Good Luck, Commander: XCOM and Pacific Rim 4

From the first moment Stacker Pentecost had to jus­ti­fy his pro­gram’s exis­tence to an impas­sive inter­na­tion­al coun­cil of world lead­ers pro­ject­ed onto a wall of screens, I could­n’t help but see Pacific Rim in the light of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  There are here oodles of spoil­ers for both: don’t say I did­n’t warn you.


Both XCOM and Pacific Rim can be sum­ma­rized as the strug­gle between inscrutable alien forces attempt­ing to con­quer the world and an advanced inter­na­tion­al mil­i­tary project using unortho­dox means to stop them.

The XCOM Project and the Jaeger Program are faced with nigh-insurmountable odds and must con­sis­tent­ly prove their con­tin­ued suc­cess to the ter­ri­fied nations that fund them.  The pro­grams are per­pet­u­al­ly in dan­ger not only of death on the bat­tle­field at the hands of the aliens, but also of being dis­con­tin­ued by ter­ri­fied bureau­crats who believe they aren’t doing enough to halt the alien incur­sions.

XCOM’s fail­ure con­di­tion relates not to los­ing sol­diers on the bat­tle­field but, rather, to the num­ber of fund­ing coun­tries that lose faith and with­draw from the XCOM Project.  If eight coun­tries leave, the project is scrubbed and dis­band­ed, even though it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the world com­ing up with a bet­ter line of defense than XCOM can pro­vide.

Similarly, frus­trat­ed by the Jaeger Program’s inabil­i­ty to do any­thing more than stem the tide of kaiju inva­sions, the meat of Pacific Rim begins with Marshal Pentecost hear­ing that the Project is being retired in favor of a clear­ly inef­fec­tive sub­sti­tute — a mas­sive wall built along the Pacific coast­line of all major coun­tries — a wall the kaiju can and do breach with­in min­utes.  Faced with a lengthy and mys­te­ri­ous incur­sion, human­i­ty even­tu­al­ly gives up and just tries to wall it away.


The clos­est ana­logue in Pacific Rim to the play­er char­ac­ter in XCOM is not the lead Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket, but rather the grim, mus­tachi­fied Marshal Stacker Pentecost, played with aplomb and enthu­si­asm by Idris Elba.  It’s Stacker who is in charge of the Jaeger Program, who makes all the tough calls about when to engage the kaiju and which pilots to send into har­m’s way.

Unless you “save-scum,” XCOM makes you live with the con­se­quences of your actions.  Soldiers stay dead, coun­tries that have left the Project remain gone.  Decisions you made a long time ago with­out all the infor­ma­tion will con­tin­ue to haunt you for a long time.  If you fail to pro­tect a VIP on a mis­sion, that VIP dies.  Until the very last mis­sion, XCOM avoids the “nar­ra­tive reset” model.

Where they dif­fer is in the per­son­al risks taken by their com­mand­ing offi­cers.  In Pacific Rim’s finale, Pentecost climbs into the cock­pit of a Jaeger one last time, plac­ing him­self in har­m’s way for the final push.  This is a form of abdi­ca­tion — he knows he won’t sur­vive this mis­sion, suc­cess­ful or not, and he does­n’t want to.  If suc­cess­ful, there will be no place in the world for men like him, and if unsuc­cess­ful, the world will be con­demned to per­ish, and he has no desire to see that.

There is no option in XCOM to strap on some power armor your­self and per­son­al­ly attend to the sit­u­a­tion like Stacker does.  This is of course a func­tion of the genre — XCOM is a strat­e­gy game, not a third-person shoot­er — but it also speaks to a dif­fer­ence in phi­los­o­phy.  Stacker leads the troops as one of them, dis­tant, but empa­thet­ic.  They know he was once a Jaeger pilot, and he becomes one again.

The Commander, con­verse­ly, never speaks direct­ly to the troops.  He or she is dis­tinct­ly sep­a­rate from the rank-and-file.  On the Base screen you can see your sol­diers chat­ting, relax­ing, play­ing pool or recu­per­at­ing in the hos­pi­tal, but you can’t join them or see how they’re doing.  When you gain new recruits, you don’t sit them down for a pleas­ant chat or brief them on their roles — you just hear them file into the base, step, step, step, step, more fuel for your war effort.  You are fun­da­men­tal­ly apart.


