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Till Death Do Us Part?

Splinter Cell Blacklist’s E3 2012 reveal was a rather mixed affair.

One one hand, it was great to see Sam Fisher step back out of the shadows. As one of the eldars of the stealth genre, he’s always more than welcome at VoxelArcade’s banquet table. On the other hand, the widespread uproar that surrounded the graphic, playable torture scene, dampened the game’s entrance somewhat – so much so, it lead eventually to the scene’s removal.

So strong were the feelings of revulsion towards the violence that was depicted that even games-industry insiders took to the Internet to vent their spleens, as though to pre-empt any external criticisms; as though to be seen to toe-the-line.

Gears of War: Judgment, co-writer, Tom Bissell:

“We’ve arrived in a strange emotional clime when our popular entertainment frequently depicts torture as briskly effective rather than literally the worst thing one human being can do to another – yea verily, worse even than killing. I spent a couple days feeling ashamed of being a gamer, of playing or liking military games, of being interested in any of this disgusting bulls*** at all”.

Strong words from someone working on a game devoted to the graphic mutilation of humanoid aliens with chainsaws and head shots. But he has a point, nonetheless. Quite what that point is remains open to some interpretation.

I recently reflected upon my passion for age-appropriate content and stated a belief that if content is delivered to the right audience and in the right context, there’s little to worry about in the way of harm to individuals. This is just my opinion, mind you, one you’re entitled to disagree with – but it’s one built upon the collective wisdom of a good many level-headed individuals and organisations.

The BBFC, for example. Or even PEGI.

Had the torture scene remained in Blacklist, we can assume that the game – that will be rated under the ironically trigger-happy, pan-European PEGI system – would have almost certainly received an 18. It may still receive an 18. If parents fulfil their role and pay due attention to this rating , there will arguably be no further cause for concern. Whether or not parents actually do this is another matter entirely; that’s not to say that 18-rated creative works should stop being made, though.

That is unless the torture scene was liable to fundamentally disturb the minds and souls of well-balanced adults over the age of 18? That is unless it contained something so fundamentally unhinged, it would tip us all over the edge and send us spiralling into an orgy of gratuitous violence and insanity?

Well, colour me de-sensitised, because I saw nothing in the E3 footage to suggest that would be the case. Yes, it was shocking. Yes, it made me wince. Yes, it registered an emotional response. Yes, that was noteworthy. But, no, it wasn’t worse than some of the more graphic books that I’ve read or more violent films that I’ve watched. It wasn’t worse, even, than some of the most shocking war documentaries or photography that I’ve seen.

Photography has documented and commented upon the horrors of war for decades - because it's encouraged to do so

Photography has documented and commented upon the horrors of war for decades – because it’s encouraged to do so

Context, however, remains king.

If Blacklist’s torture scene was to be repeated over-and-over in the game, purely for the sake of it, I might have a problem. If you were awarded bright, spangly, star-studded on-screen points based on the number of times you rotated the knife in the man’s chest, I might have a problem. If there was a global leader-board to rank the most effective torturers, I might have a problem with it. But there isn’t, so I don’t.

Granted, there’s the argument that this is an interactive, entertainment medium and it would be me pressing the button or rotating the stick to torture the virtual enemy – but that’s a strength of the medium not an inherent flaw. It’s a strength that no other medium can even begin to approach and one that has tremendous capacity for constructive, carefully-crafted emotional response. That should be celebrated, not feared. If it’s something that can better engage a world that’s become so de-sensitised by decades of witnessing both real and fictional violence, then maybe it can be used to the benefit of society? Maybe it can be used to remind us of how brutal the world around us really is and of the responsibility that we all share in being ‘better animals’ than we presently are?

Looking at the present state of the world, I’d argue that such a tool needs to be put to use now, not later.

