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The X-Files – First Person Shooter (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

On paper, this should be a slam dunk.

X-Cops was an incredibly risky and experimental episode of The X-Files that really pushed the show in an unexpected direction. The idea of crossing over into Cops was strange and surreal; it seemed like a gimmick that could backfire spectacularly. How could an episode of The X-Files adopt many of the identifiers and signifiers of Cops while still managing to tell its own story? It was a risky proposition, but writer Vince Gilligan and director Michael Watkins managed to pull it off, producing a definite highlight of the seventh season. (If not the final three seasons.)

Game on.

Game on.

First Person Shooter is a similarly ambitious episode, but one that should be a much safer bet. While it pushes the show outside its comfort zone in terms of setting and concept, it does not stray too far from the basic X-Files template. It is written by outsider writers William Gibson and Tom Maddox, but could logically be seen an extension of their superlative script for Kill Switch. In fact, Kill Switch wasn’t even the show’s first “killer artificial intelligence” story; Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa had written Ghost in the Machine as the series’ eighth episode.

On paper, First Person Shooter is ambitious without being entirely unprecedented. Still, the script bends the show too far out of shape. The episode seems to warp and distort the series around it. Despite the fact that First Person Shooter contains far more of the trappings and structures of The X-Files than X-Cops, the episode feels far less comfortable in its own skin. First Person Shooter plays almost like an episode of The X-Files filtered through a lens of unreality; it feels like a textured wireframe model of an X-Files episode, wandering lost in the uncanny valley.

Game over.

Game over.

Reality is a strange concept, particularly when applied to a television show. First Person Shooter is yet another example of The X-Files playing with the concept of reality, reflecting on contemporary popular culture’s fixation on the thin line between illusion and reality. Shows like The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, The Amazing Maleeni, X-Cops and First Person Shooter are all products of the same cultural stew that produced The Matrix, Fight Club, The Truman Show, The Thirteenth Floor and Dark City.

This anxiety bubbled through Chris Carter’s work on Harsh Realm. In fact, William Gibson and Tom Maddox had originally hoped to write a script for Harsh Realm before it was cancelled; Carter explicitly references Gibson’s praise for Harsh Realm on the commentary on The Pilot. First Person Shooter might have been a better fit for Harsh Realm than for The X-Files, a variation on the “glitch of the week” formula of Kein Ausgang or The Three Percenters. (Of course, whether Harsh Realm would have the budget for First Person Shooter is another question.)

"It's the wold west in here..."

“It’s the wold west in here…”

However, this feeling of unreality running through the seventh season arguably applied as much to The X-Files itself as to the wider world. It seemed like the seventh season had a shaky grasp of its own internal continuity and identity. Millennium brought back the character of Frank Black in a way that did not really reconcile with any of the character’s history. Orison brought back Donnie Pfaster, but in a way that felt like a blurry photocopy of the original character. Sein und Zeit and Closure conflicted with a lot of the show’s continuity around Samantha Mulder.

With First Person Shooter, it seems like The X-Files is not itself. Everything seems just a little bit off about. The characters seem a little bit off-model. The science is just a little bit too ridiculous. The tone is just a little bit too cartoonish. The story is just a little bit too broad. It is hard to properly articulate what feels so intrinsically wrong about the episode, except to say that there are a lot of little things that feel wrong about it. It seems like an alternate universe X-Files, an episode constructed in its own virtual reality.

"Let's get digital..."

“Let’s get digital…”

Of course, this strays into arguments about “suspension of disbelief.” The limits imposed upon a text are inherently subjective; it is for each individual viewer to determine when exactly Mulder and Scully are “in-“ or “out-of-character”, when a plot is “too” ridiculous, when the tone is “too” cartoonish. Art is inherently subjective, and the limitations imposed upon it by audiences are frequently arbitrary. This criticism is, of course, entirely valid; if one of the objectives of art is elicit emotion, then it is a valid criticism to point out that it doesn’t “feel” right.

In defense of First Person Shooter, it is not as if The X-Files was ever entirely internally consistent. At various points in the run of the show, it felt like the best writers were drafting scripts for radically different television shows starring radically different characters. The version of Scully written by Glen Morgan and James Wong differs substantially from the version written by Howard Gordon. Darin Morgan’s version of Fox Mulder stand quite apart from the character as imagined by Chris Carter.

