Sneaking Away

Something about the Splinter Cell series got its hooks into me. I had never played a sneaking game before – the press coined it a “third person sneaker” even though Thief had beat it to market. It really put you into a super spy role, whereas previous games like Goldeneye were just running around going pew, pew in comparison. It was cerebral but it was still action. So this brings me to Splinter Cell: Conviction, which I preordered despite there being no real logical reason to do so beyond the three dollars off Amazon offered. I played through it this past weekend.

But there was a problem.

The problem wasn’t in the level design or the art. The game wasn’t buggy or broken. In fact, it was fun.

But it wasn’t Splinter Cell.

As I hid behind cover and took out handfuls of foot soldiers before dashing to my next cover and seeing a truck pull up with a half-dozen more, I thought: “This is the best Call of Duty I’ve ever played.” Because the game was not about espionage. Sure, the story was about it, but the mechanics were not. These mechanics I’d seen in Modern Warfare, in Rainbow Six: Vegas, in Gears of War, in Mass Effect 2 even. Yes, there were segments that reminded me of Splinter Cells of old, but these were punctuation marks to an experience that was mostly about running around kicking ass.

I fully understand why the game went in this direction. First, the creative director was the creative director of Rainbow Six: Vegas. Second, he says in this article was that the idea from the outset before he arrived was to make an antiSplinter Cell game. The article goes onto to say how large parts of the game were scrapped and others had to be retrofitted in a short amount of time to bring it back to a more Splinter Cell-type vision. I know from experience how difficult it can be to craft a consistent vision from table scraps.

So here we have a question: was the story (which relies heavily on Sam opening cans of whoop-ass versus sneaking around finding secrets) what was re-conceived first or did the story come from the more “panther-y” (to use the article’s words) gameplay? Traditional Splinter Cell gameplay trademarks simply wouldn’t work in the story – so which is more important? The story vision or the gameplay vision? And from that which is more important – the vision of the title or the vision of the franchise?

The above linked article seems to show a bit of contempt for the previous iterations of the franchise, which is a real shame because those put the studio and the publisher on the map.

Perhaps I am being an old man, pining for those good old days. If I asked you to explain the original Splinter Cell, you might say it was about “Sneaking around, using cool weapons, hiding from bad guys, and uncovering huge geopolitical espionage.” Sneaking would be the first word. But if you’ve played through Conviction and I asked you what it was about, how many words would it take for you to get to “sneaking”?

Here They Are Juggernauts

And while I don’t think production realities excuse a shitty game, they sure do explain it.

Christian Nutt provides one of the best-reading reviews of recent time from a damn LiveJournal account. The game in question is Final Fantasy XIII, but it could really be any AAA game that came out to middling reviews from lack of direction – either production-wise, creatively or both. You don’t have to be familiar with FFXIII‘s gameplay despite Nutt’s excruciating detail.

It sounds like the game removes “meaningful decisions” en masse (to use the Meier definition) and what is there is deceptively shallow:

There’s an ominous awareness of someone in control, just out of your field of view… And there is a severe and obvious flaw with this: gamers don’t all enjoy games the way the developers intend them to. Gamers don’t all enjoy games in the order developers intend them to. And gamers do not all enjoy games at the speed which developers intend them to. This is the first game in the series which does not allow for this, and that is a severe flaw. […] It’s about making sure everybody gets it. Really, really gets it.

This is a trend in games as we strive to be more “accessible”. We have to be there behind the curtain, pulling strings, being a puppetmaster, knowing that players need be level 5 HERE so that they have access to the golden boomerang that can kill the velociraptor. If a player isn’t level 5 THERE then they may wander around aimlessly and give up. If we are going to be more inclusive, we simply cannot have that.

So we are stuck in this gray area between choice with consequence and minimal negative consequence. It’s a tough chasm to span and I don’t think people understand the pressure coming from both sides.

But regardless, the dude gets it. Click the link.