Environment Storytelling in XCOM 2

Environment Storytelling in XCOM 2

Justin Rodriguez, Senior Environment Artist at Firaxis Games, talked about XCOM level production and the hidden storylines added into the game with assets.

Justin Rodriguez, Senior Environment Artist at Firaxis Games, talked about XCOM level production and the way he added interesting hidden storylines into the game with assets. He also gave a talk on this topic at GDC 2018 (make sure to check it below) and launched a podcast series about Environment Art together with Ryan Benno.


I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and since I was young I loved drawing and creating my own comics. My parents were super cool too, they were all about empowering me to draw and paint when I was a kid. I had a ton of allergies and would get sick when I went outside so they tried super hard to make sure my imagination wasn’t confined to the inside of the house. That is when I got my first game console. I remember getting Super Nintendo and running Super Mario: it was one of those magical moments. I was very young at that moment but that memory has stuck. I can still close my eyes and see it, still inspirational to this day.

When I was trying to decide what high school I wanted to attend in my area I remember catching this Incubus Drive Music Video on TV where the lead singer Brandon Boyd is being drawn while he performed the song, and I was like “I can actually have a job of an artist”. So I took an art test to join an art program that the school in my area had. After High school, I thought I wanted to be an art teacher so I studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art. It wasn’t until I was through my freshman year of school that I actually wanted to try to get into the game industry. This was such an awesome moment in my life because I was sitting there thinking “Hey, that dream you had when you were a little kid might actually become real”.

The game that inspired me to get into the game industry was Metal Gear Solid. One of my friends told me to play it, and I remember that I wasn’t interested in it at first but I ended up absolutely loving it. I would try to draw solid snake like Yoji on my folders at school and I would pour over the strategy guide for hours at home. I remember the letter Kojima wrote in the back of the strategy guide thanking his team and his family as something really inspiring, and that is when I said to myself “This is what I want to do”.

I had a super random chance to meet Hideo Kojima at E3 when we were announcing XCOM. He was standing alone in the middle of the E3 showroom floor and I had just spent the whole day watching people experiencing XCOM EU for the first time. I plucked up the courage to go up and try to talk to him. I pointed to the XCOM booth and said: “thank you so much, I worked on this game because of your work on MGS”.

Storytelling in XCOM

Understanding how players and testers were playing the game really helped me start to find a strategy to decorate these maps. I remember watching co-workers play and they would look at their soldiers while they were taking cover behind fences and doorframes, and that is when it clicked and I started to focus putting stories around these areas. After that, I challenged myself by hiding stories in little sections of the map just for my own enjoyment. I really would just use them as a little movie set where these characters came to life. I was now decorating with a purpose, and I felt like I was getting way better results than when trying to scientifically break down what would happen and why at specific locations.

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Procedural Maps in XCOM 2

Our procedural map generation in XCOM 2 was pretty cool to work on: we had Plots, Parcels, and PCPs (Plot Cover Parcels). Plots were these big roadway networks that had sockets to place individual parcels (little levels) that could randomly switch in and out.  The PCPs were sets of cover and deco that could randomize and spawn in the roadways so we always had cover and deco on the plot and in between each parcel. During production, we tried to account for multiple playthroughs and a good amount of randomization, so the level design team would brainstorm different locations we could visit when in different biomes. For a good deal of time on the project, a majority of the environment team worked to produce props and assets. It wasn’t until later in the project that I was asked to work on the maps and try to really make them feel different from one another.

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Level Components Production

At the beginning of production of XCOM 2 we reviewed our asset creation pipeline and made some changes to our building kit and destruction system, but most of our cover, deco, and prop dimensions stayed pretty much the same. This allowed us to focus primarily on learning the ins and outs of the new procedural system. The majority of the team had also worked on XCOM EU and had memorized all of our dimensions for props and deco to work correctly in our cover generating pathing system so when it came to making new props and assets, we used our knowledge of the measurement restrictions to find new ways to improve these guidelines.

As for creating and organizing assets, we would discuss assets in terms of which biome they would be used in. We knew the advent would be everywhere in the game, so that prop kit was organized in a way that we knew it could work anywhere in our game. Alongside biome specific assets for our small towns, future cities, and alien facilities, we worked on authoring deco, props, and building kit pieces that were generic and could be used anywhere. I think it is also worth mentioning that we had standardized sizes of window, door, and building very early in the project. Because of that mixing and matching assets and textures were easy, and when it came time to make a new “type” of the building, we had our original building kit that was tested and optimized. We would use it as a guide when creating all the pieces and details we needed.

