If you'd asked me in 1998 to look fifteen years in the future and guess who the the most enduring names in video games would be, I might've listed the usual suspects: Sid Meier, Tim Schafer, Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto and maybe a few others. I probably wouldn't have included Tom Clancy.
And yet here we are, in the year 2013, and Tom Clancy's name is attached to more video games—51, according to a generous counting of his Wikipedia page—than any of the other men that would've been on my list. And I have played, enjoyed, and sometimes even loved a good number of those games.
Tom Clancy died Tuesday night at the age of 66, leaving behind an unusual yet undeniable video game legacy. In fact, the man is responsible for an entire trans-media world—"The Clancyverse," as it's known—a sort of male-oriented soap opera universe spanning film, novels and games, complete with recurring heroes, villains, double-crosses and twisting storylines. In his way, he has arguably had a greater impact on the world of video gaming than any novelist aside from Tolkien.
Clancy's influence in games is, fittingly, as paradoxical as his sizable literary footprint. A novelist best known for political techno-thrillers like The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and Red Storm Rising, Clancy was never actually much of a writer. He was, as adroitly summed up in Christopher Buckley's 1994 New York Times review of Debt of Honor, "the most successful bad writer of his generation."
In comparing Clancy to Last of the Mohicans author James Fenimore Cooper—whose writing was famously lampooned by Mark Twain—Buckley elaborates:
This is no mean feat, for there are many, many more rich bad writers today than there were in Cooper's time. If Twain were alive now, he would surely be writing an essay entitled, "The Literary Crimes of Clancy." He would have loved "Debt of Honor," the culmination, thus far, of Mr. Clancy's almost endearing Hardy Boys-"Jane's Fighting Ships" prose style.
Make no mistake, Clancy is worthy of respect. The man knew how to craft a page-turner, and over several decades managed to forge a massively successful multimedia empire. In my early teens, I very much enjoyed several of his more well-known novels, right up through Debt of Honor, in which a crazed Japanese pilot flies a 747 into the Capitol Building, wiping out most of the US government and installing longtime Clancy hero Jack Ryan as president. Before 9/11, that novel's apocalyptic imaginings stirred a strange shock of excitement, but it was an uncomfortable one. Even at the age of fifteen or so, I started to notice Clancy's hard right into extreme neoconservatism, a political bent that my budding pre-progressive mind wasn't quite comfortable with. The unbelievable war-hawk wish-fulfillment of Debt of Honor's 1996 follow-up Executive Orders—in which the assassination of a Saddam Hussein stand-in leads to a massive, world-threatening United Islamic Republic that must be stopped at all costs—was more or less where I lost interest in Clancy's writing.
But soon after I put down my last Clancy novel, I began to play his games. I never really stopped. In 1996, Clancy made the wise decision to help found Red Storm Entertainment, a game development studio that would make games based on his novels. The first game of Clancy's that I can remember playing was the paramilitary spec-ops game Rainbow Six. I suspect I'm not alone in this—Rainbow Six was very successful both critically and commercially.
Based on a novel of the same name, the 1998 game provided a welcome change of pace from the more chaotic, fast-paced shenanigans of Quake and its ilk. In it, players took command of the eponymous spec-ops team, an international conglomerate of night vision goggle-wearing badasses who over the course of the game would raid scores of enemy strongholds to rescue hostages, assassinate terrorists and disarm weapons of mass destruction.
Rainbow Six was an extraordinarily hardcore game, as much a sim as it was a first-person shooter. It required a large degree of tactical planning and gave players an uncommon amount of freedom to tackle its challenges. Before each mission, players could perform recon on the building in question and choose from any number of breaching options and formations, all while looking down at nifty digital blueprints of the target structure. It was easy to imagine yourself standing with a group of equally skilled soldiers, talking about tactics while pushing pieces around on a cool digital board.
With a strategy in place, it was time to hop into action and lead the team through the mission. Rainbow Six wasn't a game for the impatient or the easily frustrated. One bullet almost always meant death, and the enemies were terribly, maddeningly accurate. It was possible to take control of any member of your team at any time, or simply watch the operation go down from on high; if the character you were controlling took a bullet, you hopped into the head of the guy behind him. As in 1994's X-Com: UFO Defense, if a soldier died, he was gone for good—you'd have to recruit someone new to replace him on the next mission. A poorly planned door-breach would end with your team being slaughtered, and some wonky artificial intelligence could leave things feeling hectic and unfair. The game wasn't for everyone.
In fact, Rainbow Six wasn't really for me. Though I played the heck out of it and its many sequels, I often felt frustrated with myself for not liking it more: PC Gamer gave this game a really high score! Why was I not having much fun? My fondest memories of the game were of poring over the planning screen, practically in character, muttering to myself about breaching charges and flashbangs. When it came time for the actual missions, I generally felt too anxious to really enjoy myself.
My primary memory of Rainbow Six was of the game's best character, Domingo "Ding" Chavez. Chavez was a recurring character in Clancy's novels—you may remember him as the guy who uses a candy bar wrapper to subvert a sniper training exercise in the movie version of Clear and Present Danger. In Rainbow Six, Ding Chavez was my deal-breaker—everyone else was fair game, but I refused to let him die. He was also my point man, so chances were, if an op went pear-shaped, Ding Chavez would be the first man down. (Our video contributor Leo Wichtowski recently mentioned that he played Rainbow Six the same way, which makes me think that a lot of people did.)
