Saturday Crapshoot: The X-Files
Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, as the X-Com series' The Bureau sets out to investigate alien life, we take a trip back to pop culture's original investigators of the weird and wonderful. Kinda.
Does The X-Files really need an introduction? I don't think so. Despite its success on the small screen though, it landed before the days when 'transmedia' was a word, never mind a word that people in suits could say with a straight face, and so saw limited spin-offs. There was a movie of course, some books, a couple more shows and other such things. As far as games went though, despite the obvious adventuring potential, we only ever saw two - this one, done interactive movie style over a whopping seven CDs, and a Resident Evil type affair on Playstation 2. Did it live up to the legacy of the show? At the very least, they probably figured out the entire story before they started shooting...
The opening sets the scene in more ways than one, with FBI agents Mulder and Scully... you guessed it... investigating an empty, mysterious warehouse. Both have the look of actors there to fulfil contractual obligations rather than act, with any witty repartee or basic explaining of what the hell they're doing replaced with absolute silence. (I would not be shocked if this was just stock footage from the show with the voice track sliced off, but I don't know it well enough to say for sure.) Either way, the sudden arrival of Bad Men With Guns and a big flash of light end the intro, and officially hand the torch over to our actual hero, much cheaper FBI agent Craig Willmore, pictured here:
Only a little more like Kyle MacLachlan.
I kid, I kid. But not really. Willmore doesn't exactly get off on the right foot here, thanks to a mix of classic interactive movie style acting - record yourself, on your own, saying lines like "But I put the keys on the table!" if you're not sure what that's like - and an awful first puzzle in which you have to figure out your own computer password. Your own. Computer password. This is how The X-Files kicks off, with a hero who apparently Trusts No-One to the point of calling the Men In Black to neuralise him at the end of every shift. He also has a computer screensaver made up of floating FBI badges, handcuffs and pistols. And when you use his desk's tape dispenser, he stoically reaches over to it, carefully takes a piece off... and then sticks it on his nose for a few seconds until he gets bored.
Oh, Craig, Craig, Craig. The game's barely started, and already I suspect his entire life is the fantasy of a small child in the FBI creche. Still, the inclusion of scenes like this do hint that while The X-Files suffers from a lot of the classic interactive movie failings, it does have a fair amount more effort behind it than most. It's pretty long for instance, and did some interesting things like having timers running during conversations and pathing so that Willmore can approach his investigation and other characters in different ways, ultimately taking on the conspiracies in his stride or becoming a paranoid mess. This is a (cough) technology that the developers called "UberVariables", which becomes slightly more understandable when you know that they were called "Hyperbole Studios". Can't argue there.
Incidentally, Willmore made such a splash in the X-Files universe that this is his wiki page.
Anyway. The actual story kicks off when Captain Password is called into his boss' office to meet with a big-wig from the FBI - Assistant Director Skinner, off the television. Skinner informs Willmore in about as many words that things are getting strange, they're starting to worry, and that this could be a case for Mulder and Scully. But they've gone missing on assignment, so he'll have to do. Willmore immediately asks if they're romantically involved, and being told 'no', follows up with asking if they ever have been romantically involved. Skinner somehow manages to avoid beating him to death with his own fan-fiction, and lets him continue playing with the big-boys anyway. Unrelated, this is one of those games where the 'talk' verb is represented by a mouth. Why do I mention this?
In other immature news, Willmore's boss is called Armistead Shanks. Naming an FBI agent after something written across so many toilets might seem like a mistake for serious investigations, but at least it means the Feds will always have something to go on.
Arriving at the hotel where Mulder and Scully were staying, Skinner immmediately bagsies the exploration of Scully's room, preventing Wellmore from having a point-and-click around her pants drawer for the sake of thoroughness. He's also not exactly forthcoming with any helpful details. When asked for instance what case they were working on, he simply tells Willmore not to refer to them in the past tense. This is not too surprising. The X-Files is one of those games where everyone seems to be oddly aggressive to each other, from Willmore asking supposedly polite questions to a young hotel clerk just being irritated at the FBI poking around. That's what you often get when video is shot as short clips, but it's especially notable here, and especially in outside areas where people ARE ALWAYS SHOUTING.
