How the writer of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is creating the future by writing the past

Erik Caponi has been writing video games with broad strokes for nearly a decade, but that changed last year.

He'd worked at Monolith Productions on The Matrix Online and at Bethesda on games like The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion. Most recently, Caponi wrote Big Huge Games' action role-playing game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.

His responsibility on these vast, NPC-dense games was to create "a huge variety of characters," Caponi told Polygon in a recent interview, but in April 2012, about a month before Curt Schilling's studio began its final, public slump to insolvency, he joined 2K Marin. In his new position as narrative director, he'd get to do something new. On this new project, he began to "drill down on individuals, their arcs and deep progression."

Developing the game had become a clandestine operation. During his first year on the team, publisher Take-Two Interactive would continue the precedent it had set and disavow any public details about the project.

That game, which Polygon played recently at a preview event, is The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, which is slated for release in North America on Aug. 20. Polygon spoke with Caponi about his past, XCOM's future and what it's been like for him and the series to transform from broad narrative strokes to a character-focused future.

Like The Bureau: XCOM Declassified's Cold War narrative, the story of the game's development is obscured by secrecy, hidden for years behind eyes only clearance and a story that could only be told after its details were declassified.

At E3 2010, 2K Marin announced an XCOM reboot: a first-person shooter in series previously confined to PC strategy games with sci-fi underpinnings. For the next three years, amid reboot rumors, disruptive delays and an appearance at E3 2011, XCOM earned a reputation for mystery.

Then, in late April 2013, 2K Games announced that the game had "undergone an evolution." Two days later, 2K revealed The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, a third-person tactical shooter. Twice metamorphosed from 2010's XCOM, it would tell the origin story of the XCOM organization and its pivot from the communist to the alien threat.

When Erik Caponi stepped into The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, it was his job to fill in the gaps between the established canon and shepherd the game that would be into a cohesive and personal narrative, another new twist for the series. That kind of detail-oriented character development stood in stark contrast to other games he'd worked on and attracted him to the job.

"The major story beats were kind of locked down by the previous narrative director, and he had some help from the editorial team at our publisher," Caponi said. "The main pillars of the story were locked down so people could work on the game, and I came in to fill in the details. I really worked on giving it a more character-focused story, filling in all of the space between essentially the high-level, outlying [story]: you know, this happens here, this happens here, et cetera."

XCOM has a rich gameplay history, but it doesn't have what he called a "deep lore bible," and that afforded him "a lot of space to work in" as a storyteller within the established canon. Perhaps the most notable change, he said, is the relationships you'll build with the characters that surround players.

"You have a main character, who is your avatar, and the people connected to him" he said. "You still have your agents. You can still lose them, but you develop attachments to them through gameplay and through sharing experiences with them. It's very similar to the way it works as far as individual guides go, but you also have relationships to your piers and with your superiors in your organization."

Those relationships, both down to your agents and up to your superiors, are the pillars upon which the emotional connections in The Bureau: XCOM Declassified are built.

The work he's doing isn't entirely new, though, and he told Polygon that he's been able to use his experience developing large, open-world games at 2K Marin. He thinks of The Bureau's home base, where players return between missions, as an analog to a role-playing game's town.

"It's where you setup, it's where you rest, it's where you reload," he said. "It's got its own content to explore. It's kind of the place where the immediate pressure is off. Especially through development as we ramped up difficulty, the base becomes a really valuable island were it's like, 'Good! No one's shooting at me right now! Awesome!" That gives the player more of a sense of control of the pacing of the story and more a sense of agency about how that story plays out."

Player agency and pacing come from optional missions — side quests, in RPG terms — available from within the base, and Caponi says that's what distinguishes The Bureau: XCOM Declassified from other shooters.

Caponi acknowledges that, because of their optional nature, some players will never see the content, but he's designed them to be meaningful for those who do.

"For me, the rules apply basically the same on a smaller scale," he said. "When you engage with really any sort of piece of content from the beginning and think of it as a story, it should be something changes your understanding about the character or about the world or about or about the events in the world that in some way ... transforms your understanding in some way. It can be a very minor way, or it can be stark revelation, but the same rules of good writing apply there. A scene turns on action. Something should change."

His goal is to avoid the polar opposite type of side quest.

Blending RPG mechanics with a tactical shooter.

"It's very easy just to get into the, 'Oh you did this thing, you collected 10 bear pelts, and then you give the guy these bear pelts and get these coins,'" he said. "That's great systemically, but I think that good games are where systemics and the gameplay collide with the story in an interesting way because the story is what gives context."

Caponi said he's also turned to history and music as ways to inject context into The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, which is essentially a period piece about an era few games have tackled.

"It was really interesting to get into a lot of the science and the paranoia and the culture shift of that particular era that was right on the cusp on such a huge social change and write that kind of style of game," he said. "It's a very, very specific — and interesting, in specific way — period of time."

It's a cohesiveness that he's working to create with characters, stories and setting that, even given a heavy dose of science fiction, he hopes will resonate by supporting the story.

"That choice and that period should support the story you're telling and play into the emotional arcs of the characters you're dealing with," he said.

Erik Caponi sees his job as giving The Bureau: XCOM Declassified heft through storytelling. He recalled a story — he thinks it was Warren Spector talking about Deus Ex, but he's not sure — that encompasses his unified theory about why storytelling is so important in video games.

"The game is basically putting the cursor over an object until it turns red and clicking a button," Caponi said. "Without the story, that's all the game is."

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