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The X-Files – Resist or Serve (Review)

This January, to prepare for the release of the new six-part season of The X-Files, we’re wrapping up our coverage of the show, particularly handling the various odds and ends between the show’s last episode and the launch of the revival.

The X-Files disappeared rather quietly from television.

Despite the talk of launching a film series, the franchise was allowed to lie fallow for a couple of years. There were a number of reasons for this. Immediately following the broadcast of The Truth, Chris Carter disappeared out into the world. The creator and executive producer had worked for almost a decade without any real break. It made sense for the writer to avail of the opportunity to get away from it for an extended period of time. A breather felt more than justified after overseeing more than two hundred episodes of television.

Game on...

Game on…

The band broke up. Members of the production team took jobs elsewhere. Frank Spotnitz and Vince Gilligan worked with veteran director Michael Mann on Robbery Homicide Division. John Shiban joined the writing staff on the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise. There was a sense that The X-Files had faded into the ambient background radiation of popular culture, its constituent elements – whether writers or directors or even themes or storytelling techniques – ready to flavour a new generation of television production.

However, there were signs that the show might linger on. Even if the sequel to The X-Files: Fight the Future had yet to materialise, it lurked just over the horizon. Critical and fan consensus was starting to form around the show. Although The X-Files might have been finished, its legend was still being solidified. Resist or Serve is very much a part of this process. Released on Playstation 2 in March 2004, Resist or Serve was a very disappointing video game. However, it was also a very instructive insight into just how the legend of The X-Files was shaping up.

Feels like going home...

Feels like going home…

In terms of gameplay, Resist or Serve is very much a clone of many more successful original survival horror games. There is more than just a dash of Resident Evil or Silent Hill to be found in the gameplay dynamics, the level design and the general tone of the experience. Then again, this makes a certain amount of sense. Licensed video games are rarely sold on their originality or creativity, instead for their more recognisable elements. “Put Mulder and Scully inside a knock-off of Resident Evil” seems like a pretty logical way to make money.

Black Ops Entertainment were responsible for the design of the game, which says a lot. Black Ops Entertainment were a video game manufacturer active towards the end of the nineties and into the new millennium. While they released a number of original titles, their most high-profile releases tended to be their tie-in video games. However, these games were seldom impressive. They sold well, because they were branded well. However, few people would point to Black Ops Entertainment as a particularly nuanced video game studio.

Whacha got cookin?'

Whacha got cookin?’

After all, Black Ops Entertainment was the studio tasked with video game tie-in to Tomorrow Never Dies, following Rare’s stellar work on the tie-in to GoldenEye. Despite the fact that Rare were working on a less-advanced console with significant hardware limitations, GoldenEye really pushed the hand-held console market forward; it was the benchmark for console-native first-person shooters in the late nineties. In contrast, there’s a reason no one’s childhood memory of playing video games centres on playing Tomorrow Never Dies.

The gameplay itself is frustrating and generic. Resist or Serve is a copy of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but it is very much an inferior copy. The little details remain frustrating, like the inability to hold tools and run at the same time; a conscious video game dynamics choice that forces the player to choose between seeing what is ahead an evading damage. Similarly, the camera angles are often counter-intuitive; many lives are lost because of the difficulty angling the player’s weapon rather than a strategic mistake or misfire.

Where there's smoke...

Where there’s smoke…

Similarly, the boss-and-henchmen structure feels a little generic. The game forces the player to confront enemies that are pretty durable, but limits the amount of ammunition available in order to raise the stakes. This leads to frustrating scenarios where Mulder or Scully spend extended periods kicking a dead zombie to ensure that it stays down. More than that, the fact that the player can outrun the zombies means that killing an individual (or often a couple of zombies) consists of nothing more than running a few steps ahead, turning around to fire, and repeating.

None of the antagonists or puzzles or scenarios have any of the joy that marks out the best entries in the Resident Evil or Silent Hill games. Very little of the game design is particularly memorable outside of details ported over from The X-Files. In fact, many of the enemies wind up feeling very bland and repetitive. In particular the late-game alien models feel pretty generic; they bear little resemblance to the colonists who appeared in Fight the Future, instead resembling a low-budget Flukeman.

Kry(cek) it out...

Kry(cek) it out…

However, the gameplay is not this issue here. Resist or Serve is not being sold ont he strength of its gameplay or its technical innovations. Resist or Serve is a licensed game. With very few exceptions, that means that the game engine is fairly stock, but the skin applied to that engine is novel. Resist or Serve is about applying an X-Files skin to a fair stock survival horror game. As the most significant X-Files release of 2004, the detailing on that skin says a lot about what The X-Files looked like from the perspective of 2004.

What is immediately clear is that the production team have put a great deal of care into the skin they are applying to the game. In many respects, Resist or Serve is truer to the spirit of the show than The X-Files Game. Unlike The X-Files Game, the player can actually play as Mulder or Scully. The production team have drawn together an incredibly large ensemble of performers associated with the show; Resist or Serve feels very much like a celebration of the show’s history and legacy.

