Last week, while I was checking out Splinter Cell: Blacklist, I had a long, interesting talk with the game's creative director Maxime Béland.
Béland, who also worked on the first Assassin's Creed and was creative director on Rainbow Six: Vegas and Splinter Cell: Conviction, is an interesting guy to chat with. He's sharp, and was welcomely candid about the games he makes.
According to him, there's one easy way to see how the Splinter Cell series has changed over the years: follow the box art.
We spent a big chunk of time talking about the various ways the game is approaching torture and whether Splinter Cell is a 24 game in a Homeland world. From there, we pivoted to the fundamental nature of the stealth/action series, and the ways Splinter Cell has changed.
"We could talk for hours about the brand history, and where it's been," Béland told me, "but you know, there's a reason why Chaos Theory was such a good game, and it was the #1 ranked game on Xbox. And then the next game didn't do the same thing. There's reasons behind that."
I asked him about those reasons, and he walked it back a bit. "I don't want to extend… I don't think it's proper to… I think, if you look at the covers of the games, if you look at Splinter Cell one, Pandora Tomorrow, Chaos Theory..." here he smiled a bit. "Then you look at Double Agent, then you look at Conviction… I think you see, right there, a change that happened in the way Ubisoft wanted to approach the brand.
"I'm sure you can do some research and check stuff out," he continued, still smiling. "Stealth games are hard, they're hard to do, they're hard [to market]. Just screenshots, for example! A nighttime screenshot… like, on a screen, maybe [it works]? In a printed magazine, they don't even want it! You know? And you're like, 'Wait a minute, the game's all about the shadows,' what do you do? It's… it's interesting. If I was a journalist, I could definitely do a lot of research on stealth, on those brands."
In the interest of seeing just what Béland was talking about, I dug up the box-art for all six Splinter Cell games, including Blacklist, and put them in chronological order. What do they tell us about the evolution of the series? Let's find out.
Splinter Cell (2002)
What does this cover say? This game is about darkness, and stealth! In fact, it redefines stealth! Look at the lighting effects, how the light is streaming through the fence! This game will have some serious lighting effects, buddy. The official Xbox magazine loved this game! Look, they gave it a 9.6, their highest score ever!
Weaponry: Sam is holding a pistol, pointing down.
Goggles: Sam is wearing his trademark green goggles. They are covering his eyes.
What Sam is thinking: "Boy, I hope no one sees me."
Pandora Tomorrow (2004)
There were two sets of box-art for this game, the first for the U.S. release, the second for Europe. They're pretty similar, for our purposes.
What does this cover say? This game is about darkness, but it has more color than the first game. The guy is still wearing those cool goggles, though! It's not really very different!
Weaponry: Sam is holding a pistol, pointing up.
Goggles: Sam is still wearing his goggles, but now they have a hint of lens-flare, so they're a little bit "cooler."
What Sam is thinking: "Boy, I hope no one sees me. But if they do, maybe they'll be scared of my pistol."
Chaos Theory (2005)
What does this cover say? Are you ready to have your world turned… upside down? Because this game will do that! Sam will have some sweet new moves! The guards will never see him coming! This game is loved by Official Xbox Magazine! It has a 9.9, which is the NEW highest score ever! Also, it is the #1 Action* Franchise on Xbox! You might think that the asterisk is meant to denote that it's only an action game if you play it wrong! That is probably not what it denotes!
Weaponry: Sam is holding a knife, and is ready to use it. The guard has got an assault rifle across his back.
Goggles: Sam is still wearing the goggles, though now we can see a lot more of his face.
What Sam is thinking: "Man, I really get my best thinking done when I'm upside-down. Right now, I'm thinking about whether I should kill this guard, or interrogate him."
Double Agent (2006)
What does this cover say? Woah. Woah. Woah! Check THIS out, kids. You thought you knew what a Splinter Cell cover was supposed to look like? YOU KNEW NOTHING. You thought that a Splinter Cell game was supposed to be about a dude in the shadows? Well now, Sam's gonna be in the LIGHT, and he's gonna be in CHAINS.
Weaponry: Sam has no weaponry, and is in fact handcuffed.
Goggles: Sam is not wearing his goggles. WHAT IS GOING ON. WHY IS HE LOOKING AT US.
What Sam is thinking: "Boy, I'm having some second thoughts about this."
What does this cover say? Dude, check out this action! So much action! Sam is in motion, he is ready to fire his gun. What's that in the background? Oh yeah, baby, that's the Washington Monument and the motherfucking Capitol Building on fire AND some helicopters! What's that going on around Sam's feet? SPARKS, BITCHES. This train don't stop! Look at how the text is slanted! Get out of the way, here comes Sam Fisher!
Weaponry: Sam is holding a gun, and wearing a super nifty watch.
Goggles: Nowhere to be seen.
What Sam is thinking: "I'll teach these guys to keep incessantly saying my name! I will kill every last motherfucker here!"
Blacklist (2013, Take One)
What does this cover say? You thought Sam was tough before? Fools, you have no idea. Look at this business. Sam is about to FUCK this dude UP. Look how his chest is puffed out. Look how heavily armed he is. LOOK AT THIS SHIT. BETTER WITH KINECT.
Weaponry: Sam is holding both a pistol and a wicked-looking curved knife, and is wearing a large machine gun on his back. The guy in front of Sam has no weapons and looks kind of tore up.
Goggles: They have returned with a vengeance. They are front and center. They have returned so hard, they are even a featured part of the Splinter Cell logo. "See?" the goggles say, "We never left you!"
What Sam is thinking: "So help me, I am about to
torture interrogate the living daylights out of this gentleman."
Blacklist (2013, Take Two)
It's been pointed out that there is now another new box-art for Blacklist. So, let's add that one to the pile, because the changes from the first draft are interesting.
What does this cover say? Pretty much the same thing as before! But now he's shooting the guy instead of getting ready to torture him! More violence, less moral ambiguity! STILL BETTER WITH KINECT.
Weaponry: Sam is still holding both a pistol and a wicked-looking curved knife, and is still wearing a large machine gun on his back. This time he's shooting the bad guy, and the bad guy is armed.
Goggles: Still back with a vengeance. Still a featured part of the Splinter Cell logo.
What Sam is thinking: "Well, that's one less terrorist I'll have to
What can we glean from these video game boxes? A surprising amount, actually. Turns out Béland is right—despite what other game developers might say about how little a game's box-art has to do with the actual game, or how box-art is more like labels for salad dressing, in this case, the art really does mirror the evolution of the series.
Here's what I see:
Splinter Cell: Stealth game.
Pandora Tomorrow: Stealth sequel in new setting.
Chaos Theory: More involved, more violent stealth game.
Double Agent: Likely misguided attempt to shake things up.
Conviction: Action game starring a guy.
Blacklist: Deliberate attempt at course-correction.
And what do you know, that more or less lines up with reality.