The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a bad game. Not all, entirely, 100% bad, but distinctly sub-par. I wouldn’t recommend playing it, but if you are going to then be warned there will be spoilers here.
So, XCOM, in broad strokes: the voice-acting is ok, but the script is dreadful. The story has potential, but is told in such a ham-fisted way it feels like someone left half the script on a bus and they decided to carry on anyway. Parts of the combat are fun, when you actually manage to fight aliens instead of the clunky UI. It does has retro silver spacesuits, which are pretty cool, but there’s much clichéd nonsense that no amount of fancy costumes will help.
In general, the narrative is pretty pap, but there’s one particular bit that I found to be quite powerful. The game starts with Agent William “Angry Face” Carter carting a mysterious briefcase around. He’s attacked by an alien imposter, there’s a big glow and a whoosh and then the game starts and you’re in control, playing the part of Carter as he confronts the alien invasion. From then on it’s tepid combat missions and dialogue for about eight hours, until one particular cut-scene made me sit up.
After some glowing space-octupi and clunky dialogue, it’s revealed that Carter has been controlled all the way through by a mysterious glowing puppet-master alien called an Ethereal, floating invisibly above his head the whole time. There’s some more dialogue – and then you realise that the glowing thing is actually you, the player. Until this point, you assume that you’re playing the part of Carter – that you’re him in the game world, and it’s him that you’re ducking and dodging through all these missions – but actually you’ve been playing the part of the alien that’s controlling him.
Shortly after that, Carter temporarily breaks free of the alien’s control and glares at the Ethereal, at you – staring directly into the camera, out of the screen – and curses you for controlling him. His fixed-in-angry-mode face actually looks appropriate here, rather than just looking a bit like he forgot to go to the loo before the mission started. He primes a bomb and tells you that he’d rather die than be under your control a second longer. A few seconds later and we’re back to the hum-drum of plasma weapons and death by dialogue wheel, but there’s something really interesting in those scenes.
The part that the player plays is rarely addressed in games. You’re the silent controller, either “playing as” a character, in which case you are them, or you’re an abstract god-like entity that doesn’t really exist within the game aside from your effects on things. But in XCOM you’re playing a character controlling another character – an alien controlling Carter… and Carter doesn’t want to be controlled. It actually makes you feel something – the cutscene reveals something new and unexpected about your role, rather than just the story happening within the world. I actually felt a bit bad for Carter, guilty almost; all that time when I’d been making him forward-roll through corridors because I was bored he was cursing and rattling his chains against the control I was unwittingly inflicting on him.
It’s something that makes you question the whole relationship between the player and the character they’re controlling – something that’s usually taken for granted because it’s just the way things work. You control Mario, or you are Master Chief. You’re controlling Carter – except you’re not controlling him in the usual way, where your control is an unspoken game mechanic. Here, your control over your avatar is something more sinister: Carter growls into the camera that he’d rather die than be controlled any longer.
It makes you wonder how many other playable characters are gritting their teeth, and straining every sinew against the player. Mario and Master Chief and Gordon Freeman never seem to struggle – but what if they don’t actually want to be controlled either? I wrote a while ago about how I’d love to see more games that make the player think about themselves, that help them learn something outside the game – and maybe, in the most unexpected of places, that’s actually happened.