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Archive for November, 2010

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The guy on the right has a daughter too, Sam. Did you ever think about that?

For me, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory was about being Sam Fisher, Modern American Ninja, and fighting the battle for his soul as he walked the line between hero and monster. The game kept careful records of how you dealt with guards; you could sneak by, incapacitate them, or kill them, but violence reduced your score. Most enemies could be interrogated for more information by grabbing them from behind and making vague threats. You had separate buttons for lethal and non-lethal melee attacks, extremely limited ammo (you could have up to three clips for your assault rifle on each mission), and a wide variety of less-lethal projectiles to experiment with.

I felt like a real hero. I could work hard to avoid killing people as I achieved my objectives, and the game not only enabled that, it supported it. You’re the kind of person who prevents wars, stops trouble, and does so with the lightest touch possible. You could be an unstoppable assassin, but you aren’t. You’re better than that. You know you’re a hero because you go out of your way to do no evil. I would kill in self-defense, and then feel regret afterwards, wondering if Sam’s surrender would have been more ethical than killing innocent soldiers and grunts. I was given the luxury of thinking like that, whether I was up against naive South American revolutionaries, conscripted North Korean soldiers, or US veterans turned civilian contractors.

It hasn’t stayed that way. With Splinter Cell: Conviction, some people have talked about the inability to move bodies as indicative of the series’ turn toward action over stealth; personally, I’m more disturbed by the inability to complete the game without a huge body count. You can sneak through some areas, but others are unabashed action sequences in which you must systematically kill everyone in the room. Or a whole series of rooms. Or basically kill everyone in a multistory office building. They don’t count your kills and deduct them from your score anymore; quite on the contrary, they give you special tools so you can kill more people faster.

In Splinter Cell: Conviction, I wade through the corpses of my fallen enemies, and interrogate people by smashing their faces into concrete. I don’t feel like a good person. I’m not Batman, Dark Knight, doing what has to be done to protect the people from evil. I’m John Rambo, the empty male power fantasy. It’s kind of sad; like Rambo before him, Sam Fisher has been transformed over time into an empty, unstoppable killing machine.

The battle over Sam’s soul used to be mine to fight. But this time, the writers decided the outcome for me. He lost. He slid down the slippery slope and became a butcher.

So much for conviction.

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Childhood Passion

Final Fantasy Tactics

As a kid, I used to read about games only because I wasn’t playing them. My love for games was desperate — my gut would ache, I would feel heat in my stomach, shortness of breath in my longing for other worlds, escapism, power, love, and wonder. When I encountered great gameplay, I basked in it. I loved games so much that it hurt my ability to function in the real world.

One time I took screenshots of Final Fantasy Tactics, at that time released only in Japan, and used the photoshop clone tool to edit out all the Japanese text, replacing it with my own. I visualized what the scenes were about, what the menu options were, how the characters moved across the screen. I wished I could manipulate the placement of characters as well, but the clone tool wouldn’t replace background art. I spent hours crafting and polishing something that nobody would see, just the product of my pining for something that didn’t even exist.

I never look forward to games that way anymore. There’s far greater happiness in my contentment, but there’s a spark I’ve missed. I’ve lost something. Now I read about games because I’m studying my craft. It’s a different kind of passion. It’s like saying I’m passionate about mathematics. I don’t stay up late at night, forgetting to breathe. When I encounter good gameplay, my brain doesn’t explode in joy. The gears turn and I analyze it.

Sometimes I want to experience that wide-eyed childhood passion, and stop thinking so hard about games. Sometimes I want to immerse myself in other worlds and other ways of thinking, to learn new things I’ve never learned before, and be continually amazed. Sometimes I want to lose sleep in anticipation of christmas and birthday presents, and be heartbroken by the difficulty of following social graces instead of rushing to a computer or console to play.

If you make games, and have loved them the way I have, channel some of that raw childhood passion into making the kind of games that would take your inner child’s breath away. It’s not enough to have smart design, precise balance, and clever execution — lose sleep with love of the thing you’re doing. Do the first thing that comes to mind, fly, and at least for a time, let yourself break free of second-guessing, sanity checks, and doubt.

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