The Making Of: The X-Files

The X Files

Veteran game designer Greg Roach muses thoughtfully on the past. ”There was a time,” he tells us, “when ‘interactive movie’ wasn’t a dirty word.” Back in the 1990s, when CD-ROMs were cool and gamers were still being seduced by the siren call of full-motion video clips, Roach was one of the pioneers in his field. Called “the Steven Spielberg of multimedia,” the Texan theatre director turned videogame designer believed that games could do something deeper than just “give someone sweaty palms or throw a bunch of silly-assed puzzles at them.”

HyperBole had offices in Seattle. In the lobby stood a huge reproduction of Salvador Dali’s canvas The Hallucinogenic Toreador. “It was the first thing you saw when you stepped off the elevator,” says Roach, “and I’d often ask new hires to meditate on it.” With its array of optical tricks, it was a fitting totem. Here was a videogame company that believed full-motion video (FMV) could make art.

But in videogames, much like cinema, art is often mediated by the demands of commerce. Traditionally it’s a fight that leaves most creative talents feeling decidedly bruised. When Quantum Gate, an avant-garde interactive sci-fi movie, was first released, HyperBole’s publisher Media Vision wasn’t happy. “They said to us, literally: ‘We want more guns and tits in the title’,” Roach says.

Convinced that interactive cinema should privilege character and emotion over assault rifles, he despaired. He wanted to make movies you could live inside, worlds that wrapped around players’ heads. So when Fox Interactive called looking for someone to make the first X-Files game, he jumped at the chance.

It’s 1994 and Roach is sitting in a boardroom at Twentieth Century Fox with Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files. The cult TV show is only in its second series, but it’s already snowballing into a phenomenon. FBI agents Mulder and Scully are becoming household names. Viewing figures are rocketing, and Fox Interactive wants a tie-in game.

Once again, not everyone is happy, least of all Carter. “In our first meeting, we sat down with Chris Carter, producer Frank Spotnitz and all the reps from Fox Interactive,” Roach remembers. “The first words out of Chris’s mouth were ‘What can you do that I can’t?’ I thought, how the fuck do I answer this without totally blowing it?” After Roach explained that he wouldn’t presume to write an X-Files TV episode, but that he did know how to craft an interactive experience, the atmosphere softened. Carter, intrigued by the potential of FMV, agreed to write a plot outline for the game.

Development took four years and $6m, a significant investment for Fox. What sold the publisher was HyperBole’s proprietary VirtualCinema system. “It was primarily a media engine,” explains Jason VandenBerghe, a programmer on The X-Files Game, “a set of scripting tools to let you do point-and-click adventure games, but with full rich media. It’s like the Avid editor for games. You didn’t have to be a programmer to use it because you could do all the gameplay logic inside the engine, assemble different types of media clips and have them play at different places.”

Unlike many FMV games, which often used live action as nothing more than wallpaper backdrops, The X Files presented you with a universe to explore. It was a fully fledged world that felt like stepping into one of the TV show’s episodes. Playing as FBI Agent Craig Willmore you’re tasked with tracking down Mulder and Scully who’ve vanished, mid-case. Using stitched-together JPEG images, the game lets you explore locations Myst-style, but with more human protagonists to interact with.

“If traditional film is a river, the viewer of that film sits on the bank and watches the water flow by,” says Roach. “We wanted to take that viewer and turn them into a fish and put them down into that river.” A sense of agency was pivotal. Guiding Willmore through this rich media world, you can interrogate supporting characters and employ equipment from lock picks to a trusty Newton PDA. Find a document with a phone number on it and you can call it. Pull a gun on assistant director Skinner and he’ll be spectacularly unimpressed.

“The verbs in games are very, very basic, physical and crude,” says Roach. “The agency in most realtime 3D games is expressed in your ability to shoot fucking anything that moves, or blow up a wall. It’s a rare title even today where the agency is expressed along the arc of character development, or in verbs that are more focussed on emotional or dramatic actions rather than visceral physical run, jump, shoot forms of expression.” The ambition of The X-Files Game was to change all that.

