Stealth and Splinter Cell

by Tom Ingram

In a recent Extra Punctuation, Yahtzee said that he doesn’t like the Splinter Cell games because they’re too linear. It gives him the impression that “the universe only exists within a fifty foot radius from Sam Fisher’s position”. He also says that the levels seem like they were specifically designed for Fisher to infiltrate them.

When I first read that, I disagreed wholeheartedly. I had a lot of fun playing the Splinter Cell games, and they were a more satisfying stealth experience than, say, Metal Gear Solid. But this awakened in me a nostalgia for the first game, and over the last two weeks I’ve been replaying it a little bit at a time. Now I can’t help but agree. At least for the first Splinter Cell, Yahtzee is right about many points.

The first game doesn’t come off as a stealth game at all, but a puzzle game where you can skip the current problem at any time by shooting at it. Rather than present an open level with many ways to get around, the game tries to force you to follow a predefined path almost down to the individual steps. The architecture of the levels is simply bizarre, especially the ones that are outdoors. In the very first level of the game, Fisher goes to a secret agent’s house. The front door of the house opens onto a courtyard that is only accessible by climbing over a ten-foot fence or else sidling between two walls. In what universe does that make sense?

It’s supposed to be a stealth game, but it’s ridiculously difficult to complete it without a lot of kills and knockouts. There are some guards that it’s simply impossible to sneak past, and since the levels are very linear, there’s no sneaky alternate way round. Other guards are technically possible to get past, but it takes time and effort, and after you try it three times or so (dying is not an uncommon thing in this game) it just becomes busywork.

I can’t speak to the second game, since I’ve never played it, but by Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, this is all worked out. That game uses a much more open, choice-oriented format. The bank level, in particular, is a great example of this. Depending on your playing style there are several ways you could pull off the bank job, all of them equally valid. Atmosphere is built in the levels by making the guards seem more human. They have conversations with each other, and with Sam if he captures them. They go about their patrols, then sit down and take a nap. The data that you collect off the computers, rather than being immediately relevant to the story, is often useless. Its only purpose is to give you the feeling that stuff actually happens here and in the outside world. Double Agent also gets this right, but the Gamecube version at least got so much other stuff wrong that it’s not worth it.

The feeling that Yahtzee describes, the feeling of being a forbidden outsider breaking in, eavesdropping, stealing, and leaving without a trace, is very powerful. A properly done mission in Chaos Theory is a beautiful thing to behold. The Splinter Cell series got off to a shaky start with it, and the two most recent games went off in a wildly different direction, but in the middle, it was a stunning example of this type of game.