Saturday, July 23, 2011

Video Games in TV: The X-Files

"Some TV shows just don't get it." Part of a periodical series: Video Games in TV.

In the seventh-season episode "First-Person Shooter," FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a mysterious death in a virtual reality game called First-Person Shooter, developed by First-Person Shooter Corporation. You think the audience realizes this is a game about First-Person Shooters? Maybe we should say "first-person shooter" a few more times just to make sure. First-person shooter.

Anyway, Sculder and Mully have to track down a cyber-assassin and eventually play the game themselves in order to stop the murders, all-the-while commenting about gamers and gaming culture. This episode gets so many things wrong that saying it 'fails at accurately representing gaming culture' is nowhere near as effective as calling it 'an absurdist satire of the mainstream media's inept understanding of video games.'

More about "First-Person Shooter" after the jump. Jumping the shark, that is. Note that there's a summary of the episode's major flaws at the end of the article, in case you don't want to read the entire synopsis/commentary.

Before we even get into the descriptions of what this episode is and how it fails, I'd like to point out that this episode was written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox. William Gibson, aka the guy that basically launched the subgenre of cyberpunk, an all-around highly regarded author. Just keep that in mind as we go through this.

In the opening teaser, we watch three of the world's most stereotypical young-adult males suiting up to enter the game. They're in a sealed vault with guns lining the walls, screaming at each other in loud, obnoxious wails, chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill," and bragging about how they're all "death machines." A counter on the wall counts down to zero and then they put on their goggles and headgear, and load up their guns.

We cut to a dude and a chick watching the three stereotypes on computer monitors. The dude comments about their elevated heart-rates with a tone of eager anticipation, and the chick says "If we don't let these boys out soon, they're gonna kill each other." Meanwhile the three idiots are all jumping up and down screaming "Yeah!" and "Bring em on!" while cocking their guns left and right, bouncing in and out of battle stances like a bunch of little children hyped on sugar.

Then we get to watch some of the actual gameplay; the three stooges run out of the vault and camp behind a small, triangular barricade and shoot straight ahead at a bunch of motorcycles that drive straight towards them in a narrow alley. Since we wouldn't want things to be too simple, the motorcycles have machine guns mounted on the front. Exactly 1,359 bullets are exchanged in this battle and our heroes don't suffer a single hit, despite the fact that they stood still and had their entire torso exposed the whole time. Dude in the control booth exclaims "Woah! It's a total massacre out there!"

The new game is called "Shooting at Things Wot Go Straight."

Phase two then loads, as a couple more barricade-like shelters appear down the alley. The three geeks sprint down the alley shooting at Nazi officers, who are shooting from the windows on the second floor of the buildings. Despite the fact that all three of them are exposed and being shot at from clear elevation, only the fat one gets shot while he's being a dumbskull and standing out in the open firing wildly in a showboating, testosterone-induced rampage. In case you didn't realize he was overweight, his teammates cry "Lo-Fat's down!" Then the leader of the squad, Retro, goes running into a door while the other knucklehead shoots at more Nazis. The dude in the control booth says "The bloodthirst is unquenchable!"

And then Retro gets shot at point-blank range by a dominatrix wielding a ye olde school flintlock pistol. Game over, cue title credits.

That's about the most we see of the game in action. There are a couple of spots here and there where other characters play, but they just do the exact same thing and the cinematography is even more apathetic about it. So from the first five minutes we can already conclude two things: that this supposed game would be absolutely boring to play in real life, and that all gamers are a bunch of immature gun-happy imbeciles. We're off to a great start.

Then Mulder and Scully arrive at the FPS corporation headquarters, ready to take care of business. They squabble back and forth briefly about the nature of the case and whether or not video games are sophisticated entertainment or just stupid wastes of time. After checking in with security, the Lone Gunmen (three of Mulder's geeky "conspiracy theorist" friends) arrive to greet them, and they talk about what a gold mine "FPS" is. Then one of them says "The game ships on Friday, 50 malls across the US and Japan."

Um, what? A game like this wouldn't "ship." This game needs to be played in like a warehouse or a room the size of movie theater with setpieces built into the environment and lots of technical equipment installed. I'm guessing this is being played in a mall arcade; unless that stuff is already constructed and you're just shipping the software to run it, then that statement doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Especially since in common industry terms, "to ship" means to launch or to unveil a game, to make it available for public use/consumption for the first time.

