Hard Project: The X-Files
If I were asked to list things from my younger days that would be coming back as I pass through the early years of my 30s, The X-Files would not have been on that list. But here we are with talk about a revival floating around, which doesn’t seem like a terribly good idea but may very well be a thing that happens anyway. And that would possibly mean video games, something that the franchise has yet to pull off.
Just like compelling mythology arcs or decent feature films or spin-offs, if you want to be glib.
There were two games based on the show, and both suffered from fairly poor reviews; the first was functionally a mildly interactive movie, the second was a short shot to a Resident Evil clone that was plagued with an obtuse camera and overly complicated puzzles. But neither one is entirely to blame in this particular situation. The X-Files is a really hard show to make a decent game out of. Or a decent feature film, or comic, or sequel, or…
All right, I’m not using that joke again.
If you’ve never watched the series before, here’s a plot summary of 80% of the show. Someone dies or goes missing under mysterious circumstances, 40 minutes of run time are spent with Agent Mulder and Agent Scully staring at one another and debating the paranormal, five minutes of paranormal shit goes down and the episode ends with nothing resolved. There, I just saved you nine seasons.
Sometimes either Mulder or Scully will be menaced by the monster of the week, and sometimes there’s an attempt to tie into a plot that the writers made up as they went along, but there was still a standard here. The characters were a pair of FBI agents that were, at least ostensibly, investigating all of this stuff. Not shooting it, just documenting and providing a report that could later be buried in government coverups. This despite the fact that it appears the CIA is more likely to invent UFO sightings than hide them…
What made the show interesting in the 90s was the fact that it was, for many people, their first exposure to kooky theories and implausible conspiracies, with just enough sexy backlighting and dramatic music added to make this stuff not seem absurd as hell. Discarding the fact that the Internet has given us all a very clear picture of actual conspiracy theorists and their ideas, there’s the simple fact that very few of the episodes involved “confront the threat” as a thing. You have to do a bunch of stretching to make the framework of the show fit into a game context, which essentially would feel like UFO Hunter with a Federal Expense Account.
Two lines, no waiting
Glibness aside, The X-Files was really two separate plots. The first was the aforementioned monster-of-the-week setup, which ensured that no matter how implausible the FBI agents would always be left with no more evidence about the supernatural crap they saw than you would get from the average hoax photograph of a nonexistent plesiosaur. But the show also had an ongoing myth arc about aliens colonizing Earth, pointless government conspiracies, and most fantastical of all, the idea that Gillian Anderson would want to get into bed with David Duchovny.
While the two coexisted well enough in the beginning, as time went on they jockeyed uneasily for presence, until eventually the myth arc overtook everything else about the show. This was a problem, as the writers were very clearly making it up as they went (since the whole thing was only added to explain Anderson’s pregnancy). But even ignoring that fact, a game kind of has to pick one and focus on it.
Somewhat helpfully, the series’ two feature films have each tried focusing on one aspect or the other, and both have had notable structural problems as a result. A piece focusing on the mythology requires a whole lot of backstory to be worth bothering with and suffers from the same sense of aimlessness that the myth arc always produces, since the story can never be resolved so much as left to hang for another decade or so. A monster of the week, though, feels like it’s too much expansion for too little meat. If you’re focusing this much on a single monster, it has to tie into something larger.
Age has not been kind
Remember the 90s? I do. It was a crazy time when the biggest threat that any (straight white cis) American could conceive of was the idea that our government was lying to us about aliens. You are invited to laugh bitterly with me.
At this point, the very premise of The X-Files sounds ridiculous. Sure, jokes were being made back in earlier days that the FBI was devoting an awful lot of effort to solving unsolved cases where the explanation appeared to be “aliens,” but at this point it seems even more ludicrous. We’ve seen what actual government conspiracies look like, and the internet has thrown a harsh light on the sort of crazy theories that used to make up the show’s bread and butter. Conspiracy theories now seem either completely absurd or entirely correct, with some of them bleeding into being actively harmful like the entire anti-vaccination crowd.
Nothing about the series has aged well. So many encounters in the original series were handwaved because Mulder and Scully didn’t have a camera at all times, but now it would take half a second with a government-issue smartphone. The viewers know better. The characters know better. The show went for a remarkably long time with Scully saying that every obvious alien encounter had another rational explanation, despite the fact that every single one of those encounters would have led to a smart woman logically concluding that there’s more going on than she’s aware of. The clock can’t be turned back on all of that.
It’s a relic of a younger time, and it hasn’t kept step with further developments. Which makes any new projects kind of dubious at best.