Here’s Why I Won’t Be Reviewing ‘Splinter Cell: Blacklist’ (UPDATED)

If you haven’t been following the news on Splinter Cell: Blacklist, about five minutes into the first mission, there’s a scene where you jam a knife in a man’s clavicle and twist it to get information out of him.

Yes, there is a scene where Sam Fisher tortures somebody. You have to do this, by the way. There’s no way around it. You wiggle your thumbstick and make this terrorist groan and cry, and then you’re faced with a moral choice to either knock him out or kill him.

Needless to say, the implication that torture is A-OK while killing is the moral choice was not something that sat well with some people. The game isn’t out until next year, but Ubisoft is apparently not backing down on this one.

Specifically, the game’s director, David Footman, had this to say:

What people won’t say, but what they’ll dance around, is that is the price of freedom to protect Americans and their sedans and SUVs. If it makes you squeamish and uncomfortable, maybe that’s the point.

My problem with this is twofold. First, needless to say, is the concept of torture as entertainment. Secondly, though, is this attempt to avoid criticism by hiding behind reality in a game that has nothing to do with it.

If this were a serious military sim, like ArmA II, I might give that some credence, but it’s not. The Splinter Cell series is and always has been set in an escapist fantasy idea of the military and America, made to seem “real” with lots of jargon and techno-babble. And that’s fine, it’s not Shakespeare, it’s an over-the-top action franchise. I can fault the writing but really, the goals here are fairly modest and the series generally achieves them.

But in reality somebody like Sam Fisher, to the degree he exists at all, would be unlikely to torture somebody in the field because torture doesn’t work. The CIA has has found no evidence that it works. Victims of torture such as John McCain have flat-out stated it was ineffective. The Senate spent three years looking into it and found no evidence that it’s an effective technique. There’s also the fact of the matter that it’s against just about every military code of conduct, international law, and basic ethical training you can find on the subject.

This isn’t to say the threat of violence isn’t used, or than a United States special operative has never tortured somebody. It’s just that it’s not going to be the first option.

It’s not even that it’s offensive that’s the problem. Great artists can make you think by offending you. But anybody who’s seen the demo knows that’s not the intent of the scene to create any sort of moral dilemma. It’s a story point, at best; there’s no way to fail this moment. You don’t illustrate a moral dilemma by making people do something.

I should make clear that I’m not expecting Ubisoft to give in to moral outrage on the part of some gamers and change the scene. Even if they wanted to, the game goes on sale in a few months and yanking that part out may well be impossible, logistically. That’s not the problem here. The problem is that instead of confronting the outrage head on, or talking about it, they’re chickening out.

What it comes down to is that any game I review on this site, I buy with my own money. There are a few reasons for that, not least of which is that if I’ve got $60 of my cash sunk into something, the flaws and the virtues will be that much more vivid.

If Footman had said “It’s a fantasy, and not intended to reflect reality”, I’d respect that. If this torture were an option in the game, I’d be willing to give him a fair hearing as to why that was the case. But to just put it in, make the player do it, and then when it gets a hostile reaction, try to justify it by spouting what anybody with Google can verify is a line of B.S.?

Sorry, Ubisoft. No sale.

UPDATE: Zack Cooper, community manager for Blacklist, got in touch with me and raised what I felt were a few good points. With his permission, here’s what he had to say, excerpted:

I do take exception to a couple of things that you seemed to state as fact, though.

Notably, suggesting that there was no way to avoid the interrogation scene. We haven’t communicated as to whether that is the case.

I also think it’s unfair to state that Blacklist is striving for something (or not striving, as your piece suggests), based on the previous entries in the series. There is no doubt that we are going for some hard-hitting stuff, and taking some big risks… Not merely for the sake of entertainment. We are actually hoping to (genuinely) get the gamer to think about their actions, and the reason behind them.

That’s good to hear. Whether it’s successful is another matter, of course, but if Ubisoft is willing to talk, and clearly they are, I’m willing to listen.