Victory against the aliens comes through exten­sive xeno­bi­o­log­i­cal study, fol­lowed by a risky psy­chic link between a human mind and the ene­my’s col­lec­tive intel­li­gence.  The Jaeger pilots in Pacific Rim only learn the specifics of how to push back the enemy after the “neur­al hand­shake” the two sci­en­tists engage in with the dead kaiju, and the final XCOM mis­sion to the Temple Ship is only made pos­si­ble by the Volunteer using the Gollop Chamber to com­mu­ni­cate with the Ethereals’ net­work.

These psy­chic links are only made pos­si­ble through exten­sive xeno­bi­o­log­i­cal research.  Both fea­ture an exten­sive empha­sis on autop­sies, which aid the team by giv­ing them a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the aliens’ phys­i­olo­gies, which in turn allows them to build bet­ter weapons and oth­er­wise fight more effi­cient­ly and effec­tive­ly.  Just as it is always Dr. Vahlen’s slight­ly creepy research that allows you to progress in XCOM, it is only through Ginzler and Gottlieb’s math­e­mat­ics and bio­log­i­cal stud­ies that Becket and Mori can suc­cess­ful­ly break through the Breach’s defens­es and destroy it.

In this way, both XCOM and Pacific Rim focus on both the sol­diers on the front line and the sci­en­tists and researchers back home.  Although the play­er in XCOM has far greater con­trol of and involve­ment in the actions of the sol­diers than the sci­en­tists, man­ag­ing XCOM’s R&D divi­sion makes up much of the “macro” por­tion of the game.  Similarly, Pacific Rim spends almost as much time char­ac­ter­iz­ing the sci­en­tists as it does the lead Jaeger pilots.  Both argue that this type of war is won just as much by the sci­en­tists in the lab as by the sol­diers in the field.


XCOM’s sub­ti­tle is “Enemy Unknown” because, unless you are look­ing things up on the Internet, you never know what the aliens are capa­ble of until they’re already doing it to you.  About the time you become accus­tomed to the aliens’ tac­tics, the game will intro­duce a new type of vil­lain which forces you to re-evaluate your strat­e­gy.

Thus, even as you become more flu­ent in the game’s sys­tems, and as your sol­diers become more pow­er­ful, you never become com­fort­able or relaxed — the ene­mies grow increas­ing­ly more dan­ger­ous and com­plex, employ­ing more and more elab­o­rate and unortho­dox tac­tics.

In Pacific Rim, each kaiju is dif­fer­ent, and while there are cer­tain sim­i­lar­i­ties and pat­terns in all of them, the Jaeger pilots are never quite sure what their ene­mies are capa­ble of.  This ren­ders cer­tain kaiju attacks, such as Leatherback’s EMP weapon and Otachi’s acid spit, par­tic­u­lar­ly unpleas­ant sur­pris­es to which the pilots have to adapt.  The “Category” sys­tem used through­out Pacific Rim refers only to the size of the kaiju, and thus is only help­ful as a vague­ly pre­dic­tive mea­sure of dan­ger.  It does­n’t help the Jaeger pilots know what form this dan­ger will take.


Where they dif­fer is in their por­tray­al of the aliens’ goals.  As Cameron Kunzelman has point­ed outPacific Rim, for all its giant robots and goofy anime hair­styles, is fun­da­men­tal­ly nihilist — the alien invaders view humans as noth­ing more than an incon­ve­nience, a road­block between them and what they real­ly want: the plan­et Earth and its resources.  The kaiju are sent as exter­mi­na­tors, not con­querors, and human­i­ty wins not because it is spe­cial, but because it is lucky.  Humans are not nec­es­sar­i­ly more deserv­ing of the plan­et than the unnamed alien invaders, we were just here first.

XCOM, con­verse­ly ele­vates human­i­ty to great impor­tance.  Humanity is itself the rea­son for the alien inva­sion.  They abduct humans, exper­i­ment on them, all to find out if we are wor­thy or capa­ble of join­ing their col­lec­tive.  Success for the Ethereals is not our anni­hi­la­tion, but rather our incor­po­ra­tion into their own psy­chic hive­mind.  XCOM is thus fer­vent­ly anthro­pocen­tric: human­i­ty mat­ters a great deal to every­one involved.

Regardless, a lot of peo­ple are going to die.  While indi­vid­ual play­ers will have a larg­er or small­er memo­r­i­al wall, no one gets through XCOM with­out seri­ous casu­al­ties.  The tuto­ri­al’s one script­ed encounter kills 3/4 of your squad.  In Pacific Rim, of the eleven peo­ple we see pilot Jaegers over the course of the film, only three sur­vive.  It’s a bloody busi­ness, sav­ing the world.


