XCOM: UFO Defense, Mythos Games, MicroProse, 1994
XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis Games, 2K Games, 2012
XCOM 2, Firaxis Games, 2K Games, 2016

Reboot of the original series that began with the 1994 game for DOS and Amiga X-COM: UFO Defense, XCOM and XCOM 2 are two very similar yet radically different games. Despite a few significant tweaks, the game mechanics remain widely the same, and the plot of the latter follows that of the former. However, in the short four years that separates them, the designers chose a radically different approch and perspective on the turn-based tactics game.
But let’s rewind a bit. The first game came out in 1994, just a few years after the collapse of the USSR and the beginning of the Gulf War. In this game the aliens are from Mars, the Red planet, and it reuses the traditional imagery of 50’s SF (flying saucers and grey aliens). A sequel even shows a death star-like atomic anihilation of Earth in case of a game over. Thus, were it not for the date, we would be tempted to see a late anti-communist piece in the game. But given the context, a reevaluation is necessary. X-COM games typically tell the story of mankind pulling together to fend off an alien invasion. It’s about uniting and learning from the enemy to better fight it. In a sense, it could be considered a War of the Worlds remake, but more optimistic about humanity’s ability to learn, fight and cooperate. In X-COM, loosing the support of the member states means game over. The 1994 game even features a scene set in the United Nations headquarters in New York, in which the alien deceive and execute world leaders. To say that the game reflects on the role of the UN is then far from an overreach, as it played a major role in the handling of the Kuwait crisis in 1991.
So why would we see the game resurface in 2012 (or in 2008, date of the beginning of developpement)? Well first, it’s part of a wave of SF remakes in the video game industry: Starcraft (1998, 2010), , Half-Life (1998, 2004), Doom (1993, 2004), that occurs jointly with the rise of many original AAA SF games like Mass Effect (2007, 2009, 2010…) or Halo (2001, 2004, 2007…). Rebooting this very successful franchise was of course a profit-driven (and lucrative) decision.
But it doesn’t mean that it was also culturally and politically irrelevant, and the designer made a excellent job at updating the imagery. First, althogh the grey alien are still present (called Sectoids), a new kind of alien is introduced: the Thin Man. This unnerving and slender guy is the instrument of the new alien tactics: inflitration. Just like in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the aliens have been here some time, watching us, studying us, infiltrating our society, meddling with our politics and our DNA. Put this in parallel with the opening sequence, in which alien aircrafts hit a highly populated urban area, purposefully targetting civilians, and the influence of 9/11 becomes manifest. I’ll even add to that the mind control and psychic powers of the aliens (which can then be acquired by human “psi-operatives”), and the macro-gameplay (in the “geoscape”), which basically consists of sending “Interceptors” to shoot down UFOs and prevent them from attacking civilian areas. The 2013 DLC, Enemy Within, even adds a human traitor cell and a struggle for intelligence within human ranks that’ll remind some of shows like 24 or Homeland (a show in which an American PoW turns against america and engages in terrorist activity). Either humans are with XCOM, or they’re with the aliens.
What I want to argue about this game in this paper is that it is at its core a conservative game. The player must protect the status quo. XCOM grow and learn, but they’re at the height of their glory from the first mission: they have funding, equipement and support. Operatives are soldiers in a regular army, and they vanquish enemies on the battlefield, face to face. You don’t have to start in the US (the lead scientist, Dr Vahlen, is a german woman, a the head engeneer, Dr Shen, a Tawaneese man) but the game cleary stages the militarist fantasy of a global american leadership in the war on terror (the central officer, John Bradford, born in Kansas, the Council Spokesman and probably you, the player and Commander of XCOM, are American). United we strand, divided we fall.
But four years later, Firaxis is in for a twist. XCOM 2 takes place after the alien victory and the dissolution of XCOM. XCOM isn’t a protecting entity anymore, it has become a revolutionary one, a bunch of hooligans holed up in a stolen ship. The soldier’s aesthetics go from the nice and generic US Army uniform and sleek tech to a much more brutal and individualized urban riot, punk and anarchist one. The Thin Man mostly disappears, replaced by snake-looking units, as “the aliens don’t need an inflitration unit anymore” (according to Central Off. Bradford in the game), except for one: the Speaker, this very annoying guy who appears on TV everytime you win a fight to call you a terrorist, posing as a human, despite some very clear telltale marks on his neck. As Lead Designer Jake Solomon notices about the first game’s Thin Men, “you can tell that what’s inside doesn’t match what is going on outside”1, and it is even more true here, as this Thin Man is not only posing as a human, but also posing as an ally and a bearer of truth, while vomiting blatant lies.
In XCOM 2, you become the terrorist, the revolutionary scum, the protester. This is why the developpers decided to bring to the gameplay the “concealement” mechanics, to ambush the enemy in a guerilla spirit (rather than the traditional frontal battlefield warfare). Moreover, your first enemies are actually not aliens, but humans, wearing helmets that blind them and who were genetically engeneered and mind controlled to serve as a police force (ADVENT). It’s not easy here to overlook the marxist analysis according to which the police is an institution controlled by and protecting the ruling class (aliens), but whose body is actually constituted of class traitors from the working class (humans)2. Meanwhile, the leaders of the enemy, called the Elders, are a group of secluded gerontocratic and decorporated tyrants.
In this next step of the series, XCOM has become a progressive force, trying to change the status quo and basically topple the installed government. In 2016, the US had become the theatre of highly mediatized protest movements like Black Lives Matter or the Occupy Movement (and many others were soon to follow). And today, in 2022, I wonder at the relevance XCOM 2 still holds after Ukraine, representing ragtag fighters succesfully fending off an overpowering army of brainwashed soldiers by joining forces and standing together.

References :
1. Https://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2012/01/18/alien-breeds-the-evolution-of-xcom-s-enemies.aspx?PostPageIndex=2
2. “Class treason is an option at all socioeconomic levels: from the blue-collar man who becomes a security guard employed to harass striking workers, to the heirs of capitalist fortunes who become donors to left-wing causes”, Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, p.154.