The Bureau's Lead Narrative Designer On His Influences, The Future, And Infusing RPG Into A Shooter

by Mike Futter on May 24, 2013 at 10:51 AM

The XCOM series has seen a recent resurgence, with Firaxis' popular Enemy Unknown delighting series faithful and wooing new fans. But what about the other XCOM game?

As we mentioned in a recent preview, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is shaping up quite nicely, retaining much of what makes the series so special. One of the key differences, besides being a third-person shooter, is the emphasis on structured narrative that The Bureau offers.

We spoke with the Lead Narrative Designer on the project, Erik Caponi, about what players can expect when The Bureau: XCOM Declassified arrives this fall. Caponi, whose past credits include The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (he started at 2K Marin a week before 38 Studios' collapse), has experience in working with emergent narrative to enhance structured plots.

"It's important to me that in a more directed, focused story like this that the player retains control over the pacing of the story and particularly how deep they want to dive, what they can inside those boundaries," Caponi told us. "The data we've gotten when we've played the game, when we've had people play the game, point for point, step for step, we haven't seen people have the same exact path."

When many people think of third-person shooters, rich stories and player agency aren't necessarily the first things that emerge. Caponi wants people to know that in addition to the intense, tactical combat, there is a well-woven narrative that drives everything protagonist William Carter and his team do. 

We learned a little more about Carter during our conversation. Prior to the alien invasion, his career was headed nowhere. Relegated to the role of a glorified delivery boy, Carter was called into action by The Bureau's leader, Director Faulke (who had identified the downtrodden soldier as the right material for the agency) when the invaders made their presence known. Throughout the game, Carter is faced with decisions and challenges that evidence a struggle to be the man his team needs.

"There is a lot of RPG in our third person shooter. A lot of it," Caponi explained. "My friends in publishing [at 2K Games] tell me that this is actually the largest (content-wise) narrative that 2K has ever done, because of our branching narratives."

With regard to the magnitude of those decisions and how much they impact the course of the narrative, Caponi is confident that players will feel in control. "I want the world to feel reactive to the player and their choices, especially in the social systems," he detailed. "They remember what you say, they remember the actions you took.  A little can go a long way. There are points where you can turn the entire story. All over the place there are minor choices you can make. I wanted to keep our dialog trees slim and fast paced, but the choices you make are exclusive. You can't go back."

The decisions that players make don't happen in a vacuum, and one of the things that makes The Bureau special in the XCOM universe is its setting in 1962. We asked Caponi about his influences for weaving sci-fi throughout the period.

"There's a ton of stuff that speaks to that period. Of course we looked at The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, the really good movies that explore especially the aeronautics research of the era," Caponi told us. "The thing that really stood out for me is a movie from the early 70s called The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and it has Gene Hackman in it. I like to look for things that are offbeat, that no one ever applies to this sort of thing. I know if we just go back and retread all the sci-fi stuff that everybody else has, we're just going to end up with the same game and same world, so I try to pull stuff from outside the normal path of influence." 

"This movie, which I love, is all about perspective and secrets and how you can look at the same thing and have it mean two different things depending on how you're looking at it. It's a really great movie about this paranoid guy who records everything, and it hinges on the secret war stuff, and this is something they need to bury and keep from the public to keep them from panicking. I actually went back to that a lot, and it had a lot of influence on me tonally and with what I was trying to say and accomplish. The things people say and the differences between what you know and what you're told."

Players will also see The Bureau in different ways. Caponi wouldn't be specific, but he did confirm that the game will offer multiple endings. As we previously discussed, there will be no multiplayer. The replay value comes from the open combat environments and the story offers a lot of things to explore. "People are going to miss stuff and want to go back and see stuff again," Caponi assured. "I think it's important to this game that we wanted to make as pure and good an experience for the single-player, and have the value be in that experience."

As for the future of the XCOM project? Caponi had some interesting words about what we think we know about the alien-fighting organization. "I think the way most players know the organization is based on an assumption," he said. "It's an assumption that the game encourages. When you play Enemy Unknown, they encourage you to make that assumption, but there is nothing to say that our XCOM is the only XCOM. What takes place in this pixelated space is covered and buried, or that this is the only time this has happened. The more we want to go into it, the more is going to be there."

"We don't end this in a place where you know everything there is to know about XCOM. There's a lot more to discover and figure out about who they are. Are there multiple XCOMs? It still needs to maintain that air of mystery of what it is. The council leader, for instance. We don't know who that is. We won't know at the end of this game. There's a lot of ground to cover between our game and whatever is in the future for Firaxis if they continue to do XCOM projects."

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified arrives on August 20, 2013, for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.