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Getting from Modern War to the Future of Video Games

A conversation with Splinter Cell Blacklist creative director Maxime Béland and lead writer Richard Dansky about how triple-A creatives struggle to tell meaningful stories in a difficult medium.

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. 


So, I think in regards to what you're talking about, it is interesting for us to have a player to be in control of more of these moments, right? For Conviction, it was the same thing. We had interrogations in Conviction. It made sense. Sam was running all over the United States to figure out what happened to his daughter, so we came up with this idea of having a mechanic where Sam was asking questions. 

I think the crazy or the sad thing in that is that sometimes we're the first ones to try these different things and they are subjects that are very touchy sometimes, so it's difficult to put in true gameplay in a sense. 

I'll go back to Conviction. Conviction, you couldn't fail at interrogations. So, to me, they weren't really gameplay. They were interactive, right? You would bash a guy left and right, and blah, blah, blah. I think it was more interesting than if we had a non-interactive cinematic, so I think it was a win for that, but it wasn't an ultimate win where you had true gameplay and you were really in control of what happened, and you could play it well, play it badly, fail, or retry. 

At the same time, it's a subject that's really touchy, and I think although we're a game that's mature, those subjects are -- it's not like the design note goes to your brand new game designer on the team and you're like, "Hey, design us a morality system linked with interrogations, and I'll see you in a week." 

You're talking about these interrogation sequences. You said there's something too sensitive about that to just say, "Hey, implement this." I guess what I'm trying to get to find out is, how do you make these decisions about what you're going to include, from a content perspective? Particularly coming off the fact that you did remove some of the content you'd shown. I'm not sure if it was because of the reaction, or because you felt it wasn't working creatively. 

MB: Okay, so I've got a couple of things I can tell you. Let me repeat, just so I'm super clear with you: My ultimate game is the holodeck, where the player has ultimate freedom of choice. That's the dream that maybe I'll live long enough to see, and we'll end up having the tech to create games like that. 

So, to me, games are about freedom. They're about being in control of your choices. So that's my ultimate game. So every time that I make a game, I try to make a game in which the player is in control, has agency on everything -- he does as much as I can. Right? 

Does that make sense? I'm not in the game-making business to make movies. I'm not there because I've got aspirations to do 20-minute cutscenes. I'm there because I think that the player is having fun and he's enjoying our medium when he's actually pressing buttons on a controller, or jumping in front of a camera, or something.

So, with that in mind, my second thing that I come back to is while I'm making a game that is Splinter Cell, it's about counterterrorism, right? It's a hero game about a secret spy. So, obviously our story is going to revolve around Sam probably saving the world or saving the United States, or something. And he's probably going to have to face bad guys, because that's the core of our gameplay loop right now. But from there, we're always wondering how we can add to it. How can we make the player be in control of other things than just either hiding in the shadows, or doing hand-to-hand kills, or shooting people in the face.

So, I think from there, we come up with a story and our story -- you know how it is. It's a creative process. It's not like we get up one morning and the game is in all of our heads and then we just start implementing it. The way I'm a creative director -- maybe I'm different from other creative directors -- but for me it's about making a game with people. It's about making a game with a team of people that have their own ideas, and I don't want to make the game that's in my head, I want to make the game that's going to get everyone on the team excited and working hard to make it as amazing as possible. 


Our story moves forward and we iterate on it, we get excited by certain things, certain things we're less excited in, and I think as we move forward -- and to finally answer your question -- I think we had the history of Conviction with interrogations, and we knew the strengths of the interrogations of Conviction, and we knew the weaknesses, also. 

I think everybody loves our first interrogation in Conviction because it was fresh and new, but then after that, people kinda saw the formula. "Oh, okay, I get it: I'm never gonna get shot when I'm in one of those moments. It's only about bashing people left or right, and then guy is gonna end up talking." So I think it kinda lost its magic real fast. 

So when we started on Blacklist, because now Sam was trying to figure out and stop what was going on with Blacklist, we still had a reason to have interrogations in the game. I wanted to have all these interrogations in the game be unique. I didn't want the player to see the formula. I wanted all of them to be different. And then we started working on that and we treated a lot of those. 

I think in the last couple of months, we got a version where everything became a little bit more polished, a little bit more structured, and we were able to accept what we were going at, and I think a feeling that we had when we look at them as a team, with Alex [Parizeau] and Pat [Redding] and Andy [Wilson], we just looked at it and we were like, "Are we pressing a button with these that we want to press? Are we gonna touch people? Is this serving the meaning of the game enough?" 

It's interrogation, right? Some people call it torture. I think the line is fine, and depending on how you're asking your questions, or what type of pressure you're putting on your person, the line or how you call it changes. But basically we looked at it as a team together and we're like, "Okay, how do we feel about this? Do we really want people to see this and want people to be interacting with this?" 

