fifth freedom, my ass

Sun Mar-19th-2006 // Filed under: Games

I finally completed Splinter Cell Chaos Theory the other day; it took me a while to get around to the game, but once I did, I pretty much played through it in a couple of sittings. I can’t say that the experience of actually playing the game was unpleasant, but neither can I say that I had a great time, because Chaos Theory has a way of leaving me feeling vaguely filthy.

First, allow me a digression that doubles as a confession of sorts: traditionally, there are games I’m not very good at, and FPS games are among them. This is not because I get my ass fragged or am, conversely, unable to frag the asses of others, but because I have a persistent perfectionist streak that rears its ugly head particularly strongly when it comes to FPS games. I never completed Doom II, for example, simply because virtually every time I ran into a bad guy I ended up reloading the game from my last save and giving the encounter another shot. “I spent too much ammo on that one.” “I could take ’em out without losing that much health.” So I’d go through these things repeatedly until I was finally satisfied with the result. I slogged my way through the original Doom like that, at a ridiculous snail’s pace, but the sequel was just too much. I wasn’t having any fun with it, for obvious reasons.

This problem has lessened greatly over the years, simply because I have come to accept that there will always be more ammo and first-aid kits around the corner — indeed, even in Doom II, I was constantly running into reserves of ammo and health packs that I couldn’t use simply because I was already full up. But back then, I had no faith that this condition would persist — perhaps, in part, this was simply because the FPS genre was still a very new one and no standards of game design had really been firmly established. Mostly, it was just that I was a very stubborn boy. This same combination of perfectionism and completism also manifests itself in my all-too-frequent insistence to read and absorb every single piece of text, no matter how obscure, to investigate every single nook and cranny, and to complete every single goal in a game.

These cravings started to weaken when I first started to do game reviews. With the introduction of deadlines and the fact that suddenly, I was often playing games I had no real interest in, the situation changed. Put simply, I no longer had the time to fuck around. A more performance-based gaming ethos soon emerged, and my playing style changed accordingly. Still, there were several games that seemed to be tailored for my favored slow and ponderous approach — Thief: The Dark Project, for example, rewarded going slowly and carefully, and I loved it dearly for it. Also for the awesome stealth gameplay and the amazingly powerful atmosphere that permeated the game, of course, but much of my actual enjoyment of the process of playing the game came from the fact that I could take my time and not feel like I was missing the entire point of the game.

Which brings us nicely back to the Splinter Cell games, which certainly reward the same approach. Sam Fisher is best controlled in a meticulous manner, and that suits me very well indeed — it’s not that reflexes don’t come into the picture, because they certainly do, but you need to combine them with tactical judgements instead of just zeroing in on the bad guy’s head as quickly as you can.

My only real complaint about the gameplay is that you’re always, always in a pipeline, meeting every obstacle and threat in the same order. Compared to Thief’s more open environments — where an enemy stronghold was usually an actual stronghold with a complex multitude of interconnected rooms and corridors and halls, instead of a single obstacle course — Splinter Cell sadly loses every time. That said, it does its own thing very, very well, and of course the games look gorgeous.

So, the gameplay is fine. But I have some huge problems with these games — as far as their attitudes go, they are appalling. For those who are not familiar with the setup, allow me to enlighten you: Sam Fisher is an operative of the Third Echelon of the National Security Agency. He is also a splinter cell, who is sent forth to exercise the so-called fifth freedom. The first four freedoms are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear. That’s great. The fifth freedom is the freedom to do anything to protect the four others. That’s, uh, not so great. The franchise’s full name is Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, and that kinda sets the tone for what follows.

In the very first game, Fisher undertakes a little gig in Georgia, where the president is suspected of being a bad guy, and as it turns out, he is exactly that. What a surprise. Anyway, when Sam is busy making like a ninja in there, there’s no evidence of any wrongdoing — only suspicion. Sam needs to make his way through the capital at night, but numerous police officers patrol the streets. Encountering these guys is not a good idea, so Sam must either avoid them or take them out. In short, he can simply put a round in every cop skull in the capital and nobody criticizes this in any way. If the game had been about, say, a Russian agent sneaking about Washington and purposefully executing cops, you can bet that the game’s reception would have been quite different.

The same crap continues in Chaos Theory, the third game in the series — there’s one mission in a bank in Panama, for example. There’s no indication that it’s anything but a completely ordinary and honest bank, though some unpleasant people have been using it. In order to obtain important information about said people from the bank’s computer system, Sam must sneak in. Of course, since there’s no way to get into the vault without attracting attention after the fact, the whole operation must be disguised as a robbery to ensure that the unpleasant people don’t get wise to the NSA’s interest… so Sam also nicks a cool 50 mil on bearer bonds owned by the French government while he’s at it. Furthermore, he can kill the bank’s security guards — who are no more corrupt than any security guard in any bank, they’re just guarding the place — with impunity. Later on, when Sam is hanging around in New York, there are National Guardsmen all over the streets, and killing them results in an instant earful of horrified criticism from Sam’s superior officer. Guess a couple of wetbacks don’t count.

(Also, said security guards are very funny, because they think that a motion detector that automatically turns on the lights is very expensive supertechnology and that no one could own such a device to, for example, turn on the lights on the driveway when a car drives up. Ha ha ha! Those funny underdeveloped people have no personal access to superior American technology in the barren and primitive wasteland that is Panama!)

