Skip to main content

    'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' examines some of the realities of the war on terror

    'Splinter Cell: Blacklist' examines some of the realities of the war on terror

    Share this story

    If you buy something from a Verge link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

    Splinter Cell: Blacklist's torture scene is meant to be a depiction of something that the game's developers believe could be a "unspeakably horrible" element of the real war on terror.

    "You've heard the term, 'freedom ain't free'," Ubisoft Toronto cinematic director David Footman told Polygon. "We all know, just from what we've read in the media, even though it hasn't been explicitly said, that forces are using torture as a means of getting intel on the war on terror."

    "Things that happened are probably unspeakably horrible."

    Footman was responding to a question about some of the negative reaction that came out the game's E3 debut.

    One of the more interesting — and definitely controversial — aspects from the debut in June was a torture scene from the game. Early on in the demo, main character Sam Fisher is seen jamming a knife into an enemy combatant's shoulder. The player then fiddles with the knife using the right stick to get information on the next Blacklist attack before being given the choice to knock him out or kill him.

    The co-writer of Gears of War: Judgment, Tom Bissell, called the scene "a blithe, shrugging presentation of the very definition of human evil, all in the name of 'entertainment,'" adding the scene made him feel "ashamed of being a gamer" for a few days.

    When asked about Bissell's comments during an interview at Eurogamer Expo 2012, Footman looked at it another way, saying the topic of torture is something that we should face head on as a discussion topic rather than a taboo subject.

    "Any dialogue around that sort of topic is probably something we should be talking about, probably something we should be facing," he said. "So I think the idea was to put players in that position where you have to extract information to stop an attack.

    "Let's say there's going to be 2 to 3 million people killed in that potential attack. What would you do to avert that attack? Is it worth taking down one hostile who may or may not be the right guy? I think those are the choices we want players to face."

    The torture scene is another sign that Ubisoft Toronto's has its own interpretation of Splinter Cell. And despite the occasionally negative reaction, Footman reckons the pressure has gone unnoticed at the studio.

    "I think there's a lot of pressure and I don't think we've actually been aware of it," he said. "When you look at the base of the studio, it looks a little bit like a New York Yankees line-up,"

    It was nearly three years ago that we were playing Splinter Cell: Conviction, a tale of Sam Fisher attempting to find out the truth about what happened to his daughter Sarah in a 24-esque style video game. Released as an Xbox 360 and PC exclusive in 2010, Conviction was made by a team at series mainstay Ubisoft Montreal, headed up by the duo of Maxime Béland and Alex Parizeau.

    Both Béland and Parizeau have had the task of building a new team at the new Ubisoft Toronto, led by former Assassin's Creed boss Jade Raymond. The team will release Blacklist next Spring for Xbox 360, PC and PlayStation 3, the first time a new installment in the series has returned to the PS3 since 2007's Double Agent.

    But Footman says the duo of Béland and Parizeau has struck gold in terms of the amount of talent that been added to the Blacklist development team.

    "We've really gotten some of the best of the best from a lot of different studios from a lot of different parts of North America and Europe," he said. "And I'm not just saying that, I've been on a lot of different game teams and the experience, the depth, the discipline, it's probably one of the tightest teams that I've ever been part of."

    He goes on to say the creation of the development team is "a testament" of Béland and Parizeau that they would bring together "the right people" to help create and realize the vision of Blacklist.

    "In the last few years that we've been in pre-production and production, we've hit some pretty high goals in terms of a new studio, so we're all really proud of that," he said.

    The effort made by Béland and Parizeau in bringing together such a team has had a profound effect on Blacklist's development, said Footman, noting that developers need to be given the room to try risks in helping to "innovate inside the game".

    "You can't have producers and senior types that are holding him too hard because given permission to fail and to take risks and try things is when you start really accomplishing great things and that's kind of what I'm seeing," he said.

    Whilst Conviction was a personal tale of Fisher's similar to the early days of one Jack Bauer, Footman says the newest Splinter Cell will tell a story of "interpersonal conflict".

    "There's an age old debate between character and plot in that some people say, 'Oh, characters are way more important than plot,' or that 'plot is much more important than characters'," he said, "and I think that if you look at both as the exact same thing, you'll know that Sam Fisher is who he is by the choices he makes.

    "Depending on the plot in front of him will determine who he is to you as a character. In Conviction, it was a revenge story, it was a very personal story. You saw a very rageful Sam, you saw a side of Sam we hadn't seen before. And this is a function of the plot, 'What would happen if I took away your daughter?'"

    Footman adds they've put in "an immense" load of work in making the game's Blacklist, noting that "great enemies make great heroes" in stories.

    "I think you're going to see Sam Fisher and the team pushed to their absolute limits to deal with this," he said.

    Ubisoft Toronto is also pushing hard on the realism factor for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Studio officials recently announced the opening of a brand new mo-cap studio that will make use of voice, facial and body capture. As well as Blacklist and other Ubisoft Toronto projects in the future, the studio will also be used for other projects around the publisher.

    Footman explains that the introduction of the mo-cap studio will lead to scenes being shot a lot faster with the addition of an editorial process, which will be a revolution in how capturing work can be done in gaming, adding "a really fast and efficient pipeline for capturing performance" at the studio will allow for an "optimized" actor performance.

    "'I'm calling it the Filmic pipeline and actor driven processes," he said. "We're making it a safe place for performances, we're making it easier to get performances from the actors, we're doing a lot more actor-driven processes in there and everything is driving up towards editorial, which is a new aspect of our pipeline that I think is a game-changer for animation.

    "When we finally have a scene which will be a combination of eight or nine different takes and when we've finally agreed on the tempo, the length, the takes we want to keep, it's all agreed on in an edit with cinematic cameras and we're watching it in the editorial room. All we do is export in XML and we order the data. It's just as simple as visually validating it and saying, 'give me this data'.

    "Not a frame more, not a frame less. We're always working with performance."