Hello, and welcome to another edition of Gaming For Official Use Only. I’ve been playing a lot of The Bureau: XCOM Declassified lately, which is a fun amalgam of XCOM, Mass Effect and Mad Men, so I thought I could get into the interesting lore behind this early version of XCOM. I have covered XCOM in a previous Gaming FOUO, but that covered the modern day, multinational XCOM. This article will cover its earliest incarnation, when it wasn’t designed to fight aliens. The Bureau, aside from being a different type of gameplay, shows the titular bureau that becomes XCOM starting with its rise to prominence in the 1960’s. As always, let’s have that big SPOILER ALERT, as I will discuss the full storyline of the game.
The story of the titular bureau begins before the events of the game, when President John F. Kennedy creates the Bureau Of Operations and Command, whose purpose is to act as a coordinator of the government in the event of a Soviet invasion. Remember, this was the Cold War and they always thought there was at least one commie spy in every shadow. The government finances the development of a secret, underground base for the Bureau, who then is expected to alert top military and civilian officials on the base’s location so that they may take refuge in the event of an invasion. In other words, XCOM began as a glorified FEMA that would provide continuance of government in case the Cold War got warmer. However, they turn out to instead be the best hope of stopping a planetary invasion by aliens. Aliens, communists – what’s the difference?
Yeah, pretty much this.
The Bureau begins at their base in Groom Range, Nevada. This name may ring a bell with some of you, as it is just north of the infamous Groom Lake area which houses the most well known “secret” base in history: Area 51. The area is perfect for testing Air Force tech, as the long, flat ground lends itself well to all aspects of testing. The fact that it’s also a desert wasteland does help keep away pesky snoops, which is a nice side effect. As it turns out, the aliens attack Groom Range, leaving main character William Carter to take the drastic step of setting off a nuclear test before escaping on the Skyranger helicopter. Fans of the previous XCOM title will likely enjoy that little continuity nod of a name. Carter and the other agents escape to meet with Director Faulke of the Bureau of Operations and Command, now going by the abbreviation XCOM, at their main base which is in a location never disclosed to the player.
The base houses not only the command center that coordinates the efforts of the United States government as a whole, but also an extensive research area that aims to use the advanced technology of the invading “outsiders” against them. As in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the player starts with standard technology of the time and slowly integrates reverse engineered technology into the tool set. Starting with M-14 rifles (digressing because the M-14 is my absolute favorite long arm of all time), shotguns and Springfield M1903 sniper rifles to laser sub machine guns, scatter lasers and plasma sniper rifles. Not only that, but the researchers also dissect alien bodies for more information on the outsiders and there’s even a live outsider you can interrogate if you choose to do so. As the game goes on, Carter organizes the agents spread across the country, while XCOM tries to fight back against the invading Outsiders by taking missions wherever they can. Eventually, the Bureau discovers that the aliens are being led by a psionic network called Mosaic, which is being controlled by a being named Origin. Using a repurposed flying saucer called the Avenger, Carter goes through a wormhole – called a “Venn Portal” in this game – where they discover that Mosaic is powered by a being of pure energy, called an Ethereal. The agents capture the Ethereal, bomb Mosaic and return home to base.
So that’s where they got the idea from… Welcome to Earf.
At this point the game leads to one of the best meta twists in gaming. While in the containment unit, the captured Ethereal makes contact with the Ethereal bonded to Agent Carter, the actual character you’ve been playing as all along. In one swoop, the game explains how you can view Carter from third person, pause time to act, and where all of your psionic powers come from. The captured Ethereal states that because both Outsiders and humans can capture Ethereals, they both must be destroyed so that nothing like Mosaic can ever exist again. Carter rebels against his Ethereal and ends up killing the other one and sets a bomb since he honestly thinks the Ethereal won’t let him go. The game then gives you three choices of who the Ethereal should bond to for the last mission, and each choice affects the outcome of the invasion. It goes from the good ending of the affected humans being cured while the Outsiders help rebuild before leaving on good terms with humanity, to the worst choice where the affected humans are killed for their own good while the Outsiders and all of their tech is completely destroyed, with nukes in some cases. No matter what option you pick, the invasion is eventually covered up, and the game ends with a piece of music from XCOM: Enemy Unknown. As a small aside, you can actually choose to not lose Carter and instead the bomb goes off and everyone dies. Yay!
Now it doesn’t take a pop culture savant to recognize that a large influence on the XCOM of the Bureau is the conspiracy theories surrounding the legendary Men In Black. At its core the MiB mythos is that many witnesses of UFO activity claim to be visited by men in black suits and sunglasses – hence the “Men in Black.” Now, a lot of people have had their idea of what the MiB are influenced by, starting with the comic but popularized by the movies with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. In this franchise the MiB are heroic government agents who regulate alien activity on Earth. When the regular citizens witness some alien action the MiB simply use a high tech device to erase the memories of the event. No muss, no fuss. What’s funny about this is that until this franchise got popular the Men in Black were not heroic at all.
This is what most people think of when they see the phrase “Men In Black.”
