One of the more inflammatory aspects of 2010's Splinter Cell: Conviction was the fact that it included a number of gruesome interactive torture sequences. The game, in which you play as rogue spec-ops badass Sam Fisher, featured a number of ticking time-bomb scenarios in which Sam would torture various bad guys to get information.
True to the model set forth by the TV show 24, Sam's ends always justified his means. He'd break bones, smash faces, and twist knives to get the information he needed, and he'd either kill the bad guy or leave him maimed. Players would take control as he'd push his target around the room, pressing a button to bash a guy's face on a copy machine or slam his jaw into a bathroom sink.
Take a look at this montage of the brutal-ass stuff you'd do to characters in Conviction, all in the service of getting information. It was painful to watch, ham-fisted, and felt decidedly unnecessary and weird. It was especially odd in co-op — I remember my friend and I were taking turns picking up a guy and pressing 'B' to bash his face into the wall and extract information from him. "No, now it's my turn to horrifically torture the guy! OK, now you go."
Last week, I headed down to Ubisoft to take a look at the new game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, which is a sequel to Conviction. (My extended preview is here.) After playing the game, I had an enjoyable talk with creative director Maxime Béland. Beland is a sharp, energetic man, tall with close-cropped hair and a perpetual smile. He speaks enthusiastically about his game and game design in general, and our conversation went on so long that eventually, PR had to gently step in and shepherd him off to another interview.
One of the first things I asked him was: Would Blacklist have interactive torture like Conviction did?
"No, there will not be interactive torture in Blacklist," said Béland. "On Conviction, we called those 'interrogations,' right? And it was kind of, my vision of Conviction was that the player to be in control all the time. Even when you weren't in control, I wanted you to feel like you were in control. We had no camera cuts, I always wanted to make it feel that it was nonstop. And so the interrogations were a bit like that, you know, a way that the story moves forward, that Sam gets the information that he wants."
But in Blacklist, they decided to go another route. "We're doing certain things with interrogation moments where you won't be in control," said Béland, "but you will be in control of what you do with the guy after. So again, embracing that lethal/nonlethal side." He's referring there to the fact that the game will allow players to choose to either kill or simply incapacitate guards, a choice that will carry over to the aftermath of the various interrogations. "After certain moments in the game," he said, "you're going to decide whether you're taking the guy out or not."
In other words, interrogations/torture/whatever may still happen, but won't be interactive. This video is an extended cut of Splinter Cell: Blacklist E3 that Ubisoft showed at E3 last year. In it, Sam appears to be up to his old torture-y tricks, and then some. At one point, he jams his knife beneath his victim's clavicle and the player proceeds to twist the thumbstick to make Sam twist the knife. Yow. Producer Andrew Wilson has since told Eurogamer that particular scene has been cut, or at least scaled back.
So, no interactive torture. What will be interactive is the moment after Sam gets the information he needed, when you'll decide whether to let the guy live or die. "What I'm hoping is that it's going to make players reflect on the reality of those situations," Béland said. "You know, like, what happens when these guys are there, and they kind of have that choice where, 'Yeah, obviously this guy is bad, but he's not a threat anymore. Nobody's gonna know what I'm doing, so what am I gonna do?' We're doing variations on that. Nothing's black or white, everything's grey, especially for those guys. Even when they went to get Bin Laden, they weren't 100% sure he was there. 'What's the percentage?' 'Ah, we're at 72% sure he's there.'"
Of everything I saw of the game, the only torture I saw was performed by a group of bad guys torturing a good guy that Sam had been sent in to rescue. After Sam rescued him, the guy was more than happy to share information without further convincing. But still, the more weighty moral dilemma during the hunt for Bin Laden wasn't whether or not he was in a given building, it was whether "enhanced interrogation" was an acceptable method for finding him in the first place.
The thing that I ultimately found most disquieting about Conviction (and really, many other modern war video games) was the tacit acceptance of the idea that torture always leads to good intelligence. I pressed Béland about this — why not just write a failed interrogation or bad information into the story? Why make every interrogation sequence pay off with good intel?
We never quite arrived at a satisfying answer, but we had an interesting back-and-forth:
Me: I would think that there is a way to get around [the problem of "failing" an interrogation and having to start over]: Just make the written outcome of one of the torture scene failure, or bad information. Write it into the story.
Béland: OK, so. We can talk about that. Like, on [Rainbow Six: Vegas, for which Béland was also creative director], I kind of analysed the types of choices that you can do in a game. I identified a couple, I think it was six or seven. There's the blind choice, which is, you know, do A or do B. And you're not going to know the repercussions until they're done. So that's the blind choice. And often in games, you have that. Where like, a door opens and a guy's like "follow me!" and you follow, but you don't know what's gonna happen. Then you've got what I call the "win-win" choice, which is: Regardless of what you do, you know the outcome's gonna be the same. So it's an invalid choice.