For me, again, the strength of our medium is that people are in control and that it's -- to quote Spider-Man -- "With great power comes great responsibility." It's a lot different from seeing an interrogation scene in Zero Dark Thirty than it is when you're actually doing it yourself. So we looked at them and we make the modifications, because I think as a team we felt that we weren't doing something that was meaningful enough to justify the emotions that we were creating. 

It does make sense, and it does open up a couple questions, again. One of the things that really grates on me, and I'm not specifically referring to your game, necessarily, about this, but I see this again and again: When people make games based on contemporary political situations around the globe, they always sort of cop out and say, "Yeah, it's just a game, though." 

You alluded to Zero Dark Thirty, and that film may have its own weaknesses, but the point is you would never expect a film about that kind of situation to not be a comment on that situation, whereas I find that a lot of game developers want to have their cake and eat it too. Do you feel that tension? Do you think you can get away with saying, "Well, we're not commenting on this." 

MB: I think it could be an angle. You could have teams or publishers that just want to shock, right? I'm sure it's an option. I'm sure people might put scenes in their games, or in their movies, or in their books, because they know it's gonna have some shock value and people are gonna be talking about them, and sometimes any publicity is better than no publicity. 

I think for us on Blacklist -- you know, we're a Tom Clancy team. I don't want to [use] shock value just to shock. And I guarantee you that we have scenes that we've toned down because they were that.  And I guarantee you that when you're in control, the emotions are a lot higher. 


I've watched Zero Dark Thirty, and I enjoyed the movie. Some scenes are hard to watch, and some scenes you're just going, "Holy shit." And just to know that this is happening in real life, and it's probably even worse in real life, and it's making you reflect, and I think it's great. And if anything, Zero Dark Thirty did that to me -- it's made me reflect even more on the price of freedom, and on the price of all these things that we enjoy on a daily basis. 

At the same time, when you're interacting, it's completely different. I think -- just for emphasis -- at one point we also evolved as a society or something, because, a lot of our games are about killing people. And we're fine with killing people, but we're not fine with interrogating people and maybe letting them live. I don't know. Maybe that's the subject of another discussion, but what does that mean about us as a society? I don't know. But it's kind of interesting. I mean, I like to let my brain think about these things. 

We don't blink an eye when we make a game that allows you to kill a thousand people, but interrogations are a bit sensitive. Is that okay? Is that not okay? I mean, you can interrogate a dude and then you bring him back to his family. Is that better than killing him? I don't know. Maybe. What do you think? 

Well -- 

RD: If I could just jump in. Getting back to your original question about these games being taken lightly, I can say as someone who's been working on the Tom Clancy franchise for 13 years that we have always taken the subject material very seriously. We have always felt we had a responsibility to get this stuff right, we have a responsibility to the people who are actually out in the field who have come and talked to us, who serve us as our advisors, who come to our studios to talk to us about this stuff, to make sure that we are representing what they're doing accurately, to make sure the consequences of what they're doing are portrayed accurately, and that we are not just doing a "Woo-hoo! Shoot people in the face!" over-the-top stuff, because this is serious material. 

We've always had, you might call it a "code of conduct," about the types of stories we try to tell -- to make sure they are intelligent, to make sure they are well-researched, to make sure they are respectful. 

And if you look actually at the storylines for a lot of games that we've done in the Clancy franchise, you'll see that we -- for lack of a better word -- predicted a bunch of stuff that actually happened. Not because we have a crystal ball or anything, but because we were doing that much research, and looking at things that were likely to happen, possibilities all over the world that we thought would make believable stories. And then lo and behold, reality came along a little while later, and did the exact same thing that we projected. 

And it certainly is possible to tell stories about modern technology, and military combat, and terrorism that are basically thinly disguised superhero stories, but one of the hallmarks of the Clancy brand, one of the things that Ubisoft has always been careful about, is making sure that that's not the sort of story that we want to tell. 

Because this is not a laughing matter. Because there are people who are out there who are fighting, or in the field putting their lives on the line for these sorts of freedoms to make video games. And as such, it behooves us to do our best to make sure that we don't treat work and their sacrifices lightly. 

MB: I completely agree with Richard. Most of my working life was spent on Tom Clancy games, so I think what I could add, or I think I mentioned it a bit, but when you're a creative director or a lead writer on a Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell game, the subject is terrorism, and so at one point you need to decide. You look at the spectrum of things your hero is going to be doing. 

And like Richard said, Sam is not a superhero. He's not going to start teleporting around the globe. He's gonna have to travel, and sometimes you get some cool inspirations, like, for us on Blacklist, we made a Fourth Echelon mobile headquarters inside a plane, and I think it's cool and we've seen some cool references of stuff like that and that's exciting. 

