Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for the X-Files game on PlayStation 1
*To be sung to the X-Files theme tune*
It’s Mulder and Sculllyyyyyy,
It’s Mulder and Sculllyyyyyy,
solving X-Files if they caaaannnn,
… avoiding the smookiinngg maaannnn…
For at least some of this year we’ve been trying to re-watch the entirety of the X-Files. I’m not much of a binge watcher, so it’s been a drawn out process. We ran out of steam a few months ago somewhere in the Robert Patrick era…
… if you ever watch these then you need to pay special attention to he runs; arms flailing wildly. I imagine the director was continually yelling for him to run ‘less like the T-1000’: “More human, less robot Robert – yes! that’s it, wave those arms around!!”…
Of course I did watch at least some of them the first time around – often sneakily when I should have been asleep, then later as a slightly-pushing-the-bedtime-boundaries treat. I guess it must have been around seasons two or three. The X-Files era where most of the episodes were still self-contained mysteries without all the coverup, conspiracy-within-a-conspiracy… bee-related… weirdness (Even going back now I’m still not sure where the bees fit in to everything). It’s hard to overstate just how much of a ‘thing’ the X-Files was during the 2nd half of the 90’s – it took the world by storm – ‘the paranormal’, ‘aliens’, ‘believing’, these were the fad words of the latter part of the decade. Mulder and Scully became icons of their time (right off the top of my head I can think of two songs that feature reference to the X-Files in their lyrics).
So it’s not surprising that there was a PS1 game tie in; but it is surprising that I didn’t really know about it until a couple of months ago, followed by some ill advised eBay-ing; which now means that I own it and, in the past few days, have completed it.
Released in ’98, the game hit the same year as the (first) X-Files Movie – at the height of X-Files-mania; slap bang in the middle of the black-oil, bees, stabby-stabby-neck-aliens storyline debacle. I threw in disc one and was greeted by Foximus Mulderian and Dananana Scullinton breaking in to a warehouse before being ambushed by a group of armed men, flash of light, queue Mulder looking confused, and then the iconic ‘Truth is out there’ intro sequence. Aside from Mulder and Scully not saying anything, this sequence does a neat job of setting up the game as an episode of the show in a pretty typical fashion and sets the series faithful tone.
I’d picked up from the box that this is a ‘live-action’ game. The use of live action film in games was still relatively common by the late 90’s, but an entire live action experience hadn’t really been a thing for a few years since the early CD consoles (Mega CD or Phillips CDi). Even when they were the latest technology, nobody had been that sold on the juddery video cuts of ‘Mad Dog Mcree’ as a bandit drawing their gun suddenly jumped to flying backwards as you shot them. Once the novelty had worn off, game designers had backed off from live-action, other than the odd Resident Evil style cut scene. The X-Files game however fully embraces the live-action vibe with its entirety being either stills or video of real actors in real locations. I wouldn’t go quite as far to say ‘interactive movie’, as this implies a ‘pick-your-own’ adventure on-rails experience, as X-Files adopts a point-n-click style of gameplay with the player able to navigate around various locations, interact with items, and engage in conversations with various people in suits. The upshot of this style is that, despite not being a particularly long experience, X-Files manages to span 4 CD’s.
There’s an initial disappointment upon starting and realising that as the player you’re not stepping in to the shoes of one of the main characters. Instead you’re thrust in to the role of Agent Wilmore, a bland field agent from the Seattle Office, and if you were hoping to get lots of interactive moments with your two favourite Scooby-Dooing FBI agents then you’re going to be disappointed. Aside from their silent opening scene performance Foxy-Duchovny and Gillian-Scully don’t reappear until the final disc. Spooky Mulder himself doesn’t get much interactive screen time at all with his content being mainly a single conversation scene late on in the game and a few action sequences during the closing stages. Scully features a bit more prominently on the final disc which may reflect that Duchovny either came with less enthusiasm for the format… or more likely a higher price tag. That being said, a few of the other series regulars do make appearances including everyone’s favourite gut punching, no nonsense, Assistant Director…
… Walter “Mitch Pileggi” Skinner!
The game opens with a visit from AD Skinner to the Seattle field office; two of his agents have gone missing. Mulder and Scully can’t be found and it’s up to Agent Wilmore to track them down in, what I like to call, the Luigi’s Mansion method of dealing with starring characters that can’t be bothered to show up to the party. You’re given a subtle nudge towards the motel that they were staying in and told to buddy up with Skinner (Pileggi Road Trip!!!) to investigate… oh, but not before you hand off your existing case load to your ‘partner’ (what? wait? aren’t they coming with me?), Agent Cook, who managed to immediately act suspiciously enough that I was convinced he was going to screw me over at some point.