"No, no, no. The files are in the computer."

“No, no, no. The files are in the computer.”

The best writers working on The X-Files often felt like they were crafting their own miniseries inside the framework of the large nine-season epic. Darin Morgan’s four scripts return time and again to themes of isolation and alienation. Vince Gilligan repeatedly meditates on the show’s status as television; his scripts for Folie à Deux, Drive and Monday play as a triptych criticising the mundane horrors of capitalism. Glen Morgan and James Wong are prone to existential contemplation and wry dark comedy.

So not feeling like an episode of The X-Files is not intrinsically a bad thing. After all, the joy of Kill Switch was that the episode felt so unique and fresh; William Gibson and Tom Maddox did not entirely surrender their creative voice when writing for The X-Files, producing an episode that felt like it could not have come from any of the regular staff writers. Given how distinct so many of the show’s best episodes feel, there is no reason to fear an episode of The X-Files that is “different” or “unusual”, particularly at this late stage in the show’s life cycle.

Leaning into the crazy...

Leaning into the crazy…

The problem is in the way that First Person Shooter feels distinct from the rest of the series around it. There are a number of small elements that would not be too distracting on their own terms, but which compound to create a sense that the production team broadcast an episode of some other dimension’s version of The X-Files, a stray transition that somehow crossed the boundary walls separating realities. It is not that there’s something not quite right about it; it is that everything feels not quite right about it.

Consider, for example, the characterisation of the Lone Gunmen. The Lone Gunmen are very much the show’s plucky comic relief; they exist in contrast to Mulder, a bunch of crazy conspiracy theorists cut off from the outside world by their anxieties and fears. Although they frequently exist to provide exposition or to spur a plot along, there is occasionally more to them. Byers’ origin story in Unusual Suspects was heartbreaking, but there was something touching in the glimpse of their domestic life in Kill Switch or Dreamland II.

On yer bike...

On yer bike…

First Person Shooter is based around the premise that the Lone Gunmen have effectively tried to cash-in on the video game boom, leveraging their technical expertise and pop culture credibility for a seat at the table and a cut of the profits. When Mulder asks if the trio accepted “cash or stock”, Langly boasts, “Options: preferred rate. Vesting immediately with a short-term exercise against venture collateral to bypass S.E.C. regs.” It seems that the trio have this whole deal figured out.

There is something just a little surreal about all this. It feels like the Lone Gunmen are selling out. Not that there’s anything wrong with profiting from your expertise and experience, but it seems like it would run counter to their ethos. After all, the idea of the Lone Gunmen is that Byers gave up a comfortable middle-class existence in response to a single tragic experience; having the trio suddenly chase profits and talk about investment opportunities feels like a betrayal of that.

They seem suitably ashamed of themselves.

They seem suitably ashamed of themselves.

These problems are somewhat compounded by how the Lone Gunmen serve to bring Mulder and Scully into the case. Quite frankly, it looks like the Lone Gunmen are trying to stage a cover-up after one of the game’s test team ends up dead. As Scully wryly (but not unfairly) summarises the plot of the episode, “there’s a dead body between [the Lone Gunmen] and untold riches.” There’s something very improper about all this. Ivan seems to expect them to cover for him. “You said no cops,” he complains to Langly. “You said you had connections.”

Ignoring the obvious ethical implications of calling in two friends to investigate a murder to which your employer (or the company which contracts you) might be party, it also seems like a violation of the group’s core principles. The Lone Gunmen are supposed to be the paranoid losers shouting about cover-ups and conspiracies to anybody who will listen; it undermines the characters to make them part of the establishment engaging in the cover-up. The Lone Gunmen feel less like characters and more like plot functions.

Walk softly and carry a bit gun.

Walk softly and carry a bit gun.

Their function is essentially to involve Mulder and Scully, explaining how this case winds up classified as an X-file. According to The Unofficial Guide, the trio were written into the episode because Gibson and Maddox love the characters; it might have been more efficient to just have Mulder pick up the case through the usual channels – or to cut out the middle-men and have Ivan approach the FBI directly. In using the Lone Gunmen in this way, First Person Shooter starts off on the wrong foot.

