Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Review of The X-Files FMV Game

My wife won't answer my calls, my partner is secretly working for a shadow agency, I can't get in touch with the Seattle Police Department's Computer Crime Lab, and I can't remember the password to my own computer. Such is life for Seattle-based FBI agent Craig Willmore, who's been tasked by Assistant Director Walter Skinner with locating his two missing agents, Diana Scully and Wolf Mulder.

Released in 1998 during the height of The X-Files' popularity, the aptly and succinctly named The X-Files Game is a point-and-click, full-motion-video adventure game designed to look and feel like an interactive episode from the television series. Featuring a story conceived by the series creator himself, Chris Carter, and cast appearances by virtually all of the series' regulars, The X-Files Game uses the license with great authenticity and is a real treat for fans of the series. If you've watched the show, you'll probably enjoy seeing all of the familiar characters, picking up on the references and in-jokes, and perhaps even treating it as a "lost episode" of the series' mythos. The game behind the license, however, isn't all that good.

The X-Files Game is probably one of the better FMV games in existence, but it still suffers from all of the inherent problems associated with FMV games. Because of its heavy reliance on live action video recordings, the gameplay necessitates a precise order of operations for its scenes to make sense. You might, for example, end up watching scenes out of the order in which they were originally filmed, which can lead to some jarring transitions and continuity errors. In cases where the programmers anticipated potential sequence breaking, you might attempt seemingly reasonable actions only to find they yield absolutely no effect, all for the unexplained reason that you hadn't already performed some other necessary action first.

Fox Mulder and Craig Willmore to the rescue.

In one scene I visited a hospital looking for a Jane Doe and was met by a nurse. The game brought up the dialogue window, and I chose to drag my badge from the inventory screen onto her character before asking my questions -- this showed a short clip of my character flashing his badge at her. I then asked my first question, and the nurse asked to see some identification before she could reveal anything, as if I hadn't already shown her my badge. The video then cut to a completely different scene of my character showing her my badge and exchanging a few lines of dialogue. The game seemed to anticipate my sequence-breaking decision by showing a corresponding recording for my action in the appropriate location, but then immediately forgot about it, which broke the immersion slightly.

It's equally jarring how inconsistent the camera angles are when you're having a conversation with someone. Whenever your character is talking, the camerawork is done in the usual movie and television style, where they show your character over the shoulder of the person he's talking to, but when another character is talking to you, the camera does a close up of their face looking directly into the camera lens -- talking directly to you, not your character. Then when they're done talking, it reverts back to a wide angle shot with them awkwardly standing around in their idle animation while you pick your next dialogue option.

The dialogue options themselves are weirdly inconsistent, since there are three different interfaces for selecting dialogue. Most of the time, your different options are given to you in a list -- sometimes you're responding to characters by selecting one of the available options, and other times you're simply meant to exhaust the entire list asking questions. At other times, picture icons show up in the black bar in the upper left that you can pick to bring up a certain topic in conversation, rather than selecting it from the text window. At other times, picture icons show up in the black bar on the bottom of the screen that let you decide what kind of emotional tone you want to use in your response (funny, paranoid, angry, etc).

A lot of gameplay occurs in conversation, and the whole thing just feels slightly off. The clashing visual styles (first-person gameplay and third-person television footage) are a major culprit in pulling me out of the experience, but there also seems to be a lot of missed potential with character responses to your dialogue options. The first time you get the option to pick an emotional tone in dialogue, for instance, the other character just turns and walks away with no reaction whatsoever. I assume this is because they didn't want to film dozens of reactions to all the things you could say, which might be why the emotional tones only ever show up a handful of times. If they'd stuck with more consistent camera angles and did something more with those emotional tones, dialogue would have been a lot more fun and immersive.

Walking around the warehouse in first-person.

The rest of the gameplay occurs in Myst-like first-person scenes where you click along the edges of the screen to move forward or to turn ninety degrees. This has worked well in certain other games, but it doesn't work very well here. There are no transitional frames whenever you turn, for instance -- the screen just instantly cuts to the new image showing your new orientation, often without any sort of on-screen clue as to how your new orientation relates to your previous one. There are a lot of gaps between the screens, in other words, so you have to infer your position in each area based on abstract memorization. It's not that difficult in simple environments like your FBI office or your apartment, but in larger, more complex areas like the warehouse, which consists of two dozen same-looking screens depicting a room the size of a football field, it's really hard to keep track of where you are.

