Game Eaters

Monday, April 24, 2006

Splinter Cell: Game Design Theory

I’m finally playing Splinter Cell Chaos Theory.

Chaos Theory has fabulous production values (even if the visual design—aside from Sam Fisher’s signature goggles—is typically forgettable.) The game's biggest triumph is the sheer number of context sensitive animations. They don’t add much gameplay, but they do succeed in making Sam’s actions feel unusually purposeful. The way he switches to a tip toe creep when skulking near an enemy or the way his head automatically turns towards his prey. Not only have the developers made the animations fluid and expressive, they’ve made the *transitions* between animations smooth. This is key to making a character feel life like.

Any schmoe can mocap an animation and stick it on a character model. But to make sure said animation, at any given moment, can be interrupted by another animation and not seem artificial… that’s the secret sauce. Chaos Theory does this as well as any game I can remember. The real show stopper is how Sam stops in mid-creep when you let up on the move button. At literally any point in his creep animation you can just stop, and instead of reverting to his squatting stance Sam just freezes in mid step, wavering ever-so-slightly. This creates a marvelous sense of tension when closing in on an oblivious enemy. It looks like Sam is holding his breath, internally battling to keep his balance in that exact position, lest any movement give him away. It’s a wonderfully realized aspect of Sam’s character, making him seem both more human and more comical. One could imagine a similar physical gesture in a Chaplin or Keaton film. In an artform where movement is everything, characters are defined by how they move. This is what the makers of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus know better than anyone, and a bit of that knowledge is on display in Chaos Theory.

Otherwise, Chaos Theory is not terribly amazing. What Splinter Cell really delivers on is sheer production value and polish. It’s a great looking game and a great playing game. Everything it attempts it realizes effectively. This is why, I suppose, some people consider it the pinnacle of the stealth genre: it has virtually no flaws. But it has virtually no ambition either. Splinter Cell, as a series, brings almost nothing original to the table. It’s a patchwork of features and mechanics swiped from other stealth games. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it does basically mean that polish is about the only thing that sets Splinter Cell apart from the competition.

I do not prefer innovation alone, just as I do not prefer polish alone. But I tend to favor innovation over polish provided the innovative game contains at least a basic level of polish and its mechanics are not totally broken. I suppose this is why I prefer Hitman to Splinter Cell as far as what the Western world as to offer the stealth genre. The Hitman games are not graphical powerhouses, but they manage to not look shabby while innovating in non-linear gameplay far beyond what Splinter Cell even tries to achieve. The simulatory aspects of Hitman are robust and, for me, encompass all the tension that Splinter Cell has to offer within a larger framework of persistent, realtime world dynamics. In Blood Money there’s a mission where, in order to assassinate an opera singer onstage during a live performance, you have to wait and snipe him at the *exact* moment he is shot by a fake gun as part of the opera. This is not an event that starts and stops as the result of a cinematic or because you cross some invisible line that triggers it. The mission lasts for the duration of the opera, and the rest is sheer clockwork. To me that’s compelling in ways most stealth games don’t approach, and even if the realtime aspect makes it more frustrating than the bite size “one hallway, one problem” design of Splinter Cell, I’m willing to put up with it because of how fresh the experience feels.

There’s nothing wrong with Splinter Cell, but it is not the best the West has to offer. Many like to compare Splinter Cell to Metal Gear because of the military theme, but Metal Gear is such a different creature, operating under a such wildly different design logic, that comparing them doesn’t feel very useful in the end. Hitman is the only other high profile stealth series that seems to have the realism-oriented and simulatory (i.e. Western) design goals as Splinter Cell. Out of those two I think Hitman trumps it in terms of ambition, and the hit it takes in production value is negligible. Since Thief has faded away (thanks to Thief III’s failure to reinvent itself) there hasn’t been much left to carry the torch. Hitman fills this need as well as any as far as I’m concerned. It’s pushing the genre, not just its own IP, forward.

In short, I doubt a Splinter Cell game will come out that I won’t play. But I also doubt there will ever be a Splinter Cell game I’ll truly love. I need something a little more unpredictable to really stoke my passion.