However, the Lone Gunmen aren’t the only characters who seem “off model.” A lot of First Person Shooter is based upon assigning two fairly strange positions to Mulder and Scully. Most obviously, First Person Shooter casts Mulder as a video game fan. When Scully asks who could possibly enjoy a video game like this, Mulder points to himself. When examining a game suit, Mulder playfully suggests, “I’ve got a birthday coming up.” It seems rather strange to think of Mulder as a gamer, just as it seems strange to think of the Lone Gunmen as creative capitalists.

"You can probably get it cheaper second-hand."

“You can probably get it cheaper second-hand.”

On paper, Mulder does fit a lot of the male gamer stereotypes. He is single and nerdy. Although he lives on his own, there is no suggestion that he is a functioning adult. He didn’t own a bed until Dreamland I, seemingly sleeping on the couch; often while watching television. Pizza boxes decorate his apartment and the show has joked about the food in his fridge being out of date. Superficially, Mulder does resemble the late nineties stereotype of gaming culture as an overgrown manchild.

However, there is something quite superficial about all this. Even ignoring the fact that we have never seen Mulder play a video game before, Mulder has spent most of his adult life fixating on alien conspiracies and government cover-ups. That life did not allow room for friends or hobbies beyond the cause itself. Mulder had to be forced to take time off in Never Again, he had no idea what to do in his downtime in Chinga. The early sixth season made it clear Mulder even investigates X-files in his spare time.

Talk about disarming...

Talk about disarming…

To be fair, this is not a problem of itself. The X-Files is packed with all sorts of intimate character touches that seem to exist for the sake of a single episode. Mulder’s obsession with baseball didn’t exist until David Duchovny needed it for The Unnatural; Scully’s childhood story about the nature of evil in Orison seemed to come out of nowhere. Even in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, it was hard to reconcile Mulder’s desire for a normal suburban life with what we know of the character.

It could be argued that Mulder’s care-free video-gaming loving persona is a relatively new invention. At the end of Closure, Mulder told Scully that he was “free”; it felt as if a burden had been lifted from him. Now that he did not have to search for his sister or battle government conspiracies, maybe Mulder got down to the local electronics store and picked himself up an N64. (Although maybe Mulder was waiting for the looming release of the PS2.) Still, this never feels like the point.

Eye don't believe it.

Eye don’t believe it.

Instead, it feels like First Person Shooter is trying to make an important statement about video games, and so Mulder and Scully get awkwardly slotted into roles dictated by gender. As Tom Maddox explained, he and Gibson wrote the episode as a commentary on gender roles in video gaming:

There’s a lot of violence and some very sexy stuff, but it’s really about violence and its connection to sex, and it’s about  males  and females in their relation to these games and the testosterone – driven culture of gaming. We don’t have a message ; if we  had a message, we would have sent it Western Union. But we did have some things that we wanted to say in the process of  doing this very action – filled, interesting episode of the X-Files.

It is certainly a very potent topic; the fact that Maddox and Gibson were talking about this more than a decade before the eruption of “gamergate” turned the issue of gender in video games into a cultural battleground speaks to their insight and understanding of the gaming world.

"I think it needs a patch..."

“I think it needs a patch…”

However, First Person Shooter never offers any real insight into the gender politics of videogaming beyond “men like to blow things up” and “women think that the fact that men like to blow things up is childish.” Mulder and Scully then find themselves forced to conform to those standard gender roles, despite the fact that the duo tend to subvert gender norms as much as they conform to them. If Mulder is cast in the role of “red-blooded video gaming man”, then Scully adopts the role of “detached kill joy.”

“Mulder, what… what purpose does this game serve except to add to a culture of violence in a country that’s already out of control?” Scully asks. “You think that taking up weapons and creating gratuitous virtual mayhem has any redeeming value whatsoever? I mean, that the testosterone frenzy that it creates stops when the game does?” It is all very blunt and very simplistic. First Person Shooter never explains why Scully is asking the question about video games instead of film or television or books. There is a whiff of moral panic about it all.

"Well, this is impractical."

“Well, this is impractical.”

Of course, that whiff of moral panic makes sense in context. First Person Shooter was broadcast in February 2000, at the height of a particularly bitter debate over violence in video games. It should be stressed that this sort of panic was nothing new; it was just an example of the moral guardians keeping pace with modern technology. Many of the arguments trotted out against video games had been used to protest Dungeons and Dragons or so-called “video nasties” in the eighties.

