There’s a reason Hollywood screenwriter Stuart Beattie once referred to Halo as the Star Wars of our generation. For the last 30 years, Star Wars has been our cultural touchstone for science fiction in its most accessible form. It’s billion-dollar proof that if the stakes are high enough, if the action is exciting enough, if the story is simple and universal enough, then even the nerdiest, most seemingly inaccessible backdrop can give way to a mainstream hit.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that nearly every well-known science-fiction franchise in the history of videogames has channeled that same approach. It’s not just Halo, though Master Chief undoubtedly sits at the top of the heap. Titles like Mass Effect, Gears of War, Half-Life, and countless others have all found success by borrowing, in part or wholesale, from the work of George Lucas.
But not The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The creative team behind 2K Marin’s upcoming tactical third-person shooter instead prefers to draw parallels with the other science fiction franchise.
“If you look at Star Trek, all the major points were just statements on the humanity of that era. There’s no reason that our stuff should be any different,” says lead narrative designer Erik Caponi. “Good science fiction always reflects us back at ourselves.”
Alongside Star Trek, Caponi and other members of the team also cite writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury as inspirations—writers who were known for instilling their science fiction with a hefty dose of social consciousness and commentary. It’s a decidedly different lineage from the overblown space opera of Star Wars and the many games that have followed in its stead.
“Obviously, I grew up on Star Wars,” Caponi says. “I’m in my mid-thirties. I couldn’t avoid it. I had every toy there was. But as I got older and really explored science fiction, [the socially conscious works] connected much stronger with me. The science-fiction writers, especially of the ’60s and ’70s, were really trying to get literature out of it, even though it was largely treated by mainstream culture as throwaway, poppy stuff. That’s the sort of sci-fi I love. It means something. As much as it may involve spaceships and explosions and lasers, there’s still something very solid there.”
That reverence for thematically rich science fiction really comes across as you play through The Bureau. While the main focus is squarely on combating an alien invasion, there are subtle references to many of the underlying tensions of the game’s 1960s setting, including nods to institutionalized sexism, race relations, and even homosexuality.
“We like to play into the social, sexual, and gender themes of the time,” explains Morgan Gray, The Bureau‘s creative director. “We set the game in the ’60s, so why hide it? Those things should support our narrative instead of being something we gloss over. Give the player a little bit of that introspection. We can make detailed fantasy worlds where you’ll know all about the hierarchy of elven culture. We can do detailed science fiction worlds where people can tell you everything about the genophage. Why can’t we use games to talk about the actual truth of society and how that plays?”
Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of this approach is the way The Bureau characterizes its main foe, the Zudjari. They were driven to conquest not by bloodlust alone, but because they so thoroughly exhausted the resources of their planet that they were forced to seek out other worlds to consume. The similarities to mid-20th-century America are obvious, both to our Cold War militarism and the excesses of our lifestyle.
Though not as heavy-handed an environmental message as, say, the one at the center of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, it’s further evidence that The Bureau strives to deliver something deeper than your standard intergalactic showdown between good and evil. It’s also a particularly striking insight given the fact that the game is set a few years before the environmentalist movement gained nationwide support, at a time when rampant waste was the status quo for many Americans.
“One of the most shockingly violent things I’ve seen in the last few years was this episode of Mad Men where they showed a family out on a picnic,” Gray recounts. “They’re hanging out, they’re eating, and then they get up and leave all their stuff lying there, in the middle of the park, and they walk away. From a modern sensibility, it’s like, are you crazy? That’s like watching someone smoking in the nursery in a hospital. You can’t do that. It was shocking to think that there was a time period where no one thought about it, where that’s just how it was done.”
In an odd way, after playing through the first few hours of the The Bureau, I think the parallels to Star Trek run deeper than the game’s thoughtful approach to science fiction. Like the original series, with its wooden sets and even more wooden acting, The Bureau isn’t a shining example of top-of-the-line production values. Some noticeably rough edges protrude—subpar voice work, graphical shortcomings—that almost certainly won’t be smoothed out in the finished product.
But The Bureau, like Star Trek, appears to know its audience and what it takes to make them happy. The gameplay’s real-time hybrid of shooting and tactical commands is polished, intensely addictive, and tough as nails. There’s a level of inherent inaccessibility that will likely turn many players away, but for fans of XCOM, The Bureau is shaping up to be a perfect extension of the brand, the sort of game that a diehard group will speak fondly of for decades to come.
In the end, though, it’s hard to tell exactly how large that group will be. The original Star Trek, after all, was canceled after three short seasons due to abysmal ratings and only thrived once it hit syndication. Gray himself proudly admits that The Bureau isn’t selling to the mass market of action-hungry gamers
“You’ll see a screenshot of a third-person guy in cover, but this isn’t a bombastic, adrenaline-fueled romp. This is a very tactical, brainy gamer’s game. We wanted to get away from summer-blockbuster structure,” he says. “The most liberating thing was realizing that the bro-gamer guy isn’t going to care what we’re doing. We don’t need to try to appeal to someone that’s not even really our target.”
That’s a serious gamble in an age when the media we consume—games not least among them—are becoming increasingly expensive to produce, and, as a result, more and more homogenized toward mainstream tastes. Even Star Trek, that longtime bastion of mindful science fiction, has been reborn as a summer blockbuster with its fair share of explosions and bombast.
Regardless of whether or not The Bureau‘s deliberate tactical gameplay and socially conscious approach to sci-fi storytelling appeal to you, it’s hard not to admire, on some level, what 2K is hoping to accomplish. There’s always going to be a place for big budget, high-octane titles, and there’s always going to be a place for lo-fi indie games and low-priced apps. The fate of the middle ground—the cult hits, the esoteric innovators, the Star Treks of our medium—is far less certain. That’s where The Bureau wants to end up, and, for many reasons, I hope it succeeds in getting there.
The niche is dead. Long live the niche.