I have a weird relationship with adventure games. I should like them. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I believe that video games can tell compelling stories. And, for the most part, the best (or at least best-regarded) stories in games have been told in adventure games. The Longest Journey. The Walking Dead. Grim Fandango. And so on.
There’s only one problem: many adventure games are incredibly unpleasant to actually play. Because games are supposed to have gameplay of some sort, adventure games are saddled with the idea that they have to be challenging. Instead of just allowing the player to experience the story, these games throw up tedious minigames or, worse, unintuitive puzzles.
Recently I played through the remastered version of Grim Fandango and found myself aghast at the game’s bizarre expectations. Everything else about Grim Fandango–the writing, the art, the voice acting–is fantastic. But it’s shackled to a series of incredibly arbitrary gameplay sections. I hesitate to even call them puzzles. You run around the environment, collecting items and then using those items in a specific order in specific parts of the environment. Some of these make a certain amount of sense, like luring birds with bread and then scaring them when they pop a balloon underneath. But others, like the bizarre shit with betting stubs at the cat racing track, is even more difficult to describe than it is to figure out. I played through the entire game with a guide and, while it made me feel a bit like a loser, I think I enjoyed my time with it way more than if I went in legit.
I didn’t think I was going to quit on any of these games. I fully intended to slog through every one, all the way to the end, no matter how terrible or boring they might be. If needed, I would use cheat codes or change the difficulty setting (like I did for X-Files: Resist or Serve) but I was going to experience all the awfulness these games had to offer. There was just one thing I didn’t account for: motion sickness
There was no way to see this coming. I’ve been playing games for as long as I can remember and this has literally never happened before. There have been a few times–when I was already sick or hungover–that I consciously avoided 3d games because I knew they would only make me feel worse. But this is the first time a game, by itself, made me feel like I needed to throw up.
Licensed games rarely take risks. Just look at all the titles I’ve played so far. X-Files: Resist or Serve was a PS1/Code Veronica era Resident Evil game re-skinned with Mulder and Scully, arranged around a few plot points lifted straight from the X-Files movie. Star Trek was a co-op third-person shooter that was somewhere on the spectrum between Gears of War and, hell, Resident Evil 5. Both were such unabashed ripoffs that they prominently featured zombies instead of anything resembling the usual villains of either series. And Sopranos: Road to Respect? While it (oddly) had a few loose elements that could be seen as precursors to systems in Sleeping Dogs and Alpha Protocol, there was nothing meaningful to the game other than a rote brawler. The environmental attacks and dialog system were thin veneers that ultimately amounted to nothing.
Reservoir Dogs is a different story.
I started watching Star Trek when I was seven years old. The year was 1992. I didn’t know it at the time–or if I did, I didn’t understand the significance–but Gene Roddenberry had died just a year before. Star Trek: The Next Generation was winding down its heyday, Deep Space Nine was months away. I was immediately hooked. I devoured new episodes, re-reruns, previous films, and VHS tapes that I could rent with a couple of episodes from the original series. Back then, it was all great. I even read the licensed books. God help me, I read the licensed books.
I know exactly when I stopped caring about Star Trek. I can put a year on it–1998–because that the year Star Trek Insurrection came out Voyager fully committed to its bizarre obsession with its new character, Seven of Nine. Those were my breaking points. I kept watching Deep Space Nine through its end in 1999, but after that I was done with the franchise.
My instinct is to say that I grew out of Star Trek, but I don’t think that’s fair. That instinct is based on a positively inexplicable embarrassment I still have about being a former trekkie. It’s hard for me to admit how much I liked Star Trek, and especially that I’d probably still like it if I went back and revisited the right parts.
One hour into The Sopranos: Road to Respect and I was already pining for the relatively fun days of The X-Files: Resist or Serve. I had a lot of negative things to say about the adventures of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in low-poly land and the game was fundamentally broken, but I was never bored and the game never made me feel bad. That’s more than I can say for Road to Respect.
To start, a caveat: unlike The X-Files, I don’t have a ton of familiarity with The Sopranos. I’ve seen a few episodes, I know the basic themes and several of the characters, but I’m hardly invested in the show or the universe. I didn’t have HBO during the first couple of seasons, and by the time I had access to The Sopranos I was already too jaded about the series to really adopt it. I can be destructively contrarian about shows, movies, and games that win universal appeal. Once I’ve heard enough praise about something, I start to lose interest in it. I’m usually far more intrigued by something that everyone says is terrible… Which may explain this current project of playing bad games. My opinion of The Sopranos as a television show, however, has little bearing on my opinion of the game because if I was a fan I’d probably only hate it more.
This is gonna go well
First up on my tour of bad licensed games, I turned to a license that was dear to my heart: The X-Files. When I was a kid, X-Files was my favorite show on TV. I never missed an episode. Having been too young to appreciate Twin Peaks when it was first on the air, X-Files was my first exposure to a series with a continuing, long-running mystery with plots that (sometimes) carried over between episodes. For a sci-fi/horror show it had remarkable production value, two incredibly likable leads, and great (if a little schizophrenic towards the end) writing.
Going back to watch the early episodes of the X-Files reveals that they’re a little dated by today’s standards, but that’s hardly a significant knock against the show. The core mystery still holds up, and it’s one of the few shows of its type ever to hit more than miss with its monster-of-the-week episodes.
The X-Files: Resist or Serve for the Playstation 2 released in 2004, two years after the end of the show. That probably explains why I never played it, because the last couple seasons soured me enough that I wasn’t in a huge hurry to revisit the series. But for the start of my series, I thought I should take up a licensed game that I could really meet on its own terms. As a fan of the TV show, I’m presumptively the audience for Resist or Serve, which means I might enjoy it more, but also could be more critical of its missteps.
Those things didn’t matter, because The X-Files: Resist or Serve is not a good game.