Editor’s Note: I started this recurring feature about two months ago, when it occurred to me that I had too many video games and too few posts on this blog, and had the brilliant idea to kill two birds with one stone. Then I accidentally deleted the blog (why yes, I do plan on milking this story for all it’s worth, thanks for asking), but kept playing games, leading to the profoundly ironic situation that a feature about clearing out my game backlog now has a backlog of its own. But it’s okay, because the blog is up and running and I’m actually writing in it again, starting with this very conflicted review of last year’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist. “Thanks” to recent world events, it’s probably the most topical video game review I’m ever likely to write…so, enjoy that, I guess? – Z.H.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is the sixth game in Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell series–seventh, if you count the 2006 PSP spinoff Splinter Cell: Essentials–but it’s the first one I’ve ever played. My stealth action franchise of choice has always been Konami’s Metal Gear; I was busy playing Metal Gear Solid 2 when the original Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell dropped in 2002, and in any case my interest in that game had more to do with its auteurist stylings and insane, postmodern-anime plot than with any actual desire to play an espionage simulator. To be honest, even during the peak of their shared popularity, I never really thought of Metal Gear and Splinter Cell as the competitors the games enthusiast media liked to depict them as. Splinter Cell quite simply wasn’t on my radar.
But there’s also a certain extent to which my preference has been, for lack of a better word, politically informed. For all its fetishistic attention to the details of warcraft–the namedropping of real-world organizations and events, the authentic weapon names, the enemy A.I. supposedly modeled on genuine military squad tactics–the Metal Gear games have a decidedly left-leaning, anti-war streak. Loyalties are constantly shifting, heroes becoming villains becoming heroes again: not out of a mere mechanical need for thrilling plot twists–though of course that doesn’t hurt–but to demonstrate the often absurd political contingencies for which soldiers give their lives in combat. Granted, it’s also a series that depicts multiple generations of a joke character best known for shitting his pants, and whose most frequently recurring antagonist is somehow possessed by the severed arm of another bad guy; but the point is, the social commentary is there if you want it. Splinter Cell, though? Endorsed by Tom Clancy, that maven of right-wing dad-literature, who probably gets a boner reading issues of Soldier of Fortune? Thanks, but I’ll keep my “tactical espionage action” the way I’ve taken it since 1998: batshit insane and Japanese.
Thing is, though, there hasn’t been a full-fledged new Metal Gear game since Peace Walker in 2010; and while I’ve heard good things about last year’s prologue/extended demo Ground Zeroes, it has yet to come out on a platform where I’m capable of playing it. The MGS games are eminently replayable, but a man can’t live on HD remasters alone. So it was only natural that Splinter Cell, with its comparatively steady stream of sequels, would start to look appealing; then, when I bought my new graphics card and it included a free download code for Blacklist, I no longer had an excuse. I played a Splinter Cell game, and I enjoyed it…enjoyed the hell out of it, in fact. But I also kind of hated that I enjoyed it, because it was the most disturbing video game I’ve played in some time.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist chronicles the continuing adventure of series protagonist Sam Fisher, a special forces super-agent so hypercompetent he makes James Bond look like Sterling Archer. In this installment, Fisher is placed in charge of the top-secret counter-terrorism unit “Fourth Echelon,” and tasked with hunting down a sect known as “the Engineers” before they unleash “the Blacklist”: a series of attacks on American soil, supposedly meant to force the United States to withdraw all troops currently deployed overseas. But of course–spoiler alert!–the real purpose of the Blacklist is to start a third world war, with the U.S. at its center; otherwise, we’d be placed in the uncomfortable position of fighting to keep America at war, a cause that I’m sure would be beyond the pale for the no-doubt-very-nice Canadians at Ubisoft Toronto who designed the game. And that’s more or less how Blacklist proceeds: towing the line between gung-ho patriotism and gritty cynicism, doing its best to appear ripped from the headlines without getting too political and alienating its player base. Until–and for real, if you give a shit about spoilers, this one’s a doozy–Fisher infiltrates the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, and the whole thing starts to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
The Guantanamo sequence feels like Ubisoft’s attempt at an edgy, daring storytelling moment, like their take on the infamous “No Russian” mission from 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2; a moment that says, “look at how serious and political video games can be.” The problem is that that’s all it’s saying, and the message rings hollow. As I walked Fisher through the camp, past rows of hooded prisoners caged up behind chain-link fences like animals, I kept waiting for the game to pass some kind of judgment. It never did; indeed, I was warned repeatedly not to harm any of the soldiers on duty, since they were “on our side.” And the reason why Fisher is in Gitmo in the first place? Why, to “question” an Iranian arms dealer with ties to the Engineers, by which of course I mean to torture him by crushing his wrists with a folding chair.