But at certain other points we're like, "Hey, okay, what do we do with asking questions to bad guys, to move our story?" Because you can imagine that when you are telling a Splinter Cell story, talking with people and asking them questions that they don't want to answer is kind of [difficult subject matter.] 


I want to go back to something that was said a little bit ago, which I think is really important to unpack a little bit, which is the idea of "getting things right." Which is that very often we see this fetishistic level of attention to detail in perfectly modeled guns that have the perfect repeat rate as the manufacturer implements, beautiful graphics, I don't know... napalm shaders. You know what I'm talking about? But that's not the whole story of getting geopolitical, modern warfare right. Right? 

RD: Yup. 

MB: I think that the challenge that the level of quality, the level of visual fidelity, of audio fidelity, of everything fidelity is so high these days and I think that players and reviewers do not even tolerate if you're not there. 

These days, the industry has never been as cutthroat as it is now. We're seeing studios closing and all that, like, left and right. There is only room for the best. And to be the best, it means that, yes, at one point you need to talk about that blood texture, that blood shader, it looks good or not, if it's big enough or not, if it's red enough or not, in the same way that we spent so much time on... Obviously, we have different priorities.

For me, for example, Sam has always been the Number One priority. Sam's our hero and I wanted the team to focus on Sam. The suits, the different outfits that Sam would have: the goggles, his face, his facial [appearance]. We wanted to really push the envelope on that. But at the same time, it's not like we can ship a game that has 10 out of 10 quality in 70 percent of our elements and two out of 10 in the rest. The level of quality is expected to be high on everything. That's the only way that you're gonna make a successful game. 

RD: One of the tightropes that we consistently walk is the one between realism and believability. At this point, the audience is, for lack of a better word, educated enough about what they should be seeing in terms of weapons models, in terms of the sounds they should be hearing and things like that, that if you don't provide that level of detail, it's going to be jarring for them and is going to disassociate themselves from the illusion of the gameplay. It's going to break their suspension of disbelief. 

At the same time, in terms of the overall experience, you always have to balance what is believable versus what is accurate. And there are things that happen, real-world stories that we researched, where there's no way in the world we can put them in the game because nobody would believe they actually happened. 

We've actually done that on a couple Clancy products. If you back to one of the, I think, Raven Shield mission packs, there's a mission with a submarine, a drug-smuggling submarine in the Andes, and we got tons of hate mail from people saying, "Oh, God! You made that up!" That was pulled straight from a page-one news story, I think, in New York Times. 

MB: I think Richard's right -- the line between realistic and believable is sometimes very interesting. When we had some consultants at the beginning of the project, they were telling us some stories where we were like, "Dude, that's a great story but I can't do anything with that, because people are gonna think we're making science fiction." Versus some super-small things that we're doing in the game that everybody takes for granted, that the consultants are like, "Man, I wish I had that, so much." Sam's goggles, the sonar goggles that see through walls. The consultants are like, "Please figure it out in real life. We need that so much." 

But at the same time, it's an interesting line. It's a very interesting line, and what I've realized is, sometimes it's not about the idea. Because the idea can be very over-the-top, but if you present it and polish it well, people will believe in it. Versus you can have an idea that is highly realistic, but if you don't present it well... 

A good example I like to take is the latest Call of Duty: Black Ops. In one of the first missions you were climbing the side of the wall, and you had these little nano-gloves that would grip, and they spent so much time justifying that it could pull you from wall-to-wall, and it would go green, and they showed all these little details and they made you believe in those little nano-grip gloves that you could grip the side of mountains with -- versus you could take the same idea and just not spend enough time or polish it enough where people would be like, "Oh, yeah, right. Climbing the side of mountain with gloves? Fuck off." 


It does, but I guess what I'm also getting at is that as we've got this tremendous level of realism and this ability to achieve the believability you're talking about, and particularly as we're going to move into the next generation of consoles at the end of the year, and things are going to take another leap forward in terms of what you can do with these things -- does that drag forward our responsibility as creators to tell stories that are commensurate with that level of visual fidelity? You can communicate to players now on a tremendously nuanced level. But I'm not sure if everyone was prepared for it. 

MB: Okay, and here's what -- and this is my opinion and I could be wrong -- but I truly believe that games are more powerful to generate emotions and to make people reflect through meaning, through gameplay, through all that, than any other medium, because the player is in control. Okay? So that's my first assumption, or idea. 

Now, building on that, I think that we do have a responsibility as authors and as creators to embrace that, and to make people reflect on their lives, on why is it that we can have the latest iPhone in our pockets and on the other side of the planet people can't even have food once a week. I think games are meant for people to have reflections, and to change and to become better. 

But at the same time, we have the responsibility to do it properly, and I think that maybe we are lacking the game design experience, or the understanding of interactivity, to do it well. I think that right now, games that make you reflect on darker subjects or more complicated subjects, often, they're hiding behind graphics. It's a 2D game, so yes, it's a 2D game about death, but because it's in 2D, you swallow it better. I think that's fine. 

