XCOM-2-review

XCOM 2’s Orwellian Echoes By Kevin Swijghuizen

XCOM 2 is one of several games that have been released in the past few months that has taken a dystopian approach to the world building and storytelling aspect of their narrative.[1] For instance, November 2015 saw the release of Fallout 4, a game whose dystopian nature is defined by the post-apocalyptic world that the player explores.[2] Furthermore, Tom Clancy’s The Division was released on the 8th of March 2016 and is another excellent example of a game that features a dystopian setting, in this case caused by a virus instead of atomic weaponry.[3] XCOM 2 is a surprising addition to this roster of dystopian games, considering its predecessor did not have any dystopian qualities. XCOM 2takes its narrative in a different direction in order to create a dystopian world and it does this by leaning heavily on Orwellian themes. This article will take a closer look at the world that Firaxis Games, the developers of this game, have created and the myriad of ways in which XCOM 2 uses themes and ideas that occur in George Orwell’s 1984.[4]

The Story

First of all,I will briefly explore the world of XCOM 2 in order to make an effective comparison with 1984. XCOM 2 takes place twenty years after XCOM. Earth has been conquered by alien invaders and humanity is placed firmly under the yoke of the aliens. The aliens made a considerable effort to improve their image with the global population and built high tech cities and constructed gene therapy centres for people in order to show humanity that they mean well.

News

Naturally, the alien’s goodwill only serves as a thinly veiled disguise for their sinister plans. The aliens intend to harvest the human genome in order to find the genes they need to create the ultimate psychic being, which is where the gene therapy centres come in. As the player progresses through the game, they will eventually discover that the aliens are actually actively abducting people in order to experiment on them.

Dystopia

Much like that of 1984, the world of XCOM2 is dystopian in nature, but what exactly defines a dystopian narrative? Darko Suvin provides this definition:

“(A society) organized according to a radically less perfect principle. The radical difference in perfection is in both cases judged from the point of view and within the value system of a discontented social class or congeries of classes, as refracted through the writer.”[5]

Suvin explains how dystopian (and utopian) ideas and narratives hinge on the perspective of the author. The author is, after all, crafting a world that is, in his or her mind, worse, or better, than the one in which they reside at the moment. This means that any utopian or dystopian narrative is highly subjective in nature. However, even though subjectivity lies at the core of any of the dystopian and utopian works, many of the constructs that are implemented in such narratives will resonate with a plethora of people. After all, not many people will read 1984 and walk away from the experience thinking that the world that Orwell has crafted is one that is desirable to live in. Some scholars have even drawn comparisons to hell in order to describe Orwell’s world.[6] Therefore, it is safe to conclude that both 1984 and, by extension,XCOM2 portray a society that is recognizably dystopian for the vast majority of people.

Big Brother Is Watching You

First of all, one of the more invasive dystopian features in 1984 is the idea that the government could always be watching you. As the narrator in 1984, explains:

“The Telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously … You had to live –did live, from habit that became instinct- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”[7]

In 1984,the purpose of a television, or Telescreen in this case, is twofold. It serves to bring the propaganda and edicts of the government to the populace and it serves as a way for the government to keep tabs on what the population is doing. It is completely irrelevant whether or not the government is always listening and watching; just the idea of someone listening even being a possibility is enough to make sure that people, in the privacy of their own home, dare not openly act or speak out against the government. The fact that the breach of people’s privacy is so invasive is one of the more insidious aspects of the novel. The fact that the government’s control over the population is so far-reaching really illustrates the dystopian nature of Orwell’s novel.

This perpetual surveillance is mirrored in XCOM2. However, in XCOM2, the developers have tied this idea of that the government is always watching to certain elements of the gameplay. Whenever the player begins a mission, their squad is automatically put into concealment, the idea being that since you are waging a guerrilla war against the alien oppressors, your attacks come as a surprise to the defending alien troops. This allows the player to manoeuvre their operatives into an advantageous position before engaging the enemy. However, whenever moving around in a city area the player has to be careful to not wander to close to the scanner pillars.

scanner

These pillars are actively scanning the environment and will give away the position of the player’s squad if they wander too close to them. This idea, that there is always someone or something watching you, really echoes the concept that can be found in Orwell’s 1984. Even though the feeling of being watched in XCOM2  is nowhere near as pervasive as it is in 1984, Firaxis Games lifted this Orwellian idea of total government control over its population and implemented it in a convincing way as a gameplay element.

Civilian Control

Furthermore, the various civilians walking around in the cities basically act in the same way as these observation pillars. If a player wanders too close to a civilian, their squad’s concealment will also be blown. This further illustrates the control the government has over its people. Even though from the player’s perspective they are fighting against the alien oppressors to save humanity from their vile clutches, to the people living in the cities, thanks to the government’s propaganda, the player’s squad is nothing more than a ragtag band of rebels trying to overthrow the benevolent alien government. The fact that whenever you wander too close to any civilian results in them  warning the authorities showcases that the government does not solely need to rely on their own technology for surveillance because their propaganda has been effective enough to sway the population to their cause. As a result of this, the population essentially becomes part of the government’s surveillance.