The torture scene isn’t interactive–no doubt because early showings of the game, which did include interactive torture sequences, rightfully horrified many critics, most notably Tom Bissell. But the game still treats torture as a foregone conclusion, and the player, even in their lack of direct input, remains complicit. The most brutal irony in the removed sequence described by Bissell–the “moral choice–after an interactive torture sequence”–is retained, as you’re forced to choose between putting the dealer out of his misery and “sparing” his life, with the knowledge that he will be killed much more brutally when the Engineers learn about his betrayal. For the record, I put one between his eyes. It didn’t make me feel any better.
So, okay, Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an ugly and politically irresponsible game in an era when ugly, politically irresponsible games arguably dominate the industry. That, in and of itself, isn’t enough to “disturb” me. What I found so disturbing about Blacklist was how fucking fun it was. Mechanically, everything felt great: from sneaking silently through exotic locations, to the surprisingly competent third-person shooting, to running around in the shadows performing “stealth takedowns” on unsuspecting enemies and generally being Batman as fuck. It was one of the most pleasurable games, purely as a game, that I’ve played in recent memory. So how does one approach a game like this critically, when so much else about it is so ideologically, even ethically objectionable?
It’s not as if this tension between troubling politics and thrilling entertainment is unique to interactive media. I can personally attest to the schizophrenic experience of watching Dirty Harry for the first time, one part of my brain totally agreeing with the criticisms of the film as “fascist” while the other part just geeked out over how badass it was when Eastwood jumped on the roof of the school bus. Indeed, the commonly held argument that games encourage a deeper connection to the action through interactivity just doesn’t, in my experience at least, hold up to scrutiny. Identification with a film protagonist is in many ways just as deep, and doesn’t allow the viewer to exercise as much agency; Dirty Harry is Dirty Harry no matter how you slice it, but the Sam Fisher who tortures Guantanamo prisoners and the Sam Fisher who sneaks behind enemy lines and tries to minimize collateral damage are almost different characters, since only the latter is actually under my control.
But it’s actually that detachment, I think, that makes Blacklist such a troubling experience for me. Dirty Harry is both thrilling and problematic, but Splinter Cell is often only one or the other at any given time: the joy of its mechanical play is almost entirely detached from the fucked-up politics of its narrative, which makes the collision of the two in the Guantanamo sequence all the more jarring. And the typical language of video game criticism does its best to make the latter irrelevant, because hey, the point of video games is to have fun. I had a ton of fun with Splinter Cell: Blacklist. I would heartily recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in stealth games. But it’s also a game glorifying the unilateral actions of an infallible figure who plays geopolitical chess with impunity, during a time when controversies over NSA spying and overseas drone strikes are calling into question the legitimacy of this kind of authority. And it’s a game whose scare-mongering “what-if” storyline feels even more tasteless as I write this post than it did when I played it about a month ago: yesterday, twelve days after the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that loom heavily over Blacklist‘s narrative, the U.S. and allied nations launched air strikes on the Islamic State group in Syria, the latest chapter in a “War on Terror” that games like Blacklist (and, to be fair, plenty of films and TV shows) obsessively dramatize. Shouldn’t this factor into our evaluations of such a game? When real-life events with serious human consequences are being trivialized, should “fun” be the most important factor?
I started this post with a comparison to the Metal Gear games for a reason. I have a theory that Metal Gear is able to get away with making political statements not so much in spite but because of its essential ludicrousness; all the tank-riding shamans, cyborg ninjas, and kinda-sorta vampires are there to create the necessary suspension of disbelief so we can think about war and its consequences in the abstract, without having to turn its brutal reality into something “fun.” But Splinter Cell, like a disturbing number of other contemporary franchises, turns something uncomfortably approximating our real-life wars into a game, and the result, for me at least, is by turns shallow and discomfiting. Are these really the kinds of fantasies we want to be playing out, while the real thing continues to unfold around us? Of course not; but I can’t help but think that things are never going to change as long as the critical discourse on games continues to highlight their value as entertainment, while ignoring their social function.