Yesterday I wrote about XCOM's gameplay, but that wasn't the only thing that intrigued me about the 60's alien invasion game. During the game's E3 demonstration Jordan Thomas, XCOM's narrative director and the creative director of BioShock 2, made reference to a character "discriminated for his sexuality," and my ears perked up like corgi that just heard someone say "bacon."
One of the most often repeated, if utterly foolhardy, arguments against gay characters in games is that their sexuality is never a relevant detail to the plot. So I was more than a little curious and delighted to hear a developer put such a strong emphasis on a character's homosexuality in the game's second public showing. Thankfully, Thomas was gracious enough to sit and chat with me about the character of Dr. Weir, and how social commentary is a natural partner for the videogame medium.
"Weir is an Australian," Thomas began. "He's not a citizen of the States, although he came there to study particle accelerators, and already found himself an outsider on that grounds alone simply because of the paranoia of foreigners that was prevalent in the mid-century."
"But on top of that, he is also a closeted homosexual. He has both a sexual and a political opposition to the elite of the country, which are still very conservative - very focused on America as the best and the brightest - and he doesn't fit their paradigm. It is hard for them to acknowledge that one of the best scientists in the world is, in their minds, deviant. So he's struggled with that for a long time."
"But all of sudden this alien invasion hits and they need him and they have to put it aside. But then you see those tensions come to bear in the base. There are characters who don't like working with him. They are people of their time. And so you'll see different positions represented amongst the core cast. But he is - he is a man with true grit. He's able to weather it pretty well, and the player kind of gets to decide where they fall on that continuum. You can basically decide how to treat him."
Of course, homosexuality wasn't the only civil rights movement making headway in the 60's, and XCOM will explore other socio-cultural tensions of the time.
"As a narrative guy, it's the reason I'm excited to work on the game. The setting was chosen very specifically because I feel that the socio-cultural tension was about to come to a head. It was an old America and a new America kind of locked in a mortal combat, and it was very interesting for me to start exploring what was going on at the time."
"Agent Barns, for example, the African American guy who runs the agent operation and recruits for you, he was working COINTELPRO in the FBI - and that was a bureau program to run surveillance on the American people, not known by anybody - and Dr. Martin Luther King was his assignment. He was supposed to infiltrate that movement and discredit King by finding evidence that he was Red. He didn't find anything, and he was asked to fabricate it. He refused, and was almost going to be kicked out by J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies, but at that time the alien invasion happens and XCOM snaps him up."
I commented that it sounded like XCOM was really more of a 60's period piece that happened to use aliens as a catalyst to bring out the social climate.
"As a narrative guy, absolutely. To both mutate and express the inner conflicts of the period."
After the complex portrayal of BioShock 2's brute splicer, I am eager to see if Thomas and the team at 2K Marin can have lightning strike twice with a depiction of homosexuality that may hit closer to home for many gamers. But if they can pull it off with even half of the enthusiasm and passion Thomas had while describing it to me, then XCOM could be one of the most earnest examples of a gay character in a game yet.