When they showed off Splinter Cell: Blacklist at E3 2012, Ubisoft made a choice that most marketing professionals would agree was a good move. Instead of showing the familiar aspects of the series we’ve grown to know and love – the stealth, the strategy, the fantastic graphics and real-world environments – they wanted to show something more dynamic, something to really catch people’s attention. As the seventh game in the series, it has to bring something new to the table, or risk people losing interest, right?

Well, there’s no denying that torture is one way to get people’s attention.

In the E3 demo, we see a disguised Sam Fisher interrogate an enemy by stabbing him in the shoulder/neck/throat (depending on who you ask or what news outlet you care to read, of course; in my opinion, it looks like he stabs the dude just above the clavicle, but I’m no doctor), leaving the player to control the twisting of the knife as he tries to get the desired information out of the baddie. When the interrogation is over, we’re left with the “moral decision” of simply knocking the guy out, or killing him. The demo went on to show off the rest of the game in a less alarming fashion.

I believe that’s what marketing professionals would call a bad move.

The response, unsurprisingly, was not so great. For some people it was simply a question of, “Why let me choose whether or not I get to kill him, but not choose if I want to stab him in the first place?” But for many others the question was, “Why is this scene necessary at all?”

The backlash from the demo has led to Ubisoft pulling the sequence from the game, with Blacklist producer Andrew Wilson quoted as saying,

Definitely we are not going to see when the game’s coming out that there are torture scenes in it. That scene is not there anymore. I’ve not really heard anyone say they loved it.1

…seriously? If someone tells me they absolutely love a torture scene in anything – game, show, movie, comic, book, whatever – I’m going to be a little concerned. Isn’t the whole point of things like this to make you uncomfortable? If you have to play through a torture sequence instead of just watch it – something that’s been done in plenty of other games, including previous games in the Splinter Cell series – doesn’t it make it resonate more? Doesn’t it make you question what you’re doing and feel a little more involved in the game? Isn’t that the reason why games adopted the whole interactive cutscene thing in the first place, to increase immersion?

Look, I’m not saying I explicitly want to torture people in games. I don’t want people to be tortured at all. But the sad truth is, it happens out there in the real world. And if writers and designers have crafted a story and get to a part where a torture scene is there for a valid, emotional reason, then hell, I want them to have the balls to put the control in the player’s hands and make them really feel the repercussions of those actions. The fact that Ubisoft has so easily pulled the scene from the game (and totally tried to play it off like, “Oh, games change during development all the time!”) makes me wonder if they took the topic too lightly, if it really belonged there in the first place.

Or maybe they’re just backpedaling on their creative decisions and pandering to the demands of the media, or the criticism from the likes of Tom Bissell, Gears of War: Judgment writer, who upon seeing the demo, took to the internet to say he:

…spent a couple days feeling ashamed of being a gamer, of playing or liking military games, of being interested in any of this disgusting bullshit at all.2

Do I think Bissell over-dramatized this? Hell yes, I do. I’m not downplaying violence or discounting the fact that sensitive subjects should be handled carefully, but dude, you participate in the creation of bloody, violent games that some might consider disturbing. If Blacklist is the first time you’ve seen torture in a game and it sickened you so much that you were “ashamed to be a gamer,” then you probably need to take a moment to study up on some of the other torture-related games out there. What was so embarrassing about Sam Fisher’s actions when compared to something like, oh I don’t know, Manhunt? Postal 2? The Punisher?

But I’m sure those are different in your eyes, right? Those games are meant to be over-the-top; they’re meant to be unrealistic and exaggerated. And on the other hand we have the ultra-realistic Splinter Cell universe. But a lot’s changed since the first time we met Sam Fisher; terror organizations aren’t hiding in the shadows, so the operatives fighting them aren’t totally hidden either. Operations are showing up in the news and the rules have changed. Fisher’s dealing with some really awful characters, and simply asking them nicely for information isn’t likely to get him what he needs.

Did anyone stop to think that maybe his propensity for torture is a product of his environment? That his desperation and urgency is due to the whole climate changing and he has very few choices left? No, because we saw this scene with no context whatsoever – Ubisoft’s real misstep, in my eyes – and now we never will.