The fact that I cared about Ding Chavez always struck me as a small but effective bit of synergy between the Clancy books and the Clancy games. If Rainbow Six hadn't had characters that we knew (or were vaguely familiar with), had it simply been a bunch of randomly generated soldiers, I doubt I would've found a substitute Ding Chavez to latch onto. I hadn't even read Rainbow Six, yet it was because of Clancy's books that I gave a shit about the character in the first place. Also, you gotta admit: "Ding Chavez" is a pretty cool name.
Red Storm Entertainment was acquired by Ubisoft in 2000, leading to a hard rain of Clancyverse games, all branded with the Tom Clancy's™ logo. (I've always enjoyed that possessive apostrophe. I guess that's because it's usually the province of food franchises: McDonald's, Reese's, Arby's, Ruth's Chris, Gorton's.) I played Rainbow Six sequels off and on, and transitioned in parallel to the Ghost Recon series along with most other PC gamers. And of course, I've played every single Splinter Cell game, from the first one's release in 2002 right up until this year's Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Under Ubisoft, the Tom Clancy games became an interesting sort of proving ground for talented game designers. On the one hand, these games all had to exist in a charmless world defined by men with guns. On the other, they were almost universally smarter than other shooters, more unforgiving, and required players to use their heads. Talented game-makers like Clint Hocking, Maxime Béland, Patrick Plourde, and plenty more have cut their teeth on Clancy games, and tracking down which designer made which game can be a fun exercise.
I always got the sense that with the Clancy games, Ubisoft was willing to foster creativity and (admittedly, relatively minor) risk-taking in a way that other publishers like, say, Call of Duty's Activision, were not. Small mechanical things, like Rainbow Six Vegas' decision to snap players out of first-person to a third-person perspective while in cover, Splinter Cell's asymmetrical spies vs. mercs multiplayer, or Splinter Cell: Conviction's unbalanced but empowering mark-and-execute system, were innovations that made each game feel distinct from the others.
Among the Clancyverse's more laudable attributes is the fact that its heroes are often remarkably diverse. While the games' protagonists, such as they have them, are almost all white men, most of Clancy's strike teams and special units are made up of a welcome mix of black soldiers, white soldiers, asian soldiers, South American soldiers, and even female soldiers. Clancy's world may be dominated by men, but its women aren't relegated quite as firmly to the sidelines as one might expect. With the exception of Rainbow Six: Vegas 2's optional female protagonist, the women in Clancy's world don't really get to take center stage, but they're often given positions of power and treated with respect. In fact, the Clancyverse has always seemed weirdly utopian to me, almost like a neocon version of the Star Trek universe. "There are terrorists out there to fight!" they seem to say, "we have better things to worry about than our gender and racial divides!"
Yet ironically, most of the things I've always liked about Tom Clancy games don't have much to do with Tom Clancy. In fact, Clancy can be more directly tied to the things I don't like about Clancy games—the generic, scattered storytelling, the faceless heroes and villains, the generally awful dialogue and painfully simplistic jingoism. And then there's the games' odious insistence that torture is not only a necessary recourse for information gathering, but that it always works.
Well before his death, Clancy himself had become largely uninvolved with his thriving video game empire. Upon news of his passing, Ubisoft announced that "we are humbled by the opportunity to carry on part of his legacy through our properties that bear his name." In other words, Ubisoft will continue to release Tom Clancy games over the years to come. Beyond some kind words in an epigraph on the next few games, it's unlikely that future Tom Clancy games will reflect his passing in any meaningful way.
The imbalance at the heart of the Clancy games—that they're comfortable with mechanical innovation while remaining steadfastly old-fashioned in their storytelling—could well lead to their eventual irrelevance. They'll continue to star capable men who use deadly machinery to protect freedom; they'll continue to task us with killing legions of Russian Ultranationalists and Islamic Jihadists. Sometimes the real threat will come from within, and sometimes from without. Usually, a lone madman will manage to turn nations against one another, flirting with but neatly avoiding any real geopolitical turmoil.
But how long until that's no longer interesting enough to set the games apart? Even now, we can feel the beginnings of a shift—as mainstream action games slowly attempt to push beyond their self-imposed narrative and thematic boundaries, players and developers alike have begun to ask questions that Clancy games have never been much good at answering. Sure, upgrading from an Uzi to a UMP 45 will cause my accuracy stat to raise significantly. But how do I decide when to fire on noncombatants? What are the moral implications of a drone strike? If killing is a protagonist's primary interaction with the world, can we truly think of him as a hero? And how to acknowledge that torture is evil, that it is ineffective, and yet reckon with those who would use it anyway?
As more mainstream games begin to grapple with answers, I sense that they will eclipse and, eventually, leave behind the Clancyverse. I can already feel it, the slow but inexorable loss of interest in Tom Clancy's games. It's a whisper now, a whiff of disinterest in the latest release, but that sort of thing has a tendency to snowball. In fifteen more years, will we still be playing or talking about Tom Clancy games? I'm doubtful.
And yet even if that comes to pass, Tom Clancy has already done more than enough to cement his video-game legacy. In a sense, the world he created, the Clancyverse, is a perfect fit for the video games of our current age. It's a violent right-wing dream, a shadow-world where free people are under ceaseless threat from an unending stream of villains. We, the capable, the proud, must protect our way of life at all costs. Give us a gun and an aerial drone. We will win in the end.
For today, we pay our respects, and remember Tom Clancy as the unlikely video game icon he came to be. As the man who gave us a world driven by guns, empowered by technology, and defined not by character and empathy but by mechanics and design. Tom Clancy's games were and are—for better and for worse—emblematic of the era in which they were created.
Top image: AP