When my son was about 4, someone asked him if he was scared of the dark. "No," he said. "It's the stuff in it I'm scared of."
Darkness wouldn't be an issue for any of us if we could see what was in it. But we can't, so we rip away shadows with campfires and flashlights and eco-friendly spiral bulbs. We hate the dark. Unless, of course, we're the ones lurking in it. Unless we're somebody like Sam Fisher.
Sam, protagonist of Ubisoft's long-running Splinter Cell video game series (endorsed by thriller writer Tom Clancy), is a creature of shadow: He skulks in the blackness, fiddling with his guns and knives and high explosives, waiting to pounce on his next victim. He's 24's Jack Bauer with a fouler mouth and higher kill ratio. He's an assassin waving the American flag.
At least he used to wave it. As the curtain rises on Splinter Cell: Conviction, we learn that Sam has left Third Echelon, the super-secret government agency he worked with. Mourning the death of his daughter, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident, Sam swears off spying for good—until he learns that Third Echelon has been infiltrated by the bad guys and that his daughter's still alive somewhere. It's up, once again, to Sam to save the day. And he does so the way he's always done it: sneaking around and killing people.
A New Breed: The Spysassin
Back in Splinter Cell's first iteration, Sam was more spy than assassin. Sometimes the agent could sneak through entire levels without shedding a drop of blood. The first two chapters in the Splinter Cell saga were, in fact, rated T.
In Conviction, Sam still uses shadows to his advantage. But rarely are players allowed to simply sneak by guards or just knock them out. Now Sam must kill them—by shooting them in the head, knifing them in the back or breaking their necks. If any given victim has something to say, Sam might interrogate the guy—smashing his face against a series of urinals, for instance—before leaving him to bleed and perhaps die on the bathroom floor.
Yes, Sam is more straightforward than he once was—and gameplay is, too. While earlier incarnations could be tricky and involving, Conviction shuns complexity for run-and-gun action. You need only remember to press a handful of buttons to create all sorts of chaos. You're also "allowed" to mark victims for rapid execution, as well as mark the locale of the last time evildoers saw Sam before he leapt into the shadows. (This helps you flank enemies more easily.)
If I Was a Lowlife Thug …
Really, this new game's easy enough for a child to play. Not that you'd want to let one do that. Because all those shadows don't hide the gore, the constant killing and wounding, the sprays of blood from victims, the gaping bullet holes. Sam's interrogation techniques—shattered urinals and all—make a waterboarding session look like an afternoon on the lake. Characters smoke and drink, too, and one of Sam's targets is a known drug dealer. Thugs make crude references to women, including Sam's (former) wife.
Along with such profanities as "d‑‑n," "h‑‑‑," "a‑‑" and misuses of God's name, characters utter the f- and s-words countless times during play—so many times in fact that it calls into question the very realism such language is supposed to invoke. I mean, creators may say that they just had to have these lowlifes curse … it's the way they speak. But would they really try to be so "creative" with their lingo while embroiled in brain-shattering shootouts? If I was a lowlife thug, I might concentrate on other, non-cussing-related activities at such times.
So while a generous reviewer might laud Sam for his commitment to finding and rescuing his beloved daughter, and his loyalty to his friends, I find myself plagued by his unrelenting violence, profanity and gloominess. The world this guy inhabits is entirely enslaved by shadowy graphics, no-win moral choices and piles upon piles of corpses.
While we know enough not to be scared of the dark, we should still be cautious of the stuff in it.