5 Comments:

  • I disagree with some of your views on Splinter Cell. I feel it deserves much more credit then you give it. First of all, many stealth/action games borrow their concepts from other games, but that is no reason to bash on them. In fact, I feel that the Splinter Cell series just doesn't reinvent the wheel, it takes the wheel and puts titanium armor on it that can mow down a whole platoon of demonic entities (well, in so many words). With the new entry of Chaos Theory, the developers made a milestone in the stealth/action genre. This entry is more open, you're basically free to conquer the level the way you want it, may it be just going in with guns blazing or taking out your enemy in the shadows. Another feature you forgot to mention is replay factor in online. Splinter Cell has developed a unique multiplayer system in vs mode with the spies vs mercs. It's ridiculous that you didn't mention it because it adds an uncountable sum of hours to the game. Also is the co-op mode. Split screen is one of the coolest features of the game that you won't get to experience with any other hardcore stealth game. You can even take that mode online if you want, using the voice mic to communicate with a friend half-way across the world and stratigize how to clear a room or who gets to take out the next unsuspecting victim. I liked how you compared Hitman and Splinter Cell, but although I've only played the second game of Hitman, I have read reviews of the others. Many were not impressed with the lack of quality with the Hitman series and I didn't find the second one I played rather worthwhile. The reviews and my views could be wrong, however, and it all might be decided through personal opinion. One thing I did really enjoy about your review was how you went in detail about the graphics. Awesome, I give you props for that. Graphically and physics-wise Chaos Theory is grade A and plows through competition. Another part I smiled at was when you said that comparing Metal Gear and Splinter Cell is useless. I cringe whenever somebody says, "oh, Metal Gear is so better the Splinter Cell!". It breaks my heart to think that some gamers can't tell the difference between the games gameplay-wise. You can't compare the two, they are so different even though they are in the same genre of games, and for that I commend you for bringing the subject up. Other then that, I agree with you on some points and oppose others, but hey, everybody is entitled to their own opinion and I respect yours.

    By Blogger Michael Hidalgo, at 12:42 PM  

  • I take issue with the assesement that movement is everything to this medium. I believe spatial interfacing is only a sub-set of all the possible interactions one could frame, and that the problems ailing the industry have much to do with the spatially dominated design concepts that saturate the market.

    By Blogger Patrick Dugan, at 8:34 PM  

  • Obviously, no one's opinion is "right." That's why we call them opinions. Otherwise, they'd be facts.

    That said, I think you're not up to snuff on your videogame history if you claim that Chaos Theory's "multiple approaches to a level" concept is innovative in the least. Thief embodied this concept years before Splinter Cell... and better, IMO. Chaos Theory offers a few different paths with a decent amount of variation, but that's a far cry from the ultra-nonlinear playgrounds of Thief and, more recently, Hitman. Hell, even Metal Gear Solid adopted more of a playground approach this time around. Chaos Theory's expanded choice field is step forward for the Splinter Cell series, but it doesn't mean much in the larger scope of the genre.

    You do have a point about multiplayer, however. I didn't mention multiplayer because I consider multiplayer gaming a radically different animal from singleplayer. But yes, Chaos Theory's multiplayer is probably one of the only truly innovative mutliplayer games to come out in recent memory. So yeah, it's utterly original in that sense. But my discussion is relegated to singleplayer only because that's the sort of gaming that interests me.

    Finally, you may want to hold off praising me for refusing to say Metal Gear is better the Splinter Cell. Er... I personally think Metal Gear is WAY better than Splinter Cell. You can compare them just like you can compare anything. I refrained from doing so in this discussion because I personally feel Hitman and Splinter Cell's design goals are more similar, and I feel Hitman's approach to accomplishing those goals is more inspired. But heck, I still take Metal Gear over Splinter Cell any day of the week, mostly because I prefer my military power fantasies with an ample dose of humor and philosophy. But, hey, that's just me.

    By Blogger Matt, at 10:50 PM  

  • Actually, I believe the multiplayer innovations largely happened in Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow... Chaos Theory had some nice refinements, but nothing near the magnitude of the risks that the second game in the series took with online multiplayer.

    By Blogger Philip, at 4:22 AM  

  • Philip:

    You're right. I only played the singleplayer demo of Pandora Tomorrow, but I know the multiplayer was introduced then. I thought the enhancements for Chaos Theory were more significant, though. Oh well.

    By Blogger Matt, at 10:43 AM  

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