The argument over violence in video games had become particularly heated in the wake of the Columbine Massacre in April 1999. In an organised attack on their high school, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had murdered thirteen people and wounded more than twenty others. It was an attack that shocked the nation, sparking a larger debate about cultures of violence and aggression. Video games got drawn into the debate when it was revealed that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were avid players of the video game Doom.

Everyone likes shooting Nazis!

Everyone likes shooting Nazis!

It wasn’t long before the moral panic kicked into overdrive. There was a (completely unfounded) rumour that Eric Harris designed his own Doom level based on the school before going on his rampage. The families of Columbine victims attempted to sue Doom‘s developers for their perceived part in the tragedy. Columbine was not the only tragedy fueling the fire. Also in April 1999, families of victims in a Kentucky high school shooting filed suite against the makers of Doom, Quake and Mortal Kombat.

With all of this going on, it is perfectly justifiable to ask questions about a larger culture of violence. However, First Person Shooter is never entirely sure what it wants to say, beyond insisting that men like sex and violence while women are exhausted by men’s appetite for sex and violence. This is to say nothing of the fact that First Person Shooter has Scully deliver a host of moral panic dialogue before indulging in the kind of ridiculously gratuitous violence that she was criticising. What exactly is First Person Shooter saying?

"This is much more fun that QA-ing at Microsoft."

“This is much more fun than QA-ing at Microsoft.”

The script feels like a bad observational comedy routine, with long passages that begin “guys are like…” and then seguing into “but girls are like…” Apparently The X-Files exists in a world where no man can resist the pull of violence or the urge to objectify a beautiful woman. “Mulder, why does this game have the effect of reducing grown men back to moony adolescence?” Scully wonders at one point. She is not exaggerating. Nor is she exaggerating when she explains that “men feel the great need to blast the crap out of stuff.”

When Scully asks if the prostitute who provided the basis for Maitreya was read her rights, the cop – who is in charge of a murder investigation – chuckles and replies, “About five hundred times.” As if the “all men are lecherous perverts” vibe isn’t strong enough, it seems like every male law enforcement officer in the precinct has come to leer at the young woman in the interrogation room. Even Mulder gets in on the act, leering at the woman as she leaves the room, much to Scully’s frustration.



Not that women emerge unscathed in all this. It turns out that the killer video game character is actually an embodiment of feminist rage, a predator stalking a masculine space. Maitreya plays almost as a parody of gamergate era anxieties about secret plots by women and minorities to invade and annex their game spaces. Maitreya is a passive-aggressive weapon of war unleashed by a woman unable (or unwilling) to address her issues with a male-dominated field in a level-headed manner. With her fishnets and thong, Maitreya is sex, weaponised.

“You don’t know what it’s like, day in and day out choking in a haze of rampant testosterone,” Phoebe confesses at one point. “I mean, she was all I had to keep me sane. My only way to strike back as a woman.” Maitreya is female rage repressed and given form, unleashed upon an unsuspecting male population. It isn’t that Phoebe doesn’t have a point; after all, we live in a world where feminist video game critics receive rape and death threats. However, the way that First Person Shooter weaves this into its plot feels simplistic and sexist.

To be fair, he might need more characterisation before he can be identified as a stereotype.

To be fair, Daryl might need more characterisation before he can be identified as a stereotype.

(As an aside, there is also something a little uncomfortable about the character of Daryl Musashi, the Asian character who doesn’t even get a single line of dialogue before he is dispatched. Conforming to various unfortunate stereotypes, Musashi is introduced as a guy who “slums as a game designer when he’s not contracted to the CIA.” Apparently Musashi is not just a computer expert, but a gaming geek. First Person Shooter never explains why programmers are particularly suited to the virtual game. Why not send an actual soldier?)

To be fair, First Person Shooter would be a troubled episode even without the sexist subtext and moral righteousness. There is a sense that this is simply not a story best suited to The X-Files. The X-Files had done virtual reality stories before, but Kill Switch was a lot more grounded than First Person Shooter. Seas of cargo containers and creepy recreational vehicles added texture to Gibson and Maddox’s earlier story. The cliché of a killer virtual reality video game simply doesn’t gel with the broader aesthetic of the show.

Pixel perfect...

