Trapped in the Plot Hole, Case File #2: Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction

By Dan Coyle
Monday, January 30, 2012 at 1:00 pm


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Bad video game writing has been with us since the medium's inception, and will likely always be with us, but sometimes, a game features a bad plot turn so heinous, so irritating, so "Were-they-even-paying-attention"-ny, They must be pointed out. For if not, we'll forever be... Trapped... in the Plot Hole.

Like quite a few gamers in 2010, I had a lot of fun with Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction. The troubled production had been rescued from extinction and the gameplay revamped and streamlined for an easier, but less frustrating and more rewarding experience in the long running stealth action series. I dug the way the game would set Sam Fisher up in situation and left it to the player to figure out his exact path for taking out everyone in the room. However, as the game progressed and the story arc solidified, I began to grow antsy with the game's increasingly repetitive nature, and the spell it had cast on me was absolutely shattered by the game's final act.


As explained by Sam's old pal Victor Coste in the framing sequence (which I'll talk about a little bit later), while investigating the possibility that his late daughter Sarah did not die in a car accident but was in fact murdered, Fisher found himself wrapped up in a plot to assassinate the President of the United States orchestrated by his own former black ops agency, Third Echelon and a private military contractor named Black Arrow. Tom Reed, Third Echelon's current director, is running the operation, and both are financed by a mysterious group known only as Meggido.

Reed's plan for assassinating the president is as follows. First, as shown in the game's co-op mode, he uses Third Echelon as cover to steal three Russian EMP warheads and smuggle them into Washington, DC. Then, he detonates the warheads simultaneously, thus completely crippling the city and rendering White House Security useless. Sam, of course, is able to stop one of the warheads from going off in the course of the game. Then, in the confusion, Black Arrow operatives sneak into the White House and assassinate President Patricia Caldwell. The Vice President, who is in on the plot, will then appear on closed circuit television announcing the President's death and that a team led by Reed saved him. Third Echelon will be declared heroes, thus saving the agency from the shutdown Caldwell had threatened. It's a pretty good plan, except...

Who were they going to blame it on?

In the game's climax, where Reed engages in what's got to be the most comically over the top validation of Roger Ebert's Fallacy of the Talking Killer ever committed to screen, he claims he'll pin Caldwell's murder on Sam. Okay, disgruntled former American hero who's been lied to by the government he so zealously defended for most of his lifetime, made a fugitive due to the events of Double Agent, he returns to the US  to makes the Commander in Chief pay for her perceived betrayal (it's not explicitly stated in the game, but in the prequel novel Sam is cleared of Lambert's murder and Third Echelon agrees to leave him alone). Sam Fisher is the perfect lone gunman.

Only, a lone gunman would not work in a scenario like this. Reed initiates a massive terrorist attack with a private army. The EMPs cause untold loss of life and millions, if not billions of damage to Washington and its infrastructure that likely will take years for the city to recover from. Reed may be planning a simple assassination, but he's staging an act of war to provide cover for it. Would anyone buy that Sam Fisher, and Sam Fisher alone, would be responsible for such a wide-ranging disaster as this? Especially since it's likely that no one in the general public has any idea who Sam Fisher is? Eventually the American public would start demanding more clear answers than that. Sam Fisher Truthers, anyone?

It just doesn't make much sense, especially in the parameters of the story. The EMPs are Russian- why not make it the work of crazed Russian terrorists looking to start a war, a common staple of a lot of Tom Clancy's brand of fiction? Since Reed has very little control over Fisher and his actions over the course of the game (he's brought into the plot by Grim, who's working undercover for Caldwell), and while Sam is seen publicly and branded as a fugitive midway through the game, he's not set up as a big threat by Reed (no one recognizes him as he strolls through DC after the EMPs go off, for example.

Furthermore, Reed's sole motivation for wanting Caldwell killed is because she was planning to cut Third Echelon's funding, leaving the country vulnerable (Well Tom, I've got a tip for you: try not putting ridiculously ornate sculptures of TE's logo in your marble floored front office). What better way to show the country's vulnerable and in need of Third Echelon's expertise than a sudden sneak attack by a foreign power? Or perhaps a powerful enemy at home, like, say, oh, I dunno... John Brown's Army?  Reed could have easily faked evidence Sam was leading a remaining faction of the group (or should I say... splinter cell?). The game builds up to this final sequence of events at a terrific pace, but when the assault on the White House finally happens, I was left scratching my head at the... excessiveness of it all, for seemingly so little gain. Of course, it could be argued that the entire attack was meant to be elaborate and silly, so as to cover up Meggido's involvement. But the game gives no hint as to who or what Meggido is, other than "it's bigger than you could imagine!" (when I hear stuff like that, it makes me think, "what's bigger than a Presidential coup?  Invaders, possibly from SPACE?") It's simply to set up the villain for the next game, I suppose.AAnd before I forget, even the game's framing device doesn't make much sense. Victor Coste tells the entire story in a Black Arrow interrogation room several months after the actual events have occurred. Eventually, it's implied Fisher attacks the Black Arrow base where he's being held and frees him. I have two big problems with this. One, Caldwell and the Secret Service have to know Black Arrow was helping Reed stage the attack. Even if Black Arrow's involvement was covered up, it stands to reason they would be gutted by the government, or at least be under enough scrutiny that kidnapping Coste, would be too much of a red flag. Second, Coste is Sam's old Gulf War buddy, but he's also a fixer who helps Sam and Sarah get out of the country with false identities at game's end. If Black Arrow was still a threat, wouldn't he be careful enough to NOT get caught by them, or go on the run himself? Plus, since Black Arrow was one of the key players behind the whole thing, why would they need Coste to fill in stuff they most likely already know? Again, as with the previous game I discussed, the basic ideas themselves aren't bad. If they wanted Coste to narrate the story in flashback, it could have been done while he was being debriefed by the Secret Service and the president. It would have made for a less flashy "stinger", but it also wouldn't make me react with "wait, there's no way this is happening right now."

Splinter Cell: Conviction is a good game, but a little more care and thought into the storytelling could have turned it into a great game, and maybe the best in the series. While the earlier gams' slightly more complicated stories weren't great, their seams didn't stand out so badly. I felt a little like Sam himself at the end: relieved, a little bit satisfied that the day was saved, but mostly just  wanting to walk away and try something else.

Next time: An Imperfect Storm of Bullets Or Wait, Wasn't This a Comedy?

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