Amon Tobin’s soundtrack is usually, I think, the first — sometimes the only — thing that people remember about Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It’s good music. There are a few tracks that I still listen to even nowadays, especially when I want to feel kind of cool and brooding and confident. It’s good music for driving at night or sometimes when I stand at my back door smoking a cigarette. But I don’t think that it’s good music for the game Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. In fact, I don’t think it’s good music for any game. And if I wanted to try and take this whole thought process to some kind of philosophical conclusion, to use Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Amon Tobin’s soundtrack as an example of what I perceive is a larger issue in videogames, then I would probably argue that most videogame soundtracks do not fit well with their associated videogames.
The music of Amon Tobin is very slick, very smooth, very rhythmic. I lack the understanding of music and composition requisite to really describe how it sounds, but it’s definitely stylish; it’s dark and kind of heavy but also elegant. I can see (or rather hear) why executives at Ubisoft or sound directors or whoever thought that it would be the perfect fit for a Splinter Cell game. Splinter Cell’s gimmick is that the player can perform all these acrobatic kind of stealth finishing moves, like the split jump where Sam Fisher straddles the walls either side of a narrow corridor or the one where he hangs upside down from a pipe by his legs to shoot someone or break their neck or whatever. I used to like the SWAT Turn in Pandora Tomorrow, where you’d hug the wall up to the egde of an open doorway then press X to do this quick 360 spin onto the other side. These pretensions of grace, the ambition behind Splinter Cell to depict Sam Fisher and by extension the player as not only someone superlatively capable but also who looks and feels good and kind of effortless while being superlatively capable reached their peak in Splinter Cell: Blacklist, where the “mark-and-execute” system from Conviction was refined to the point you could “mark” maybe five or six different enemies and, with the push of one button, execute them all flawlessly and silently via a short cutscene of Fisher performing this, uninteractive, heavily motion-captured, Equilibrium-esque gunkata. It seems like by these two games, Blacklist especially, Ubisofthad realised that in order for the character and the action to have any discernible and consistent sense of grace, input from the player would have to be signifcantly reduced — we tell the game we want to kill this, this and this guy and then watch while the game does it much better than we could.
And if you look at things that way, it’s the same reason the soundtrack doesn’t fit in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. The game is awkward to play and the player, invariably, acts incompetently and clumsily — while Tobin’s smooth bass thumps away in background, we watch or rather make because we don’t know any better Sam Fisher walk around trying to find a door or alert a guard by pressing drop when he meant to press hang or carry and drop a body to hide it and then realise that the body isn’t actually fully inside the safe, shadowed corner of the room where the guards programmed patrol routes don’t go to, and then have to go and pickthe body up and move it forwards half an inch and drop it again. Game characters and game soundtracks are almost uniformly designed to inspire in us senses of coolness and extreme competence, whereas controls and mechanics are designed to challenge us and make us fail — give us something to develop a mastery over so we can also have the satisfaction when they become something we eventually “beat”. And I’d suppose these two things don’t especially, effectively, mix. If the game presents you, the protagonist, as supposedly omnipotently strong and capable and superlative, as it often will, be that through costume, dialogue, narrative or music, then that presentation ultimately comes into conflict — its strength and sort of plausibility is ultimately compromised — the first time you run afoul of the game’s mechanics, which is also, inescapably, something that you expect to happen in a game — is also The Point of a videogame. The only option becomes treating all of those moments of running afoul as kind of rehearsals, the equivalent of outtakes — in the story of the game Sam Fisher didn’t really drop off the pipe when he meant to just hang, he didn’t in fact do most of what the player made him do, expect that one time when he did everything right and thus closed all the other possible dimensions and outcomes and parallel universes where he didn’t make it and we previously witnessed behind him. But again, that feels like a real cop out as it disregards and overrules the majority of player interaction.
The alternative then is to make it really easy in a game to look and feel cool and capable, but that seems like something a lot of people who play videogames would resent and feel shortchanged by. It’s why people don’t much like quick-time events and got tired with the Batman: Arkham series’ style of combat, where you press one button to hit and one button to dodge and then the game handles the rest. Whatever is produced during a game’s interactive sections, however that interaction might be composed, players will want it to feel like the product of their work and input. But whatever “cool” moments or performances might be achieved during those interactions, their worth is reduced to zero if the mechanics are easy — if those subjective cool moments are something that any other player could easily have done. I suppose fundamentally this is the problem: You want all players to feel suitably attached and like they can identify with and act like the protagonist, usually a superhero by one definition or another, while at the same time you want them to feel like they have highly personal and subjective experiences, do things that no-one else does. You want them to be your character. You also want them to be themselves. But being themselves contradicts your character completely. And being the character in any consistent or convincing sense that made the game narratively or stylistically coherent would mean simplifying and truncating the mechanics to the point the player themselves would have no voice.
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