You're periodically sent to these types of locations to search for evidence, which is really just a mater of clicking through every screen and clicking on everything possible. There are no puzzles to solve in this game whatsoever, except for maybe having to figure out the password to your own computer (which begs the question, if I'm supposed to be this character, why do I even need to solve a "puzzle" for this; shouldn't he just already know it?). Otherwise, it's essentially a first-person "hidden object" game where you have to roam around complex environments hoping you don't overlook something on any of the densely-packed screens. The screens themselves can be pretty easy to miss, too -- I found myself completely stumped on a few occasions, wandering around the same screens over and over again because I didn't realize I could look up or down on certain screens.

Investigating crime scenes is such a tedious chore that I quickly found myself relying on the "casual noob button" (aka, the "artificial intuition" function) so that I could skip all the boring stuff and automatically trigger the FMVs of me discovering the evidence. Playing The X-Files Game is kind of like being in an episode of the television series, except it's much slower and much more drawn out. In the show, they cut out all of the boring legwork, paperwork, and middle-man stuff so that the episode can maintain a brisk, riveting pace; in the game, you do all the boring, tedious stuff that gets cut out of the show simply because they needed to extend its length to something more appropriate for a video game.

The whole game is an extremely laid-back point-n-click adventure game where you simply go around collecting evidence and talking to people, but it randomly likes to kill you with little explanation for why you've just died because lot of deaths are impossible to predict and make little sense. When you're conducting a nighttime stakeout at the warehouse, you arrive and find a mysterious van parked nearby; if you choose to check the area behind the van, a guy pops out and shoots you dead instantly. After loading your save file, you know to check the cab and watch as agent Willmore climbs in and loudly slams the door shut, somehow not alerting the guy right behind the van. As you search the cab, a cutscene then shows the suspect approaching the van from some other location much further away, totally inconsistent with the scene you saw previously.

Investigating Mulder's hotel room in Everett, Washington.

Towards the end, the game devolves into utter trial-and-error nonsense where you're just randomly wandering around a complicated government facility getting shot and instantly killed by guards and bad guys if you unwittingly go a certain direction or don't turn to look a certain way. Often times, you have to die two or three times in each scenario to figure out what action caused your death and how you can avoid it. The facility itself is a pain in the ass to navigate because of the previously-described issue with the first-person movement. You also have no real idea what you're supposed to be doing, and you die around basically every other corner.

The ending sequence is so terribly designed that it was literally impossible for me to reach a proper game ending because I shot an assailant instead of cattle-prodding him. I saved over my file and continued playing for another 30 minutes before discovering that I needed that guy to be alive at the very end of the game so that the black oil could possess him instead of me -- since he was dead, the only possible result was for me to become possessed by the alien oil and then be killed by Scully. That could have been a satisfying ending in itself, and certainly appropriate for The X-Files mythos -- after all, Mulder and Scully both survive and they eliminate the alien threat, with the dark twist of the new agent dying in the process -- but it's not an actual ending. You don't get to see any kind of resolution, and the credits don't roll; it just cuts to the same "game over" screen you've seen dozens of times already.

I really must stress this point: I literally could not finish this game because I made an unwitting mistake towards the end of the game, and it was impossible for me to undo. Had they designed this game properly, then I shouldn't have been able to kill that guy so that I wouldn't break the game, or else the cutscene where I get possessed by the alien and die should have been an actual "alternate ending" that would let me, as a player, get some kind of resolution for the entire 12-hour game I just played. As it is, my "ending" was completely anti-climactic and utterly deflating.

Some may be disappointed by the fact that you don't get to play as Sculder and Mully, but I think it's good that the game distances itself from the license a little bit. The game still feels like The X-Files because all of the major characters are there -- you get the case assignment from Skinner and he accompanies you on your first few investigations, the Lone Gunmen offer their assistance, the Cigarette Smoking Man is seen trying to thwart your plans, and you eventually meet up and work with both Scully and Mulder in the game's finale. There's enough of the license here that you can appreciate it when it shows up, and its sparing use means it has fewer opportunities to screw something up and offend fanatic X-Philes.

Talking with Dana Scully in the hospital.

With that said, the game hits a slump in its early-to-mid sections after Skinner heads back to DC. He's absolutely clutch for establishing that authentic X-Files feel early on, but once he's gone you're left with a bunch of relatively uninteresting characters for a serious chunk of the game. The actors portraying the two leads, Craig Willmore and Mary Astadourian, do a fine job with the material they're given, but it's almost impossible not to think of them as a poor man's Mulder and Scully. Even once you catch up with Mulder and Scully, it's a little disappointing once you realize that they're never actually on screen together -- there's always some clever excuse for you to interact with them separately, presumably because David and Gillian weren't available for filming at the same time. 

