A Knife on the Playground: XCOM: Enemy Within
"Those who play with the devil's toys
will be brought by degrees
to wield his sword."
- R. Buckminster Fuller
Last week, I talked about how XCOM thematically and narratively justifies its renowned difficulty curve with a strong emphasis on combating an alien (in every sense of the term) enemy. You do this primarily through researching and developing the technology that you recover from your various battles. After all, what better way to conquer an unknown enemy than by coming to understand them? Their strengths become your assets, their weaknesses your ammunition. It is a foolproof plan. Right? You might think so, until you add-on XCOM: Enemy Within, the expansion pack for XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Having conquered the Enemy Unknown, it only seems appropriate that XCOM would move on to tackle the Enemy Within. But just what is the Enemy Within? Infiltrators? Bacteria? Republicans? No, in this case the enemy within emerges in the shape of another human organization that has been doing almost exactly what you have: plundering the secrets of the alien invaders' technology, and turning it to their own purpose. Unfortunately for you, that purpose is less about combating the menace from outer space, and more about taking over the world.
Aside from introducing this new threat, nicknamed EXALT, XCOM: Enemy Within also expands the game's features to include new troop types, new special abilities, new armaments, and new missions. The vast majority of these features are all tied to a new resource: "meld." Like most of the items you obtain in-game, meld is a limited quantity item that you obtain from fighting the aliens. The major difference is that, unlike the weapon fragments or alloys you scrounge from downed spacecraft or broken guns, meld is a substance that interacts with your soldiers on the molecular level. The usage of meld is divided into two broad categories along your two primary advisors: Doctor Vahlen proposes altering the genetic code of your soldiers, while Doctor Shen suggests creating mechanized soldiers that can use meld to control massive combat suits.
The beauty of this addition to the gameplay is once again echoed in XCOM's narrative. Aside from EXALT's own corrupt use of the alien technology, you get the distinct impression that you and your comrades are treading a very fine ethical line when you make use of meld. Doctor Shen cheerfully acknowledges that in order to make his MEC project viable, a soldier will first have to have all of their limbs amputated. Doctor Vahlen, meanwhile, sees no serious harm in giving soldiers genetic modifications that cause their skin to become electrified, or to emit pheromones that cause those around them to go into a berserk combat rage. It's all in the best interests of humanity...right?
Even without the expansion of Enemy Within, it is often hinted at that the XCOM project is sinister and in danger of being a corrupting influence on the direction of humanity. Your scientists dissect and torture the invaders without a second thought. Following one interrogation, Doctor Vahlen casually mentions how the alien expired before they could even establish an actual line of communication. Maybe it's only fair; the aliens after all have mercilessly attacked civilian populations with complete indifference to men, women and children. How far would humanity go to protect its own survival?
When we look back on human history, we can see the awesome change that technology has wrought on our lives. The benefits are undeniable: we now live longer lives, have better understanding of the world around us, and can travel vast distances in a fraction of the time it took our ancestors to migrate across the landbridge from Asia to North America. Yet we can also see the pitfalls of unrestrained knowledge: the atomic bomb, weaponized anthrax, even the possibility of space-based weaponry. Each discovery that takes us up the ladder of human evolution can be put to great good, and great evil. That is the warning presented by EXALT in XCOM: Enemy Within. In every sense, their organization mirrors yours, to the point that when you finally assault their headquarters Doctor Shen remarks that they even managed to mimic your global hologram display to a T.
It was probably tempting for the writers at Firaxis to use the classic Nietszche quote referring to the Abyss, but ultimately this one from R. Buckminster Fuller is much more apt. Scientific discovery is wondrous, and in the context of a video game, fun. The new "toys" you get to better dispatch your enemies are put to amazing destructive purpose, and there's no denying that Enemy Within makes a fun game even more fun.
But the warning is clear: temper your sense of curiosity with a sense of respect, lest your toy become a sword.