This first day offers little real meat, being entirely about following Mulder and Scully's trail to the warehouse from the intro, pausing only for some shock revelations like Mulder not ordering any porn from the motel TV, and phoning up the Lone Gunmen for an amusing scene. "I work for the FBI," Willmore declares. "Oh, sure, why didn't you say so in the first place?" replies Frohike, casually hanging up.
It does however feature an early appearance by The X-Files' big villain - the dreaded Count Blurry von Pixelbitch. He doesn't appear in the show itself, or take a direct part in the big alien conspiracy. Instead, his evil plan is to drive slightly incompetent FBI agents crazy by making them stare at every millimeter on every screen until they find all the evidence his minions have hidden away. The warehouse from the intro for instance turns out to be a huge, palatial place, whose dark, grubby shots hide... no kidding... a bullet embedded in a post, and a cigarette butt. These are not exactly clues best suited to highly compressed video footage, even with the help of a flashlight (paints a white circle on the screen) and a pair of binoculars (offers a 2x zoom). On the plus side, using them does bring to mind hilarious images of Skinner staring in disbelief as Willmore jumps around with them clamped to his face and yelling "Zoinks, Scoob! I found a clue!" It must be with some relief that he heads back to Washington and out of this game for good. Farewell, Mitch Pileggi. Thanks for appearing. You gave good cameo.
Willmore meanwhile finally faces his first Gauntlet of Doom - that wonderful tendency for Interactive Movies like this to reward mistakes with instant death. This quickly becomes a pattern in The X-Files, even with about six hours of FMV on hand. In this case, it comes when returning to the warehouse to see mysterious people moving mysterious crates in the mysterious dark, in ways best described as 'suspicious'. As with a lot of The X-Files though, it's slightly more involved than usual. Watching some guys do something for instance means waiting for them to finish before continuing, and both binoculars and night vision help to spot them doing their trade. Of course, stepping even slightly off the rails during all this means an unpleasant glimpse at Willmore's drowned corpse.
This death fetish doesn't really kick in for a while, but The X-Files really goes above and beyond when it does. There are several points for instance where Willmore has to get through buildings full of armed guards, mostly played out in standard American Laser Games style shoot-outs. What makes them evil though is that often you get shot at from people behind you with absolutely no warning, forcing you to keep spinning around to take out targets you can't see. That's just cruel, mitigated only by getting free rewinds rather than a one-way trip to the main menu during action sequences.
On the plus side, at least Craig's not a character anyone cares about, even with a trip to his apartment offering a few interesting glimpses at his life - divorce papers, paintings from his kid, a ridiculous number of Ramones posters everywhere, toothbrush and toothpaste he refuses to use - how I pity his colleagues - and most oddly, that he's a frustrated fantasy/horror writer. An example of his prose is provided, along with a rejection slip declaring it too slow, not suspenseful enough, and not particularly scary.
This is... ah... somewhat dangerous territory for an X-Files game to be going into. Especially one that spends a couple of days stuck in slow-motion itself, as Craig's investigation goes from a cover story about what's going on at the warehouse being about smuggling to the inevitable discovery that this is indeed a load of balls. (Though an X-Files game where Mulder and Scully just happened to stumble into a few dodgy Russians who shot them and never thought about it again would have a hell of a twist...)
In fairness though, that's slightly too snarky. The writing in The X-Files is actually surprisingly good, held down mostly by pacing and a main character carved out of balsa wood and with a face drawn on the front. Nonsense as the 'UberVariables' thing is, there are quite a few moments to guide the narrative in various ways, and by interactive movie standards, the sets and decoration are stunning. Sure, they're just regular locations rather than futuristic cities and similar, but they're packed with props and with some wonderful detail - when you're on a boat, the water ripples. When outside, people are filmed on location rather than on a blue-screen, allowing for realistic movement of things like hair in the wind. Is it a good adventure? No. It's pixel-hunting with a side-order of pixel-hunting, instant deaths and very slow action. At the same time though, it's not like they could do anything particularly exciting and remain in continuity. Even as of the movie, Mulder and Scully were still impotently chasing shadows.