Even if you were to ignore the mediocre gameplay, there are a lot of things with the storytelling that hold The X-Files Game back. A lot of evidence suggests early on that your FBI partner Mark Cook is involved in the case you're trying to solve, which introduces an interesting gameplay aspect in terms of how you respond to him and how much information you give him. Later on, he starts doing your investigation for you, claiming he has a witness who identified the murderer, and also claiming to have a warrant to raid the warehouse. You have no choice but to defy him ("This is my investigation, I'm not going to let you do this,") but then you also have no choice but to play along with it. You suggest calling Astadourian to let her know, and Cook claims to have done so already, but the game doesn't let you call her yourself. 

You take down a group of armed criminals and arrest the suspected murderer, but of course he's released from custody because of insufficient evidence. The raid was a bust, and Astadourian arrives at your doorstep totally pissed off that you never bothered to call her about it (I tried -- the game would not let me) and for doing the whole raid in the first place (I didn't want to do it because I knew Cook was up to something). This moment established a huge disconnect between me (the player) and Willmore (my character on screen), which felt kind of insulting when I realized I didn't have much control over the game or even my own character. Considering how much effort the game makes with its first-person perspectives to make you feel like you're actually in the game, moments like these completely destroy that illusion. 

After getting my ass chewed off by Astadourian, I sat down to read Willmore's diary, and in it he writes about how "exhilerating" the raid was and reveals how much of an ignorant fool he actually is for not suspecting Cook in the slightest ("Cook dropped the ball on this one"). All-the-while, my director in Seattle has inexplicably disappeared from the game and I can't call Skinner, so I can't voice my concerns to anyone about Cook -- once again, any rational decision I could possibly make is forcibly taken away from me. I then meet with Mulder's informant "X" (the same guy from the show), and suddenly Astadourian and I are working together again as if our big argument the previous day had never even happened. 

Meeting Detective Mary Astadourian. 

Then you've got the weird scenes that don't make a whole lot of structural or rational sense. While investigating a shipping company's office late at night, Willmore and Astadourian get attacked by some guy who knocks them to the ground and then locks them in the room -- the camera immediately cuts to a shot of them getting up off the floor, and they start talking about what evidence they've found and where they should be going next, instead of addressing the immediate threat of the guy who just attacked them. In another scene, Willmore and Scully encounter a black oil alien possessee, and he tells her to run -- the camera cuts to a shot of them bolting out of the room, and then cuts to a shot of Willmore calmly walking through another room. You're then put back in control to slowly wander around, and soon bump into Scully who's just calmly typing at a computer asking what happened. 

At other times, an encounter, dialogue, or investigation will abruptly end without any sort of conclusion. At one point I was at the Seattle coroner's office talking to the medical examiner about her autopsy reports for a burn victim, asking questions and gathering leads, and then the line of questioning simply ended without any kind of cutscene or dialogue where the characters wrapped things up or talked about what they should be doing next. You're expected to just awkwardly turn and leave without saying "thanks" or "goodbye," which seems really odd and leaves you wondering "Was that it? Am I done here? What do I do next? Do I just go home?"

The gameplay is ultimately not very impressive, but it works pretty well for FMV game standards. The live action FMVs offer plenty enough entertainment value on their own if you're a fan of The X-Files and want to pretend like you're an FBI agent who's just become embroiled in the government conspiracies and the alien mysteries that run rampant in the show. Speaking as someone who's watched all nine seasons of the show in order, The X-Files Game didn't offend me like other licensed movie/show tie-ins are apt to do; this one felt like a labor of love for the creators, and it shows. It feels like authentic X-Files, even though you spend most of the time with a totally different cast that has nothing to do with the show itself. It's a shame, therefore, that The X-Files Game is unable to escape many of the inherent problems of FMV games and doesn't realize the full potential of its gameplay mechanisms. 

If they'd expanded some of the dialogue options, included some actual puzzles in the gameplay, improved the first-person movement scheme somehow, and tightened up some of the cinematic work, then The X-Files Game could have been brilliant. I definitely think it's worth playing if you're a fan of the series and can acquire it conveniently and cheaply enough, but the game itself is kind of mediocre otherwise. 

1 comment:

  1. That game! With the common sense inconsistencies & logic holes & warts'n'all it still got me so hooked I almost failed a term paper back in the day. We'd borrowed it not too long after its release, and I'd dive in with true obsession, especially after getting a wrong ending and thinking "damn, that can't be it, can it?". Once I'd managed to play through with all the choices and pieces falling in their right places, I'd play it over and over again to discover more and more reference & easter egg stuff. (Funny thing is, I only got more interested in the show because of the game, not the other way around.)