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The Mary Sue Interview: Garth DeAngelis, Lead Producer on XCOM 2, on Diversity in Games

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Firaxis has a long history of creating games that are massive in scope. So when they create games like Civilization or XCOM, it figures that they take diversity incredibly seriously. Those two games focus on the world (and beyond) as a whole, so it wouldn’t do to have cookie-cutter character models and a lack of diversity. That’s something Firaxis has always worked hard on, and it really shows.

We had a chance to chat with Garth DeAngelis, the lead producer on XCOM 2 to chat about some of the neat new features that will be showing up in the game, including the ability to pick and choose the gender and nationality of your squad.

Jessica Lachenal (TMS): Something that’s always stuck with me about XCOM: Enemy Unknown is that diversity is part and parcel of its story; it’s the world uniting against an extraterrestrial force. How does that fit into XCOM 2 and its story?

Garth DeAngelis: The part and parcel comment you made is key, and it’s something we really value with the IP – which is that diversity is simply engrained in the fabric of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The player sheds all notions of bias or prejudice, because dammit, you have a world to save with any help you can get, which is far more important than taking the time to dwell on differences between human beings. If aliens weren’t invading, it would be a nice world to live in, actually. A world where humans see each other as equals, as color or gender-blind allies to do whatever it takes to help one another.

That premise organically leads to this game platform that necessitates all races, genders, and personalities unify. The coolest part is having players craft their own stories based on the characters they create – something we’re carrying forward with XCOM 2. Since XCOM is all about overcoming steep odds and challenging the player to reach that sense of triumph, we’ve set a narrative stage that is even more dire than Enemy Unknown’s. XCOM had to go underground early during the game events of Enemy Unknown. They lost, as most players did the first couple of times they played the game, which we’ve embraced. Fast forward twenty years on an alien-occupied earth, and XCOM must rebuild as a resistance, taking back the planet.

TMS: It’s incredibly clear that Firaxis is dedicated to highlighting diversity in all its forms—body size, ethnicity, etc.—why is that so important to the company as a whole?

DeAngelis: The designers and artists at Firaxis are incredible creatives, and they also have great awareness, on both sides of the building (Civ and XCOM). Our mindset is to make fun games with appealing gameplay that as many people as possible can enjoy.

TMS: Why is it so important (to you personally) to make diversity a priority in XCOM 2?

DeAngelis: In the XCOM franchise itself, I think it’s really special how the game setting leads to this natural mixture and inclusiveness. While we like that, it’s also important we don’t shoehorn anything in just for the sake of inclusion.

I personally love how it comes together organically. Jake Solomon, Creative Director on XCOM 2, deserves a lot of credit for being cognizant and ensuring our games have a mature awareness of inclusion, certainly when you look at races and genders of the main characters. Our Art Director Greg Foertsch was also extremely aware when looking at the fact that males and females wear the same armor types.

From a higher level beyond our game, this is all important because diversity leads to change by challenging otherwise entrenched ideas. Ultimately, it can lead to trailblazing and innovation. I’m personally interested in diversity in games so we can mature as an industry, and challenge each other.

Current genres and conventions have a lot of value, and they’ll stick around as long as consumers have a taste for them, but we also need to be looking into uncharted territory and a component of that should be collaboration with new developer voices from all backgrounds.

TMS: What do you hope adding these features will achieve (if anything)?

DeAngelis: We don’t necessarily have hopes of achieving something specifically with these features, other than staying true to the vision of our game. Having a strong social awareness is also prudent, but diversity in XCOM just makes sense. While we’re proud to represent such a wide spectrum of humankind, it was something that came organically to our game and I think that’s why it works so well.

TMS: Did you face any difficulty in trying to add these features? Do you expect any backlash from doing things like this?

DeAngelis: No, not really. The entire development team gets the vision of XCOM, and we all just want to make the richest experience possible. You’re a global resistance, a paramilitary force on the brink of human extinction in hopes that everyone will unite under those circumstances.

TMS: Does diversity play a role in the game beyond customizing a squad, or is it much like XCOM: Enemy Unknown in that the diversity is there, and it’s up to the player to fill in backstory and such if they wish?

DeAngelis: Customizing your personal squad is primarily where it is. Forming those emergent soldier bonds tends to drive much of the player’s personal narrative forward. One of my favorite ways to play in Enemy Unknown was to let the game give me random soldiers. I’d receive recruits from all over the world with random names, which really is a surprising launching pad for stories to generate.

So I forged these tales with this multinational, gender-mixed squad without any personal agenda driven by family or celebrity-inspired soldiers. Amazingly, I grew attached to them. We still joke about one of my first playthroughs of the game, which bred an epic camaraderie of Nigerian-born Oba Legetho and Chinese sniper Xiao Ling. They went on every mission together for the entire game, until Ling dramatically died on a mission late-game.

Oba became my sniper demigod, and personally took down the Ethereal in the Temple Ship fueled by revenge for losing her blood sister. It was cool that there was this experience that naturally encouraged me to create non-conforming hero archetypes. We want stories like these to continue in XCOM 2, if the player so chooses to take advantage of the customization tools, and we’ve provided way more of these options in XCOM 2. For example, if you choose to, you can switch genders and nationalities.

Beyond the soldiers, it is important to us to have diversity amongst our key HQ crew, which we haven’t revealed yet. But again, it makes sense, as XCOM recruits the best of the best, and that would be a sample of all nationalities and genders worldwide.

TMS: Did you run into any challenges in trying to distinguish between genders for the alien forces? What kind of design philosophy went into that?

DeAngelis: No, there weren’t challenges per se. We did think the entire alien lineup could carry a more gender-diverse approach and we thought that would be more interesting. And there are aliens we haven’t even shown yet that will carry that thought forward.

So far, we revealed the Viper and Berserker, and both happen to have a female foundation. The evolved Berserker is a bit of a twist since on the surface, she has a masculine presence, and she’s larger than Enemy Unknown’s male Berserker, so we liked that surprise of making her female.

The Viper is elegant in a terrifying way. In many species of snake, the female is the bigger, stronger one, and we wanted to push that idea with the Viper. You’ll notice some of the aliens, like the Sectoid, disturbingly have more human characteristics than their Enemy Unknown counterparts, and there are narrative reasons for this.

The Viper has also clearly flourished on the genetics of a human female. And just like the XCOM soldiers are gender-diverse, so are the ADVENT troopers. You’ll come across female and male units of all ADVENT types.

TMS: What’s been the most important thing you’ve learned as part of this design and programming process? What advice can you offer to other developers who are striving to be more committed to diversity?

DeAngelis: Awareness is a good thing. Make decisions that stay true to the core vision of your game. The designer’s intended experience of the game world should drive all decisions, and if that means more progressive micro-decisions, then absolutely do that.

TMS: Is there anything you’d like to share that’ll have folks heading out for pre-orders today?

DeAngelis: I can’t wait to see the character pools that the community creates. We have a really nifty feature that allows you to customize any squad you want and then share it with the rest of the world. It will be a lot easier to play with other people’s creations in XCOM 2 and I’m looking forward to seeing all types of squads!

XCOM 2 is slated for release November 2015. If you’re looking for your squad-based tactical action fix, look no further.

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Jessica Lachenal is a writer who doesn’t talk about herself a lot, so she isn’t quite sure how biographical info panels should work. But here we go anyway. She's the Weekend Editor for The Mary Sue, a Contributing Writer for The Bold Italic (thebolditalic.com), and a Staff Writer for Spinning Platters (spinningplatters.com). She's also been featured in Model View Culture and Frontiers LA magazine, and on Autostraddle. She hopes this has been as awkward for you as it has been for her.