On the Level, by Ed Smith, examines how small moments in games can resonate throughout—and beyond—the games themselves, encapsulating all of their various qualities.
If there's a defining difference between this year's Tom Clancy game, Ghost Recon Wildlands, and the original Splinter Cell of 2002, it's the latter's appreciation for brevity. Where Wildlands uses 60-plus hours to tell us nothing about its characters, the country in which it's set, or the War on Drugs, Splinter Cell, now 15 years old, can sum up its aesthetic, tone, and central players in a single exchange of dialogue.
During the first game's fifth mission, set inside a Russian office block named Kalinatek, a young intelligence analyst and protagonist Sam Fisher's sidekick, Vernon Wilkes, is killed. "What about Wilkes?" asks Fisher. "We'll dispatch you another handler as soon as we can," replies the NSA boss, Lambert.
Even in 2002, brutal military behavior was hardly fresh thematic ground for video games. But to depict our characters' coldness using just two spoken lines demonstrates Splinter Cell's ability to concisely set a scene and explain a story.
When held up beside Wildlands—which uses a lot to do very little, narratively speaking—the level at Kalinatek is a consummate example of achieving more with less.
Compared to the levels that precede it, Kalinatek is brightly lit. In a game that chiefly involves hiding in shadows, Splinter Cell's fifth mission places you beneath fluorescent office lights and alongside aggressive, rising flames. For the game's story, it provides a perfect visual metaphor.
Just prior to Kalinatek, in what is potentially Splinter Cell's most high-pressure stealth section, you are tasked with infiltrating the headquarters of the American CIA and recovering information to expose a plot, by the former president of Georgia, to explode a nuclear bomb. The CIA's corridors are intensely dark, Lambert chides you not to use your gun, and if you trigger more than three alarms, the mission will fail. Above all else, this fourth level stresses the importance of discretion.
However, once it's completed, the aforementioned Georgian president is shown on global news declaring war against the US. American soldiers begin to occupy Georgia and that vital information, previously believed isolated to the CIA's computer mainframe, is traced to the Russian Kalinatek building. What was formerly a clandestine information war—unseen by the public and appropriately reflected in Splinter Cell's murky stealth levels—is now splashed all over the news and threatening to become a major conflict.
To feel exposed by Kalinatek's bright bulbs and raging fires is to feel the light and heat from a rapidly worsening crisis. As the operations of Fisher, the NSA, and their opponents become more visible to the world, our actions are more easily seen by Splinter Cell's enemies.
Kalinatek not only helps expose the shortcomings in latter Tom Clancy games, it also reflects them.
As the dramatic stakes in Splinter Cell are heightened, Fisher's objectives and our moment-to-moment play change also. Previously, we've been concerned with either removing or not creating evidence—having to hide unconscious guards in darkened areas has impressed upon us a direct responsibility for completing missions without leaving a trace.
But at Kalinatek, to the effect of better characterizing our antagonists and defining a change in the story's pace, that dynamic is both reflected back at us and subverted. As we watch the Russian agents destroy the Kalinatek computers that hold the leaked information, we understand that they, like us, are attempting to disguise compromising truths.
Compared to so many video game enemies, who seem to blow up and set fire to things on a whim, our opponents in Splinter Cell are given a credible, political motivation. Tasked with protecting rather than removing evidence, of allowing proof of something shady and unsanctioned to continue to exist, we also feel the circumstances of Splinter Cell's story have changed. As have Fisher's responsibilities—the mission means more than the man, and that's relayed with rare brevity.
Though games pride themselves on ease of use and broad appeal, cogency and conciseness of this sort are uncommon. To get any sense at all of video game stories, one must often endure lengthy dialogue scenes and hunt down hidden documents, audio recordings and other clumsily informative artifacts.
Splinter Cell's Kalinatek level uses its environment, mise-en-scène, and montage to visually communicate and effectuate effectively. The light levels increase, but the game never explicitly tells the player, "Now you're more vulnerable." Compared to other titles that'd pause the action with an informative pop-up, explaining the situation, this is almost graceful, subtly so.
More obvious, however, is the increased pace of action. The slight visual cues in the Kalinatek level, one would argue, are enough to emphasize the changes in Splinter Cell's story, so it's almost a shame when the game starts to serve up more spectacle and violence.
Sneaking around the Kalinatek guards is difficult to the point it provokes you to incapacitate or kill them. Time limits, which are supplied via the presence of several bombs inside the Kalinatek building, insinuate—albeit inelegantly—the heightened narrative stakes and Fisher's increased need to act. But, at the same time, they undermine our mental consideration: the story of Splinter Cell is often well told, but segments of Kalinatek ask us to abandon any musing and simply rush to complete objectives.
As such, not only does it help expose the shortcomings in latter Tom Clancy games, it also reflects them. Self-righteous and garrulous, Ghost Recon Wildlands is the antithesis of Splinter Cell's confident brevity. But like the many direct confrontations and ticking clock set-ups in the Kalinatek level, it also tells us to disregard narrative and subject matter—in its case the modern war on drugs—and pursue idle, video game goals. And in comparison to its distant relative, Wildlands is the latest illustration that this series long ago lost what made it first feel sophisticated.