Thursday, 25 April 2013

I've been playing Splinter Cell and it is wonderful

Spurned on by this Jordan Rivas bit on Splinter Cell post 9/11, I downloaded the HD version of the game the other night and have blitzed my way already to level seven, of nine. It's great.

I remember getting this when it came out and hating it. The AI was scrambled; the platforming was janky. They still are, actually, but what I notice now that I didn't notice then is just how effing tight the writing is.

When Ken Levine interviewed Drew Holmes to work on Infinite, he asked one question: "What's the most important thing in videogame writing?" "Brevity," Holmes answered, and the story goes that he was hired on the spot. It might be a contradictory sentiment, but that's what Splinter Cell has: Brevity, in spades.

And in a game about international politics, US government and terrorist plots, that's shocking, frankly. Military and intrigue games these days are fucking turgid - anyone who's waded through the bombast of CoD will know that when it comes to combat drama, games, generally, screw things up.

Splinter Cell doesn't. It's stripped, lean and curt. Fisher and his support staff speak quickly; layers of character are applied in few words. There was a great exchange a few levels back after Wilkes, the NSA's top computer guy, had been shot on the job in Russia. Fisher, on comms to his handler, Lambert, back in Langley asks "what about Wilkes?" clearly wanting to know how Lambert feels about it. "We'll dispatch you another handler as quick as we can." Bang. Perfect. And Fisher says nothing in response. It's pretty cliched, the cold, officious wetworks thing, but at least in Splinter Cell it's handled properly.

Another great moment for that is in the first level. Fisher meets his contact in a burning building. The guy's been shot and dies after spilling the goods. Lambert's on the radio: "Leave the body for the fire, it'll be easier to explain to his family." Excellent.

And then the pacing, the quiet build of it. Level four has you infiltrate the CIA headquarters, meaning you absolutely cannot kill anyone inside. If you do, the mission ends. The Langley halls are dark and shadowed. It's very much a stealth mission; the fifteen or so maintenance men and guards you encounter are meant to be sneaked past.

But that leads into Kalinatek, a Russian office block where bad guys are executing hackers before they can blow the whistle. It's bright, it's lit up, there are guys everywhere. And it presents this change in the story. The levels to that point have all been creeping based with little to no violence at all. But the stakes are up now - the mid-level cutscenes show the crisis you're trying to avert escalating. As things get hotter on an international scale in Splinter Cell, things heat up in-game, too. Before now, the tensions between China and the US existed in hotline calls and secret negotiation talks - now they're on FOX. It's all in the open: At Kalinatek, so are you.

Lights, everywhere; guards, everywhere. This is the first time you're really required to use your gun. I think I played this level right in that I shot my way through. I wasn't discovered, but I killed a lot. It felt necessary. Shit was heading toward the fan. I needed to act.

Post BioShock, we talked a lot about game environment telling game story and Splinter Cell does that so, so subtly. It's not Rapture where narrative is literally painted on the walls. It speaks with light levels, enemies, the size of environments. If it weren't for this preceding CIA mission, Kalinatek is a change you might not notice. Like the CIA building, this global crisis has been unfolding in the dark. Now, at Kalinatek, it's on display.

Splinter Cell is just so...clever. It doesn't rant, it doesn't testify. Everything's done discretely. The writing is as quiet as Fisher himself. It sneaks up on you.

In 2002, the toss up for me was between this and Metal Gear Solid. For some reason, probably because it had tits and ninjas, I went with MGS. Idiot. Kojima is the total antithesis of everything that's right with Splinter Cell. He's obvious, bloated and patronising. He over writes every single scene and beats you round the head with subtext whenever he can.

But then, maybe I wasn't old enough for Splinter Cell. As Rivas explains up there, he didn't see the nuance when he was 12-years-old either.

It's brilliant, it's wonderful. I'll post again on Splinter Cell when I've finished it.

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