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Splinter Cell: Conviction and the Modern Spy

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Tom Dann

Splinter Cell: Conviction is the most accessible of the Splinter Cell games. The series, traditionally mired in stealth, and making a more action-oriented approach difficult, has now brought Sam Fisher more in line with prototypical Hollywood superspies such as Bond, Bourne, Bauer and Bristow. This evolution isn’t just apparent in the gameplay, but in the story and visuals as well.

The influence of Jason Bourne and Daniel Craig’s James Bond is particularly apparent. Take, for example, Sam’s close combat abilities. Assuming you don’t expose yourself to any incoming fire, enemies can be taken down up close instantly. Additionally, this approach is rewarded: physical takedowns are the way to earn “marks,” which allow for automatically-aimed, one-shot kills. This hyper efficiency, while taking the input away from the player, pushes Sam into Bourne and Bond’s league of decreased realism.

This borderline superheroism is largely at odds with the games stylistic approach in terms of story and character. Conviction continues a more personal story arc from the previous game, Double Agent. Sam’s daughter, Sarah, has been killed in a hit and run by a drunk driver. In Conviction, Sam is led on a hunt for information about Sarah’s killer, and this is his primary motivation. This more personal storyline echoes modern spy plotlines in the aforementioned Bourne and Bond films, as well as TV shows such as Alias and 24. For modern audiences, it’s not enough for spies to be merely charismatic: they must have complexity and issues. Most importantly, this complexity must be tested by a personal stake in the story.

Alongside this personal complexity is a more “realistic” tone. This trend, held up by Bourne, the new Bond and 24, is typified by less glamourous lighting techniques, more elaborate and physical stunts, as well as, very frequently, the now-overused “shaki-cam.” This grittier approach gives the subject added intensity thanks to the sense of realism. This realism, however, completely comflicts with the idea of Sam as the ultimate spy, able to take down half a dozen enemies in seconds. It’s no surprise, though, that Conviction attempts to capitalise on the idea. Cutscenes are loaded with shaki-cam, and the Unreal powered locations and inhabitants are devoid of bright colours. Sam Fisher’s world is not a happy place.

Which brings us to the most important aspect of any spy saga: the spy himself. Sam Fisher is a man with nothing to live for. In a world of murderers, where he himself is one of the worst, his only humanising factor has been taken from him. It’s not clear what he’s been up to since he took his leave from Third Echelon, but it only takes a hint that he can have his vengeance on the man who killed his daughter to get him back in the game.

It’s clear from the outset that Sam is not playing games. Aside from the brutal takedowns and ruthlessly efficient marked executions, the game is riddled with “interrogations.” Sam doesn’t so much interrogate the bad guys as outright torture them. Using whatever’s at hand in the environment, Sam punches in the ribs, kicks in the balls, and smashes faces into anything within reach. Unfortunately, the question of moraility is never really explored in the game. Is Sam truly justified in his actions? The men he interrogates are certainly not decent citizens, but the sheer brutality on show is uncomfortable.

What’s more uncomfortable, however, is the way these interrogations are presented. The camera zooms in to give the best view of the violence, and the player is prompted to press the melee button to instigate each bout of torture. Whilst the interrogation is presented as an option, there isn’t an alternative. Is the message here that torture is the only option? The morality of torture is a vast, hugely complex issue. Splinter Cell: Conviction makes a compelling case as to why video games shouldn’t try to approach such topics.

Splinter Cell: Conviction is a very good action-stealth hybrid. It’s fun to play, and on the surface, gives players the opportunity to be a superspy in Sam Fisher. Look deeper, however, and there are some troubling issues. The game’s presentation of some brutal acts of violence, including closeups and slowmo, almost suggests we should be enjoying it. There is no condemnation of such acts, and the game almost presents a kind of fascist-fantasy: that the good guy is entirely justified. The wrong man is never tortured, and the right information is always gained. These issues spread to other areas of the game: traditional Splinter Cell games put an emphasis on staying hidden, whereas Conviction largely has you hide in order to find the best way to take out the bad guys. The levels don’t seem geared to an entirely stealthy, avoiding all conflicts approach. Despite the attempts to elevate Sam Fisher to the big leagues, the naïve approach to violence in the game is ultimately what holds it back.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

Categories: Essays
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