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The X-Files – The X-Files Game (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

At the end of its fifth season, with the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future looming large, it was the perfect time to cash in the popularity of The X-Files. The show had already branded comic books and music albums, so an honest-to-goodness video game was the next logical step. The X-Files Game was released at the end of May 1998, right between the broadcast of The End and the theatrical release of Fight the Future. Fans who could not wait three weeks to see the big budget feature film would have the game to keep them occupied.

To be fair, The X-Files Game was not the first digital project to cash in on the success of The X-Files. Unrestricted Access had been released over a year earlier – a database of information relating to the show that could be read in Internet Explorer 4. Spanning seven discs, The X-Files Game was a much more ambitious project, a series of live-action sequences stitched together to form an interactive video game narrative. However, the game suffers from a somewhat repetitive design and the fact that, while it tries to emulate the look and feel of the show, it simply can’t.

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Video games stitched together from interactive video clips were very popular in the mid-nineties. In particular, the Star Trek franchise had managed to produce quite a few video games built around that idea; Klingon and Borg come to mind. For a property based around a television series, the interactive video design had its appeal. You could actually include actors and sets (and make-up and costume) from the show itself without having to reduce them to two-dimensional sprites or arcade figures. What’s the point of The X-Files without Mulder and Scully?

Unfortunate, the choice to develop the game along this line comes at a cost. Most obviously, it took seven discs to play the full game. More than that, the decision to construct the game as a series of cinematic interludes limits the amount of interactivity. There is a lot of clicking for very little activity. Most of the game is spent clicking one side of the screen or another to move or turn. It takes three clicks to simply walk from one side of the warehouse to the other. It is not a particularly immersive experience.

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The benefits of this approach do not quite counter these problems. The appeal of doing the video game in this style is constructing an interactive episode of The X-Files. In Aristotle in Hollywood, writer and director Greg Roach explained his approach to Ari Hultunen:

Our goal with The X-Files was to create something that has the same degree of suspense that you might find in a traditional film – only more so because the experience is wrapped around you. Many games have puzzles that just sort of tacked or stuck into the middle of the story. Very often the user wonders, what does this puzzle have to do with anything? I feel very strongly that all the obstacles to your progress, all the problems that you are presented with to solve, need to arise organically out of character and situation. In The X-Files, all of the natural impediments to your forward progress are as organic to the story as we could possibly make them. The X-Files is a single story that allows for a high degree of player freedom or non-linearity within the structure of the narrative. Part of what we always search for in a design is balance and good variety of activities – rom character interaction to the intellectual challenge of trying to solve a crime.

On paper, this is great idea; it sounds like the best possible way to construct a game around The X-Files. So much of what makes The X-Files unique cannot be replicated in a first- or third-person shooter, with the way the script is written and the way the show is shot and the way the leads interact.

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However, The X-Files Game suffers because it cannot capitalise on any of these strengths. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were already massively overworked during the fifth season, so there was obvious limited availability to film their scenes in the game. The X-Files Game treats Mulder and Scully as largely absent characters – the player is assigned to track them down when they go missing. However, The X-Files Game never manages to fill the lacuna left by their absence. They are largely missing, but nothing replaces them.

Similarly, the production staff are also largely distant from the game. Chris Carter is credited on the “story” to The X-Files Game and Frank Spotnitz is credited as “story editor”, but the game largely feels generic and bland. The actual script was written by Greg Roach and Richard Dowdy. The game is unable to replicate the distinctive mood of The X-Files. Roach might be a competent game director, but he has none of the skill or technique of veteran X-Files directors like Rob Bowman or Kim Manners.

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The game is structured and shot in the most conventional manner possible – which is understandable, as the player needs to be able to have some sense of control over the action. However, Mark Snow’s haunting score is largely absent, and everything feels a little too bright and too generic. The design feels a little pedestrian. At one point, the player sneaks around a warehouse at night, using a torch. However, it is immediately clear that the game has simply reused the same images from earlier, but tinted them – but sunlight can be seen streaming in the windows.

The game play is a little repetitive. The player often has to interact with their environment using the mouse to collect or deploy specific objects that might be of use in the quest. These interactions can lead to extended clips; at one point, it seems to take ten seconds to pry a bullet from a support beam. Part of what made The X-Files so compelling was a sense of momentum and speed about how it conveyed the requisite information to the audience. The frequently trusted its viewers to follow along with a quick shot or a sideways glance.

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That said, there is clearly a lot of affection and care that went into the production of The X-Files Game. The story is set during the third season and is populated by continuity markers from that era – a “Big Blue” coffee mug references Quagmire, while there is a reference to MUFON from Nisei. Whenever the character turns on a television, it seems to be playing the Keystone Cops clip from Syzygy. There are lots of little shoutouts and acknowledgements, from graffiti reading “Eat the Corn” to nods towards James Wong and Howard Gordon.

Indeed, the game wryly and repeatedly teases the idea of Mulder and Scully as a couple. When Skinner brings you into the case, the player can basically badger Skinner about what he knows about the relationship between Mulder and Scully. “Are they romantically involved?” the player asks. Skinner answers, quite frankly, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Later on, the player character wonders whether the door between Mulder and Scully’s motel rooms had been left unlocked. Looks like somebody is a shipper.

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The X-Files Game is ambitious. It has a branching interactive story with multiple endings. At the same time, it is hindered by certain constraints that undercut the appeal of building the game in the way that it was built. The X-Files Game is more interesting as a demonstration of just how popular The X-Files was at this point of time than it is as a story in its own right.

2 Responses

  1. A video game review????

    • Full of surprises, I am! I did a single review a little while back, and a Simpsons review.

      I had planned to do an Arkham Asylum/City/Knight review, but time is the fire in which we burn and all that.

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