I think probably one of my favorite games of last year, like probably a lot of people, was Journey. And why? Well, because Journey made me reflect upon death. And that's it. It was treated in a great way, and the mechanic in the game revolved around that, and made me reflect throughout it. It was a very powerful emotional game for me. I went through some death in my family and that game really touched me. 

At the same time, I'm hoping that we're going to get to a point where we can touch people the same way Journey touched me, with a game like Splinter Cell or a game like Assassin's Creed where the graphics are realistic and it's true humans that are telling me a story -- I can be touched that way and be in control, and it's not just a game forcing an emotion on me, but just me through my decisions, living those emotions as strongly, or even more strongly, than in a non-interactive medium. 

RD: Also, remember we're constantly trying to hit a moving target here. If you look at every other storytelling medium, it has been stable for at least a hundred years. Filmmaking, the language has likely stayed the same since George  Méliès. Theater has largely stayed the same since Shakespeare. Books, since Gutenberg. And there's been time to iterate and perfect the craft and perfect the ways of communicating this material. 

And you look at what we're doing. The hardware is constantly changing. What can we do when the hardware is constantly changing -- we're constantly evolving and trying to simultaneously maximize the potential of the tools that we have to play with while telling these stories. And because you're trying to hit a moving target, you're going to have a hit and miss ratio. 

I don't think it's an accident that a lot of the games that people are pointing to as stirring these deeper emotions have been ones that have not been necessarily bleeding edge, that were built as more of a stable technology, things like Passage, for example. Those are games where the technology and the sandbox was clearly defined, and that allowed a, for lack of a better way of putting it, an ability to concentrate on just one aspect of creating something that was more emotionally moving, because there was a place where you knew that you could aim. 

With what we're doing, with these advances in technology, with the new consoles, we're trying to do that, but at the same time, we don't know at any given moment the tools we have to do it with, and when you don't know the tools that are in your kit, you don't know what you're going to be able to build with it. 


MB: I think technology is part of it, but I think the biggest... We have two things that we need to overcome, that I think to me are greater than that, and it is the mass market's acceptance of video games -- the mainstream acceptance of video games as a serious, mature medium. People need to accept us as that, and once they accept us as a mature medium, then they're going to accept that we make games about mature subjects, and have mature meanings and stories. I think that's the first thing. 

What I think the second thing is because -- the same way that you can describe a horrible scene in the book, when you're making a movie, you need to adapt what you show, because you can't show everything maybe, or depending on what you're doing, you don't want to create [a slasher film.] 

From movie to movie, you treat your touchy scenes differently. In a movie you're gonna put your camera in a way that maybe you don't need to see the knife going in, but you're gonna get the action, because the camera's gonna be behind the guy stabbing this other guy, or whatever. In a game it's the same thing. We're gonna need to adapt our controls, our gameplay, our interactivity to support that in a way that I think is going to be as powerful as we want those moments to be, but at the same time respectful to our audience. 

Like I said, me personally, I am not in there to shock people. I'm in this job to make people reflect, to change people, to entertain them also, but I'm not in the business of shocking. I know how to shock and I could shock, but I don't enjoy that. It's not something that interests me. 

But I strongly think there are some stories to tell that are mature and that are touching, and that's where it is interesting, because then you're telling the stories and people can be in control of certain moments. When people get the game, they go, "Holy shit, I want to talk to my friends about this," because this is bad, or this is great, and it is interesting to share, and to have the discussion points with your friends, and to make your reflection of that subject to become better or bigger or more interesting. 

RD: And jumping on that point, a lot of it is the word "game," just the connotations of the word "game" are that games are for kids, play is for kids. As long as we've got that subtext built into any discussion of the word "game," it's going to be that much harder to do these mature, interactive experiences that let us play in the sandboxes that handle more mature, darker, more serious topics. 

What actually gives me hope in this is comic books. Have you read Maus

No, but I'm familiar with the subject matter. 

RD: I actually talked to Art Spiegelman once very briefly about that sort of thing and he was talking about the before and after, as it were. He gave a lecture on it I was at in Atlanta, and he was talking about how before Maus, if you look at comic books, they're for kids. Superheroes punching faces. You can't do something serious, you can't do something serious, you can't do something serious. All of a sudden something like a Maus comes along, and you can do something serious. 

And since then we've had this amazing blossoming of having that form, that medium to tell serious stories, whether it's Persepolis or Harvey Pekar's work, and suddenly our perception of the sort of stories that can be told in comics has completely changed. 

And hopefully someday soon we're going to get that moment in games where we'll have that realization, that sort of cultural shift, when it becomes okay to talk about this more serious stuff, and everybody will understand intrinsically the sort of things are things you can do with the medium. It's happened to every medium over the y

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