If a game is capable of framing brutality in a mature, thought-provoking and age-appropriate adult manner, then I say let it. If it’s capable of putting such a graphic act of violence into a meaningful, powerful and engaging context, then I say let it. Let it try and reach the brutal heights of other creative works that take the exact same source material and explore it in detail. Works such as The Crying Game, Reservoir Dogs, Braveheart, Marathon Man and, more recently, the controversial Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty:

Here’s a work of art that’s stimulating serious, thought-provoking, relevant, disturbing and necessarily healthy debate about an uncomfortable truth. Yet whilst there are two sides to the argument, both with very valid points, are we seeing actors or film-makers coming out and deploring it? Are we seeing the film-makers re-write and re-edit the film so as to not further offend those voices? Can you imagine what the film industry would be like if that kind of commentary and reaction were considered ‘normal’ – healthy and positive even?

Yet the question remains: was Blacklist capable of provoking such a mature debate? Is any game capable of it? Maybe Blacklist was; maybe it wasn’t. Now it’s been removed, we’ll perhaps never know.

Blacklist producer David Footman, speaking out in the scene’s defence:

“If it makes you squeamish and uncomfortable, maybe that’s the point. I always know when we’re onto something that’s really touchy and interesting when we get reactions like that. The truth is it’s really happening. That’s the truth. We all know it’s really happening all over the world.”

He’s right. It is happening. Sanctioned by governments the world over. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the uncomfortable truth that Blacklist aimed to explore – just like Zero Dark Thirty. Maybe our reaction against it was more an indication of how successful our governments are at shielding us from the truth rather than of how crass or insensitive the game was being? Maybe our reaction is just a sad indictment of the ways in which we proclaim a desire for games to grow-up and evolve yet, really, we’re afraid of letting them? Just as afraid as the paranoid anti-games lobby are.

Maybe, just maybe,  it was one of the most brave moves that a AAA game developer has made in recent years – and we just smacked them down, rolled our eyes, tutted and sang a tune that we thought the mainstream press would want us to be seen singing.

Does the use of Lego trivialise the message or does it make it more powerful?

Does the Lego trivialise the message or does it perhaps make it even more powerful? Remove ‘Lego’ and insert ‘game’.

Extreme violence needs to be placed into a meaningful, age-appropriate context if its inclusion is to be justified in any creative work; so too does extreme criticism. Shooting-from-the-hip, grabbing a few sound-bites and banging the head of gaming against the proverbial wall without a full-grasp of the wider context is just as, if not more gratuitous. Perhaps Ubisoft didn’t have the vision and tenacity to put the torture scene into a proper context. Perhaps the knee-jerk reactions and forum-venting that ensued would have proven to be right.

The sad fact is: we’ll never know. The sad fact is: we’ve probably put others off trying for the immediate future and bumped the medium’s evolutionary trajectory back by a good console generation or more.

How about, next time, we do our beloved medium a favour and let it grow up and make its own mistakes? You never know: it just might surprise us.

Splinter Cell Blacklist Central.

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  1. For me, I hate it when films or games are violent just to sell copies, such as one of the Call of Duty games that had a scene where you had to watch terrorists mow down people in an airport. As soon as I started playing I could see the meeting beforehand “hey guys, lets get controversial! we need some newspaper inches!”. The thing that really annoyed me was, although they let you choose whether to join in or not, they didn’t let you choose to kill the terrorists, (which they could have EASILY worked into the story, as the terrorists take you out in a scripted scene at the end of the level anyway), thus proving that it wasn’t to shock or push the boundaries but to sell a few more copies. 
    With regards to the torture scene in SC, as long as it was rated 18, I don’t have a problem with it, and I would trust Ubi to do it ‘right’ far more than Acti.

    • Simon Burns The airport scene I actually got, as it was a stark reminder of the horrors of terrorism – but they went OTT with it all as is the way of COD. BLOPS2’s opening level, however, where you’re just moving down wave upon wave with with a machete for no apparent reason whatsoever…I just found it plain repulsive – a first for me and a game. 
      You’re totally right though: violence for the sake of it is crass – unless it’s in some self-referential context such as the Expendables or Serious Sam. Both could still be called crass either way, but it’s fairly clear that they’re not taking themselves too seriously. A subtle context, but a context nonetheless. 
      Extreme violence, such as torture, CAN be portrayed in a powerful light by ANY creative medium, so long as it’s dealt with sensitively and intelligently  Were Blacklist to open with, say, some detailed back-drop to the particular guard that was interrogated, fleshing out the evil aspects of his character, transcending him from an NPC to a meaningful entity with history, when it came to the torture scene, the viewer would have been seriously conflicted – and therein lay the power of good context, narrative and meaning. 
      To be honest, I doubt that the game would have gone to those lengths to frame the event – but I still disagree in principle that it should have been hounded out of the finished product. It sets a precedent for any title that may be ambitious enough to approach to the topic with the same skill that Zero Dark Thirty has.

