I was reminded of how powerful big-budget video games can be—yet how frustratingly tame they often remain—while I was playing the new Splinter Cell. This game goes somewhere I didn't expect. Spoilers ahead.
Close the window you're reading this in now if you don't want to know.
Keep it open if you want to know about the first major video game to go to Gitmo.
It happens mid-game during your exploits of Sam Fisher, U.S. government super-spy and needed savior of the free world. The bad guys in this game are the so-called Blacklist, a group that threatens terrorist strikes on American soil if the president doesn't remove U.S. troops from foreign lands. To get at the bad guys, Sam's got to go the prison where one of them is being held. For convoluted Splinter Cell reasons, no one in the chain of command can know he's doing this. So into the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay goes video gaming's most elite American spy.
And when he gets in there?
When he slips in disguised as a prisoner, walking past barking dogs and guards possibly roughing up a prisoner?
He gets himself into a cell with a bona fide Blacklist terrorist and tortures the guy.
Here's the scene, up to and including the first interactive moment of the level, when players get to choose whether to spare or kill their interrogated target.
What to make of this?
My first instinct, upon seeing the level, was to commend Ubisoft Toronto, the game's development studio, for having the guts to go there—for having the will to use modern video game graphics to render a place that the millions of people who play Splinter Cell video games will probably never visit.
By going there, in a sense, Ubisoft was letting gamers go there.
Vivid, high-definition video games can take us places. They're transporters and time machines. Sure, movies can create the illusion that we're back in Lincoln's America or Caesar's Rome, but it's video games that can let us get a feel of walking through it, of exploring the space. Fire up last year's Assassin's Creed III for example, and you can walk a circle around George Washington, duck cannon balls beside Israel Putnam and stroll down an 18th-century Boston street with Ben Franklin.
In theory, Splinter Cell: Blacklist could let us walk through Gitmo. It could let us feel as if we were seeing this forbidden place at our own pace. It could let us explore.
Hell, it could let us decide whether to torture the guy or not.
The game does not do this.
The parts of the level where we were able to see presumed Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in cells and cages, where we could see guards and dogs, where we could feel the tension of being inside that famous fence even if just virtually...that stuff isn't interactive. Those scenes are rendered in video game graphics, but they might as well be a movie.
Players can only move around in the level when Fisher's interrogation is complete and he has to escape. At that point, we've left the prisoners in orange jumpsuits behind. We've left the places where we might imagine there was a hunger strike or a wrongly accused man from Afghanistan or a terrorist mastermind responsible for the slaughter of Americans. We've left that behind to move our spy-hero through a part of Gitmo that is more palatable, a camp X-Ray of barracks and guards but without a terrorist or accused terrorist in sight. It's in this less politically-charged area where we can play, where we have to sneak and run through the level and use our Splinter Cell skills go get the hell out of Cuba.
Once I was able to play Blacklist's Gitmo level, I was disappointed. The game had made my character, Fisher, torture a prisoner. It hadn't given me a real choice about that. The game was now letting me escape. But it wasn't letting me explore and it wasn't letting me feel much of anything other than the worry that my video game opponents—in this case dozens of unwitting American guards—were going to find me. In case you're wondering, the rules of this level prohibit the killing of American guards. You are only allowed to slip past them or knock them out.
By the end of the level, I was even more disappointed. Missed opportunity and all that. Maybe I was just expecting too much. The game is a Tom Clancy-branded production, after all. It's going to wave the American flag and it's going to present the kind of politics meant to be consumed alongside popcorn. These are games that, in terms of gameplay, are about the nuances of stealth but that, in terms of plot, are about the excellence of America being defended by a man who is a cross between Batman and a Navy SEAL.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay isn't a place a lot of us like to think about. It's a place many of us wish would go away. It's a surprise to see it show up in a video game, but just showing up isn't enough.
For more of my thoughts about Blacklist, you can read my review of the game for The New York Times.