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 out, Pacific 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.