Pixel perfect…

It should be noted that the episode’s virtual reality premise seems very retro in the context of February 2000. Although the development of the Oculus Rift has seen a resurgence of interest in the idea of recreational virtual reality, the concept was tremendously popular in the early nineties. Fox had even launched V.R. 5 in an attempt to capitalise on the trend in 1995; it lasted thirteen episodes. However, a variety of economic and technological factors had conspired to keep the technology from going truly mainstream.

While movies like The Matrix suggested virtual reality was a millennial theme, First Person Shooter feels decidedly retro in its portrayal of the gaming medium. Mulder and Scully look they are preparing for the world’s most competitive game of laser tag, itself a relic of the late eighties and early nineties. If X-Cops found a way to hark forward to the reality television and found footage boom through crossing over into a show that had been around since 1989, First Person Shooter finds a way to make twenty-first century gaming look decidedly retro.

All fired up and ready to go...

All fired up and ready to go…

First Person Shooter is not an episode comfortable in itself. Carter acknowledges as much on the episode’s commentary:

The whole episode is kind of a departure for us, a kind of a lark, a loopy episode. And a kind of science fiction we weren’t  used  to doing, which was a sort of high – technology, futuristic technology. So  the tone of the episode shifts between believable and  unbelievable, and we’d always tried to make the plots as believable as possible. I think this one stretches the limits of that kind  of science fiction.

It is a fair assessment. First Person Shooter definitely feels “out there.”

Tank girl...

Tank girl…

Again, the arbitrary nature of suspension of disbelief kicks in. At one point, Mulder’s body literally disappears into the virtual world. When the programme is deactivated, Mulder literally disappears into thin air. “He should be right here,” Frohike exclaims. Byers responds, “It’s impossible. It’s a digital environment. It’s just a game.” Given that the game space is a large white room, where could Mulder’s body have possibly gone? It’s not as if Maitreya could have stuffed his body into a cupboard. (The implication seems to be that he was digitised.)

It is a very weird story development, in the context of a tale about science-fiction and artificial intelligence; then again, suspension of disbelief is by its nature subjective. Had Maitreya been a demon or a ghost, her ability to make Mulder’s body disappear would seems perfectly in keeping with the show’s aesthetic. Nobody shoots Santa Claus, and nobody complains about the ghosts manipulating reality in How the Ghosts Stole Christmas. It seems almost churlish to object to the haziness of Maitreya’s influence and power.

You know, that's really impractical body armour...

You know, that’s really impractical body armour…

Then again, it seems like the script to First Person Shooter is more of a rough draft than anything ready for production. Some of the dialogue in Kill Switch was cheesy, with Gibson and Maddox adopting a hyperstylised approach to characterisation. In First Person Shooter, the problem gets amped up further; the programmers and developers use lines of nineties jargon that seems to be intended to add legitimacy to the episode’s setting, but which ultimately makes it feel all the more unreal.

Consider Phoebe’s explanation of what happened in the teaser, when a member of the test team died mysteriously in the confines of the game. “I was in the control booth with Ivan,” she tells Mulder and Scully. “Retro was in the zone. His telemetry was solid. He looked unstoppable; like he was on his way to the next level when suddenly, he was cooked meat.” It’s all very consciously cool and hip, a little too arch in the tone and the delivery. It feels like something another polish of the script might have improved.

Queuing for the QA...

Queuing for the QA…

As with Kill Switch, the script for First Person Shooter spent a long time in development. According to William Gibson, the episode was in the works for a while:

“For some reason, when we do them, it’s a very, very long process,” Gibson explains. “I think that was about nine months ago. Not that we were actually writing it the whole time. I had a novel to finish and a two month book tour, and Chris is not the easiest guy in the world to get together with. We really like it when we can sit down with him and have some quality time and talk about it. We did, but it took months on and off to get it together.”

To be fair, it seems like everybody involved was very busy, with their attention focused elsewhere. Gibson wrote a novel and went on a book tour; Carter was managing both The X-Files and Harsh Realm at the start of the season.

It turns out level four is a go-kart level.

It turns out level four is a go-kart level.

It seems like the production team were writing and rewriting the script by inches; that the ending was barely there when the show started production. The entire episode is a mess, but it completely falls apart towards the end. What exactly does Maitreya want? Does she want to be liberated from this violent game? Does she want freedom and self-determination? Does she see herself as an individual with free will and self-determination exploited for the enjoyment of the players? How does she relate to her world? How do you defeat her?

