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The XCOM: Enemy Unknown team has a writer, though, and an over-arching storyline. How does the team balance the craft of that gameplay-oriented narrative with the writer's work? "It helped that our game was clearly divided in two: we have the strategy and combat layers," says DeAngelis.
"For the external narrative, we had a few writers collaborate on this exclusively, and this happened on the strategy layer," he says. "The aliens have a specific goal, and there are intense, cinematic-driven moments throughout the course of the game that the player can trigger."
"We certainly have an overarching narrative, with the traditional story points that writers have mastered," he continues. "This external narrative is generally high-level and delivered when the player is in their headquarters, conversing with different personnel. And actually, the external story is very important to the internal stuff. It's the framework for the player to conceive their own story elsewhere."
The fact that XCOM: Enemy Unknown is set in a recognizable near-future world is "critical" to making it easy for players to empathize. "All you need to say is 'alien invasion', and this collective social consciousness will somehow be on the same page, just from two words," he points out. "But the cool part is no two people will have the same exact preconceptions of what an alien invasion entails."
"And this framework sets the stage for the player's creativity to write their own internal narrative, the story that's a bit more intimate and emotional, and this seems to emerge when the player goes onto combat missions," DeAngelis continues. "In XCOM, at least, it's so disconnected from traditional writing; there's no character-specific dialogue, or soldier backstory. In XCOM, there is no archetypal video game hero. To many gamers, that's such a foreign concept."