Since we had so many pieces, it was important to record and outline all the sizes for each individual type of level piece we would construct. Plots were organized and named to reflect how many parcels could be slotted into the level, and parcels were organized by small, medium, and large dimensions (I think it is awesome to note too, that these parcel dimensions were gathered and optimized from some of the best feeling/playing XCOM EU levels). PCPs were an interesting and the most granular piece of our level kits. They could range from 8 to 16 tiles long and would usually be the width of our streets/paths. These were fun and honestly difficult to decorate and finish because you really had to account for them spawning anywhere in any given level. Because of that many of them were lit, decorated lightly and stayed more as gestures in the space than fully realized little narrative moments.

I think it is important to add as well that we knew this was going to be hard to keep track of. The lead level designer Brian Hess and the Lead programmer Ryan Mcfall worked very hard on creating an interface and toolset for us to use in debugging and creating levels so we could test all of our work to the best of our ability. If we didn’t have this tool it would have been very, very difficult. A lot of time would have been spent on the placement of assets completed in a vacuum which then took countless hours to load up random levels to check. You can see more of this in Brian’s GDC presentation from last year.

Ultimately working on a game that had a grid could seem unbelievably daunting, and it was when we first started working on the XCOM series. It is funny though that once you digest what restrictions you have in making a level you start thinking up ways of working in the grey area of these rules and getting as close as you could to break them in order to make the levels more dimensional and as dynamic as possible. There were so many little victories and happy accidents during production that it would be hard to go through all of them here but there were a few that stand out past some of our environmental storytelling.

The walls of buildings in the game were thin in order to work with all the systems and stay out of the way of pathing and cover generation. However, during production, we started to realize there were exceptions to where assets were placed on the grid depending on whether or not they were flagged as deco or cover generating etc. so we would use deco to push out the silhouette of the walls. We started framing the top of walls with cabinets, pipes and venting systems, where the cover wasn’t generating and the soldier couldn’t pass. By the time we got to War of the Chosen, it felt like we had mastered every little way on how to use the grid and the rules of our system to our advantage to make our art look even better.

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We also gave ourselves a false boundary for our props so we had space to break out while still being in the tile. Instead of making cover props that were 96 units by 96 units, the entire footprint of one grid tile, we started authoring props to sit in an 80 unit by 80 unit space. That way we had 16 units to play with for anything that broke the silhouette of the cover piece like рandles on a crate, etc.

Every unit became precious and wasn’t wasted. Sometimes I would adjust deco and architectural elements on a wall that really only extruded 4 units from the wall mesh. Since we couldn’t go past a certain measurement I didn’t want to just omit those details, so I made sure that at least their gesture was there instead of nothing at all. The effect it gives is that you get that detail and it sits nicely instead of being a plain wall and I think it was worth it putting all that stuff in.

Since the pathing generation, cover generation, and line of sight was all generated through the squares of the grid, we started using our decoration dimensions to string additional deco and additional details on larger props along the grid lines using our wall dimensions so the deco wouldn’t bother the pathing or cover the neighboring tile.

In a nutshell, making levels and props for the game became similar to drawing on a piece of graph paper to me. The lines where there when you needed them and were really helpful as a foundation, but I got so used to them being there that I would find really cool ways to hide the lines with art.

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Assets for Storytelling

Without trying to sound too artsy, there was never really a rhyme or a reason for certain types of props that would speak to me. It usually was just something that I would use and think “Hey, what if I put a lot of these down in one place? What would be the story?” So when working on the levels I started jotting down not only what TYPE of level it was (a restaurant, coffee shop, or a single family home), but I would write in the margins of my list WHO lived there: older woman, single male, family of three, retired doctor, no one, homeless, etc. That would usually be where I would search and pick or request little deco to use as the essence of this little character. I think it is important to note too, that when I requested something it wasn’t a big deal and I would get what I needed because it was always something as trivial as a pair of tennis shoes or a toy car, something I could use absolutely everywhere else but in a different way with a different color amongst different types of items.

Decals, Materials, Colors

I feel like we did a lot with materials and decals in XCOM 2 and XCOM War of the Chosen but there was so much more I was hoping to add in. I still have it written down so I hope to put it into a future game!

I really tried not to think about color and decals when making up the stories until the last possible moment for a few reasons. Firstly, I think it was easier to me to get these levels off the ground and decorated to a degree that they could ship and not clash with any other level in our game due to the randomization of the weather/biome. Secondly, I wanted to be able to come back to all the levels and adjust the materials, walls, floors, and ultimately the color key of all the detail to make the level sing and work best to showcase these little moments when you were playing.  I knew that most of these little stories would probably be looked over by players (and rightfully so as the game is about destroying the alien threat without losing your soldiers in the process). So I wanted to make sure that what I did put in would help the composition of the level firstly, then take the time to use color and decals to pump up some of my favorite little areas in the game.