First Person Shooter doesn’t seem to have any real answers to these questions, and so adopts the path of least resistance. Maitreya is a video game bad guy; she is defeated by having Mulder and Scully beat the game while the Lone Gunmen do some generic tech stuff. Scully ventures into the game to help Mulder, and the two shoot their way through a variety of generic video game settings and questionable CGI. Meanwhile, the Lone Gunmen engage in technobabble with Ivan and Phoebe about the possibility of turning off the game.

Point and shoot.

Point and shoot.

If First Person Shooter was intended as a wry commentary on video game violence, the ending completely undercuts that; the audience is unironically invited to celebrate as Mulder and Scully “blast the crap out of stuff.” There is no tension to these scenes, no excitement. There is only a background change and a whole host of digital copies of Maitreya for our heroes to mow down with impunity. There are no stakes to any of this, no dramatic tension underscoring the carnage. Instead, this is the most boring “let’s play” ever.

It seems unlikely that Mulder and Scully would ever by in any real danger in a mid-season standalone, but First Person Shooter can’t even be bothered to pretend that Maitreya might pose a real threat to the duo. It just seems like everybody wants to wrap it all up and go home. After all, the logic of the climax seems rather strange. Why is the only way to deal with this problem to send more people into the game? Surely it would be more efficient to study the code from the safety of the office or to restore a back-up?

Hat's off to her...

Hat’s off to her…

Even allowing for the absurdity of feeding more and more people to the game, the logic of First Person Shooter is still impenetrable. As Mulder and Scully play through the game, they suddenly find themselves transported from the creepy futuristic industrial estate to a wild west theme park. “This is level two,” Phoebe explains. “It only gets harder.” Ivan offers, “No one’s ever beaten level two.” It seems like the digital game went through a really crappy QA process. Is “FPS” even ISO certified?

It is all capped off with a cringe-inducing monologue from Mulder. “We came, we saw, we conquered,” he boasts to the audience. “And if the taste of victory is sweet, the taste of virtual victory is not Sweet ‘N Low, nor the bullets made of sugar.” It is a very awkward attempt to wrap a neat bow around a script that is messy and sprawling, a last-ditch effort to tie the disjointed forty-five minutes of television together into something resembling an episode of The X-Files. It doesn’t quite work.

"Let's never speak of this again."

“Let’s never speak of this again.”

On the commentary, Chris Carter concedes that the production team had absolutely no idea about how to close the episode:

We never really quite knew how to end this episode. It really was an episode about how far you could go with technology and  there was no natural ending for the caper, as it were, and so this becomes a kind of silly ending. I thought everybody felt a little silly doing it, actually.

Sadly, First Person Shooter is not self-aware enough to pull off the silliness. It just feels awkward.

"Who's enjoying the hell out of this episode? THIS GUY."

“Who’s enjoying the hell out of this episode? THIS GUY.”

To be fair to First Person Shooter, it is not all bad. David Duchovny attracts a considerable amount of criticism for his performances in the seventh season; fans and critics are quick to point out that the actor seemed to be “sleepwalking” through stretches of the year. However, Duchovny really throws himself into First Person Shooter, tackling the material with considerable charm and energy. Indeed, the four-episode stretch from Sein und Zeit through to First Person Shooter might be the most engaged that the actor is across the season.

Then again, perhaps First Person Shooter serves as something of a limit case for seventh season. A lot of the season’s lighter and goofier episodes seemed to coast off the charm of Duchovny and Anderson, underscoring just how lucky the show was to have found two actors who fit together so comfortably. At this point in the run, it was clear that the pair could carry and elevate subpar material. How much of the charm of The Amazing Maleeni comes down to the two leads? Does the banter between the duo in Rush disguise the fact they do very little?

Copy, paste. Copy, paste.

Copy, paste. Copy, paste.

First Person Shooter demonstrates that there are limits to what Duchovny and Anderson can do (even at this stage) to save a disaster of a script. The two actors bounce well off one another over the course of First Person Shooter, even when the material leaves a lot to be desired. The dialogue in the scene where Scully criticises video games for playing into a culture of violence is cringe-inducing, but the scene becomes with the two leads bantering through it. Still, it’s not enough to redeem the show.

