On The LevelOn The Level examines one small part of a larger game.  

Splinter Cell: Conviction stars a Sam Fisher on his last ropes. The stealth soldier extraordinaire has left Third Echelon, his super-secret government agency, after a disastrous undercover assignment that ended with both his best friend and daughter dead. In the aftermath, he’s been pulling a Jack Bauer between seasons of 24: staring at walls, drinking coffee, growling, and working on his facial hair. When he returns to stabbing guys from the shadows, it’s not as an official government agent but as an outsider with limited equipment and no backup.

Early in its long development, the creators cited the influence of the Bourne movies on the game’s direction, with an emphasis on improvisation and hiding in plain sight. Sam would blend in with crowds and evade his foes in public spaces (and sported a really terrible haircut). This was largely scrapped, and the game that made it to market is more of the traditional Splinter Cell fare with an heavy infusion of action-movie theatrics. Elements of its former identity hang around, however, and they intrude on Conviction in unsettling ways, a sort of realism uneasily juxtaposed with the action-hero fantasy of the game’s final form.


An earlier version of Splinter Cell: Conviction

For instance, instead of the normal military game entrance—parachuting in, landing by helicopter, cartwheeling through explosions, etc.—Sam starts most missions by hiding his car in the bushes and digging gear out from the trunk. In one mid-game mission, Sam has to infiltrate a government office building. He parks his car and walks across the parking lot, like someone arriving for another day of work. The collision of the mundane and the extraordinary here is disorienting, creating a sense of real-world continuity where games typically don’t place one. The action movie entrance has become so codified in military-style games that its absence feels like a missing signal, a signifier to mark the difference between Black Hawk Down and Office Space.

On the surface, this approach may not seem that strange. Big budget action games, after all, have an addiction to scenes based on real-world locations. Players have fought through Paris and New York City, or to the more general, through representations of the suburbs or a city park. Even when the geographic details are just right, however, these spaces have a pernicious way of not feeling quite real. They’re not designed to be. They’ve been emptied of the vagaries of real life, like civilians or wildlife. (When’s the last time you saw a squirrel in a shooter?) The modern military game traffics in a kind of calculated fakeness. They’re supposed to feel real enough to make for memorable playgrounds—nothing more.


A scene from Splinter Cell: Conviction’s final form

If they simulate anything, it’s an action movie, not real life. Splinter Cell: Conviction, though, shows us what happens when this type of design collides with the elements of more immersive, complicated worlds, the type that aims less for spectacle and more for verisimilitude. It offers, here and there, a jarring overlap of the fake with the real thing—a discomforting intrusion of one type of world into another.

The intrusion here is of the real—or at least that which attempts to imitate the real—into the unreal. It goes deepest during a level set at a carnival in front of the Washington Monument. The first segment has you walking through a lively, bustling fair, weaving through the crowd on your way to meet a contact. As you go, you have to find and kill a handful of assassins who are trying to track you down. The fair and its crowd are a convincing recreation. You can walk through rows of booths, past people buying hot dogs and playing fair games, catching little bits of chatter about winning giant bears and consuming copious amounts of fried food. You have no way of interacting with these people, which emphasizes the sense of being just one of the crowd—drinking in the sights, enjoying the ambiance. You are, for a few brief moments, just a guy at the fair.

Then you follow one of your pursuers into the shadows between two hot dog stands and snap his neck. It immediately breaks the illusion. You’re no longer a guy at the fair; now you’re Sam Fisher, sneaky-murder hero. These two people don’t occupy the same world; one is a simulation of the real. The other is a calculated fake.


I’m immediately left wondering about the possible real-world implications of my action-movie fantasy. Are any of these people hearing me interrogate and kill these guys? How can they not? I imagine an innocent, fair-going child discovering the body and being scarred for life. Sam Fisher, in that moment, seems less a hero and more a maniac murdering people in the park. To be fair, I don’t think you’re supposed to sympathize with Sam much throughout this story. He’s at his most extreme and bitter, killing brutally and quickly. This amount of dissonance, however, breaks from the tone of the rest of the game and creates a lingering disturbance. It’s the intrusion of more realism than we’ve been trained to expect in this sort of cinematic action romp, while you yourself intrude somewhere you don’t seem to quite belong.

After you eliminate all of Sam’s pursuers, you meet with a contact under the Washington Monument (which seems far more conspicuous than practical), getting a fancy new backpack, some decent gear, and some intel. As you return to the fair, it’s beset be your enemies, who are pretending to be police, evacuating it under pretense of a gas leak in order to flush you out. It’s empty by the time you get there, another playground for Sam the killer as he sneaks through the shadows and plugs enemies with pistols. However, the air of reality that encroached during your previous visit remains.


The rest of the mission is a slow crawl back to your car through the empty grounds as enemy sentries hunt and taunt you, but it never feels right again. There were children here a moment ago—families, simulated people enjoying simulated lives in a way I could recognize. It’s hard to play out an action movie fantasy against that sort of backdrop. By level’s end, I’m a hostile invader in a peaceful place. Every shot fired and every sentry taken out has a more realistic sheen; Sam’s actions made more intimate and cruel.