Saturday, November 19, 2022
There are some anniversaries that you ring in with glee, others that arrive with a shock, and yet others that sidle by without a word. It is tempting to picture Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell falling into the latter category, shrinking back into the shadows of time. After all, that was its signature mechanic. But no. Something about it keeps hanging around. It is twenty years old this week, but you wouldn’t know it to play. In fact, due to the sorry state of the stealth genre at the moment, it almost seems new – alien. No half measures, no tolerance for mayhem, thoroughly weeded of waist-high foliage, and, like a peeved driving instructor, ready to fail you for the most minor transgression. And I should hope so, too.
Somewhere along the line, we stopped taking our stealth seriously, and we stopped taking it neat. If you play Splinter Cell today (either for the first time, or for the first time in a while) you may just wince, as though you had taken a slug of something clear and declogging. The crux is standard stuff: creep through a series of environments, each of which is large but linear, cached with secrets, and dotted with pockets of gloom; avoid being seen, by either guards, cameras, or cunningly placed lasers; and refrain from killing, unless ordered to do so by your boss. And yet I challenge you to name another big-budget game in recent years that provides a similar thrill, or that even cuts a similar figure.
True, we have the exploits of Agent 47, in the Hitman series, but he’s all clothes and killing, and his stealth is the social kind, where the murder rarely occurs too far from a tray of canapes. Then there is Metal Gear Solid, if only we know where that was. Those kids in A Plague Tale barely count, given that the sneaking is prescribed like medicine, with easy-to-follow instructions. All that leaves us with is the blockbusters: games such as Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon Forbidden West, in which stealth seems as if it was installed late in the day, patched onto a bigger picture. The reason that Splinter Cell has clung to the public consciousness, why fans clamour for it, and why there is a remake on the way, is that nothing has taken its place – either its design or the strange fug of its obsessions.
The main action of Splinter Cell kicks off in late 2004. To be precise, it begins on October 16th, 2004. At 19:49 hours. In Turkish airspace. These details are offered to us via subtitles, which flash up in the font of a digital clock, and the reason that they are important is that, for our hero, nothing less than absolute precision will do. The world in front of his eyes is tricky and untrustworthy, filled with human mess and moral ambiguity. Better by far to gaze down at the Operational Satellite Uplink (the OPSAT, to give it its abbreviated crunch) strapped to his wrist. The facts of the mission are filtered through this handy gizmo, and they never mist over or grow murky; they never crumble with the passage of time. Again and again, he is dropped into sticky territory, and his superior officer croons the soothing refrain into his ear: “Details on your OPSAT.”
The hero in question is, of course, Sam Fisher (voiced by the rusty-toned Michael Ironside), and the crooning is done by one Colonel Irving Lambert, though not quite into Sam’s ear. Rather, it fizzes and crackles through a nest of subdermal microchips and pours into a cochlear implant. Splinter Cell is infested with tech, much of it fastened onto – or injected into – its leading man. Thus, it’s a nice rebuke to the withered and wearying dilemma trotted out by the recent Bond movies, as to whether or not technology has supplanted the need for boots on the ground, and fossilised the dinosaurs of field work. The solution is simple: why not have both? Take your fossil and fit it with state-of-the-art hardware. Problem solved.
The reason that such methods are called for is Kombayn Nikoladze, an industrialist who made a fortune in oil, and who happens to be the newly elected president of Georgia. We are told that he seized power in a bloodless coup, but something crude oozes at the edges, and when two C.I.A. officers go missing in Tbilisi, Fisher is summoned to follow the stink. All of which is something of a ruse. The real villain of Splinter Cell isn’t a man or a group, still less a nation; it’s the quickening of telecommunications. Hence the news broadcasts that feel like briefings on a battlefield, and the strips of zeroes and ones that torrent past in-between them. One segment tells us about the “high-speed fiber optic connectivity to areas of Eastern Europe that, less than a decade past, didn’t have telephones.” Our enemies are massing against us, and they have unlimited data plans!
The game’s instruction booklet puts this matter a little more intricately. Third Echelon, the top-secret N.S.A. initiative to which our guy is inducted, was formed “in response to the growing use of sophisticated digital encryption to conceal potential threats to the national security of the United States.” Got that? This is good news, because it means that we have “a return to classical methods of espionage, enhanced with leading-edge surveillance and combat technology.” In other words, Splinter Cell gets to drool over the gadgets with which Fisher goes about his work, and to look longingly back on the days when a spy was furnished with little other than instinct, guile, and a warm gun. It’s a thriller in which America seeks to quell the seething of wireless threat, but one whose crick-necked hero is glued to a P.D.A. in the dark, so that he can pore over the documents zipped across, in real time, from Maryland. It’s no surprise that Sam’s preferred choice of chewing gum is revealed to be Wrigley’s Airwaves.
Hideo Kojima, faced with the same double-craving, shifted his series back to the 1960s, with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. That way, the hero’s handler could blather on about these new Bond movies over the radio, and the toys took on a lovingly retro tint: behold the olive-green binoculars, the pill stowed in a hollowed tooth, and the ping of his own personal mini-sonar. When it comes to the gadgets of Splinter Cell, two decades have done little to blunt their leading edge. To slither a little coil of optic cable underneath a door, the better to catch your foes in its grainy fisheye, still feels like the height of spy-fi. As for Sam’s goggles, they remain completely time-proof. Even now the act of shooting out a light and clicking them on, wrapping the world in a spectrum of rough greys, is a matchless pleasure.
Splinter Cell was a legatee of the Thief games, whose protagonist snuffed out torches with watery arrows and stole through his own makeshift murk. Fisher deployed similar tactics in the name of national security, and he did so in one of the best lighting engines ever cooked up. Its best trick is when the light leaks through slatted vents, and Sam has to hustle through the rays. (Play the game on the Xbox Series X, with its graphical firepower stropped and boosted, and it will wow you all over again.) But the grip of the game has more to do with the art direction, by Hugo Dallaire, which gives us the sense of a sequestered world, beneath the one glimpsed on the news. It’s a place of strip-lit offices and doomy rain. Even when we do get daylight, it breaks on an oil rig in the Caspian Sea, under whose struts we shimmy in near-blackness.
It is that world that still feels fresh – or, rather, that tallies with the staleness of our own. The notion that what may topple a government or crash an economy could, in fact, chirp harmlessly through the air hardly feels outdated. Some days it’s easy to stay stuck to our OPSATs, scrolling through the details and feeling vaguely lost. After all this while, our high-speed fibre optic connectivity has only grown faster, our sophisticated digital encryptions have only thickened, and our hunger for the classical methods of espionage has only grown more acute.
Saturday, November 19, 2022 @ 10:35 PM
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