important to Firaxis as a game studio?
Garth DeAngelis: I’m proud to work at a studio like Firaxis because there’s a culture of immense creativity and fun, but it’s fueled by a very mature, respectful mindset. Even Civilization, from its earliest incarnations, is a game that embraces all cultures, allowing players to learn and experiment with them. This was ingrained into the core game’s design and has acted as an organic catalyst, or example, for the entire studio.
Paste: You had great body diversity for squaddies in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which was great to see. What was behind the decision to have more realistic body types?
GA: Since XCOM is a game about humanity banding together from all around the globe, it’s kind of similar to Civ. It just made sense to represent the spectrum of humankind, for all nationalities and genders. While our designers and artists are very cognizant, I wouldn’t say there was a huge initiative to highlight diversity; it just made sense for the game experience, and we’re proud of that.
Paste: Is there anything in Firaxis’ company philosophy that informs your choices in terms of diversity, character options, etc.?
GA: The company philosophy is to build game experiences that stand the test of time—it just follows that most of our games have this natural representation of diversity. Since the world is a part of our game experiences, for both Civ and XCOM, it speaks to a global audience more naturally. But all in all, we’re a gameplay and experience-driven studio, and we simply want to create engaging and fun experiences for all types of people.
Paste: Are there examples where a character might be pitched or created but then would shift to represent a broader range of characters during the design process?
GA: Not really. In XCOM, we knew we needed a wide range of ethnicities, because you’re recruiting the best of the best from around the world. As for our NPCs, we did want to represent all genders and races, which thematically reinforces the world banding together.
Paste: The squaddies in XCOM have always been representative in terms of ethnic diversity. Was it a conscious decision to make the squads be global and represented accurately?
GA: Again, this makes sense for the design of the game, and we love representing all types of backgrounds and cultures. As the Commander, you’re going to recruit from everywhere. So in that regard, it was absolutely a conscious decision.
Paste: Was there player feedback about XCOM: Enemy Within, or perhaps internal discussions that led to having more gender and body diversity for enemies and aliens in XCOM 2?
GA: We were happy with the representation of gender and diversity in the original XCOM. We did have specific discussions to continue that diversity in XCOM 2. We’ve revealed Raymond Shen’s daughter, Lily, as the new Chief Engineer. She’s carrying on her father’s legacy, getting her hands dirty while running operations of the Avenger, the new player’s headquarters, an operational base. Richard Tygan is our new Chief Scientist, replacing Dr. Vahlen, who has gone missing. And Central Officer Bradford returns as the same character from Enemy Unknown. All of these primary NPCs have unique ethnicities and genders, and that was important to us.
As for the aliens, we wanted to have more female representation in some of our species, which makes sense since human hybridization is going on behind the scenes, and the aliens are sampling from both genders. The Viper and Berserker are both female-specific, and we have some others that we haven’t unveiled yet. Additionally, all ADVENT units can be male or female.
Paste: Did you get any backlash from the community regarding the women in XCOM: Enemy Unknown? Since they didn’t fit the expected look for female identified characters?
GA: No, we didn’t hear a backlash regarding women in Enemy Unknown. In fact, I’m really proud of the team for creating female characters that were in-line with what a military unit would be wearing for combat, as well as modeling realistic proportions and body types.
Paste: Will there be a continuation toward a wider range of customization in XCOM 2?
GA: Absolutely! It’s one the features I’m more excited about, because it really ties into the core mechanic of soldier attachment and permanent death as a game mechanic. I loved making my family and friends in XCOM, or creating new soldiers from scratch, and seeing the details that the character artists created for them. In XCOM 2, since you’re a resistance, you can choose to make recruits a bit gruffer. They can have tattoos, armor and weapon camo, facial jewelry, scars- and that really is the tip of the iceberg. One of my favorite additions is the concept of soldier personality- you can designate a specific animation and idle for a unit. If they’re kind of panicky, you can give them a “twitchy” animation where they’re looking around, paranoid. If they’re a bit too eager for combat, you can make them “intense”, or you can go more by-the-book or laid back.
Paste: Do you see the industry moving towards better representation in games? If so, could you give some examples?
GA: I do see things moving towards stronger representation. I think this is already yielding positive outcomes, when you look at the success of Fullbright and even mainstream experiences having leading minorities like Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead. Gamer tastes are diverse as well, and exploring designs and inspirations through different cultural lenses can lead to powerful innovation. Ultimately, most interesting to me is seeing this go beyond “what race or gender is our lead character?” I’m more interested in “what message is the game conveying?” or “what is important to the design of this game, and how does it translate to the player experience?” I think games like Tacoma can be a sort of beacon for this. Even experimental games like Way, which translated cross-cultural communication without dialogue into game design, may be looked upon years from now as the tiny spark for more progressive experiences through mechanics. And of course, I’m really proud to be a part of the XCOM team and its diverse approach to a combat-driven game.
Paste: If you could give a bit of advice to other devs on how to make games diverse and why it’s important, what would you say?
GA: It’s simple—make a game about something that inspires you. Stay true to your vision, as a designer or artist, and the micro-decisions will fall into place. Making something is the most important facet—go build a world for others to play in if you want to see change.
Tanya DePass is a lifelong Chicagoan who loves everything about gaming and wants to make it better and more inclusive for everyone. She’s the #INeedDiverseGames spawn point, founder and EIC of @OutofTokensCast, the Diversity Liaison for GaymerX and is part of the Chromatic Life Podcast.