The origins of the X-COM game series lie with the 1994 game titled UFO: Enemy Unknown, whose success spawned a rebranding into X-COM: UFO Defense and the launch of five further game titles under the same brand until changes in the ownership of the franchise stopped its development in 2001. After a hiatus, the franchise was bought by 2K Games to be rebooted and reimagined in 2012 as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, so far spawning two more games and additional download contents. The main entries in the series are round-based strategy games, in which players move tactical units over conflict maps in order to fulfill strategic objectives. 

The main premise of the franchise is an alien invasion of Earth that needs to be countered by a multinational military coalition called XCOM. Players take the position of the Commander, the leading military officer, and are tasked to coordinate the anti-alien forces and develop a world strategy against the invasion. In keeping with a military set-up, the aliens encountered in the games’ missions are separated into ranks and units of an invasion army, with several different species working together under the command of an alien race called the Ethereals or Elders. The main body of the army consists of wide variety of units: Sectoids are reminiscent of the Greys of popular culture, small wiry creatures with grey skin, large heads and dark eyes that communicate via ‘psionics’. Thin Men are infiltration units that pass as pale humans but are revealed to be snake creatures in human skins. Mutons are brutish humanoids in combat armor with little intelligence but enormous strength. Chryssalids are chitinous insect creatures that implant corpses with their eggs and reanimate them as zombies. In addition to these different alien species, the invaders seem capable of both biological and cybernetic experimentation, creating augmented units such as Floaters, flying cyborgs that were engineered from Muton DNA, or a variety of human-alien hybrids that can be found in XCOM 2, an alternate timeline sequel portraying XCOM as the resistance movement after the invasion was successful. 

The original game series provides limited information on the motivation of the aliens, but in the reboot it is revealed that the Ethereals, several thousand year old humanoids with four arms and little physical strength but overwhelming telepathic abilities, have used their powers to conquer other species, experimented on them and then transformed them into their army. The main motivation of the invasions (not just of Earth) is disclosed to be the transcendence of the Elder minds from their ancient Ethereal bodies, to migrate their ‘selfs’ into new and more physically durable host bodies. In humanity, the Elders seem to have finally found a species that is capable of providing both a genetic and psionic merging, culminating in the Avatar species as a human-alien hybrid into which the Elder minds can be downloaded.    

In keeping with the military-orientation, the invasion forces are depicted within a “set of simple binary oppositions – above all, human versus inhuman, us versus them” in which the aliens feature as clear-cut threat to humanity: “an enemy to be feared, hated, and destroyed” (Badmington 3). The game mechanics and the limited background in the old X-COM series certainly strengthen this reading in that there is no other option in any of the games than to escalate the conflict or understand it other than as threat. In this, the series gestures back towards invasion narratives of the 1950s and their simple projection of these binaries onto the Cold War. But to say that the newer series XCOM also celebrates this simplicity is to ignore, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. has pointed out, that aliens also function as humanity’s double, especially in regards to our technoscientific progress: “Aliens are necessary because the human species is alone. The lack that creates them is an Other to whom we can compare ourselves. […] The alien is the fictive event horizon parallel singularity from which we may derive what we are” (5). As such the Ethereals’ advanced and superior technology not only shapes their colonizing tactics (abduction, experimentation, subjugation) but also their ontological status – they are representative of a scientifically driven transhumanism in that they see their technological progress as a means to transcend biological limitations. Similar to what thinkers such as Nick Bostrom or Hans Moravec have articulated, the Ethereal’s plan is to “liberate“ themselves from their failing bodies, shedding „our biological traits [,which are] out of step with the inventions of our minds“ (Moravec 4). Other “lesser” species are just a means to that end, but it is the human that brings success in this endeavor.   

It is interesting to note that the Ethereal’s motivation of transcendence is an addition to the series in 2012. With progress in biogenetic and information technology (such as the Human Genome Project or artificial intelligences), transhumanist thought has gained prominence, and mainstream media more strongly reflect this change (see Schmeink 5-6, 37) than in 1994. The function of the alien endeavor is two-fold though and does not just reflect humanity’s striving for transcendence. The Ethereal’s are portrayed by the game in the context of a religious paradigm, the ship is referred to as a temple, the Ethereals are visually marked as priests, the rhetoric is that of “uplift” and “ascendency”. Clearly, the ancient aliens are representations of an old theistic world-order, one that humanity has left behind. In contrast, the will to resist the alien overlords and the scientific method of reverse engineering their technology allow for the humans to create transcendence themselves. Science, as epitome of humanist thinking, allows humanity to become transhumanity and successfully resist the alien invasion by evolving into a human-psionic hybrid. In the end, it is this paradigmatic connection of the human with technological transcendence and an evolution away from biological limitations that remains as a message from the XCOM games. Whereas the alien is representative of an old and restrictive world order, humanity’s embrace of science will lead to its eventual next step in evolution.     

Mythos Games/MicroProse // Fireaxis Games/2K Games
1994-2001 // 2012-today
Great Britain // United States of America

Further Reading/Watching/Playing:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dir. Don Siegel. Allied Artists, 1956. Film.

The XFiles, Creat. Chris Carter. Fox. 1993-2002. TV Series.

Works Cited:

Badmington, Neil. Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within. London: Routledge, 2004.

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr. “Some Things We Know About Aliens.” The Yearbook of English Studies 37.2 (2007): 1–23.

Moravec, Hans. Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence. Cambridge: Harvard UP , 1988.

Schmeink, Lars. Biopunk Dystopias: Genetic Engineering, Society, and Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2016.

Ursprünglich erschienen als

Schmeink, Lars. „X-COM, XCOM“. Aliens in Popular Culture. Hg. Michael M. Levy und Farah Mendlesohn. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2019. 308-10.