I dunno. I have a problem with this shit, and it’s not that the game features characters with questionable ethics; it’s that no one with any credibility in the game appears to acknowledge their questionability in any way. If it was a game about really ruthless motherfuckers who do terrible things in the name of freedom, that’d be great, but it’s not, not really. There are no subtleties like that — their absolute right to do these things is never in doubt; their methodology is never suspect. It’s a game about unsung champions who work in secret and do necessary and superbly heroic things.

I can’t get behind that.


7 Comments

  1. ‘Fifth freedom’? I’m not sure whether you know that this concept has been used before, to mean pretty much the real-world equivalent of what you said:

    “And by the ‘fifth’ freedom, I meant the one that they didn’t mention. But the crucial one. Namely the freedom to rob and exploit, that’s a freedom that we and our powerful countries, the imperial countries, insist on. And that was the real freedom that was being fought for.”

    (From http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/200111–04.htm .)

    You know, it could be that the game designers were being sarcastic here. (Could be.)

    Comment by Syksy — March 21, 2006 @ 1142985157

  2. I’m aware of Chomsky’s definition, yeah.

    As for sarcasm — yeah, Tom Clancy’s well-known for his sarcastic approach to things like this, isn’t he? (Not that Clancy probably had a whole lot to do with the games, but the name does pretty much set the tone…)

    Comment by Mikki — March 22, 2006 @ 1142990659

  3. Well, Clancy isn’t known for shrugging at collateral damage in his books, and in the only case I can think about it coming up in movies made from them is Clear and Present Danger, when a spotter (working with a team painting a drug kingpin’s house with a laser so it can be obliterated by an incoming bomb) realizes with some horror that a few quite young children are about to be killed, to. Not that he does – or arguably can do – anything about it, but at least there’s the reaction.

    Sounds just plain poorly-thought-out. Like that never happens. ;) :)

    Comment by Eric the .5b — April 3, 2006 @ 1144041354

  4. Well, it’s not as if we’re talking about a couple of isolated incidents within the games here; rather, it’s pretty much the rule rather than the exception.

    Comment by Mikki — April 3, 2006 @ 1144104319

  5. This has bothered me quite a bit ever since the first game in the series. I take it in the way that as Fisher, I am a bad man doing bad things for my government. I do not feel like a hero carrying out these operations, as I guess I’m supposed to. But for the most part, it works this way, too. Fisher is a bad, ageing man who only knows how to be bad. It’s not his fault, really, and I imagine that trying to do these missions as cleanly as possible may save some lives.

    The definition of who it’s okay to kill is bothersome, yes, but this also fits snugly into my interpretation of the setup. And really, you can’t say it wouldn’t be realistic.

    Comment by Joonas — November 15, 2006 @ 1163589164

  6. […] Okay — I admit it, the spam’s getting pretty good now. A couple of days someone left a comment on one of my entries. He used the nickname Antibush, and this is what he said: Bush is forever saying that democracies do not invade other countries and start wars. Well, he did just that. He invaded Iraq, started a war, and killed people. What do you think? Is killing thousands of innocent civilians okay when you are doing a little government makeover? What happened to us, people? When did we become such lemmings? The more people that the government puts in jails, the safer we are told to think we are. The real terrorists are wherever they are, but they aren’t living in a country with bars on the windows. We are. […]

    Pingback by Fun Pastimes for Stupid Children » they’re getting better — February 13, 2007 @ 1171406459

  7. Ok, this is Splinter Cell. First off none of us are in the Government in order to say some of these things don’t exhist. they may be named diferently but im sure the NSA and other government agencies have some tricks up there sleeves. and it is fiction… lets think about that for a second. It is meant to entertain us not to sit there and think of the moral stand points of the characters. Also the Government sometimes makes me wonder if they act in this manner still. the character Sam Fisher is not a bad man. I see him as a great videogame
    hero in many aspects if we want to give him a real human persona… because he does the stuff that none of us would have the balls to do ourselves. To make some tough choices with out really thinking twice about the conciquences to himself… i think thats called selfless… like entertaining the thought that if some of the “victims’ are worthy of life or death… We may not see this as a whole but for me… if it was you or my country… it most certainly would be you. No questions asked. If i had to decide if one or 10 people were more important then the millions I swore an oath to defend it would be that 10. Including women children and pets as disgusting as that sounds to the general public. this political bullshit about bush this bush that… I hate the guy but he took a chance in defending this country. and just like every american when it got tough and when we realized we had to lose some to gain alot we turn our backs. like when your favorite team wins they are the best but when they lose its time to find a team you agree with. When he stood on that pile of rubble and vowed to strike at those who attacked us we all chaired at once knowing we would get our chance to sucker punch the bastards who did it. a year or so later assholes were protesting at soldiers funerals.

    Splinter Cell isn’t meant to be contradicted and questioned in the morals it is meant to be played like Grand theft Auto the game is terrible in morality but it is still fun to play. Regardless if we agree with drive bys and drug dealers and shooting stripprs (my favorite part) we still all had fun shooting everyone up and stomping on there heads.
    Politically face it. Things like this are very real between the shadows of the American Empire. It is just too frightening to take into account that it is also neccessary to make these actions with out public opion so all of those in america who write bullshit opinions on a video game can do so with out being chastized by your third world government everyone seems to ask for these days.

    Comment by chris — July 26, 2008 @ 1217070927

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