Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Clancy Conundrum

We love our guns.

As I write, hundreds of thousands have already purchased Modern Warfare 2. Many bought the game at midnight, and have already carpeted developer Infinity Ward’s servers with virtual shell casings fired from virtual boomsticks.

But millions have already bought and enjoyed games sold under the branding of war-porn writer Tom Clancy. If you’ve ever played action games from the Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon or Splinter Cell lineages, you’ve seen Clancy’s stamp: a gas mask-clad commando, pistol at the ready.

So far as technical excellence and critical acclaim go, the Clancy games have enjoyed unusually consistent success since Rainbow Six dropped in 1998. Each brand franchise has set precedent in its genre. The games sell, too. For publisher Ubisoft, the Clancy brand is a golden goose that also makes you breakfast and does your taxes.

But it’s running out of ideas. It’s grasping for geopolitical context to buttress the gameplay, and in its treatment global conflict like a game of mad libs – choose your country, choose your resource, make your war – the brand risks not only weakening its games, but ethical transgression.

Simply put, it may be immoral to keep playing games stamped with the Clancy commando.

The franchises break down thus: Rainbow Six is a squad-based shooter set mostly indoors. Ghost Recon is a squad-based shooter set mostly outdoors and at greater ranges. Splinter Cell is a stealth action game, played from a third-person perspective and incorporating a smorgasbord of spy gadgets and ninja moves.

The latest games branch out a bit, roping other franchises into a single universe and striving to advance as a single storyline. HAWX is an awful flight sim (if we can reasonably call it a sim) that, god willing, will never see a sequel. Endwar is a real-time strategy game notable for its use of voice commands – and little else.

Before I damn the brand for jingoism, I need to give credit – in ample amount – to the excellent gameplay typical throughout Clancy games. With the exception of HAWX, every title has distinguished itself from a crowded field of imitators. Rainbow Six: Vegas, in my opinion, is the possiby the best squad-based tactical shooter on any platform. And while Endwar basically boiled down to a neat technology bundled with a modestly complicated game of paper-rock-scissors, it was capable of delivering a satisfying strategy experience.

The brand’s sin is in its eagerness to harness stock plots and simplistic foes to exploit some smarmy, knee-jerk patriotism. Much like the books, the plots of Clancy games are crude, poorly hammered together fantasies of masculine prowess. I mean, no one will ever expect, or want, a game to realistically model the tedium of foreign policy and diplomacy, but the extent to which the brand models global conflict is just patently ludicrous. Endwar has this overwrought, overcomplicated backstory to explain a game that can be conceptualized as Super Smash Bros. with countries.

Rainbow Six games are particularly lazy with their plots. They can be reduced to foes, weapons and civillian targets. To wit:

Rainbow Six
Type: Squad vs. Terrorists
Bad guy: Horizon, Inc., a biotech corporation.
Weapon of Mass Destruction: Ebola virus
Target: the world

Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear
Type: Squad vs. Terrorist
Bad guy: Russian arms dealer
Weapon of Mass Destruction: Nuke
Target: the world

Rainbow Six: Raven Shield
Type: Squad vs. Terrorist
Bad guy: ex-Nazi billionare
WMD: nerve gas; blister gas
Target: the world

Rainbow Six: Lockdown
Type: Squad vs. Terrorists
Bad guy: Global Liberation Front (GLF)
WMD: virus
Target: the world

Rainbow Six: Vegas
Type: Squad vs. Terrorists
Bad guy: Some dude, some lady; a mole
WMD: Micro-pulse bombs; missile
Target: Las Vegas; The Hoover Dam (then the world)

Rainbow Six: Vegas 2
Type: Squad vs. Terrorists
Bad Guy: Some dude named Alvarez (?); the mole (see above)
WMD: chemical bombs; conventional bombs
Target: Las Vegas; whatever.

…you get the drift. There’s nothing essential about a given Rainbow Six game, nothing beyond graphics or gameplay that drastically differentiates one from the other.

This may sound like a silly gripe, coming from someone who professes to prefer innovative mechanics over a deep story. My complaint isn’t that Clancy games lack narrative – it’s that their narrative revels in some right-wing, gun-nut fantasy of defending Our Beseiged Union. It’s Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger and Air Force One all rolled into one; those favoring diplomacy are ineffectual liberal pussies who prattle about Washington while brave, stolid Americans die in far off places. Come to think of it, there is no diplomacy in Clancy games. It’s all the same swinging-dick, vaguely fascistic politics you’d expect from Glenn Beck.

There’s a kind of gritty, grim ambiance that comes from the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It (spoilers) puts the gun in your hand and tells you to kill civillians, lest you blow your deep-cover status in a terrorist cell. A Clancy game would treat the same situation with a slow-motion montage of collapsing bodies, set to some mournful string arrangement, the subtext being: we’ll get these bastards. We’ll avenge all these dead women and children.

Maybe I’m imagining a greater moral contrast than actually exists. Maybe it’s just me, but Clancy games make me feel complicit in the same outdated mindset that says “war on terror” and still actually means it.