‘The Bureau: XCOM Declassified’ revisits America’s ‘Golden Age,’ tarnish and all

The years following World War II up until the cultural revolution of the late 1960s have commonly become known as the “Golden Age of America.” The phrase “golden age” may be subjective, but Americans had plenty to be proud of. The GDP grew at an exponential pace, the middle class swelled, and a national highway system was created, connecting the country in way never seen before. While most of the world was rebuilding, the United States went from an isolationist nation to a world power, arguably even the world power.

At least for some.

Racism was endemic and misogyny was systemic. Segregation and Jim Crow laws mar the perfect image that pundits like Bill O’Reilly have romanticized, while women were told that their “most important job is to build up and maintain [a husband’s] ego.” It’s in this fertile swath of Americana that 2K Marin’s upcoming third-person tactical shooter, The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, takes place. The look is designed to emphasize the “cool” of the period, as art deco aesthetics mix with a stylistically optimistic eye on the future. The space age is upon us in The Bureau, and hard-drinking, fedora-wearing protagonist William Carter is brought into the clandestine organization in the year of the secret alien invasion, 1962.

We spoke with 2K Marin about creating an attractive and appealing game, and the thin line between romanticizing the past and honoring the truth.

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified war room shot

“We definitely wanted to convey the sense of the culture [being] different,” Jeff Weir, Art Director for The Bureau told Digital Trends. “There’s little hints of the racism … It was a turning point, but still very backward compared to how we are today.”

“We have some ugly in our game”

“That’s the rich subtext we are dealing with,” Morgan Gray, creative director for The Bureau said of the darker undertones at work during the era.

Many of the classic sci-fi movies and shows from the era were an influence in the game, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Star Trek. But beyond the look, 2K Marin also borrowed from the deeper issues that gave birth to these classics.

“They all played in that time period, and they all used the strains and the tension of that culture via sci-fi and metaphor for a bit of social commentary,” Gray said. “So that was another reason to go back to that specific time.”

The-Bureau-XCOM-DeclassifiedThe year the game is set, 1962, was also specifically chosen. The later years of the 1960s are filled with meaning of their own, from the hippies to the anti-war protests, it was a time of change and global unrest, especially in America. That wasn’t the scenario that 2K was looking for, though. The studio wanted to capture that cross section of Cold War paranoia mixed with the boundless optimism brought on by American (and Russian) technology that sent us to space.

Culturally, it would be easy to ignore the social implications of the day. Strip away the conspiracy motif, and the game is about shooting aliens. 2K Marin would likely be forgiven for completely whitewashing the more difficult points of the era. It would be ironic, as a game that uses the “redacted” gimmick in everything from its ads to the in-game reports, itself redacted the more sensitive problems of the age. Instead, 2K Marin decided to embrace it.

“We have some ugly in our game,” Gray said. “We definitely have some serious misogyny that comes to our characters. There are whites and colored-only bathrooms – that’s just how it was.”

Cultural problems like racism, misogyny, and homophobia provide subtext to the greater story of saving the world from alien invasion, but the developer doesn’t stray from it. Littered throughout the game you will find several mentions of the “Red Scare,” which led to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous inquisitions that ruined countless lives and did very little to benefit the country. You’ll hear characters gripe about taking orders from Angela Weaver, The Bureau’s second in command and to the chagrin of many of the soldiers, a woman. There is even a gay character trying to deal with his orientation in a world that neither approves of it, or even wants to know about it.

The Bureau XCOM Declassified“We definitely wanted to convey the sense of the culture [being] different,” Weir said. “There’s little hints of the racism … It was a turning point, but still very backward compared to how we are today.”

“Let’s use games to talk about some of the reality as well”

For the most part though, the design of The Bureau is meant to highlight the boom of the era rather than the underside. America was a changing nation, and while it still had a long way to go (and still does), there were reasons for the optimism seen in the game, almost as a contrast to the damage the aliens cause.

“Basically we went from the World War II generation, where it was all these 18-year-old, 19-year-old kids and they saved the world – they literally f-ing saved the world from terror, from a tyrant, from a madman,” Gray told us. “They come back home, they are one of the first generations of Americans that are worldy. They’ve left – they didn’t travel much back then – they came back, they got GI bills, they got educated… they basically created the concept of the modern middle class. It was a heyday. That was the Leave it to Beaver America. That started to shatter when the truth was like ‘that’s a great America for some, but not for all.’

“So yes, we got the voices – the minority voices, the gender equality, sexual equality. These themes, although we don’t put them at the forefront, they are definitely subtext throughout the game because that is the joy of having the time period. You can use reality to tell a richer tapestry, a richer narrative.”

the bureau xcom declassified reviewIgnoring the ugly aspects of the past, even in a entertainment medium – maybe especially in an entertainment medium – can be tantamount to approving of it. To glamorize an era of history that was ripe with problems makes those problems seem less important. It’s common, but that doesn’t make it right.

“Let’s use games to talk about some of the reality as well,” Gray stated, “or what happened and have that be enhancing and making an interesting setting for you to discover what that world was like.”

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