If X-Cops proved that there was energy and verve left in the series at this late stage, First Person Shooter demonstrates that energy and verve mean very little if they cannot be channeled in a constructive direction. X-Cops proved that the show could still exist at bleeding edge of television, while First Person Shooter suggests that perhaps the series is trapped in the nineties.

You might be interested in our reviews of the seventh season of The X-Files:

6 Responses

  1. The sheer stupidity of this episode is beyond belief. You always got the impression that the writers of these shows did lots of research on American mythology, that there was always some history and precedent in each of the monster of the week episodes, some phobia or anxiety that 90’s America had at the back of their minds. Looking 16 years back, it’s amazing how it looks like no research was done for this episode, the writing staff took whatever myth of misconception as fact, and used that as a basis line for the story. Is technophobe-exploitation even a genre?

    I understand there was an anxiety in 90’s America over the rise of video games. Even TNG got in on it, with a game that mind controlled everyone via addicting pseudo-drug highs in an effort to take over the Federation. The generation that grew up on free love and drugs was terrified of video games (it didn’t even need to be violent). This is best reflected the in the 90’s and 00’s, you had a generation of writers who knew next to nothing about these video games writing scripts of television (since the Millennials were still too young to get such high-profile work). I can think of a particular egregious episode of Miami CSI [Urban Hellraisers] that this episode parallels in its promotion of video game hysteria with ignorance. In that episode, video gamers, bored with a video game about robbing banks, decide to re-enact it for real. The CSI investigators try to anticipate these murderous video gamers by learning about what happens next in the video game in case they try to recreate that. But of course, the CSI investigators in 2006 have never heard of this thing called “the internet”, so instead they decide to question the video game developers themselves, in person. Shocking, the video game developers won’t give up the story to the game (A GAME THAT HAS ALREADY BEEN RELEASED), because they are concerned more with money, then innocent lives. Of course they are. The video gamers are presented as obsessed, suicidal murders, the video game developers are portrayed as death manufactures obsessed with money, and the video game is portrayed as a death machine, killing innocent lives. (And as an aside, when one of the CSI guys buys the game to learn more about the game story by playing the game, they have the actor mash ALL the buttons on the PS2 controller repeatedly for a scoped sniping sequence, because it appears no one on the production of that episode knew anything about the subject matter)

    And that brings us to First Person Shooter, the X-Files holodeck episode. Oh the stupidty… It’s amazing how thoroughly the episode managed to offend all parties. Let’s start with the horrifying sexism directed towards men in this episode, they’re reduced to drooling morons ready to masturbate to explosions and who all view women as sex objects. Take the Maitreya prostitute interrogation scene, imagine being her, being held against her will as several male cops leer at her, repeating the words “you have the right to remain silent” over and over and over again, and you’d think you’ve entered a Hannibal episode, or Silence of the Lambs! The portrayal of men in the episode is just shocking, no one with a Y chromosome can muster an IQ above 60!

    Then you have the portrayal of women, so much more mature and above it all, with all of them being put-upon by the testosterone crazed cavemen. Sure, there might be some truth to this in the video game industry, but it’s totally drowned out by its extremist “death-to-all-men” stance that it takes, that literally there is a manifestation of feminist avenger running around killing men! And poor Scully! The way her belief in the rational is replaced by her taking the side of the myth that video game violence can only lead to real world violence. I’d expect a little more from someone who’s favorite movie is the Exorcist. This episode turns even the most reasonable thing and turns it sexist, when Ivan is mad at Phoebe because she did something without discussing it first (which makes sense, they are partners on the project, they should make decisions together), Scully butts-in defending her member of the woman-tribe from the mean man-animal by telling Ivan “No fair picking on a girl.” Is that what the episode is saying? That women should be able to do anything they ever want and men are mean and dumb?

    Then we must discuss the portrayal of the video game industry in this episode. This idea that a game that has so far killed everyone who has played it would somehow have malls lining up to buy this game is idiotic. That Ivan, the male programmer would think that putting this game on the market that has killed everyone who has played it will rake in “millions” is idiotic. The portrayal of video game developers as totally uncaring to the deaths that their game is directly causing is deeply bias and smacks of propaganda. I can only imagine the only way to go any more over the top with Ivan is to have him shouting “I only care about profits” while shooting up an orphanage. The portrayal of a female game developer whom is so overcome by the male dominated industry that the only way she could keep “sane” was develop a sex object killing machine avatar isn’t doing this episode any favors either. And let’s not forget that the uber-gamer just happens to be Asian, cause let’s not forget to capitalize on that racism as well! (I’m guessing this was influenced by the South Korean’s love for 1998’s Starcraft).