I’m not going to spend time dwelling on all of the ridiculous hypocrisies and glaring holes in Bissell’s article and arguments. (But I do particularly like when he calls out Bulletstorm as handling violence well. Because you know, nothing says sensitivity like encouraging killing by rewarding you for killing…with style!) The point is, even making all those assumptions about Fisher’s character, torture is a truly evil thing. But Blacklist isn’t the first game to attempt to handle it. (Hell, it’s not even the first Splinter Cell game to attempt it; Conviction was even applauded by some outlets for its integration of torture.3) I just honestly hope it’s not the last.

It’s not that I want to see grittier violence, or even that I want the opportunity to virtually experience what it’s like to twist that knife in a guy’s neck. But the more we skirt around issues in the gaming industry, the more we stunt our own growth. If we can’t make games for adults that tackle the same controversial issues that we see addressed in film, tv, books, and other media, then we’re not the art form we so claim to be. If Jack Bauer of 24 can find an effective way to evoke an emotional response with his, we’ll say, questionable methods, I fully believe Sam Fisher can, too. What if Fisher was given the option to torture an enemy, but the player wasn’t guaranteed to get good info from the guy? What if, when placed under duress, that guy flat out lied just to get good ‘ol Sam to let him go? Then there’s no automatic benefit to torture. Then it’s a moral issue. Then it’s something I’m interested in seeing.

Until we’re able to handle adult issues that make us uncomfortable, and do so with some dignity (not like Far Cry 3’s embarrassing stumble through a rape plot), then we’re defeating ourselves. Politicians and the media will continue to hold us accountable as adults, but treat us like children. Because that’s how we’re acting – like a bunch of teenagers that don’t know how to handle responsibility.

I get that violence in games has become a huge hot button, and for a valid reason. Games continue to become a larger and larger part of the entertainment industry and people’s lives as a whole, and just as comics were persecuted in the 50s and accused of causing innocent teenagers to become delinquents (nevermind the fact that they were providing a solid reading outlet for the underprivileged and undereducated), games are becoming the easy scapegoat when things go wrong.

You’ve got politicians out there trying to impose “sin taxes,”4 calling games “electronic child molesters,”5 and suggesting we ban violent games altogether.6 Because you know, the literally 211.5 million gamers in the US alone7 are all sitting right on the cusp of a violent rampage. Clearly.

This is absolutely not meant to make light of the tragedies our country has seen lately. But the concern about violence in video games is so totally misdirected and to be frank, misleading. Don’t buy into the bullshit politicians are spewing. Research the subject, read and investigate prior studies that continue to be overlooked and ignored.

And that goes for developers, too. Support the efforts to allocate funds to research into the link between games and violence – don’t fear it. Unless, of course, you’re afraid there is a link. (In which case, you should really be rethinking your design strategy.)

If we want our industry to get out of this corner we’ve been put in, it’s time we start representing our product better. Create more meaningful games (*coughJOURNEYcough*), not just more run-of-the-mill shooters featuring more bulky and/or scantily-clad heroes hellbent on destruction. Think about why the big controversial scenes like Modern Warfare 2’s civilian massacre are being included, and make sure it’s more than just shock value. Consider the effect those moments will have on different types of players, ponder alternatives before deciding on scenes.

And defend your freaking product, for fuck’s sake. Take a cue from Crystal Dynamics’ handling of the Tomb Raider rape scene controversy8 and stop caving under the pressure of media or fans or peers or whoever. Make well-thought-out, intentional, creative decisions and stand by them.

And then maybe games will stop being just for kids.

Sources:
[1] Joystiq: Torture scene removed from Splinter Cell: Blacklist, no one ‘loved’ it”
[2] Grantland: “Thirteen ways of looking at a shooter”
[3] Computer and Video Games: “Splinter Cell Conviction Review – 8/10 in EDGE”
[4] NBCNews: “Newtown lawmaker calls for ‘sin tax’ on violent video games”
[5] Forbes: “Ralph Nader calls violent video games ‘electronic child molesters'”
[6] Denver Post: “Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan rebuffed on violent video games ban”
[7] Joystiq: “NPD: Number of US mobile gamers surpasses core, totals down”
[8] Beefjack: “Tomb Raider completely unchanged after rape controversy”