Envisioning Humanity’s Final Frontier – Interview with XCOM 2 Greg Foertsch

During a preview session for XCOM 2 I had the chance to speak to Greg Foertsch, art director on the new game as well as XCOM Enemy Unknown. I took the opportunity to ask him a bit about the aliens and environments that make up the sci-fi game, as well as discussing the artistic process of procedural generation.

Jayden: Moving from the classic style of Enemy Unknown to the new futuristic setting 20 years later is a big step design wise. What was the process like and were there any major difficulties in the evolution?

Greg: It’s one of those things – how do you do a ‘future’ city? It’s kind of been done a lot so we try to find things that are still tangible, for example, there’s still going to be gas stations, still restaurants, bars and office spaces. We tried to take them and build on them visually so you can still kind of get the gist of what they are, but then push that. Even some of the more municipal style buildings, like say the propaganda centres, we looked a lot at cathedrals and churches so they have that sort of feel. The gene therapy centres, well they look like hospitals – you go in there and there’s beds all sprawled out.

In developing the city centre stuff, that was how we approached it – taking remnants of things that people connect to, whether it’s the white sterile room where the hospital beds are or simply the way the structure of the building is. That way when we got to the things a little more abstract in nature they’re things people can latch onto, maybe even only subconsciously, to get a sense of what the space is.XCOM2_ADVENT_Propaganda_Center_Atrium.0Jayden: In terms of keeping the design grounded, what were some real world or pop culture inspirations for the futuristic art of XCOM 2?

Greg: We looked at things like, strangely enough, a lot of Scandinavian design, and there’s obviously a bit of Blade Runner in there. We were looking at things like that, but we even looked at things like astroturf – something that’s intended to be real but a bad imitation. It was a fun space to develop.

Jayden: The aliens are a hugely iconic part of the XCOM brand and series – how do you go about designing the aliens of this new game, carried over from EU or otherwise?

Greg: In the 20 years between Enemy Unknown and XCOM 2 it was well known that the Ethereals were messing with genes and alien structures, and that naturally lead us to things like ‘okay, let’s make a sectoid blended with a human, lets take the muton and blend it with human, the berserker even’. You get more humanised forms in some of these, but they’re exaggerated in ways that make them uncomfortable – like the sectoid is seven feet tall and looks almost like it’s missing a top layer of skin, it’s glistening and kind of wet. To harken back to the original game he glitches out as he runs once in a while, plus he has his movement on all fours from EU, giving him that muscle memory still.XCOM2_Sectoid.0With the muton, we made his armour more form fitting so as to appear more human, but he’s still gigantic and has the essence of the muton there. Then we get into characters like the faceless, based on the creature from the black lagoon and the swamp thing, mixed with Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man (a huge reference for me). When we did its textures we looked at the melted guy in the original Robocop. The faceless moves in a way that’s very slow and deliberate, but it’s still terrifying, especially when he crawls through windows – it makes your skin crawl.

Then you look at the Andromedon – a lot of people probably don’t know his armour tone is based off of one of the original NASA suits, it’s this teal blue with orange piping, but then I wanted to mix that with a like a dive suit, then could I blend that with the robot from Lost in Space. Could I actually make a bendy arm, with the coils, and not make it silly, and so those were the visual challenges incorporated. When you see him he has that B50’s reference but it doesn’t at all feel B50’s.XCOM2_Viper.0With the viper, we looked at Medusa and even Cleopatra since she has that elegant feel. The Archon is sort of the engineer from Prometheus mixed with a Greek god. Quite deliberately, you almost have this mannequin like beauty form to him, yet he’s all about death – he literally rains death on you – so it was interesting to have that contrast, putting all this together to create the menagerie of creatures the aliens of XCOM are always about. We don’t look at them in any one isolated view, but holistically. Each one of them fills a spectrum, when we mapped out the aliens and what their abilities could be we created a silhouette sheet, trying to figure out a size and colour scheme for each of them. As you look at them they should each occupy a little portion, pushing everything apart for a contrast between not only their visuals but their abilities.

Jayden: It sounds like the aliens may be the answer to this one, but what aspect of XCOM 2’s art did you most enjoy putting together?

Greg: Probably the environments, actually. When you look at the environments one of the things that when we initially started looking at procedural was the concern that you’d lose some of the handcrafted feel of the environments for the player. At the end of the day I feel like the maps that you’ve seen so far are only a small portion, and that they retain – if not exceed – the hand painted feel and the love that was put into the EU levels, yet they have the procedural nature to them. At first it was a challenge, but I think we were actually able to pull it off, and I’m super excited about that.XCOM2_NewWorldOrderMood.0Jayden: How does procedural generation influence the art process on a game like this?

Greg: A good bit. So as we start developing the system we go from bigger buildings then work down to more decorative things, but there’s points where things all swap. Say you end up with a building in tundra – that building can show up in temperate as well and the ivy will swap out to something that suits the elements, say icicles or dead, frozen leaves. Some things have swap meshes and some don’t, but even considering how you build you textures and how the layering works really influences how you do it – but if you embrace it you can make it really work for you. Since it was one of the very first things we adopted, making the game procedural, it ended up working out pretty well.

Jayden: Where do you see the future of XCOM heading post XCOM 2 release?

Greg: I don’t really know what the next step is – it could be going even more sci-fi, that could be fun. The cool thing about sci-fi, and also the danger of it, is being able to make sure there’s enough of a tangible, familiar connection for the player that then you can abstract it. To go more sci-fi would mean having to find more of these things, but it’s also more freeing – we’re twenty years in the future here, I don’t know what gas stations look like twenty years in the future, or if there even is gas stations. We don’t know what hospitals would look like, or weapons, so it’s one of those things that opens a door to be more creative, but the danger is that if you don’t retain enough familiarity you can lose people. It’s a challenge, but it’s also one of the coolest parts to making something sci-fi.

XCOM 2 launches February 5th, 2016, for PC. For more on the game you can check out our hands on preview right here.

Images via 2K Games.