While we're at it, let's talk more about the feasibility of actually playing this game. I imagine it would cost like $100 just to play a single round, what with all of the expensive, high-tech equipment the players use, all of the VR projection systems, the medical telemetry sensors, etc. Not to mention the maintenence for all of this stuff. Also, the game would only allow maybe four players in at a time, greatly limiting the amount of money that could be earned in a given day, meaning high competition to get into the matches and plenty of reasonable justification to raise the prices. All for a game that's ultimately less interesting than a match of paintball or laser tag.

Back to the episode. After the one guy mentions the game shipping, Mulder comments "I don't know about you boys, but I'd be checking my shorts for cake." You fools, the cake is a lie! Wait, what does that even mean?

Then everyone's in the game room (with nothing rendered, of course, so it's just white, barren walls) examining Retro's corpse. The dude and the chick from the control booth spout a bunch of techno-jargon trying to sound techno-cool but just sounding techno-dumb, all-the-while trying to re-emphasize to the audience that it's just a game.
"The weapons feed off the FPS mainframe. You waste the cyberthugs before they waste you. It's all about body count. They're computer-generated images running on a projector. It all happens in the game space. It's a total digital environment. Nothing's real. It's all virtual."
Yeah yeah we get the point. When Mulder asks about what Retro was doing when he got shot and killed, the one chick shows the video footage and says:
"Retro was in the zone. His telemetry was solid, he looked unstoppable. Here he goes after the enemy to rack up bookoo points, and then goosh, system defaults, lights out, game over."
Mulder asks her to show the wire-frame of the video footage, and for some reason Retro gets rendered into an anatomically-correct skeleton. First of all, Retro is not a computer-generated image. He's real. He would not have a wire frame. Second of all, do they even understand what a wire frame is? Then they "texture wrap" the dominatrix to see what she looks like when they could have just looked at the original camera footage instead of including two extra steps. It's like this stuff is here just to make it seem more techno.

Lara Croft aint got nothing on this cyberbabe.

So then everyone sees the scantily-clad cyberbabe, and every guy in the room starts oggling and objectifying her, thus introducing the second theme of this episode: all gamers are shallow, sexist animals. Mulder shows a print-out of the cyberbabe to the local police force and Scully remarks "That could be any voluptuous vixen from any number of video games" and calls the character "an immature, hormonal fantasy." Because all game designers who include beautiful women in their games are immature and hormonal. She ends this train of thought with "Why does this game have the effect of reducing grown men back to moody adolescence?"

At this point, some guy named Daryl Musashi gets brought in to "slay the ninja babe." Musashi goes into the vault and suits up, and everyone stands around watching him on the monitors talking about what a badass he is and how he's set records on like every game ever, arguing about whether he got 90 or 91 consecutive wins in "Demon Space Drifter." Then he walks out into the game space and just stands there like a statue. Someone asks "Why is he just standing there?" and the developer says, in the most melodramatic way possible, "Because he knows no fear."

So this guy who's supposed to be a gaming legend uses his excellent gaming skills to win the first challenge. His secret, game-winning technique is to stand there looking smug, staring straight ahead, showing no emotions, and generally doing nothing. Then he suddenly points both of his guns straight ahead and empties both clips (or what should really be like six clips, but he never reloads) at the oncoming motorcycles. Yes, this guy is definitely a living legend among gamers.

Then the developer dude exclaims in the worst acting ever "Look at him! He's not even waiting for the reset! He's going right for the kill!" As if it's totally unthinkable for anyone to conceive of running past part an apparently easily-skippable section of a level to get to the boss. I mean, if it's this easy for Daryl Musashi to just casually stroll down the alley instead of waiting for it to load, then what's the point of having "phase 2?"

Genius: aiming your guns so wide that you don't hit your targets.
And then Daryl Musashi gets his hands cut off by the cyberbabe while she's wielding a giant claymore. He screams like a little girl, staring at his stumpified arms while everyone just watches without making any effort to do anything at all. Then she decapitates him. Without saying anything witty like "That was your last life" or "You're out of continues." Although maybe she does, because she speaks Japanese at him. I don't speak Japanese.

Now that the legendary gaming prick is dead, we cut to the autopsy scene where Scully examines the cadavers of "Retro" and Daryl Musashi. And for crying out loud, Retro's toe-tag even says "Retro," because all gamers are so deluded by fantasy that they go by their gamer handles even after death. Mulder shows up and they argue about video games.

