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How XCOM 2's environmental storytelling overlapped its combat system

XCOM 2 senior environment artist Justin Rodriguez took to GDC Showcase to offer additional lessons from Firaxis Games' turn-based strategy game.

Bryant Francis

March 17, 2021

2 Min Read

As GDC showcase has rolled on this week, a number of speakers have dropped by discussion sessions to add commentary to talks given at Game Developers Conference in years past.

One speaker, Justin Rodriguez, a senior environment artist on XCOM 2, returned to give additional insight on his talk about implementing environmental storytelling in the game’s nonlinear levels.

You can watch Rodriguez’s original talk on YouTube, but at Showcase he offered a couple of key clarifications for how the game’s combat flow helped him pick what little stories to tell where.

He first explained that when placing the assets that told small stories about the world of XCOM 2 (think broken windows, left behind props to show who lived in a space before it was abandoned, etc.), Firaxis Entertainment’s level design and QA teams offered data to the art team about where in the levels those stories should be.

But one neat design overlap occurred as Rodriguez began studying that data: if he wanted players to see the small stories meant to fill out XCOM 2’s world, the game’s cover system was often the most reliable indicator of where players would be moving their units.

“High cover was priceless because we know players that were playing in classic and above would move from high cover as it was the safest bet in game,” Rodriguez explained in chat. “That is where I started putting all of my decoration and stories - around high cover.”

It’s a valuable lesson for artists, narrative-inclined developers, and combat designers when making nonverbal storytelling moments. If you want to see Rodriguez’s work in action, you can pop open XCOM 2 and navigate toward the high cover yourself, seeing how exploration and combat in this case go hand-in-hand.

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