UFOlogist John Keel actually coined the term “Men In Black” in 1967 but the first recorded sighting of the Men in Black happened after the Maury Island UFO event in 1947. Harold Dahl claimed to have seen 6 UFOs converging around Puget Sound, and then declared a dark suited government agent threatened him and his family if he continued to tell the story. Although Dahl eventually admitted the whole incident was a hoax, the idea of the Men In Black had been firmly set in the UFO-crazy mind of the populace. Going on the hoax idea, the first major mention of the MiB happened in a 1953 issue of UFOlogist Albert Bender’s newsletter “Space Review,” where Bender claimed that a recently missed issue occurred because he was threatened by “three men wearing dark suits” who threatened him if he published the issue. Bender later admitted to making up the story just because he had to cover for being behind on the issue. Hoaxes are a common thing in UFO research, so don’t be surprised if more pop up in this article.
A lot of the image of Men In Black likely spawns from the “G-Men” idea that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover developed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. These government agents were efficient men in dark suits who saved the day in various propaganda films designed to make the FBI look good to the American public. Now, I don’t believe for a second that Hoover intended, or even approved, of his G-men becoming the basis for the whole MiB mythos, but unintended consequences, right?
Surprisingly, this is the best video games have to a classical Man In Black.
While the idea of the MiB being government agents is the most popular, and indeed most plausible theory, the other options are that the MiB are themselves aliens, androids or the ever popular human-alien hybrids. A large part of the MiB mythos that gets ignored in more modern fiction is that the MiB themselves seem somewhat off, almost in the Uncanny Valley. To make this short, if you don’t want to click the link, the Uncanny Valley is when an artificial object is made to look like a natural one but because the resemblance isn’t perfect, it ever so slightly unsettles the human viewer. You’ve likely experienced this in a game that’s supposed to be “realistic” but just misses the mark slightly. In terms of the MiB, the problems were that the “agents” often dressed in fashions that were out of date, drove older vehicles and used slang that was severely outdated. It goes further as some reports state that the MiB were confused by what should be mundane items or actions as though they had never experienced them before. This plays well into the “MiB are the actual aliens” theory, as aliens wouldn’t be familiar with things we take for granted, the same as their normal items would be new to us. If the aliens had observed Earth before dispatching their imitators that would also explain the outdated slang as slang changes very rapidly and the language of just a few years ago would seem off to anyone who heard it.
Let’s expand on the standard idea of MiB as government agents. I have stated my skepticism on the idea of aliens visiting Earth, but let’s say for argument’s sake that they have. It would make sense that the governments of Earth would have agencies dedicated to handling such events, and a coverup may actually be a logical response. The revelation that life exists outside of Earth would be one of the most profound discoveries in human history. So much of philosophy and religion would be changed in its wake that the idea of it causing mass panic is not hard to fathom. By covering up the actions, the governments would likely be doing the work in the name of the greater good, at least in their thoughts. As for the harassment of witnesses, anyone who has read up on the current administration’s treatment of the press knows that government agents being jerks or worse to citizens is as common and ancient as government itself. If an agency existed simply to cover information on the aliens, then by nature, they would have to prevent witnesses from releasing information on any event involving aliens. Back to the outfit of the typical MiB, considering that most government agents do wear office clothing, the idea of suited agents isn’t an illogical one, although the fedora look is dead outside certain Redditors and Indiana Jones fans.
But the nuking the fridge thing still makes absolutely zero damned sense.
But what about the idea of alien hybrids? That one can also be shrugged off rather easily. Of the millions of different species of animals inhabiting Earth, humans can interbreed with a grand total of ZERO. If humans can’t breed with animals who often share large percentages of the same DNA code, why would we be able to breed with aliens who may not even use DNA in the first place? You could argue the standard “higher levels of technology” or whatever, but the laws of biology are the laws of biology on this planet and any other. Interestingly, the most well known gaming example of an alien species who can breed with humans is the Asari in Mass Effect. They subvert this idea, as the breeding with non-Asari simply serves as a randomizer of the Asari’s own genetic code in the offspring.
If you Google “asari” keep safesearch turned on, otherwise get ready to see Rule 34 proven in hardcore fashion.
While I don’t believe that the MiB are actually some super powerful agency dedicated to either protecting Earth from alien threats and/or covering them up, I find it very interesting that in most modern fiction, any government agent aside from military tends to be dressed up in the MiB style. The trope has so firmly entrenched itself in popular culture that few of us can imagine a government agent who isn’t a jerk ass in a dark suit with black Ray-Bans. It’s only natural that eventually, a game would come out that played up this idea, and the Bureau does it perfectly. While I’m quite certain other games could be named that fit this trope, the Bureau did it best in my eyes. It plays upon the 50’s aesthetic that MiB seems to follow, and the Cold War paranoia that likely fueled the UFO mania of the time. The Men In Black are now as much a part of pop culture as the flying saucers and little green men themselves and aren’t likely to disappear any time soon. Unless that’s what they want you to think. Until next time.