Both make a large point about the uncer­tain­ty of tim­ing.  The ene­mies attack unpre­dictably and with­out warn­ing.  You’re never quite sure when the next rash of UFO activ­i­ty will start in XCOM, so you watch the clock care­ful­ly, hop­ing you’ll get to com­plete your next round of upgrades before you have to deploy your sol­diers again.  Pacific Rim fea­tures the omnipresent war clock, which shows the time since the last kaiju incur­sion — a har­bin­ger of dan­gers yet to come.  Neither Stacker nor the XCOM Commander is sure when the next attack will come or what fresh hor­rors it will unleash — they just know how long it’s been since the last ter­ri­ble thing hap­pened.  This also places them in large­ly reac­tive roles rather than active ones.


After the alien inva­sion, nei­ther is very sure what hap­pens next.  XCOM ends with a tri­umphant shot of the Skyranger, return­ing from the final mis­sion, and Pacific Rim focus­es on the remain­ing active Jaeger pilots in a quiet moment of cel­e­bra­tion.

But it may be that what’s most inter­est­ing about both sto­ries would­n’t actu­al­ly hap­pen until after the cred­its roll.  The old trope of a world unit­ed by alien inva­sion seems unlike­ly — The Council in XCOM has a hard enough time stay­ing untied when the threat is present.  It’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine they’ll get it togeth­er now, scrab­bling in a post-war world.  The kaiju inva­sion had already under­scored the deep lines in Pacific Rim between rich and poor (think of the “pub­lic shel­ter”) — it’s unlike­ly those divi­sions will sim­ply van­ish once the kaiju are gone.

What will be done with all the new mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped dur­ing the inva­sion?  The XCOM Project’s advanced weapon­ry is far beyond the mun­dane mil­i­taries of Earth before the inva­sion.  When the project is dis­band­ed, who gets all the plas­ma rifles and power armor?  Do they only go to the coun­tries that stayed in the Project?  Are they divid­ed pro­por­tion­al­ly based on con­tri­bu­tions?  What of the newly psion­ic humans who are sud­den­ly rein­tro­duced to soci­ety?  Will they be admired and respect­ed, or shunned and dis­trust­ed?  All of Dr. Shen’s quiet wor­ries about “what we will become” sud­den­ly become press­ing con­cerns instead of idle spec­u­la­tion.

Though all the Jaegers them­selves are destroyed, the schemat­ics remain.  Are we to believe no one will use that tech­nol­o­gy to con­struct weapons for more tra­di­tion­al war?  What of the thriv­ing trade in kaiju parts that has sud­den­ly lost all of its sup­ply?  Further, as Kunzelman notes:

The fact that the clos­ing scene of the film, the last bit of screen time, is devot­ed to the evil, self­ish, vio­lent busi­ness­man being birthed from the body of the prime antag­o­nist of the film is pro­found­ly bleak. This inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion is over. The desire to break across any num­ber of iden­ti­ty lines in order to achieve some­thing that had to be achieved is aban­doned.

Hannibal Chau carv­ing his way out of the kaiju corpse may be played for laughs, but its sym­bol­ism is clear: the kaiju may be gone, but the hor­ri­ble war-profiteers remain.  Between this and XCOM’s utter silence on what we do now, this much is clear: we may have can­celed the apoc­a­lypse, but that’s no guar­an­tee we’ll like what we get instead.


Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and groundskeeper of The Ontological Geek, now that it has shifted over to archive mode. If something on the site isn't working, please shoot a DM to @ontologicalgeek on Twitter!

4 thoughts on “Good Luck, Commander: XCOM and Pacific Rim


    Point of fact; the “main” Rangers in-universe are the Aussies in Striker Eureka. While Raleigh is co-protagonist (with Mako), he’s not exact­ly the first choice, and is only recruit­ed because Stacker needs every pilot he can get.

  • BadLeo

    I liked your text and, in fact, it made me curi­ous about Pacific Rim, as I was­n’t a bit inter­est­ed for it when it came out because, well, because I felt it would be just anoth­er ‘fancy, empty block­buster’, as I call this genre. So, I got it to watch. Turns out I think it IS an empty block­buster. And more, I think its par­al­lel with X‑Com plot is only mar­gin­al.

    Don’t take me wrong. There’s not­ing bad with a block­buster of this type. It can be enter­tain­ing, real­ly, but, in some sense, most of the times it is not a work of art as it is a com­mer­cial piece. There ARE com­mer­cial pieces that are amaz­ing art works, like Blade Runner (failed com­mer­cial piece, indeed, but insight­ful and deep). But that’s not the case of Pacific Rim, IMO of course.