Cutting straight to this specific mystery, Willmore is sent to investigate a murdered fisherman from outside the warehouse, which sends him to a boat covered with nuclear-flash style shadows. Despite this, his approach to investigating a mysterious lead object in the hold... is to pick it up, shove it in his pocket, and then start messing around with it and pulling bits out of it around his own newly appointed Agent Scully - Seattle PD officer Astadourian. Very rarely has a game over been more deserved and yet not happened. Still, I suspect players might have complained about that as a finale...
It quickly becomes clear that someone in the FBI is working against the investigation, and all the evidence points to Willmore's FBI partner, Cook - the partner who, while not being Scully, lacks the qualifications and love-interest potential to actually be Not Scully. Spoiler warning, he's totally a traitor. He's not a very effective one though, being almost completely out of the loop throughout the game and mostly reduced to banging on Willmore's desk and squealing "PLEASE TELL ME WHAT YOU KNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOW!" It's quite sad, really.
By this point though, I think we can mostly agree that the only mystery that anyone really cares about is "Do Mulder and Scully ever actually show up?" The answer: yes! Though it does take until Day 5 of... 6. By this point, Willmore and Astadourian have teamed up for reals, trying their best to have a semi-flirty relationship that would work better with more time, better acting, and any chemistry at all, and almost been killed a couple of times by whoever is responsible for the conspiracy du jour.
That conspiracy incidentally just keeps getting sadder. As said, a big part of it is that Willmore's FBI partner, Cook, is evil, and spends most of the game trying to get in the way. He pretends to knock himself out, gets caught knowing things he shouldn't, and Willmore being a bit of an idiot, he mostly gets away with it. His finest hour now arrives though when he convinces Willmore to follow him and raid a warehouse run by Russian smugglers, planting a gun to be discovered that will link them to a couple of murders we already know full well he did, then giving the smuggler leader as much time as he needs to effectively prove his innocence. The low point is when Willmore demands to know about the warehouse at the docks, only for the guy to point out, as if talking to a child, that the clue that they're actually standing in his real warehouse right now is that this one has all his stuff in it.
Willmore himself isn't much more competent though, as it turns out that over the course of his investigation, he sent his friend from the crime lab onto a radioactive boat and he's now got full-on radiation sickness. To this, his response is more or less "Ooops, sorry." He never gets round to getting himself checked out, or for that matter telling Astodorian that her ovaries are probably even now growing faces and learning to sing a medley of tunes from Bugsy Malone. Our hero.
A quick meeting with spooky Mr. X later, Willmore discovers that everything that's happened so far... has been utterly irrelevant. Smugglers aren't involved in the slightest, but aliens are. X informs Willmore that he has to find an unidentified man and kill him with a stiletto blade in the neck, adding "By the way, I hope you've seen the show or you'll have no idea who I am. Well, byeeee! Vagueman, away!"
So, that helped.
Luckily, X also knows where to find a "Jane Doe" who Willmore needs to track down, because saying "Scully" wouldn't be mysterious and enigmatic enough. She's in full-on Trust No-One mode, obviously, and armed. In a real dick move from the designers, there are several dialogue options to explain things, but the actual solution is to ignore that and show her the stiletto from the inventory. Boo! Boo! Also, if she gets fed up, she rings an alarm and the action immediately cuts to Willmore being fired. This... doesn't make a lot of sense, given that he completed 50% of his mission to track them down. Still, at least it beats the fact that this happens every single time you try to use his handcuffs on someone.
Having fought through this whole game to meet her, Scully is also pretty disappointing. Her acting is so bland that, asked if she has radiation poisoning, she says "God, I hope not" in much the same way a regular person would say "Remind me to get some milk." She looks utterly bored as she rattles out Mulder's latest theory about what's going on, which involves aliens and black oil and the ridiculousness of that concept when conventional science so easily explains people who can produce nuclear blasts from their hands, and only just stays awake while yawning through dialogue like "I was shot. There was an odd light..." Hopefully she was a little more enthusiastic about cashing her cheque.
