Saturday, April 28, 2012

On the List — Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell

I'm starting a news series on Knee Deep in the Game called “On the List.” The idea is that for each entry I'll write a little bit about one of my favorite video games, one that could potentially end up somewhere on my Top 100 Games list if such a thing existed. That or someone else's list … or maybe not all. I don't know. Let's face it, there are no hard rules here. This is fifth-freedom territory!

Sam Fisher: He's a real nowhere man

I’ve never read a Tom Clancy novel. I guess I’ve always assumed the world of shadow governments and international espionage is frighteningly real enough. Why fictionalize it?

I am a fan, however, of the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell video game franchise, which began as an original Xbox title back in 2002, developed by Ubisoft. In the game the player assumes the role of Sam Fisher, a Navy SEAL covert ops veteran whom we can probably assume has been through some serious shit in his day. Fisher has been called back into the field, recruited as the titular one-man “splinter cell” for the new ultra secret Third Echelon initiative within the National Security Agency. The idea behind the initiative is to gather info and intelligence from the most sensitive of around-the-world locations by means of physical infiltration and a compartmentalized support network of hackers, handlers and so forth.

The NSA basically needs Fisher to sneak into a former Soviet-bloc country to investigate some strange political shenanigans and the ominous disappearance of two CIA field agents. The information he uncovers has immediate, global consequences. Fisher then hops from country to country to track down new targets and throw water on all kinds of political living room fires that spring up from the fallout.

What the player experiences is a finely tuned stealth action video game, most of which is spent crouching among the shadows, trying to get from one place to the next without being noticed or shot at. Obviously, this is not always easy, causing the player to rely on a repertoire of cool takedown maneuvers and a limited inventory of techno gadgets and weaponry—including sticky cameras, some grenades and a silenced combat rifle. Needless to say, more than a few unlucky or deserving bastards will end up knocked out or rubbed out for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Taking a cue from the likes of Deus Ex and I'm sure other predecessors, Splinter Cell succeeded as a game that encouraged a certain level of player choice and technique. A scrupulous player was free to put in the extra effort to minimize fatalities and/or confrontations. The more speed-minded player could perhaps afford to run through an area with less caution, soaking up the bullets and simply healing with medical kits later on. Stealthy progress depended, in part, on the speed and sound of Fisher's movement, which the player controlled by applying degrees of pressure to the controller's analog stick.

Something the first Splinter Cell did better than any other game that came before was to render dynamic and realistic lighting effects. Various intensities of virtual light could be projected in all directions of a three-dimensional environment. The game's levels and their scripted obstacles were designed largely around the staggering of light and dark areas, all determined by the deliberate placement of things like street lamps and other artificial light sources. Perhaps the neatest trick up the player’s sleeve was the ability to shoot out light bulbs and rely on night vision goggles as a means of evading detection.

Similar to games in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series—wherein an otherwise standard urban environment will be designed around the fantastical concept of grind-worthy edges and smooth, concave ramps built into virtually every utilitarian structure—the Splinter Cell games present a type of exaggerated environment suited to the mechanics of the game's genre. Most of the settings employ a contradictory combination of high-level security (patrolling goons everywhere) and incredibly poor lighting. The very halls of the CIA headquarters, for example, contain more predatory blackout spots than a mall parking garage.

Playing Splinter Cell invariably causes me to imagine a scenario in which Sam Fisher has to pass through my apartment at night while I'm at home performing some random task, like cutting an onion in the kitchen or folding my underwear in the bedroom. What path would he follow in order to pass through undetected? Or would he more-than-likely just grab me in a choke hold and pull me off into some dim corner of the room? Creepy!

These aren't my only questions. Sometimes, after finishing a level, I have to wonder ... what happens later? What happens in the hours after Sam Fisher has blown the proverbial taco stand and is back at home, drinking his morning protein shake, nagging his daughter to get out of bed for school? What happens when all of those guys who got knocked unconscious and dumped in storage rooms halfway across the globe start to wake up? Surely some of those dudes sustained physical injuries, if not brain damage! Are they going to be okay? What kind of a conversation do these baffled individuals have as they stumble groggily around trying to find one another, or when they start to sort out the living from the dead? What happens to the living guys who wake up underneath the dead guys because there wasn't any other convenient place for Fisher to quickly stash the bodies? Double creepy!

One narrative element I find interesting is the between-mission cutscenes, shown as quick snippets of TV news reports that sometimes present a revisionist spin on the events related to all of Fisher’s recent sneaking around. There's a moment at the end of the game when Fisher, watching a televised speech with his daughter, allows himself an amused chuckle or two as the president of the United States credits the spirit of “American tenacity” for what Fisher has almost singlehandedly accomplished behind the scenes.

What I find even more chuckle-worthy is the aspect of player complicity. People talk a lot about morality in video games, but that discussion typically is reserved for the games that bop you over the head with it, the ones that give you good experience points for helping the old lady across the street or evil experience points for pushing her under a bus. The interesting thing is that most players will go through Splinter Cell without a moment’s thought to the bigger picture of it all. Such as, is any of this Third Echelon business even legal?

At one point during the second level, Fisher’s remote handler Irving Lambert warns Sam about a military colonel approaching his specific location inside a foreign embassy building. “That’s detailed intelligence,” Fisher replies. No kidding! Sam Fisher is no idiot. He’s used to taking orders on little to no information, a so-called “need-to-know basis” if ever there was one. But, for God’s sake, what else are the folks in Washington seeing that we're not? And who's calling the shots? At multiple times in the game Lambert gives the call on whether Fisher is authorized to use lethal force, depending on the political stickiness of the situation. Lambert is sometimes explicit in telling Fisher his mission has not been officially approved by the Joint Chiefs. I'm sorry, did you just tell me we're working outside the approval of the Joint Chiefs? Suddenly, the idea of staying hidden all the time, of turning out the lights on everyone around you, becomes a much larger symbol. By the end of the game we may be wondering if the president himself has been privy to what's really gone on. Such is the way of things, I suppose, in the Tom Clancy universe. Just good fiction, right?

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