    Now let’s talk about this wonderful holodeck game. The one that murder’s its players that everyone wants to play. The one that uses super-duper advanced holodeck technology, that you’d think the X-files government would want to step in immediately for use in military training exercises, and block it’s release to the public and other nations. Heck, once this game has racked a body count, you’d think the government would double want it for its use as a weapon since the digital assassin can’t be traced. Even the boring real-world government would shut down a product that’s killing everything body, like it does with the current-day hoverboards that keep exploding. And the developers designed this game made it so that even they can’t even get past level 2 (as a rule in game development, if the developer finds it moderately difficult, it’s going to be extremely difficult for new players [since the developers going into the game already know everything about it]), showing that it’s doubtful if the writers ever even played Pac-Man given their level of understanding about video games. And just analyze what the game looks like, the first level is cool, with flanking fire, and motorcycle henchmen, and a setting that matches the laser tag gear, and you’ve got to move around between points of cover but level 2 looks like a complete joke. The enemies amount to little more than digital cardboard cutouts, and they are even all arranged like it’s a shooting gallery. And all you have to do is just stand there, shooting at them, as they randomly respawn exactly in the same place where they “died”. And then you get to the tank…and your just supposed to shoot it with your machine gun? Is the idea that you keep shooting at a tank as it endlessly respawns until you run out of ammo? THAT’S the game? Putting aside the total-ignorance of video games for a second, that’s an absolutely awful way to film an action sequence, there’s no logic to it, Scully’s bullets harming a tank, then the fact that the tank doesn’t seem to be a defeatable opponent makes the fighting pointless, and no one is moving around or has any means of affecting the situation other than to run out the clock. Again, this is an action sequence, no one is moving and nothing is happening (apart from the pointless shooting).

    And to top it all off, the only way to turn off the game is to permanently delete the game, and there are no backups. All for some desperate excuse for some tension: “Nuh-uh, I’m not going to destroy a video game that’s I’ve work on for years, I’d rather let all those people die, I’m a video game developer, human lives don’t matter to me.” – minor exaggerating of the portrayal of video game developers in this episode. And when you turn off a game while someone is still playing the game, they vanish in digital space, cause of course they do. The way the technology is portrayed in this episode, you get the impression the script writer was a technophobe who never touched a computer, and wrote the thing on an old fashioned typewriter. For a show that did it’s research and had a cutting edge writing staff that was the avant garde of television, it’s amazing to see just how this show managed to turn out such a crude, sloppy episode. As it’s directed, it can almost be seen as corn-ball 90’s fun, but the scripts bias, offensive stereotypes and propaganda message are inescapable. This is one of the worst aging episodes of the X-Files, as video games have blossomed over time into a new medium of culture and storytelling, that’s it’s message was already irrelevant the day it aired. Any serious topic this episode tried to tackle was immediately undermined by the extremist rhetoric and over-the-top anti-video game propaganda that the only people who could take it seriously were those completely ignorant about video games, and the X-files as well since Scully and Mulder act completely out of character in order to fit their agenda.

  2. This episode is abysmal! It’s actually amazing there were any halfway decent episodes after this turd.

    • Looking back, this is the Reefer Madness of X-Files episodes. Show it to your children so they can understand how the generation of drugs, rock n’ roll and free love were so irrationally and terrified of video games. The ignorance makes instant comedy.

      “It is not too much to say that in your hands lay the possibility of averting other tragedies like it. We must work untiringly so our children are obliged to learn the *truth*. Because it is only through knowledge that we can safely protect them. Failing this, the next tragedy could be that of your daughter. Or your son. Or yours. Or yours. OR YOURS!” -Reefer Madness

    • Ah, I think that it’s awful, but it’s not a series ender. If the show survived Excelsis Dei and El Mundo Gira, it could survive this.

  3. I don’t understand how the writers of this episode claim to not have a message, but yet have something to say? Isn’t a message just something to say? This is language other creative types have used before and it’s always baffled me. Even saying “I have no message”, is itself sending a message. It’s making a statement of intent. And it’s a way of trying to have things both ways, saying something while trying to avoid owning whatever is being said.

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