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The Operator reimagines The X Files as a work-from-home saga that may or may not be about little green men

The truth is several mouse clicks away.

A skull and the words 'Hacked by HAL' are shown in binary code on an in-game screen in The Operator
Image credit: Bureau 81

“Do you believe in extraterrestrial life?”, an electronically distorted voice bellows at me from somewhere in the blackness beyond the lights shining into my face. “Yes, probably, I mean, statistically,” I think to myself, while my character on screen answers “No.”

This is a non-interactive cutscene that sets the stage for The Operator, which is another one of those games where you are a faceless operative of a clandestine government organisation, whose only interaction with the crime and conspiracy laden world beyond is via a bespoke operating system designed to sift data points out of scraps of evidence that are sent to you from the field.

So you aren’t Dana Scully, you're the guy Dana Scully calls when she wants some telephone records analysed. Which is fine, I hate going outside.

The player looks at details of a suspect, including their vehicle, while chatting to a fellow federal agent using an in-game PC in The Operator
Image credit: Bureau 81

The best game of this kind I’ve played is probably Orwell, in which you were an agent of an oppressive government and tasked with hunting dissidents. It was tense, and gripping – but really, less of an investigation game than a big jigsaw. However, this doesn’t really matter if the vibes are spot-on and the story is compelling enough.

The Operator’s 10-15 minute Next Fest demo appears to be cut from similar cloth. You’re a computer guy for the hilariously legally distinct Federal Department of Investigation, and your job is to take calls from field agents who send you pieces of evidence along with a request such as “can you find the perp’s address?” or the vaguer “something’s off about these photos, can you figure out what?”.

In some instances you’ll be scouring low-quality surveillance footage for faces, number plates, any scraps of data you can feed into the FDI’s database of Everyone. In other instances you’ll be comparing phone mast records with JPEG date stamps. The scenarios in this short vertical slice are, naturally, limited, but the potential is vast. For those of us who love that point-and-click game loop of combining X with Y to reach conclusion Z, The Operator comfortably nails the basics, and demonstrates a tonne of potential which I would hope becomes apparent in the full release later on this year.

And what of the thread that pulls you through the busy work? So far: sublime, actually. The Operator takes place in an alternate 1992 where digital comms are about fifteen years ahead of where they should be. The story is laced with hints of an ET conspiracy, but there’s a sense that aliens probably aren’t actually involved, and that some nefarious organisation just wants people to assume they are as a convenient smokescreen. There are tantalising hints of wider opportunities to either stick to the rulebook or go behind the back of your employer in order to pursue your own leads.

The player looks at a map, camera, and some documents via the in-game PC in The Operator
Image credit: Bureau 81

There’s admittedly not a great deal to go on in such a short teaser, but all the data points we have so far are certainly pointing to an enjoyable experience with a grand conspiracy story that’s just on the right side of creepy: a compelling modern take on The X Files that tickles the puzzle-solving centres of your brain sufficiently enough to keep the dopamine flowing while you go after a rogue government department or worse. You can’t say fairer than that for a single-screen game.

The Operator's demo is available to play now on Steam, with the game scheduled to release during Q3 of 2024.

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