    I can’t see Pacific Rim as nihilist. I’m sorry. It may be, in some sense, pes­simist, although in the end the cliché THE GOOD ALWAYS WINS AND THE HERO SURVIVES is there. Puerile as every ‘fancy block­buster’ must be in order to, well, to be a block­buster. Pacific Rim treats hero­ism in the exact oppose nihilist movies do: it cel­e­brates it, while nihilist movies tend to point to the fragili­ty of heroes. After all, heroes are humans made of cir­cum­stan­tial glory, but glory isn’t bul­let­proof.

    You want a good anti-war, nihilist movies to make you think about soci­ety? Look at the post-vietnam movies. Most of them are as deep as they are bru­tal and ruth­less. My favourite of that time is Kubric’s Full Metal Jacket, although my per­son­al pref­er­ence in the genre, above all that I’ve seen, is 1957’s Paths of Glory, from the same direc­tor (yes, I’m sus­pect to say any­thing good about his pic­tures because I’m a deep fan of his work).

    I think Pacific Rim main plot is much more like the plots of Space Sheriffs and Super Sentais from japan­ese cul­ture. A some­what matur­er ver­sion of Power Rangers, that is the amer­i­can ver­sion of Super Sentais. Again, noth­ing wrong with it inher­ent­ly, but, c’mon, it’s child play. You teach chil­dren to dif­fer­en­ti­ate good from bad with it, but deep exis­ten­tial themes are out of its reach. X‑COM does a lit­tle bet­ter in that. But I’ve to remind you that 2012 XCOM is just a remake, or re-imagination, as the devel­op­ers like to say, of a 1993 suc­cess, but the plot is exact­ly the same from 21 years ago.

    1993. Graphics, mechan­ics, every­thing in terms of tech­nol­o­gy was pret­ty much raw at that time com­pared to now days. Of course you know that. If you have less pow­er­ful visu­al tools to attract atten­tion, you have to devel­op a good story. That’s the trick of X‑Com: Ufo Defense. A good sto­ry­line for the games of that time and still pret­ty much good for now­days stan­dards. A bit super­fi­cial, some­times, but inter­est­ing enough to be regard­ed as a clas­sic “must play”. First time I played was 1999 already. Still a fan of the series today, despite the lots of crap things made under it’s label. The 2012 Remake was the breath of fresh air it need­ed so much. The Bureau intro­duced inter­est­ing lore (but they slipped a lot with its dumb AI).

    The strong point of X‑Com story is the ques­tion posed to the play­er about the future. When the alien men­ace is gone, what will be mankind’s des­tiny? But, deep­er than this, will mankind became the very men­ace it fought against? The remake goes deep­er in this ques­tion, intro­duc­ing, spe­cial­ly with the DLC Enemy Within, even more ways to alter the very body of sol­diers, mak­ing them ‘more than humans’, yet no quite aliens despite the use of alien’s tech­nol­o­gy. What will be their place after the final vic­to­ry is up to the play­er to imag­ine. But what is clear is: humans are left on the verge of a deep change. This is some­what present in Pacific Rim, as you very well stat­ed.

    One of the dif­fer­ence, IMO, resides in a lit­tle, almost frag­ile, yet pow­er­ful plot diver­gence: XCOM is a secret project. It was never intend­ed to be know of human­i­ty, nor to be part of soci­ety. A time­ly mea­sure to fight a one time enemy. That’s why the bureau­crats of X‑Com are so com­fort­able in end­ing the project when they feel it’s not being effi­cient. Jaeger Project became part of humans culture,after all, Pacific Rim’s aliens are too big and clum­sy to be objects of gov­ern­men­tal under­cov­er. As this, bureau­crats aban­don­ment of the project serves only to [lame­ly] intro­duce Hannibal Chau to the plot. If they had the money to build a con­ti­nen­tal wall, why not build anoth­er Jaeger?

    But this is just me, a fan of X‑Com and not so much of Pacific Rim, point­ing out what I think is one of the biggest holes in a far from bright plot. This is irrel­e­vant. What I real­ly want­ed to state with this long com­ment (that means I cared enough about your text to write this, and not that I despise your opin­ion, ok?) is that X‑Com and Pacific Rim share super­fi­cial, maybe intend­ed, sim­i­lar­i­ties main­ly because the gen­er­al pub­lic of both prod­ucts may share some sim­i­lar­i­ties, too. X‑Com is rev­er­enced by it’s impor­tance for the games genre since 1993, not because its 2012 remake, while Pacific Rim is irrel­e­vant in it’s genre. Just one among many, many oth­ers. Maybe I’m wrong, how­ev­er. Just an opin­ion.

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