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Revenge of the License: The X-Files (PS1)

The X-Files cover artwork

‘The X-Files’ utterly changed the face of television. It scared us with ghost stories for adults. It boggled our minds with conspiracies within conspiracies. In its early days, before internet access was something everyone took for granted, it gave us a reason to visit the library and research topics ranging from alien abduction and the Jersey Devil to Skinwalkers and the Loch Ness Monster. The world was moving so fast, growing in some ways, shrinking in others, and it felt impossible to keep up. We all wanted to believe…even if believing meant being creeped out for an hour once a week. We learned if you had something weird that needed investigating, Special Agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder were the ones you called. HyperBole Studios and Fox Interactive posed a great question though: ‘What happens if Mulder and Scully go missing?’ They answered this question with The X-Files for the PlayStation in 1999. Turns out if the FBI can’t find Fox and Dana, they turn to the next-best thing: you.

X-Files Title Screen

X-Files Title Screen

The X-Files couldn’t have come at a better time, either for gamers or fans of the series. Originally released in 1998, the PlayStation port arrived a year later as a four-disc multimedia extravaganza. What made the game unique and set it apart from most licensed games of the day, was the decision not to cast the player as either of the main characters. We initially see Mulder and Scully as they break into a warehouse. The pair searches around for a moment until they locate a black, powdery substance on the floor, when a trio of men burst in, guns drawn, and open fire without warning. Scully takes a bullet to the shoulder, Mulder yanks her prone, and suddenly a bright light fills the warehouse. The attackers all scream in either agony or fear as Mulder stares up into the light and the screen fades to white…

x-files mulder

“Wait…is THIS the truth…?”

That’s the last we’ll be seeing of them for a bit. David Duchovney and Gillian Anderson weren’t available full-time since they were gearing up to film ‘The X-Files: Fight the Future’. Faced with making an X-Files game without the principle leads, HyperBole turned that weakness into a strength by making the absence of Scully and Mulder into the primary mystery of the story. FBI Assistant Director Skinner turns to YOU as Agent Craig Willmore, college-educated, rugby-enthusiast, buster-of-pull-tab-counterfeiting-rings, to investigate. If you ever wanted to star in a paranormal nightmare, this is your chance.

x-files pull tab counterfeiters

Not kidding about the pull tab thing.

HyperBole succeeds on a level that doesn’t even seem possible for this kind of a game. Thanks to Fox’s backing, the whole game plays out long an extra-long episode of the TV show. With everybody from the afore-mentioned Skinner and Cancer Man to the Lone Gunmen and the enigmatic Mister X, all the original actors reprise their roles. At four discs in size, The X-Files is filled with enough video to satiate the most rabid fan, and the quality is top-notch, presented in a letterboxed format that looks nice even today. Chris Carter’s original story concept  bursts to life with assistance from regular series producer Frank Spotnitz, so this is by no means a freshman effort from writers inexperienced with the material, and it shows.

x-files story by chris carter

See? It shows right there.

When you aren’t watching the movies, the game takes on a basic point-and-click format using static photo backgrounds, sometimes with looping animation thrown in to add a little realism. If you’ve played Fear Effect, then you’ll understand how this works. These sequences sometimes come down to pixel hunts, but the translation of the PC mouse to the PS1 controller is good enough. I’d love to see PS Mouse support, especially given this title’s adaptation from its original PC format, but since almost nobody bought the mouse controller, I can understand the developer’s decision to ignore it. Since you’re a field agent you’ll spend a lot of time talking, and these conversations are all fully acted and voiced by the cast. Your responses to dialog will determine how much a particular person likes you, and your behavior when it comes to dealing with certain people determines which ending you receive. Over the course of your investigation, it’ll take more than some smooth talking to accomplish your goals though. Willmore can look forward to picking locks, gathering evidence, snapping photos, exploring dark areas with both flashlight and night vision goggles, and occasionally busting out the handcuffs in his pursuit of the truth.

x-files paranoid conversation tree

The ONLY choice for the true X-Phile is paranoia.

For a CD-ROM adventure, The X-Files suffers almost none of the problems that plagued PC adventure games in the 1990s. Screen transitions are fast and smooth, and load times when the game switches from static screen to video sequence are virtually non-existent. How HyperBole pulled this off when Mortal Kombat Trilogy had to pause for every Shang Tsung morph is beyond me. Equally impressive is that the PC version shipped on seven CDs, but through reducing the video quality, the PS1 version delivered the exact same game on half the media. If you want the better resolution, by all means grab the computer version, but remember you’re looking at twice as many disc swaps for your trouble. Your choice.

x-files evidence memo

WTF am I even investigating at this point?!

The X-Files also features some action sequences, and it’s here where the game will take a huge nose-dive for some players. Agent Willmore will occasionally have to rely on his firearm, and when this happens, the screen shifts to a first-person view similar to games like Operation Wolf and Area 51. Unfortunately you’re stuck using the controller to move a cursor around on-screen, and this is nowhere near as responsive without a mouse or a lightgun. You can adjust the difficulty settings for these sequences so that Willmore auto-aims at enemies, but this isn’t satisfying for serious gamers and personally I wish they’d just left the action bits out. Adventure gamers don’t usually care for twitch sequences, and action gamers probably won’t put up with the slow pace of a point-and-click just to get to the arcade-style bits. Save a lot, especially if you’re bad with shooting sequences. While your Agent Willmore has a number of gruesome and/or violent death scenes he can suffer, players who just want to experience the story should turn the difficulty setting to ‘Easy’ for maximum enjoyment.

x-files suicide note

This is the only adventure game I’ve ever played that lets you commit suicide at any point during the investigation. Talk about dark…

But that’s really one small complaint in the grand scheme of things. The X-Files has so much going for it in terms of production value, storyline, and atmosphere (oh holy gawd, the atmosphere!) that you couldn’t pick a better time than October to play it. With visuals and production values out the wazoo, Easter Eggs all over the place (you can even flip through a copy of Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”at one point), plenty of jump-scare moments, and a soundtrack which is phenomenal at maintaining the sense of unease just like the best survival horror games. It’s not Resident Evil or Silent Hill, but you’ll still enjoy a creeping sense of menace nonetheless. It’s also extreme inexpensive on the second-hand market, making it ideal pickings for gamers on a budget. Give yourself a good long time to enjoy it too, as this is no thirty minute ‘wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am’ scenario, but a multi-hour extravaganza. Despite its shortcomings, The X-Files could be the best retro scare you experience this Halloween. Enjoy this ad from PC Gamer, hyping its 1998 release with a contest where you could win a Nokia phone:

X-Files Giveaway Ad

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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