Lone wolves...

Lone wolves…

The cast is stacked. Resist or Serve features the voices of David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund, Bruce Harwood, Nick Lea, William B. David, Laurie Horlden, James Pickens Jr. and Bill Dow. Dow pops up as Chuck Burks as a voice in a hallway, boasting to Mulder about new findings involving the Amityville house or the Zapruder film. That is the care and attention to detail that has gone into the game. In fact, the bulk of the middle act (or “second episode”) of the game is spent wandering around the show’s standing sets.

The script is provided by Thomas Schnauz, a writer who actually wrote for the show. Schnauz began working with Ten Thirteen on The Lone Gunmen, before joining The X-Files in its final season. Schnauz brings a fannish delight to his scripting for the video game, finding a way to incorporate just about every possible X-Files story convention into the game’s story. Krycek is ratty; Kersh is ambitious; Skinner is conflicted. Scully repeatedly offers rational explanations for events, only for Mulder to insist upon crazy paranormal stuff.

Fire truck...

Fire truck…

Schnauz has a great deal of fun playing with all the expected X-Files story beats. The first of the game’s three “episodes” takes place in a town that has become infested by zombies, reportedly summoned by two teenage witches. (Mulder even gets to make a joking reference to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.) The second episode takes place in Washington, in the FBI building and at Mulder’s apartment. The third takes the duo to Russia, offering a hint of the mythology’s international flavour.

It is very clear that Schnauz is a fan of the show, and understands many of its core storytelling tics and tricks. While the game engine might struggle to create it, the opening section of the game is set in one of those quintessential American small tones that Mulder and Scully would visit every so often. There are even some nice wry laughs, as Kersh complains that the agents’ reports “read like elements from a science-fiction video game.” At one point, Scully instructs a zombie, “Show me your hands!” It leads to exactly the sort of black comedy that one might expect.

Take me to church...

Take me to church…

(That said, there are points where it is clear that Schnauz has not written for the pairing of Mulder and Scully before. Part of this is undoubtedly down to the fact Duchovny and Anderson likely recorded their dialogue in isolation rather than bouncing off one another, but part of it is down to Schnauz scripting lines that don’t quite fit. “Just because there’s a medical cure doesn’t mean there’s not a paranormal cause,” Mulder states at one point. Scully responds, brandishing a giant needle, “I should have stuck the syringe in your ass.”)

The level design is packed with shoutouts to episodes both large and small. “Wetwired Video” is a haven for these sorts of gags, not only given its title, but also the posters for various episodes found within. Mulder and Scully visit “Skyland Trailer Park”, where they find a trailer marked “Chaco.” In fact, the three “episodes” are even titled Renascence, Resonance, Reckoning; a nod to the two-part naming structure of the eighth and ninth seasons for Within, Without, Essence, Existence, Provenance and Providence.

Don't leave me hanging...

Don’t leave me hanging…

Resist or Serve is saturated in nostalgia. However, the nostalgia is quite heavily focused on the show’s central seasons. The absence of Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish from that impressive cast list is no coincidence. The three stories featured in Resist or Serve are even given their own fake production codes of 7×97, 7×98 and 7×99. The events of the video game are clearly intended to take place at some ambiguous point in the seventh season of the show, back when Mulder and Scully were investigating cases together.

This is the past as Resist or Serve decides to remember it. Resist or Serve harks back to the sort of classic standalone adventure that died with Je Souhaite at the end of the seventh season, the kind of episode that opened with Mulder and Scully driving to some small town together as they bantered about the case at hand. “If you want to catch witches, you have to go on a witch hunt,” Mulder advises Scully here; Resist or Serve might not have the strongest banter, but it offers something that the show was unable to offer in its final two seasons.

Night, night...

Night, night…

Resist or Serve is explicitly dated to the seventh season. Scully even watches footage of the procedure that Mulder and the Cigarette-Smoking Man underwent in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, with Mulder’s hybridisation serving to draw him towards a crashed alien ship. However, it is harder to reconcile other aspects of the game’s story. The Cigarette-Smoking Man is still relatively healthy; Krycek has still to end up in a prison colony in Tunisia; not only has Marita Covarrubias recovered from the events of One Son, she is back in contact with Mulder.

The game aspires towards a loose sense of continuity, consciously harking back towards a hazy period in the show’s history. Resist or Serve aspires to the broadest possible X-Files tone, without getting too bogged down in specifics. There are elements that ground Resist or Serve in the second half of the show’s run. It uses a naming convention from the final seasons, it might feature Assistant Director Kersh, it features the seventh season’s recurring motif of zombies and it even relies on a plot point from the three-parter bridging the sixth and seventh seasons.

Surgical precision...