Is Mulder any more energetic? Are you kidding? He's played by David Duchovny. But he doesn't show up for a while longer. Scully, Willmore and Not Scully do some more poking around, and find that he's in Alaska. Of course he is. It also becomes clear that between them, Scully and the Lone Gunmen pretty much have this whole plot sorted on their own, to the point it starts feeling like the game is only humouring him. Still, a videotape showing a mysterious medical operation taking place in box-cars gives them all their next clue, if mostly because one of the surgeons conveniently takes his surgical mask off right in front of a camera and gives everyone a good look at his classified face.
Oh, and speaking of the Lone Gunmen - cameo!
The Lone Gunmen in fact spill the entire story, telling Wellmore exactly where to go to find Mulder, why people would be running around doing medical experiments and stealing corpses and otherwise getting in Willmore's way, and that the government is merging aliens and humans in evil experiments that anyone who's seen the show already knows about or could probably guess at. So, essentially, this entire game was completely pointless and Willmore has accomplished exactly nothing. Good to know.
Well, let's meet the man himself.
Mulder is easily tracked down in Alaska, bound in ropes that would hold the average man for approximately five seconds if they didn't squirm. He just about gets through the conversation without falling asleep, but only just, warning Willmore that he called the FBI for back-up but only got NSA spooks chasing him for his trouble. Oh no. Cryptographers. Mulder also casually drops into conversation that aliens have been taking people over and puppeteering them. Willmore's response, in about as many words, is "Oh, yeah, I've seen that." At this point, the game's even boring itself.
"We're with the National Security Agency. We've been tracking plutonium-" begins about the 590,325th fictional spook who doesn't know what the National Security Agency does. For their lack of research, Willmore shoots them with his gun. At least, in my head he does, before dry-firing until the gun no longer clicks and adding "And that's for everyone who thinks Interpol has badass special agents."
For the last section though, stuff finally starts to happen. Scully and Wellmore - his own Scully having stayed at home for no particular reason - infiltrate a sekrit government base, for a good old-fashioned close encounter. The puzzles are weak, but the atmosphere is surprisingly effective thanks to guards suddenly appearing, a bit of body-snatching, and waiting for the other boot to drop. There's no real shock value to anything though, just setting things up so that Scully can use the stiletto to save the day. Yes, poor Craig doesn't even get to be the hero of his own game. Not really, anyway. Pity him in all his pointlessness. Pointlessness which looks quite a lot like this:
If you look very carefully during that, you can actually see a single frame where Willmore emotes.
No, no, just kidding. That would be crazy.
While it's easy to poke holes in The X-Files, it does a hell of a lot better at the interactive movie thing than most. It's nowhere near up to the standard of a Tex Murphy or a Gabriel Knight, and the plot could have used... generously... a complete rewrite. As an interactive episode that was never going to get Mulder and Scully for anything more than a cameo though, it's surprisingly okay. It tries out some interesting ideas, and even has a few odd gimmicks that I haven't mentioned. One of the weirdest is that at regular intervals it flashers what's meant to be subliminal text on the screen to creep you out - messages like 'You are being followed'. This doesn't work very well because, well, subliminal messages don't work, making the effect more confusing than creepy until you spot what's going on.
Interesting addition though. Not one seen very often, in any sense.
Here's the complete game in handy YouTube form. There are some changes depending on how you approach a couple of the characters, but not very many. That's one of the problems when most of the story is a shaggy dog one. There are reasons that many players look back on this interactive movie fondly though, and they're pretty easy to see. If you were an X-Files fan in the 90s, it was likely going to be this or a platform game where Fox Mulder got an extra life if he collected 100 Truth Points, and this was always going to win that fight. Most importantly though, Hyperbole may have been limited by budget and actor availability and production quality, but there's a feel that this was a genuine attempt to make the best X-Files interactive movie possible with its resources - something that carries it pretty well, even if the overall take on the series is probably something that Willmore's publisher would have written back to say "Thanks, but no thanks..." after reading. But then, the same could be said of the second movie.