Mulder remarks that the suits the players wear are an "amazing piece of technology," and Scully is quick to retort "-wasted on a stupid game." She then comes straight out and calls all gamers morons. "Dressing up like high-tech warriors to play a futuristic version of cowboys and indians? What kind of moron gets his ya-yas out like that?" She finally brings up the point about video games "adding to a culture of violence in an already out-of-control country" and says that they have "no redeeming value whatsoever." She comments about video games being a "testosterone frenzy" to which Mulder rebuts "that's rather sexist."

So this conversation is supposed to give us two extremely polarized sides of the case for video games. Scully thinks they're totally worthless and anyone who plays them is an immature moron and that violence in games leads to violence in real life. Mulder tries to defend the medium by suggesting that they might create an outlet to vent violent emotions in a harmless way, but he basically fails to convince her of anything and therefore the point is lost completely.

I understand the desire to pit Mulder and Scully against each other like this---that's what they do throughout the entire series. But for Scully to be so vehemently against video games, making vast generalizations and no concessions only makes her seem like a shallow, stuck-up bitch, and her argument therefore loses all of its credibility.

Then, to further emphasize the sexism of the episode and how it depicts all men as lecherous pigs, the local police force picks up a prostitute matching the description of the cyberbabe and detain her for questioning. When Mulder and Scully arrive, every single cop, including the sheriff, is in the hallway leering at her and making wolf calls. Even Mulder makes a juvenile gesture about how smoking hot she is. After learning that she let a company "scan her body" (for use in the game), they release her and Mulder cranes his neck to get a shot of her posterior as she walks out the door, even craning his entire torso when Scully steps in front of him.

No episode is complete without a gratuitously lecherous shot of a prostitute.

By this point the Lone Gunmen have patched the game to try to "bypass" the cyberbabe, and like idiots they decide to test whether the murderous, invincible piece of code is still a threat by going into the game themselves. Wouldn't it be wiser to send another Daryl Musashi in there? More accurately, the game mysteriously starts itself while they're fully equipped and standing in the game space. While they're getting shot at by the harmless computer-generated enemies (the Nazis in "phase 2"), Mulder declares "they need help" and goes after them. Maybe Mulder cares more about his friends, but when the confirmed killer was confronting Daryl Musashi, no one did a thing.

So now Mulder's standing in the vault dressed in the battle gear and he says "bring it on" in kind of a bored, indifferent sort of way before rushing out to join the Lone Gunmen. He lays down cover fire long enough for them to escape, and then sees the cyberbabe (this time dressed in completely non-revealing, unerotic attire) running across the alley. As he goes after her, the developer chick asks "what's he doing," to which Scully replies "he's getting his ya-yas out." Yeah, Mulder didn't go into the game to save his friends and to solve the case of the cyber-assassin, he went in because he's a testosterone-driven man who wants to shoot stuff for the fun of it.

The cyberbabe attacks Mulder and then the game crashes. The Lone Gunmen go looking for him in the now empty warehouse, only to find that he's gone completely missing. The crew concludes that he's stuck in the game, which has inexplicably gone missing, despite a lot of complaining that "it's impossible! It's a digital environment! It's just a game!"

We cut back to Mulder as he's getting his ass kicked by the cyberassassin. The Lone Gunmen are back in the control booth "rerouting the circuitry to create a killswitch for the game" by switching some cables around in an old desktop hard-drive. The dude developer bursts into the room proclaiming that the buzz and controversy of the cyber murder has prompted mass interest in the game, and it's now all set to launch and its success is guaranteed. (Which would never happen in real life.) Then, like a stereotypical man, Scully gets aggressive and threatens him with physical violence.

Scully about ready to smash some teeth in.

During this argument, the developer chick runs out of the room. Scully follows her and finds out that she created the cyberbabe. Developer chick justifies herself by saying "you don't know what it's like, day in and day out, choking in a haze of rampant testosterone. She was all I had to keep me sane. My only way to strike back as a woman." 

She gives the impression that she's surrounded by guys all the time while working on this game, but we never see or hear about anyone beyond her and the other dude. It's like this whole game was developed by two people. But if she really wanted to "strike back as a woman," she could be a flirtatious cocktease to her alleged male coworkers and then deny their sexual advances. That would really shut them down. Or maybe it would turn them into stereotypically violent rapists when they don't get what they want, which would be bad.

She then goes on to explain that the cyberbabe "jumped programs" and is "feeding off the male aggression. It's making her stronger and stronger." Oh man, so apparently a woman has to channel male aggression in order to fight back against men.

