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Analysis:  Splinter Cell: Conviction  And Moral Quandaries

Analysis: Splinter Cell: Conviction And Moral Quandaries

April 27, 2010 | By Fraser McMillan

April 27, 2010 | By Fraser McMillan
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[In his latest column for GameSetWatch, UK writer and journalist Fraser McMillan looks at Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and the new Splinter Cell: Conviction demo to examine what hero Sam Fisher is really about - and the lack of 'true moral quandaries' in today's games.]

They were talking about football. Or soccer, I can't remember which term they used. They seemed to support the same team, and their favourite player had been transferred. One had just learned this from the other and sounded devastated, the latter claiming this nightmare scenario was worse than an untimely death for his hero.

Death. It's a bit of an issue in this game. This scenario occurring in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory's infancy, my inexperience with such sensitive operations reared its ugly head. There I go again; head, that's where I shot the two mercenaries in turn. Soccer (or football) was about to become the least of their concerns -- or, more accurately, absolutely equal to all other concerns in that it wouldn't exist seconds after their final words had been spoken.

So I killed them in cold blood. Big deal, right? I've murdered probably tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of virtual goons in infinitely more gruesome, painful and humiliating ways than a modest, silent bullet administered swiftly to the old medulla oblongata. This time, though, they became more than just cannon fodder.

Thinking Outside The Box

Having killed the pair in a panicky moral haze, I'd decided that enough was enough, and within two more missions of similar dilemma I had firmly concluded that I'd be as non-lethal as possible for the game's remainder. I like to think I went pretty far out of my way to deal with enemies via hand-to-hand combat or incapacitating strangulation, resisting the knife's brutally efficient allure or the pistol's middle-distance aptitude in favour of sticky shockers and gas-expelling wall cameras.

And it enhanced the play experience as well as satisfying my own entirely selfish aversion to guilt. My spatial awareness was enhanced, my takedowns were more creative and my control over Sam more careful. Chaos Theory's nature is one of precision and tactfulness. Sneaking in silently and extracting an hour later without having even fired a gun is something that few games support, never mind encourage, and the manner in which the latter is achieved is remarkably understated.

Eavesdropping on conversations or directly interrogating guards often reveals that they're as clueless as Sam, resentful of their superiors, misguided or just plain ignorant. Pressing opponents for information on pain of a rather stabby guttural intrusion is particularly revealing. Some will express regret and self-loathing, the more extreme among them begging for Sam to take their lives. Others will refuse to cooperate where their less committed colleagues will practically vomit intel and beg for mercy.

That not every single one can be interrogated grates somewhat, but between those that can talk there's surprisingly little overlap. Occasionally, one will extract the same stock health station location answer from two guys at opposite ends of the level, but it's rare enough not to be much of an issue. Most of the time, the illusion of personhood is all too insoluble and allows the traditional barrier between player and AI to melt away before you've even noticed.

Through A New Lens

All of a sudden killing is an abhorrent act, not something to casually engage in or draw pleasure from. These are human beings, living people. Some of them are bastards, but then so is Sam if you choose to make him the cold-blooded murderer his writer would have you believe. Ludo-narrative dissonance? And in a game Clint Hocking had an (admittedly smaller) hand in? It's almost unthinkable, but if we're to insist on cut scenes and fleshed out protagonists like Sam in such an open-ended game there's always potential for internal conflict.

All of the above meant that playing the Splinter Cell: Conviction demo left me with something of a bad taste in the mouth. I was impressed, obviously, because it was impossible not to be. Conviction looks set to rejuvenate a series in dire need of some new ideas and promises to provide the kind of fast-paced thrills that Wanted: Weapons of Fate desperately wished it was capable of. The five minute taster was beyond slick, showcasing appropriately blind and stupid AI used to accompany and perpetuate its - sigh - "visceral" action. So why the disappointment?

Because the guy in there was not my Sam Fisher. My Sam is a pacifist at heart. Yes, he can kill when absolutely necessary, but he was never one for making a mess or wantonly wasting lives when dragging enemies into a cubicle and quietly pacifying them would do. The Sam Fisher foisted upon me in Conviction? A psychopath. He revels in his kills, actively enjoying the act of splatting some fresh brains against a nearby wall, and he'd sooner break your face on the cubicle door than leave you snoozing inside. The subtlety and dignity are forever disposed of, thrown to the wolves with any delusions of Sam Fisher The Morally Superior Agent.

Hard To Stomach

Is it a side-effect of the death of his daughter? Hmm. I don't buy that. Though I can't claim to know the entire story, having been physically unable to tolerate more than four missions of Double Agent, what I can be certain of is that such a tragedy would only strengthen my Sam's resolve. Everybody is someone's son or daughter, after all, even true scumbags working for PMCs. He'd embrace his sorrow only to emerge with a stronger will.

This Sam is a figment of my imagination of course, but it's a construct that was fostered and justified by the content of Chaos Theory. Having only very recently played through it for the first time, it's astonishing that, in the last five years or more, we've seen little in the way of true moral quandaries arising in mainstream video games.

Other than as is demonstrated in that other Clint Hocking game, there's a propensity to reduce these elements to silly swingometers or tie them to upgrades without having any discernible effect on the main narrative thrust. Though dissonance is unavoidable at times, at least Sam's role in Chaos Theory's core plot was ambiguous enough that the guy talking to Lambert could conceivably have shunned unfettered violence in the face of a lower-key non-lethal approach.

Ironically enough, Chaos Theory's light and sound meters are more likely to affect split-second ethical decision making than any arbitrary visual measure of virtuosity. What brings that all too rare phenomenon to the forefront of player engagement in Chaos Theory is its very absence from explicit mention.

It's something we can consider because it's actually there, not because we're instructed that it is. That this can be said of a game about death which needn't feature much of that at all is the most remarkable thing.


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