  2. There’s an interesting point to be made here for the interactivity of violence and subsequent affectations it has on the human condition – but I’m not going to go that high-brow.
    I think we’ve already crossed the line in gaming when gamers were enabled to stick a bullet in someone’s body. It’s a moralistic point of view, but I view killing someone far worse than torturing.
    In the Splinter Cell scene featured above, I’d say that this has already been covered in plenty of stealth games already (Deux Ex, Dishonored most recently). – most notably in Rockstar’s Manhunt. Giving a gamer the moral choice to make is an empowering one. Let us make no qualms that a minority of gamers will push the system to the nth degree of depravity achievable – the majority, however, will not.
    What is important is that developers ensure that there is a CONSEQUENCE to their choices. Rewarding gamers for taking positive choices and penalising those who do not, should be of paramount concern.
    One developer who takes this view is David Cage of Quantic Dream. (One of my gaming idols).Cage is bringing together all of these constructs in his games (Heavy Rain, Farenheit. Beyond: Two Souls) offering an interactivity and movie-like quality to all his titles. The narrative combined with making difficult choices is stirringly powerful and emotive, and I sincerely hope that others will take note of it. If you haven’t picked up one his games – make it a priority.

    • @NeilRamjee 
      @NeilRamjee Manhunt – that occurred to me as well. By far a more brutal game than any other I think I’ve seen. And yet the logic behind the violence is framed in some sort of tangible meaning – the sense of being the rat in the twisted cage and fighting back against the depraved oppressors.
      I disagree, though, about the necessity to give players choice. I think that, for example, were a character in a game portrayed to be hideously evil and then subjected to an interrogation, if the character was then allowed to live by default, it would cause many to wish that hadn’t been so, and in turn question their own morality.
      Exploring the grey areas is where we break down black or white views of the world – the kind of views that usually give rise to tension or conflict in the first place – ‘my religion is more important than yours’ etc.

      • Luke Martin VA My political leanings seem to be at odds with yours, Luke.  I think adults (and by default, gamers) should have the right to play distasteful games within the realms of the law. of the land  It should be up to the individual player to decide what is morally right for themselves.
        I think there is enough conflict already in gaming – mainly perpetrated by US Army based FPS – stereotyping Eastern (Middle-East, Korea, Eastern Bloc etc) countries as terrorists. Let us not forget, they play games too. They’ve already dug their own graves in terms of laying those foundations in the past decades worth of gaming. Granted, those countries don’t tend to get those games quickly, but in years to come, they trickle down – what impression has been made (and still being made) on those gamers?

        • @NeilRamjee Luke Martin VA Totally agree re: laws of the land. I just think that if we look at the most thought-provoking works of art in other mediums, the viewer has no choice there and that is something that can be used to extremely powerful effect, forcing the viewer to question their values and evolve as a result. If you always give someone a choice, they’ll always make a predictable choice based on their particular viewpoint and simply re-enforce their mindset. I’m not advocating just a narrow path, though – a mixture of choice and linearity is best and gaming is basically the only medium that can do both – that’s its amazing strength. I’m talking far above and beyond the torture scene here by the way!!
          It’s a good point about how ‘the rest of the world’ will view the very western-centric games that we have today, but again, that’s the same case in other AAA mediums such as film and best-selling books. It’s arguably one of the reasons that the west is so mistrusted though so it’s a very good point indeed. 
          There isn’t one, really, I’m afraid, other than for other nations to start to make more games to balance the viewpoints. There are actually a lot of eastern European developers out there in the FPS landscape plugging away but certainly none making games that explicitly and successfully paint the west out as the ‘bad guys’. Arguably there should be. 
          Blueprint article inbound, methinks…


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