Either way, the developer chick says "I need your help, you're the only one who can understand." Scully says "You have to destroy her," and the developer chick responds: "I don't know how." Which could've been a great set-up for a lesbian porno, but the writers dropped the ball on that one, too, and instead went with the old "pre-programmed 'kill' command." Scully returns and says probably the stupidest line in the whole episode, in reference to the cyberbabe:
"She's input herself into the game, we have to download her."
Yeah, those are two techno buzzwords that make a whole lot of sense in that context. Once developer dude finds out that they plan to destroy the game with the kill command, he gets pissed off at the developer chick and blames her for the problems. Then Scully steps in and says "hey, no fair picking on a girl!" What? What does being a female have to do with the fact that she created a psychotic cyberassassin that's legitimately causing problems? Why are you defending her on the simple basis that she's a chick?

At this point, Mulder's still getting his ass kicked by the cyberassassin, but he somehow manages to teleport to "level 2," which turns out to be a hokey old west scenario. The Lone Gunmen finally get the game back online and watch Mulder showdown with cyberbabe-dressed-as-cowgirl, before Scully enters from the vault in the most serious, hardcore, masculine entrance of any player thus far. She then proceeds to kick total ass Rambo-style, pwning cowgirls left and right while Mulder lies helpless on the ground.

Scully's in the zone.

She fires zillions of rounds at the cowgirls, and the Lone Gunmen shout out such praise as "you go girl," "Scully's on fire," "Scully's in the zone," and "the bloodthirst is unquenchable." The developers sigh and inform them that their hopes are in vain, because "no one's ever beaten level 2." WHAT!? You're "shipping" a game whose second level has never been beaten? What is the point of only having one level in a game of this nature? People are going to get bored with that really quickly. Do you have any concept of difficulty curves/scaling?

So then Mulder says he's humiliated because he got defeated by a woman and had to be rescued by a woman, so he feels like a big pansy now. Scully shoots about 20,000 more bullets without reloading while an endless stream of tanks spawn and fire at her. The Lone Gunmen finally get the kill command from the developer chick, and they execute "shift alt bloodbath." But thankfully, the game has no consistency in its rules about when it mysteriously carries its players off into cyberspace never-to-be-seen-again, because Mulder and Scully both come out unharmed.

The episode ends with a slow motion scene of them walking off the battle field like a bunch of war heroes, Scully stretching her arms and Mulder dramatically taking off his sunglasses, while Mulder preaches about cyberspace. The ending shot is of the cyberbabe magically booting herself back up again, except now Scully's face has been mapped onto her body as the new "estrogen hero."

This makes a whole lot of sense.

And that's "First-Person Shooter." Probably the cheesiest episode of the entire series, it spends quite a lot of time shooting itself in the foot. Even disregarding all of the obnoxious video game fails and only regarding it as an episode of a crime drama, it lacks intrigue and compelling tension. By the way, you remember me saying at the start of the article that this episode was written by William Gibson? I bet your brain forgot about that when you saw how terrible the lines were. "Surely," you thought, "there's no way he could've written something this bad."

[In Summary]

1. This episode depicts gamers as mindless, immature, violent, idiots. We've got the three "typical gamers" playing the game at the start chanting "kill, kill, kill" and screaming at the top of their lungs about how much ass they're gonna kick, and we've got Scully preaching about gamers being morons who pretend to play futuristic cowboys and indians just for the indulgence of entertainment.

2. This episode centers around a virtual reality game that looks far more primitive than any video game available, even in 2000. The gameplay is just simple "stand still and shoot at stuff that comes straight at you," so it feels like a very expensive shooting gallery with live-action role-playing elements. Yet the characters talk about how this is the next big thing in gaming, cause I guess they don't understand what makes fun gameplay.

3. This episode depicts men as lecherous pigs obsessed with sex. That's a pretty common stereotype, actually, but when literally every man in this episode is reduced to immature wolf calls and loses all of their professional composure over a model/prostitute, and oggles the rendered video game character, you know that the line between an amusing stereotype and a stupid, eye-rolling stereotype has been crossed.

4. This episode has an obnoxious gender element going on with its plot, where the villain is a woman trying to kill men because too much testosterone is a bad thing. The cyberassassin feeds off of male aggression and uses it to kill her victims, and then in the end it's a woman who saves the day with the most virile display of masculinity of any character in the episode. It's supposed to be a role-reversal but it ultimately just contradict s its own intentions.

5. This episode tries too hard to sound technical and cyberpunk without being effective. Lots of buzzwords get thrown around, and most of the time they're used inappropriately ("She's input herself into the game, we have to download her!"). Meanwhile, characters keep hammering the point that this is a digital or virtual experience, which I think most everyone understands after 1999's The Matrix

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