I identified all these choices. For example, in Rainbow, 'Your teammate's gonna die, but there's this school bus full of children, what are you gonna do?' That's interesting in a movie, because if you're Spider-Man you save both, if you're Jack Bauer, you do the greater good and someone dies, but in a game, if you don't know what's gonna happen, it has no value.
So I tried to identify that. And the only choice that I thought had value, and that was more interesting for players, was a choice where the repercussions were clear, and they were both positive. You could have two repercussions, one good one bad, and it's obvious.
What I'm talking about isn't a choice, it's more like…
Branching, you're talking about branching.
No, actually. I'm talking about writing the actual bad information into the game, not making it a choice. Like, allowing for the idea that torture doesn't always work. What I'm getting at here is… do you watch Homeland?
Do you ever worry that Splinter Cell is a 24 game in a Homeland world? That audiences these days are more interested in nuance and ambiguity?
I was talking about it [earlier], how nothing is black and white and everything is grey, right? So that's why I think, I'm hoping that we're more Homeland in that respect, in how we're treating the story and how we're treating those moments. I think 24… I love 24 season one, and I think the stuff that was good about 24 was the pacing, and that feeling that 'Oh my god it never stops,' you're always on the edge of your seat. I think we're kind of doing that on Blacklist for sure, but at the same time I think our story, and our mechanics, are a lot more embracing the grayness of the world.
It's hard without spoiling or giving concrete examples.
They don't want me to talk about those moments too much. I wish I had… I guess the example is good, let's say you've captured someone, you upload a picture of him to Fourth Echelon, and they tell you 'It's him at 68%.' And then you get the prompt: 'Kill/No Kill.' What do you do? Well, he's a bad guy, and there's guns around him, and that's good enough for me! Or… hell no, you don't take out a life unless your sure.
So you could imagine that those moments are there to do that. We're playing on [looks for the right word] archetypes of situations like that. So you have the guy, he's clearly just a small part of the puzzle, and it's like 'Kill/No-Kill.' Are you an arse or not? That's basically a question we're asking you there, versus later in the game. We also have a finale that kind of wraps things up.
In the game, do you get any feedback later from the choices you've made?
We had a big discussion, [game director] Patrick Redding and I, we had a big discussion about moral choices in games. Our conclusion was that, to have a true moral choice in a game, we haven't found a way to link it to gameplay. As soon as you link it to gameplay, the player sees the matrix, he sees the gold pot at the end of the rainbow, and then he plays the system a lot more than he plays the true morality.
So if you take a game like Mass Effect, at one point, you kind of decide if you want to be good or bad. And then you're not really role-playing the situation, you're saying, 'I want to be good, so what's the good answer here?' So you're playing the system more than the true morality. What we talked about, and we had lunches and meetings about it, we said, let's try something where it's a true moral choice. You're not going to get a thousand dollars if you don't kill the guy and only five hundred if you do; let's remove all the gameplay part of it. Let's put the player into those situations, put them in control — because that's where games shine — and then, hopefully, we're treating it in a way that's mature, that's respectful, that will get people talking about it. 'Of course I killed the dude, it was 61%' You know, get people talking about that.
But it's a real, you know, working on all the Rainbow Six games and the Splinter Cell games, every project, we have a moment where we're like, 'What are we doing with morality?' It's not a black and white world.
I was a bit frustrated that Béland was viewing the idea of interactive torture as a game-design problem rather than as a storytelling one, but I do understand where he's coming from. Surely, most of his time is spent wrestling with the logistics and implications of the game's design. It'd fall more to the game's writer, longtime Ubisoft writer Richard Dansky, to decide just how grey the game's grey areas will be.
"Our lead writer on Blacklist is Richard Dansky," Béland said. "When I called him, I said, 'Hey Richard, we're making Splinter Cell six, do you want to write it for us? And his first question was, 'Do I need to come up with a story that's gonna require Sam to take out 800 guys?' And I paused for a second and I said… 'This is sad, Richard, but I think so. We can talk about it, but I think at the end of the day… we want it to be more and more "ghost," [to have non-lethal options], but yeah, at the end of the day, it's just Sam Fisher and bad guys and maps, right?'"
It's certainly a problem with this kind of long-running series. People expect a certain sort of story, and that's just what they get. Given what we've seen in past Splinter Cell games, I'd be surprised if Blacklist winds up being all that thought-provoking. It'll probably be, as Béland so aptly put it, Sam Fisher, and bad guys, and maps. But hey, never say never. At the very least, this time around we won't have to be pressing B to mash a guy's face into a urinal.