Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Video Games in TV: NCIS (again)

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

The premise in this season 8 episode "Kill Screen" is that the lead programmer on the fictional game Fear Tower 3 was paid by a middle eastern arms dealer to put hacking software into the game, which would actively run hacks against the Pentagon whenever anyone played it. Mix in a couple of false leads, finger pointing, and good old-fashioned (and even new-fashioned) detective work, and you have a gripping crime drama that manages to make some more really stupid comments about video games.

Despite the central video game theme, this episode doesn't deal with the subject matter very much. There are only a half-dozen minutes of actual game-related dialogue scenes, and only in the last few minutes of the episode does the video game theme come front and center. But most of it is still pretty nonsensical, and is still worth laughing at. A video montage of some the dialogue awaits you in the full article, along with the rest of my break-down.

After finding the severed fingers and teeth of a dead marine in a stolen purse, the NCIS team tracks credit card information down to the marine's ex-girlfriend, who just happens to be the episode's token gamer. Maxine "Max Destructo" is her name, and she likes to play laser tag and Fear Tower 3, among many, many other games that she spends all of her living hours playing. She also becomes a minor romantic interest for Timothy McGee, the NCIS team's resident nerd.

The laser tag scene feels entirely too forced. Not a lot of gamers actually frequent laser tag arenas, but in this case it just feels like it was shoe-horned into the episode to give us some cool neon lights and fantasy-looking elements to play up the "they're playing video games [but not really]" theme.

At one point McGee is with Max Destructo at her apartment, and he casually glances across the room and sees her computer. His eyes light up at the sight of it. You can tell that she's such a hardcore gamer because she apparently leaves her computer sitting at the Fear Tower 3 main menu whenever she's away from it, and you can tell that it's such a powerful gaming rig because of the cool flame-etched dragon skin on the side of the tower.

McGee asks her: "Is that a 12-core?" A 12-core what? Twelve central processing units? How would he even know just by looking at the outside of the case? She responds: "Sixteen, with a 10meg pipe." Good lord, sixteen! She must be powering an entire solar system with that computer and its "pipe" (which I guess is like the bandwidth cable or something?). She explains "I need the faster response time for the new online games," because a computer that can react faster than the human brain can press buttons is what really gets you highscores.

Ducky holds up an obligatory violent video game.

It's at this critical moment that McGee realizes: "You have the high score in virtually every massively-multiplayer online role-playing game." Thankfully, he spells out every word in the acronym MMORPG so that everyone in the audience will have a vague idea what he's talking about, even though he's talking to another gamer who would suffice with just hearing "MMO." Also, I don't think any MMOs these days actually have "high scores." Maybe some of them have "leaderboards," which you could have just said instead.

McGee continues: "You single-handedly killed the entire skank horde from Isle of Cardias in Blood Fun 6." Ignoring the fact that I find myself strangely aroused by the concept of a skank horde, I'm even more aroused by Max Destructo's latest computer upgrade as a series of bullets fly through her tower and render her 16-cores into thirty cores.

Gameplay from Fear Tower 3. Looks more like a bad "Saw" game.

After the shooting they interrogate her: "Two days ago I was at home playing Fear Tower on my laptop, having a kick-ass game, broke my all-time points record, and then, I hit a kill screen." Notice how in these TV shows it's always about how gamers are obsessed with points? Anyway, McGee chimes in quickly: "Ouch. That hurts," as if a "kill screen" is some kind of common term the gaming world. But apparently it's different from a death screen or a game over screen, because McGee says that "it's like a Y2K bug for video games. Sometimes a player gets too high a score, the game can't handle it; it crashes. The last screen you seeis called a kill screen." Don't quote me, but I'm pretty sure that's made-up and makes no sense, anyway.

I'm also annoyed that they call "screen shots" (less commonly known as "screen caps") "screen grabs."

Later on, once they find out that the kill screens are actually the hacking code leaking onto the display, the NCIS team realizes that they have to shut the game down in order to stop the Pentagon from getting hacked a wiping every other military computer clean. Abby says that it's impossible to stop everyone from playing, because "Fear Tower 3 is installed on 50 million computers." Consider that World of Warcraft, the most popular MMORPG, only has, what, 12 million subscribers? For Fear Tower 3 to have more than 4 times that number means that either Abby is exaggerating or the writers don't know what they're talking about.

So they decide to shut down the programmer's main hacking server, which is located in a booby-trapped warehouse somewhere. Gibbs gets separated from the team with a few minutes to spare, while McGee is back at the command center telling the team where to go and what to do. Once Gibbs gets separated and things start to look really grim, McGee is absolutely clueless about what to do until he realizes that the scenario vaguely resembles a video game:

So Gibbs has his camera feed active, which just happens to be mounted on his gun or his arm or something, so that we conveniently see the gun in the left hand the display (just like a first-person shooter) and there's a heads-up map display on top, with the "health meter" of the Pentagon on the left. The other two screens on the left are just recycled from the main screen that McGee is looking at. Anyway, once he realizes this, his gamer powers kick in and suddenly he's banging on all cylinders, when his knowledge of video games really wouldn't help him at all in this situation. Except perhaps to make him more reckless and send Gibbs forward into dangerous territory because he has plenty of extra lives and continues to work with.

Which is exactly what he does, because the first thing he does is send Gibbs straight into a pipe bomb. 

And that's "Kill Screen." Pretty stupid at times, but always worth a laugh.

1 comment:

  1. Such is the nature of NCIS. The show has always been kind of a joke, but it's okay because it admits it itself. It's kind of like Burn Notice during seasons 1 - 4 (before Burn Noticed turned into a shitfest).

    There's that season 5 episode (or was it 4?) where Ziva is kidnapped... Tony+McGee get themselves kidnapped as well as part of a rescue mission, and then all three are interrogated by that one Arabic actor that somehow always ends up playing the terrorist on this kind of show in an extremely stereotypical "middle of the dessert" building (but I digress). Anyway, eventually he asks Tony+McGee how they found him, and they reveal that it was due to him ordering CafPow, since apparently no one else in that area does so. I mean, seriously, a terrorist being brought down because of a caffeine drink?

    It doesn't help much that right after this, Gibbs shoots the guy from a distance that is clearly shown to be well over two miles, and yet in the next frame, Gibbs is already inside of the building before Tony/etc even get to the door.

    Yeah, NCIS is pretty silly. But it has some great characters. To this day I wonder if it would have been a more serious show if Sasha Alexander hadn't decided to leave.