As for decals, we had a good deal of time slated for graffiti, signs, and ground deco but we had not planned to make any big murals (especially considering that big pieces like that could really only be used in one or two locations). I always had hoped that one of the environment artists would appear to have time to work on some awesome mural work, and it did happen. I was then ready with a list of how many I needed and what levels they would go into. Andrew Griffin is one of our really talented senior environment artists and he was given a few days to create 4-5 murals that I snuck into the levels right as I was finishing up texturing and decorating the slums biome. I literally hid these murals as best as I could using the second story building hiding to partially obscure them. I wanted to make sure we could have big pieces like that in the levels, but they needed to not stand out until the last possible moment. I had to do my best to put as much depth into these levels as possible but make sure it would be refreshing in multiple playthroughs.

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Storytelling: Imagining Characters

Honestly, the characters would come to me as I would spend a few hours working through levels on a particular biome taking the first pass with deco and creating textures/material variations. I had posted notes all over my computer with ideas for levels and who would live in them. A lot of the ideas just came early on from overthinking why and where I would place a pair of shoes or a dustpan or something like it needed to be the best-placed piece of deco ever. I knew I would never get finished thinking this way and I needed to have a different approach to my minutiae. We only had a limited amount of small deco when I started finishing levels and I had a few assets that became my favorite to place everywhere. When I realized I was placing our flower pot deco in every slums biome level I went back and removed it from all of them but one, and that is how the “flower pot man” was born.

This process continued with a few more of my favorite assets. Depending on how unique I wanted the experience to be when decorating levels, I would assign the deco asset to a social phenomenon or a single character. For instance, I had this motif that I liked to include in exterior levels that consisted of blankets and cans of food: one day I thought whether or not these items were left by a specific person (if it was I would have gone back and changed my strategy in placing this decoration) or a group of people due to the alien occupation and disruption of normal life in the small town levels in our game. I decided to go with the former because this deco was just really fun to find in multiple maps and it was fantastic to add a reason to have a little fill light in secluded spaces.

This specific instance added to my strategy when getting an overall read for a map before I made my deco pass. I would look at a level and ask myself “is this a good place to hide food from everyone else?” and if so I would add that type of deco in. I would also write down notes for each individual encounter with this deco to see if it gave me any other good ideas. For instance, based on one of the blanket/canned food deco patterns I created a whole little story of a few teens sneaking away and planning an escape to one of the most bustling futuristic city centers. It was from that little story that I got an idea to go back into my slums levels and re-deco an interior space to make it look like a dystopian college dorm room that followed two sisters as they left the static, small town for a brighter future in the city centers. If you play the game you can even find the beginning of that story in their childhood rooms in the small town levels. I really liked leaving these stories open-ended as well: that allowed me to never ask myself or my teammates for too much when trying to realize them. Sometimes things are never resolved, and unresolved environmental storytelling can feel really natural and fun if it hits right.

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Planning Assets for Storytelling in AAA Game Production

I avoided making the production time longer by never asking for specific assets for my stories. Later in production I really started communicating to the environment team and the level design team that classic, video game, hero assets weren’t going to work that well in this game. Sure, we were going to have statues and cool mission specific collectibles, etc. but if we were going to make anything to bring life to the levels it should have had a function that made it fun to play around. I never wanted any of my little stories and deco to influence gameplay as it would have been harder to keep them in the game and place them everywhere. I made a decision that if I was going to ask for a specific asset it HAD to be fun and somehow different to play around. I remember the first asset I asked for was a car lift in the car garage. Instead of it just being a big piece of cover I really wanted it to function in a way that the soldiers could climb up and use the car lift itself as a platform while the support beam stayed as high cover. I was really happy when we made this asset but it never served any narrative purpose past making the car garage seem more like an auto body shop. I did put a little story on the rooftop though where one of the car mechanics was stealing canned food from the almost barren convenience store that was attached to the shop.

I also want to say that most of the passes I had to make were really fast. We never really had time in XCOM EU to deco our spaces in this way so I had compromised on production to only spend a day or a fraction of a day on a single level depending on the size of it or parcel. I also made an effort to be as clean as possible and not to mess up any pathing or level design as I moved through these spaces. I have to give a shout out to Brian Hess and the level design team because they were super patient with me coming back through the levels late in production and polishing up each individual level piece. I would be in their room almost every day outlining my plans if we had bigger changes to the deco of the level. Most of the deco, however, was really small purposefully so there was a very little chance that anything, from cover placement to pathing, would get messed up or introduce any bugs. This was also a really special time for me in the project: everyone seemed to love what we were doing to the levels and this process was carried from XCOM 2 to War of the Chosen and beyond.

Justin Rodriguez, Senior Environment Artist at Firaxis Games

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev


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