“Full-motion video? Hey, it’s just like watching the show!”
Who made it?:HyperBole Studios (Developer), Fox Interactive (Publisher).
Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure.
Platforms: PC, PlayStation.
Format: PC CD-ROM/optical disc.
Release date: May 31 1998 (PC), September 1999 (PlayStation).
Some of you might be too young to remember the X-Fever of the 90s, but it was really something. A niche sci-fi show that went from cult worship to worldwide ratings hit, The X-Files was an amazing staple of television when it started, managing to tell some truly memorable stories in its first five seasons. Its mix of freak-of-the-week plotlines and conspiracy theories made it gripping stuff, which is why its inevitable downfall was so galling. Before the alien angle got so convoluted that the show became a bore, and just before 1998′s feature film spin-off, The X-Files Game arrived on PC. You could say it was the natural outcome of this cultural phenomenon, really, a point-and-click adventure game that utilises full-motion video to place you inside the X-universe in an interactive episode. There’s only one catch: you don’t play as either Mulder or Scully.
Ah, yes, FBI agents Fox Mulder (the believer) and Dana Scully (the sceptic). Characters so iconic that it’s almost a shame their names are so ludicrous. They both appear in an opening cut-scene that perfectly apes the style of the show down to the typewriter-esque location titles that flash on-screen. To see David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in a video game when this first came out was truly impressive… those halcyon days when being an X-Phile was a noble trait. They are checking-out a deserted warehouse in Seattle when a gang of armed thugs burst in and start firing shots. As Mulder moves to shield Scully, a blast of white light fills the screen. The baddies have disappeared, leaving Duchovny with a bewildered look on his face (no doubt wondering what the hell he’s doing in a video game tie-in). Then the familiar opening credits kick-in, and composer Mark Snow gets another check in the mail.
As the haunting theme tune comes to a close, we find ourselves in the FBI field office of our protagonist, agent Craig Willmore (Jordan Lee Williams), who is tasked with tracking Mulder and Scully down. Along the way, he’ll encounter a plethora of characters from the show, including Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), “X” (Steven Williams), and depending on your choices in the game, “The Smoking Man” himself (William B. Davis). Aiding you on your quest is your female partner, Mary Astadourian (Paige Witte), who, it must be said, is no Gillian Anderson.
On its release in 1998, The X-Files Game got a lot of derision in the mainstream press for a variety of reasons. Yes, it’s disappointing that you don’t control Mulder or Scully, but considering their workload with the feature film and the impending sixth series of the show, it’s hardly surprising that they didn’t squeeze this cash-in into their schedule. It was also the victim of the usual complaints about licensed games; that it was lazy, ill-conceived and lacking the overall quality of the source material. This couldn’t be further from the truth, because The X-Files Game is a rather canny extension of the mythology, and in its best moments, feels enough like the show to justify its existence. While it stumbles along the way, with some rather stiff acting and story elements that go nowhere, it is a highly enjoyable diversion for fans.
First of all, the point-and-click adventure format was certainly the right way to go. It’s a rather quaint genre now, although recent examples like Telltale’s Back to the Future game has proven that there is still some life in the concept. Point-and-clicks have always appealed to me because they usually ask you to use your brain rather than being a simple button-basing exercise. They are about stories, puzzles, or in this case, solving mysteries. They tend to incorporate alternative scenarios and endings, too, depending on the choices you make throughout. Developer HyperBole took all of this on board, with a truly epic 700-plus page script based on a story by X-Files creator Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz. On PC, this bad boy required 8 discs. There are several ways to complete the game, and just as many ways to die.
The point-and-click style is also married to a rather well-realised FMV presentation. Playing The X-Files Game is just like watching the show. There is no computer-generated imagery. It’s a movie with real actors from beginning to end. While this wasn’t exactly a novel idea at the time, it still felt rather revolutionary. The film-makers were able to capture the essence of the series, which for me, is almost good enough to overlook many of the game’s faults. You can’t deny that it looks and sounds like the genuine article. In fact, the adherence to the source material is the very reason why all X-Files fans should play it at least once, with the narrative taking place somewhere within the third season. For the geeks, it happens just before the episode “Wetwired” and after “Avatar.” Therefore, no-one should have criticised the game for not nailing the tone of the show. It IS the show.
Despite all this, it isn’t the most thrilling title in terms of gameplay. You control Willmore as he goes from scene to scene, interviewing witnesses and potential suspects, or bumbling around the Seattle field office or his apartment. At your disposal, are night vision goggles, a digital camera, a PDA, lock-picks, an evidence kit, a standard-issue handgun, handcuffs and a badge. The latter is important whenever you meet characters in the game, as they will be reluctant to talk to you without identification. Everything comes in use over the course of the story, except, oddly enough, the handcuffs. Maybe they were included for a saucy scene between Willmore and Astadourian that never made the cut (their romance is just one of the many plot threads that exist without closure). Some may tire with the procedural aspect of the narrative, but then collecting and analysing clues is half the fun of any good detective game. The story is the focus here, although HyperBole do manage to include an FPS-style shoot-out and a tense scene involving a bomb. You’ll be intellectually stimulated rather than excited for the most part, but veterans of point-and-click fare should feel right at home.
The developers spice things up with a choice of moods for Willmore, from anger to paranoia, that directly influence everything that happens later. In old school tradition, you also get to choose his dialogue. Pick the wrong questions or answers, and you could aggravate a suspect or even end up dead. While this means that the game basically boils down to making decisions, it succeeds in capturing your curiosity. Having an end goal like finding Mulder and Scully certainly doesn’t hurt – their eventual reappearance, after playing an unfamiliar character, is worth waiting for even if the final twist leaves you wanting.
Since the plot is the real reason to bother with The X-Files Game, it’s just as well that the lead character is likeable. While he isn’t as well-drawn as Fox Mulder, Willmore has more blemishes to his name. He has an ex-wife that we learn about in his diary, and he doesn’t always get along with his colleagues. That said, he has a self-deprecating humour and is never serious unless the situation calls for some heroism. Williams does such a commendable job that it’s a shame they couldn’t have worked Willmore into an episode of the show. He has a comedic sense that stretches to all parts of the game, including the hilarious parade of game over/death cut-scenes that even give you a chance to watch Mulder and Scully snuff it:
The X-Files Game is no great shakes, largely powered today by nostalgia and goodwill than genuine playability, but it gets more right than wrong in bringing a very popular property to your fingertips. Hardcore fans of the show will likely love every minute, especially for the countless nods and references that tie the story into the greater universe. It’s a bit of harmless fun, with some memorable moments along the way, but those demanding more interactivity and substance in their games will end up disappointed. The plot is most definitely king.
The X-Files Game, therefore, is a faithful contribution to the point-and-click style. This is an interesting, ambitious and fun tie-in that bucks the trend of a thousand licensed games by nailing the atmosphere of its successful source material. It’s really rather unique.
Oh, and if you do choose to play it, go with the PC version. The PlayStation port deserves its obscurity.