I settle down for another session of Splinter Cell Blacklist, having completed the initial maps, which had a not-too-steep learning curve, on my way to the midgame. Splinter Cell Blacklist is the seventh installment in the Splinter Cell series, inspired by thriller writer Tom Clancy’s work and developed and published by game giant Ubisoft. According to Wikipedia, the game series as a whole has sold 22 million copies worldwide.
The protagonist of the Splinter Cell games is the experienced black ops soldier Sam Fisher. He’s hypermasculine and stonefaced, but also agile and quick, which is necessary for the player to move through a game that focuses on stealth and surprise attacks instead of direct combat. The plot is politically dubious at best, with the central goal being to Stop the terrorists! before they mess up the United States, and maybe the rest of the (Western) world.
I therefore decided, in the first session, that Sam was as confident with his masculinity as he is with his wide range of military hardware, and used my first upgrade points not on better weapons or armor, but on changing the color of the light in the game’s iconic night vision goggles from the standard (boring) green to pink. Immediately, the game became a lot more interesting, and I happily stealthed and shot my way through the first maps. As opposed to the takedowns in The Last of Us, described by Byron Alexander Campbell in When Play Isn’t Fun Anymore, the sneak attacks in Splinter Cell Blacklist are spectacle in motion: quick, assured, and more than a little showy.
The next location is an abandoned flour mill somewhere in London. Since the game is set in the winter, the night is literally dark and stormy. The rain drenches Sam’s black combat suit and I think, “He’s going to catch a cold now.” Then Sam is killed by a dog I didn’t see standing behind a fence. OK, start over, kill the dog quickly, climb up on the old freight car on the rusted rail line, and shoot the sniper in the window in the mill. In through a window, up a ladder, then scale the front of the old mill. And that’s when I really see the surroundings: An abandoned, dilapidated structure standing in heavy rain and wind, with the skyline of the metropolis, including familiar landmarks such as the Millennium Dome, the London Bridge, the London Eye, and the London Gherkin glittering in the distance. On the topmost roof, an old tarpaulin flies and flaps in the wind, and moss and grass peek out from the substrate.
The carefully crafted digital textures of brick and metal glisten with the overlaid light effect that simulate moisture and rain. The game’s dramatic lens flare effect blinks through the virtual rain drops that surround me. The shadows are engulfing and the lightning that flashes across the sky is dazzling due to the chiaroscuro effect my graphics card puts on everything and which is often a little too brutal. But now, in this harsh environment, it is perfect! Someone has put everything I like the most in games, bundled them together, and served it up in high definition 1920 x 1080 resolution! The Unreal engine 2.5, which is the computer code behind the game, renders everything in exquisite detail, aided by soft but detailed shadows from the shader system. Rarely have any pixels looked as good as these!
The top and initial floors of the mill, without opponents. Music: “Xavier” by Dead Can Dance
Further inside, the corridors are full of debris and dust. Walls and lockers are occasionally decorated with graffiti and scribbles, and there are many marvelous details, such as old blackboards for noting the type of flour in the various silos, warning signs, and rusted tools and machinery lying about. Most probably these have been created from photographs of a real-life abandoned mill used as inspiration by the game’s graphical artists. The location is, however, a welcome variation from the cliched Middle Eastern bad-guy settings of the first maps in the game.
The Mill again, this time with opponents present. Music: Insomniac’s Ball by Joseph Michael Owens. Please watch in highest resolution possible.
More importantly, the environment hints at the deepening darkness and tension in Sam Fisher. He’s averted one big terrorist attack, but he knows more are coming and is increasingly desperate to prevent them from happening. To make things even tenser, at the bottom floor of the mill, Sam must place a tracking device in a crate of nerve gas, and of course some of it leaks out and poisons him. After that, the screen occasionally goes blurry and wonky, so I have to time my stealth attacks between these “episodes” to avoid fighting when it’s hard to see and the camera rolls and pitches.
In the previous location, I got slightly motion sick from controlling a flying mini-drone Sam uses to knock out a circuit breaker. Now, the blurry and wonky graphical effect simulating the nerve gas is making me motion sick again, so after I fail to kill one heavily armored opponent, I just slip away and run through the door to the next section of the map. Sam’s team are reading his vital signs, so they know he’s in bad shape and keep telling him to abort the mission and get out. Sam, who balances on the edge between determined and obsessed, insists that he’s “fine” and stumbles on, although by now he can’t even do the crouched hiding that is necessary for his stealth attacks.
Finally, Sam blacks out and is taken prisoner by the game’s, a middle-aged Middle Eastern guy in a designer oilskin jacket I swear I tried on from the prêt-à-porter collection of some British designer (not Burberry) last year. The antagonist himself is rather forgettable, and keeps threatening Sam. Sam, bound and poisoned, nevertheless tells the antagonist that “I’m the man who’s going to kill you.” Oooh, could he get any more macho? But slightly ridiculous as this exaggerated manliness is, I also feel implicated in it, because the person controlling Sam through the digital puppeteering that gaming is, is me, and even though I don’t decide what Sam says, he can’t do anything unless I tell him to.
“You’re a mystery. Who are you?” “The man who’s going to kill you.” Music: Uncharted 3 Soundtrack. To see original subtitles, turn annotations off.
It gets even worse when Briggs, Sam’s trusty backup, crashes through the window to free Sam. Sam orders Briggs to go after the antagonist instead, but Briggs does the right thing, saves Sam from the poison, and gets him out. Angered instead of grateful, Sam effectively fires Briggs by telling him that this was their last mission together. Oh Sam, I think, don’t be like that. But he is like that and he owns it. And so I have to as well, despite how unpleasant it is. Back in the flying headquarters, Sam makes the executive decision to go after the terrorists against the advice of his support team and without Madam President’s knowledge. When he tells the team Briggs will not be accompanying him, Briggs visibly flinches. Now the game has turned darker by several notches, not just because of the terrorist plot, but because of the revelation of the protagonist’s personality and psyche.
One of the first video sequences presented from the game at the big trade convention E3 in Los Angeles in 2012 shows the player being given the choice between “Interrogate,” meaning that Sam stabs the prisoner and twists the knife to get more information out of them, or “Execute,” killing the prisoner outright. Due to the understandably negative reactions to this “gameplay,” including from writer and journalist Tom Bissell, it was removed from the game, and the choices are now “Spare” and “Kill,” with the torture only being hinted at.
Janice Lee writes in her essay On Narrative and Video Games that “One of the most unique aspects of video games is that narrative in video games is not primarily reliant on story, nor on character, nor on language. Rather, the primary narrative mode of video games, is spatial.” If the surroundings in a game are that important to its narrative, it’s not strange that the reveal of the dark side of Sam’s character happened after going inside and deep down into a desolate, dilapidated structure. Some reviewers have even interpreted the game instructions of what to do or where to go, which the player sees on walls and cliff-sides in the various maps, as visual signifiers of Sam’s obsession. Before starting this game, I expected it to be clandestine and violent, but not quite this tangled. I recently switched grenades from tear gas to sleep gas and the stealth attacks from lethal to non-lethal, because with a protagonist this dark, who needs an antagonist?