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The Splinter Cell Blacklist trailer (embedded below) from E3 2012 -- highlighted at the Microsoft press conference -- frankly disturbed me. Its depiction of realistic torture as action game gameplay seemed a step too far for the medium, to me. It was the most significant factor that led me to express feelings that Gamasutra collectively termed "the E3 of disillusion" when the staff ultimately discovered we all felt much the same after the show.
Later, I heard that the team had walked back some of its decisions on explicit, interactive torture scenes. This interested me, and I engaged creative director Maxime Béland and lead writer Richard Dansky in a conversation about this topic some months ago. With the game due to hit shelves, it is time to share it.
Dansky feels strongly about the creative integrity of the Tom Clancy franchise, and Béland speaks at length of the potential of the medium. Both do wrangle with the questions of how much is too much and what is appropriate for players -- but they also clearly struggle with working in a medium that constantly evolves, is highly commercially competitive, and serves a demanding yet fickle audience.
It's a rough road to walk, no doubt. It's an interesting look into what goes into making a highly sophisticated big-studio game based on challenging subject matter, but I was left with as many questions as answers.
I originally wanted to talk to you two -- specifically you two, together -- because I'm very curious about, well, among other things, the potential tension between narrative and design.
This was touched off because of some of the mechanics in the game being very fraught with meaning. I know that you've dialed it back since last E3, but there were the torture sequences, and there's a lot of actual meaning involved in that. It's not an abstract mechanic. It's not abstracted at all. It's very concrete.
My first question would be how do you balance implementing gameplay mechanics with what they mean -- from the perspective of what they actually mean?
Richard Dansky: Okay, I guess I'll jump in on this one. Actually, rewinding just a little bit towards the start of your question -- you talked about the tension between gameplay and narrative, and I think one of the things we really tried to do is not so much think about that as a tension but think about, really, the player experience and how gameplay and narrative come together to create that experience.
What the goal has always been, from our side of the table, has been to make sure that the narrative adapts to what the player's doing with the gameplay mechanics, so that every choice they make feels like the appropriate one for the story they're telling as they play through the game -- and it operates within the context of the mechanics that we've given them.
Maxime Béland: I think the answer to your question can be a lot bigger than what we're talking about, though. I think, for me, each time that I work on a game, I always wonder, "What's my theme, what's my subject?" And I find that I am annoyed at the fact that we have genres that are defining our game's link to the gameplay.
And I'm talking about action/adventure games or games that are story-driven, anyways. I think it's probably a limit of the technology we use, but if you're making a Splinter Cell game, you should have technology and gameplay that supports what Sam Fisher can do in the real world, and support everything you that want your story to tell, or that you want players to live.
And often the biggest restriction that we have is the technology. What I mean by that is, we've all played the Uncharted level where suddenly we're on a horse and we're like, "Holy shit! I'm on a horse, this is cool!" But of course you're on a horse -- you're Indiana Jones. It shouldn't be surprising. You're not Indiana Jones, but that's the fantasy, right?
So, when you're Sam Fisher, like, if we were making a movie or writing a book about Sam Fisher, we wouldn't have the limits of the technology we have, so we would be a lot more willing to explore other sides of what it means to be an elite spy spec ops agent, whatever Sam is, right? Can Sam drive a car? Of course he can. Can Sam drive a chopper? We think we can. Can Sam pickpocket someone at one point? Of course he can. Right?
The challenge we have is that we have the theme, we have a genre, and from there we obviously use the technology that is available to us, and then that comes with limits. And then we come up with a story, and that comes with different things... We have to limit or constrain our story to what we will be able to have the player able to do. And each time that we're like, "Oh, we'll just drop that into a non-interactive cinematic," well, for me, it's a loss. Because I think ultimately you want your player to be in control as much as possible.