XCOM 2: finding yourself on the battlefield

By Brenna Hillier, Thursday, 10 December 2015 13:05 GMT

XCOM 2 fronts unforgiving tactical gameplay and satisfying RPG progression, but that’s not all it deserves praise for.


When I walked into 2K’s Australian offices last week I was met with shocked stares. The local PR manager had been whiling away some free time by creating a customised character for me, and through luck (and excellent taste) had managed to hit on my exact haircut. That combined with my eyebrow piercing and colouring meant the soldier he’d put together looked eerily like me.

I get this a lot, and despite some very flattering comparisons I don’t think much of it (although The Wolf Among Amongst Us’s murderous Bloody Mary is cool enough that I embraced it as my profile picture on Facebook, leading Pat to ask when I’d had my portrait commissioned). Female character design in games – as in comics and animation – is so conservative that they’re all largely interchangeable. Because I’m white, able-bodied, slim and have a generic face, it’s easy for me to feel represented by female characters.

That said, I’ve been getting progressively more queer over the past few years (is there something in the water?) and as such it’s been getting harder and harder. To see my latest haircut – XCOM 2 calls it “undercut half-shaved” – in a game makes me very happy. (I’m also rocking it in Fallout 4, where it’s available at barbers if not in initial customisation; thanks Bethesda!)

We didn’t save the character 2K made for me; this one is just a quick reproduction I made to show off how easy and full-featured the customisation menu is. There’s also a look at the character and weapon upgrade systems, and even a set of power armour.

It certainly startled and pleased art director Greg Foertsch. Later, he told me he’d never actually seen my haircut in person before. “You’re like an XCOM 2 character came to life,” he said.

Clearly Sparks, Maryland can’t compete with the hair game of Sydney’s inner west, but what struck me is that Foertsch and his art team pushed to include my haircut, and its tied-back cousin – both of which have been super popular on the queer scene for a couple of years but are still uncommon enough in the vanilla world that I had to deal with street harassment just last weekend – despite not necessarily seeing said haircuts in their daily lives.

It’s quite possible that Firaxis put these in styles in because they think they’re weird and wonderful rather than from a sense of dutiful inclusivity, but regardless of motivation I did feel included by the team’s effort. I felt included by the hairstyles and props, which left room for a strange little queerpunk Australian, as I felt included by the addition of Australian voice actor options and female characters – and as I’m sure people of colour feel included by the array of skin colours.

Video games still have a long way to go in making room for everyone – one day, characters will come in all kinds of shapes, with options for more complicated gender identities and room for disabilities – but the increased customisation options in XCOM 2 are an excellent start, and a wonderful progression on Enemy Unknown’s praiseworthy performance in this regard.

This level of customisation and potential representation encourages investment in your characters, which in turn encourages more careful and perhaps therefore successful play – as well as being super cool. But these soldiers are disposable, so I was also really psyched to see representation extend to scripted characters, too; of the three permanent cast members I met in the opening missions, only one is a white man.

Plus, like Enemy Unknown, the main character is never shown and carefully never referenced as anything other than “the commander”. What a simple but beautiful solution.

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