… this handing over of the case files took me the best part of an hour as I stumbled around the field office, often walking in circles and clicking frantically on everything. I’ve no idea what anyone watching must’ve though Agent Wilmore was doing, especially as I popped back to his apartment (the only other location I could visit) a few times to do normal things that an agent might due during working hours such as admiring every picture on the walls and reading his own diary. Finally I found the files and managed to hand them over to Cook.
From here the game continued in a predictable fashion for at least the first three discs. Go to locations, walk around, find clues, send them to the crime lab, have conversations, and occasionally search the FBI database. Skinner tags along for the first couple of locations before presumably Pileggi’s budget runs out and he quite suddenly gets called back to DC. The final quarter of the game is a bit more action heavy as events draw to a close and the ‘investigating’ elements are wound back.
Plot Synopsis for those who are interested: Mulder and Scully are on the trail of an alien possessed doctor who can mystically ‘radiation’ people to death. Scully gets shot and ends up in a hospital where you find her late on in game and Mulder is kidnapped by the alien and driven to Alaska to look for a space ship for the alien to get home (it’s basically just E.T.). To confuse matters Wilmore (and his Seattle PD detective love-hate relationship character) is thrown off the scent as the whole thing overlaps with a Russian smuggling operation; a diversion perpetuated by Cook. Ultimately there is a showdown in a secret government facility where the alien briefly infects Mulder, then Cook, before Scully neck-stabby kills him just before he can get into the vault where the ship is being held.
Most of the gameplay is from a first person perspective with the player viewing each still vista through the eyes of Wilmore although in action and conversation moments this is sometimes intercut with more traditionally filmed segments akin to the TV show. The player has an onscreen cursor to poke and prod at interact-able items which also changes to a ‘pointing hand’ indicating a movement option (typically turn left, turn right, and walk forward). As the scenes are mostly just still photographs, it’s one of those games where moving simply transitions this image. It’s a style where I tend to find myself getting turned-around as it can be difficult to link the different view points together but, to X-Files’ credit, it does two helpful things. Firstly, the transition helps indicate the direction being moved; a turn to the left will result in the new scene sliding in from the left and walking forward results in a wipe transition from the centre of the screen. It’s only a minor detail, but does help give the player some small illusion of movement and better understanding of the space. Secondly, in most areas, the player turns approximately 90 degrees at a time so each position usually has four views associated with it; yes, it sounds obvious, but when the player is standing in a corridor those extra two views that are just brick wall might feel superfluous, but really helped me keep my bearings.
To make things even easier the player can hold a shoulder button down and the cursor will jump between the interact-able hotspots in the current view with each tap of the d-pad. Action sequences do still require the tedious d-pad cursor movement to coerce Wilmore to aim and fire his gun, but thankfully these are usually short with the game generously offering a retry when you fail. So, at least from a mechanical point of view I’m pleased to say that X-Files dodges some of the pitfalls of this style (unlike some other games I’ve played) although does retain a few cheap ‘trial-and-error’ deaths (particularly towards the end) so save regularly.
Setting the nuts & bolts of the gameplay aside, I’m pretty sure how much anyone would enjoy X-Files is really going to depend on how much they enjoy the source material. The ‘puzzles’ are straightforward and mostly boil down to looking around and finding clues or speaking to people – it’s the exhaust all options style of PnC design. There is quite a bit of flavour added in, but I never really felt like I was investigating, mostly I was just trying to do everything in each place to move the plot along, with one of the biggest frustrations being jumping between locations trying to find the right magic place that would trigger the next significant event (top tip: if you don’t know what to do or where to go, then just try going back to Wilmore’s apartment). The plot also suffers from ‘detectivitus; a made up term that I just coined meaning the player is always investigating quiet, dull, locations a short while after something apparently exciting happened… and if trundling around a quiet warehouse/boat/dock/hanger is your thing then this game has you covered. That being said, the moody lighting, visual style, plot, and dialogue are very true to the source material, and the moments that any of the regular cast are onscreen significantly elevated my enjoyment (it’s just a shame that they couldn’t have employed someone with a bit more personality to play Wilmore who seems to be stuck on ‘aggressively abrupt’).
Despite the shortcomings, I enjoyed the experience. The ‘real-world’ stylings make it a curious relic of the time and with much of the overarching plot of the source material fairly fresh in my mind I appreciated much of the scene setting much more than I would have coming in cold. Crucially, despite being dated, the gameplay is at least functional which made it the casual couch experience I was looking for rather than a frustrating battle with bad controls and awkward action sequences…
… if only they’d had the budget for just a bit more Pileggi…