Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Video Games in TV: NCIS

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

When a mysterious death becomes connected with an MMORPG, the NCIS team has to investigate the nature of the game and the people playing it. In this first-season episode "The Immortals," we get a look at how delusional and obsessive someone can get over a video game. This episode actually isn't too bad--it doesn't do anything nearly as inept as in The X-Files episode "First-Person Shooter"--which is something of a compliment. The game footage doesn't make any sense, and certain aspects of the game community are over-dramatized, but it otherwise handles gaming culture fairly adequately. More about "The Immortals" after the jump.

The premise of "The Immortals" is that two naval seamen get into a conflict over an online video game, and they take the conflict to the next level in real life. While playing the MMO The Immortals, Seaman MacDonald always loses to Petty Officer Zuger, so MacDonald challenges him to sword combat in reality. When MacDonald wins the duel, Zuger challenges him to prove his immortality by jumping ship and walking across the ocean floor. And like an idiot, MacDonald straps a bunch of weights to himself and takes the plunge.

The whole point of the episode is that MacDonald was so obsessed with the video game that he couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. He became so deluded by his online persona that he thought he was the character "Weylin" in real life. Since he believes his character to be flawless and immortal, he commits what would ordinarily be considered suicide, without even realizing it. The real kicker is that Zuger lets MacDonald kill himself in order "to win the game." 

Even though these two characters are extreme portrayals of psychotic obsession with video games, the episode is careful not to generalize. That is, up until the very end when NCIS Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo says "I'm so glad my parents pushed me towards sports in high school." The implication here is that if he'd played video games he'd have ended up like MacDonald, as if all gamers lose track of reality. But this is coming from DiNozzo, the "class clown" of the NCIS team who no one takes seriously anyway. 

Special Agent Caitlin Todd, however, is careful to qualify that she "just can't get over how the line between reality and fantasy was so blurred for Seaman MacDonald." It's nice that she specifies "for Seaman MacDonald," because that ties it to this particular case instead of generalizing it to all gamers. They never suggest that all gamers are addicts who can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality, which is a considerate thing to do.

Game footage of The Immortals: Walking Down Hallways with Nothing to Do.

There's also a fun moment where Abby, the forensics expert, starts playing the online game The Immortals, proclaiming that if she can get into the innermost stronghold of the castle, then she can open a log of all of the characters who have played The Immortals. This just seems like a really stupid reason to shoe-horn video game footage in. Wouldn't it be easier to just call the company up and ask if any accounts were registered with the user name "Weylin" (which they obtain from a character charter found on his corpse), or if any accounts were registered with his real contact information? 

I'm also not sure why a game would yield a list of ALL of the characters in the entire game when you clear a certain point. I can understand showing a leaderboard of players who have completed that level, but not listing every character in the game. What's the purpose of that list? Why wouldn't it just be accessible on the game's website or something? Why does Abby have to play the game to get it? 

While she's playing this game, though, we constantly hear the loud tapping sound of her mashing away at the keyboard. You'd think she's controlling the entire game from the keyboard, or that her spells do more damage the harder she presses the keys. For a brief moment, we actually see her hand on the mouse, but her hands aren't really doing anything and the keyboard-noise auspiciously stops. Then, once her hands are off-screen again, the loud tapping comes back on. 

We do get to see a close-up of the keyboard, but she's not even using directional movement keys, or pressing hotkeys for skills--it looks like she's typing an email or something, not like functional gameplay control at all. Meanwhile, her character's doing basically nothing, just walking down a hallway. Why is she pressing so many buttons for something that would ordinarily take a single click, or would require her to merely hold down the "forward" key? This doesn't make any sense. 

Absurdly cinematic camera angles. Notice the complete lack of a HUD.

The actual game footage doesn't even look like an MMORPG. Or any actual game, for that matter. First of all there's absolutely no HUD to display her health, mana, hotkeys, radar, targeting, or anything like that. Secondly, the camera's moving around in an entirely cinematic way, showing the FRONT of the character instead of looking where the character is GOING, and moving around to get dramatic angles all of the time. The character animations also look pre-rendered, absolutely unlike anything that would actually happen during gameplay. 

She then gets pwned by an orc while frantically spamming mouse-clicks and key commands, frustrated that she'll have to start all over.

Abby then goes onto the website for The Immortals, which looks strikingly similar to RuneScape, and clicks on a link for "Gamers Personal Websites." This seems kind of weird to me; I've never heard of an online game linking to personal player profiles from the main page. Those things tend to get buried in forums or private message boards, not the main page of the official website. 

The website for The Immortals.
And for the sake of convenience, Abby happens to find a link for MacDonald's character "Weylin" in the top five, and clicks on it. Up comes a description of the character's class, weapons, skills, accomplishments, even a personal diary, and so forth. This is all done in-character of Weylin, which just boggles my mind. I've never met or heard of a single person who took an online game that seriously.

There's also a moment early on that could be a video game reference. When the team first arrives on the USS Foster, they meet up with an officer who informs them that the commander is away and will catch up with them shortly. DiNozzo asks if the officer had any contact with MacDonald, and the officer says that MacDonald kept to himself. Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the leader of the NCIS team, thanks the officer for his cooperation by saying "We appreciate it, Master Chief."

This immediately sounds like a Halo reference, but closer inspection of his insignia reveals that the officer is in fact a Master Chief Petty Officer. I guess it's not really supposed to be a reference, but considering this is an episode about video games it's hard to say it's just a coincidence.

And that's about it. The rest of the episode is your basic crime drama with the agents collecting pieces of the puzzle and trying to put them together. They don't talk about video games or gamers much beyond what's necessary to solve the case. Except for the actual gameplay footage being downright terrible, and a few moments here and there that don't make a lot of sense, the episode is pretty fair in its depictions of video games and gamers. And that's all we can really ask for. 


  1. Master chief is actualy a navy rank

  2. Shame it's not an actual thing, looked like something I'd fancy playing.