In keeping with the fractious relationship between games and Hollywood, production on the title was gruelling. “Working with a company like Fox is a lot like talking to a person with multiple personality disorder or Alzheimer’s,” laughs the director. “They never remember from one minute to the next what they’ve agreed to. We had to deal with the legal division, marketing department, Fox Interactive, the TV division and Chris Carter. Each of them has their own fiefdom and their own veto capacity that only extends so far in certain areas.” Unusually for a licensed FMV title, Roach was allowed to shoot the principal cast himself. Stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were nabbed in between their work on The X-Files movie, although to begin with Fox execs were clearly uncomfortable about letting their talent interact with a non-Hollywood director. When shooting began, and with the budget ticking away at $5-$10K per minute, Fox’s top brass showed up on set to cast a suspicious eye over the proceedings. “I remember that first day well,” says Roach. “Fuck, it was hardcore.”

Such suspicions were endemic. VandenBerghe, who’d later work at EA on very different licensed movie games like 007: Everything Or Nothing before moving onto Ubisoft’s Red Steel and Ghost Recon franchises, reckons it was largely a result of the two industries’ different attitudes.

“We don’t share the same language,” he argues. “Hollywood is a culture of personality where people with strong personalities can convince you they know what the fuck they’re talking about even if they don’t. The game industry sells systems; it’s an engineering culture where you have to know what you’re talking about. You can’t be a bullshitter. Those two cultures are incompatible with one another, and unless you have someone who can bridge the gap, everything comes to a screeching halt. Greg was a natural bridge. I have never worked with a game developer who has quite such a strong vision or a capacity to communicate it.”

While most FMV games failed because they were B-movies, with cheesy acting and low-budget production values, The X-Files was the genre’s first true blockbuster – a Hollywood-quality production using the same assets as the show it was based on. Yet despite the budget and access, using digital video to build a game was still an awkward marriage, and several key problems became apparent.

Navigation through the environment’s smaller spaces was a pain (as anyone who spent 20 minutes trying to get out of the FBI field office can attest to), and cinematographer John Joffin’s decision to match the smoky aesthetic of the TV show caused a number of headaches.

“We called him the smoke Nazi,” laughs Roach. “Problem is, when you have a camera three feet from an actor’s face rather than 15 feet from a far wall, the smoke’s a different proposition. We’d get the stuff back in post-production and we’d be like, ‘Fuck, it looks like the building’s on fire!’” De-smoking the environments in the game engine became a major enterprise.

But the real sticking point was the interactive drama itself. For all its incredible atmospheric and cinematic power, it still can’t overcome the final hurdle of melding interactivity with the passivity demanded by scripted sequences. The fault isn’t so much a failure of the designers as the limitations of FMV as a tool.

“Working on The X-Files proved to me that interactivity and drama directly oppose each other,” VandenBerghe says. “Thus, interactive cinema is limited at best and doomed at worst. That was a devastating realisation. Drama is all about being a helpless witness to events. The moment you give the viewer agency, the emotional spectrum shifts from tension to curiosity. We could never get past that fundamental thing. Curiosity kills tension and you end up with a puzzle game with a rich, detailed background behind it.“

Released in the summer of 1998, The X-Files Game sold in the region of a million copies. In part success was a case of enviable timing – the movie arrived in cinemas just a month later. But it was also proof of how well received it was among fans of the TV show, many of whom were non-gamers happy to ignore the compromises the immersive atmosphere demanded.

In retrospect, it’s possible the entire FMV cycle largely missed its target market – non-gamers who like the familiarity of dealing with live-action scenes rather than hardcore gamers who demanded fast action and deep interactivity.

“I think The X-Files Game was the last hurrah for FMV,” Roach muses philosophically. “I had a lot of people come to me and say that they felt like the concept had been acquitted by the title; they felt like this one knocked it out of the park and proved these weren’t just harebrained ideas.”

Certainly the game’s feel was infinitely closer to the TV show than Black Ops’ thirdperson follow-up The X-Files: Resist Or Serve. FMV’s key selling point was its immersive photorealism, and The X-Files delivered that brilliantly. Today, Roach remains adamant that FMV is more than just a historical curio: “Everything old is new again. In the early ’90s there was such a buzz around virtual reality. There’s not a lot of difference between 3D, FMV and immersive VR. We’re still chasing that idea of being able to truly live in the fantasy…”