Surgical precision…

Nevertheless, Resist or Serve seems to consciously evoke the show’s Vancouver era; specifically, the game harks towards the fourth and fifth seasons. The black oil is a major plot point in Resist or Serve. The game’s final section (or third episode) takes place in Siberia, with Mulder visiting the gulag from Tunguska and Terma. The title of the game is taken from a line that appears in (and in the credits to) The Red and the Black. The underground space craft (and the closing clip scenes) all reference the last act of Fight the Future.

Resist or Serve marks out the fourth and fifth seasons as something of a “golden age” for The X-Files. In many ways, this reflects the consensus that was rapidly forming around the show; in some respects, it was the consensus that had already begun to form as early as the first run of episodes during the sixth season. This is particularly notable because to prefigures the later creative decisions of Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter. Resist or Serve even inherits the “Roush Industries” plot point from Redux II that Frank Spotnitz would incorporate into his Wildstorm comics.

"... and stay down..."

“… and stay down…”

This is how fan and critical opinion has settled on The X-Files. Broadly speaking, the first five seasons are considered far superior to the seasons that followed. More than that, the final two seasons of the show are frequently written off in their entirety. In hindsight, it makes sense that the fourth and fifth seasons should become so highly regarded and so quintessentially X-Files. The fourth and fifth seasons represented The X-Files at its cultural peak, building to the release of Fight the Future. For many people, the fourth and fifth seasons were the show’s “golden age.”

Resist or Serve marks the first time that the fourth and fifth seasons are identified as the platonic ideal of The X-Files. More to the point, it confirms what was intimated by The Truth. While the eighth season suggested that The X-Files might transition from one generation to the next, Resist or Serve makes it quite clear that Mulder and Scully are essential to the future of The X-Files. In fact, Resist or Serve even bakes this argument into its closing scene, as Mulder and Scully reflect upon their globe-trotting adventure.

Shining a light...

Shining a light…

Mulder feels downbeat and defeated, having failed to bring any of the conspirators to justice. However, Scully assures Mulder that even surviving must be considered a victory given the scale of the threat and the gravity of the situation. Mulder agrees with her, “As long as we’re together, it’s a victory.” Given how careful Resist or Serve is to date its stories as taking place in the seventh season, this feels quite pointed. The short-lived Doggett and Reyes era can be dismissed as a failed experiment, something that the show attempted, but which failed to come off.

In some respects, this fits with a broader cultural shift that was taking place at around the same time. Nostalgia had always been a big industry, with major corporations realising that familiar branding could offer a market advantage when selling just about everything. However, the twenty-first century has seen a boom in nostalgic media, perhaps culminating in the summer that saw the release of both Jurassic World and Terminator Genesys. That nostalgia boom arguably made the recent revival of The X-Files possible.

Need a lift?

Need a lift?

Resist or Serve exists at the very cusp of that bubble, around the same time that comic book movies were emerging as a viable source of blockbusters. The success of movies like Spider-Man and X-Men demonstrated that fans would turn out in huge numbers to see familiar characters on their screen, seeking the comfort of recognisable characters populating archetypal stories. Nineties nostalgia was just a few years away, but already nostalgia is creeping into The X-Files.

Resist or Serve makes it clear that the future of The X-Files will look a lot like its past. The series might still end up fighting its future.

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4 Responses

  1. Huh, I never expected that you would review a video game… or the fact that you played both Silent Hill AND Resident Evil. Shows what I know. Anyway, great review as always. How come you don’t do this more often?

    • Truth is, I don’t play many games. The last time I would have been playing regularly would have been in secondary school, are the time this came out. Hence my familiarity with Resident Evil and Silent Hill. (And Metal Gear Solid, as well. For my age group, pastimes including going to each other’s houses and rotating through the various games/consoles.) We were always more of a Nintendo family, so after I went to college, my family tended towards the more recent Nintendo console. My brother and I will still have Mario Kart or Smash Brothers tournaments when we’re both home for Christmas.

      I still game, just a little less intensely. Generally, it’s on the PC and it’s specifically for a game. My life is a bit hectic at the moment, but when it settles down I’m looking forward to playing through GTA V and Arkham Knight.

      As for why I don’t do this sort of thing more often? To be honest, I don’t think it’s my strength. I think I lack the technical know-how to talk about game mechanics in the same way that I’d lack the proficiency to talk about music composition. I can talk about games, just like I can talk about music, but I’d feel like I’d be on much shakier ground than I would be talking about film or television or comic books.

  2. Maybe you should into publishing these reviews in book form? It’s bigger than the Eruditorum reviews in scope.

    • Ha! I like the comparison, though. It’s very flattering. However, Phil Sandifer’s scope and breadth is a lot wider than my own. (Although mine’s considerably more voluminous; if only quantity equated to quality, I’d be all set! Joking aside, any book version would – hypothetically – be radically different than the version you can see on the site at present.)

      There should be news coming soon. I was expecting to have news before the launch of the revival series, but let’s just say that it’s out of my hands right now. I’d expect something around the end of February.

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