In 1984 this brainwashing of the population is illustrated by the children that Wilson meets when visiting one of his neighbours. While he is there, the children are pretending to be government agents and accuse Wilson of being a traitor. “Winston raised his hands above his head, but with an uneasy feeling, so vicious was the boy’s demeanor, that it was not altogether a game. “You’re a traitor!” yelled the boy. “You’re a thought-criminal! You’re a Eurasian spy!””[8] This is a rather unsettling passage in the novel because it illustrates extremely well how far reaching the brainwashing is that the government inflicts upon the population. Maria Varsam argues that Orwell created a “quasi slave society.”[9] The way how, from a young age, children are taught that loyalty to the government is the most important part of society illustrates that point effectively. Thiskind of unwavering loyalty to the established order can also be found in XCOM2,as is demonstrated by the way in which the civilians are all too eager to oust the player’s cover.

civilians

Demonizing the Enemy

Another Orwellian theme that can be found in XCOM2 is the way in which the enemies of the alien government are demonized. The majority of the population in the XCOM2 universe resides in high tech cities that were built by the aliens for humanity. However, not all humans bought into the bright new future that the aliens claimed they were bringing to humanity. Instead, these people decided to move to sparsely populated areas of the planet and build up a life there, mostly by living in shacks and living off the land. Clearly, these people are living on the fringes of the new society that has been erected by the alien overlords. Whilst living on the fringes is great for starting hubs of resistance because of the lack of governmental surveillance, it also turns you into an easy target. So naturally, as resistance towards the alien dominion starts to grow, the extra-terrestrials start to lash out against these settlements. Furthermore, these attacks on the people living on the periphery are used to unite the people who are loyal to the government. A good example of this is the speech given by the figure head of that government:

“Fellow citizens, for 20 years the advent coalition has worked tirelessly to repair the ravages and injustices of the old world. Under our stewardship, our cities prosper, our people flourish and our world heals. And yet, among us, there are still those who would refuse to acknowledge the truth! Who are to see all that we have achieved crumble! That must end. Even as I speak to you today, ADVENT peacekeepers are advancing into outlying territories to end this scourge once and for all. We will ensure your continued safety and well-being throughout this crisis. With your cooperation we will overcome these radical elements and usher in another twenty  years of peace and prosperity.”[10]

The purpose of this speech is twofold: it stresses how good the alien rule is, and has been, whilst at the same time giving a focal point for people to focus their animosity on. By creating an us versus them scenario, the speaker gives people a reason to rally behind his government whilst at the same time turning them against the people who seek to destroy that very government.

In 1984, this concept manifests itself in a slightly different way. The Orwellian government uses a concept that they call Hate Week. During this week they come up with a Hate Song and depict, in 1984’s case: “the monstrous figure of a Eurasian soldier.”[11] What Hate Week basically comes down to is placing the enemy in the most negative light possible in order to keep their own citizens loyal to the government. This creates an us versus them atmosphere which makes it possible for the government to keep the ‘wars’ going for as long as they deem it necessary. Naturally, in 1984, the wars are never going to officially end because,as the novel succinctly states, “War is peace.”[12] Although the implementation of the concept is somewhat different between the two works, the key principle behind it is the same: to unify and bolster the population’s support for the government whilst at the same time turning them against the enemy.

Figureheads

Finally, both works of fiction also make liberal use of a figurehead to keep the population informed. In XCOM2, this person is the speaker, a character that looks suspiciously like the thin man enemy from XCOM2’s predecessor, whilst for 1984, this character is the omnipresent black-mustachio’d face of Big Brother.[13]

speaker

Both characters essentially perform the same role, namely, to be the main voice of the governing institution.

In Conclusion

When examining the alien government that is being portrayed in XCOM 2, it becomes obvious that there are a lot of Orwellian themes that run throughout the game. The oppressing surveillance of the urban areas in XCOM2 is very much an echo of the way in which the Orwellian government spies on its own people. The governing power has eyes and ears everywhere and it is hard to oppose them without being discovered. Furthermore, the way in which civilians instantly blow your cover is very reminiscent of the way in which the population fanatically supports Big Brother’s government in 1984. Moreover, the manipulation of the populous also echoes Orwell, the manner in which the speaker validates the attack on the innocent people living on the fringes of society resembles the purpose that Hate Week has in Orwell’s novel. Finally, XCOM 2 takes another page from the Orwellian dystopian rulebook by using a single figurehead as the mouthpiece of the government. All these examples showcase how XCOM 2 repeatedly dipped into the Orwellian well in order to weave a believable dystopian government in its narrative.

Works Cited

[1] Solomon, Jake. XCOM 2. Firaxis Games. 2016.

[2] Pagliarulo, Emil. Fallout 4. Bethesda Softworks. 2015.

[3] Barnard, Ryan et al. Tom Clancy’s The Division. Ubisoft. 2016

[4] Orwell, George.1984. Orlando: Signet Classics. Print. 1 May 2016.

[5] Suvin, Darko. “Theses on Dystopia 2001.” In Dark Horizons Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by RaffaellaBaccolini and Tom Moylan, 187-202. London: Routledge, 2003. Web. 1 May. 2015.

[6] Pittock, Malcolm. “The Hell of Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In Bloom’s Modern Critical       Interpretations: George Orwell’s 1984 Updated Edition, edited by Harold Bloom, 109-125. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Web. 1 May. 2015.

[7] Orwell, George.1984. Orlando: Signet Classics. Print. 1 May 2016.

[8] Orwell, George.1984. Orlando: Signet Classics. Print. 1 May 2016.

[9] Varsam, Maria. “Concrete Dystopia: Slavery and Its Others.” In Dark Horizons Science                Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by RaffaellaBaccolini and Tom Moylan, 204-224. London: Routledge, 2003. Web. 1 May. 2015.

[10] Solomon, Jake. XCOM 2. Firaxis Games. 2016.

[11] Orwell, George.1984. Orlando: Signet Classics. Print. 1 May 2016.

[12] Orwell, George.1984. Orlando: Signet Classics. Print. 1 May 2016.

[13] Orwell, George.1984. Orlando: Signet Classics. Print. 1 May 2016.