Jade Raymond: Triple-A videogames can still be innovative

Alex Hern speaks to the all-star producer and lead of the upcoming Splinter Cell: Blacklist about upstart indie gamers, the polygons of emotion - and the new Spies vs Mercs mode.

When the Splinter Cell series returns on 20 August with Splinter Cell: Blacklist, it brings the groundbreaking "spies versus mercenaries" mode back with it. The mode, first featured in 2006's Splinter Cell: Double Agent, is an asymmetric multiplayer game. Two people play as spies - fast, agile, and with a wealth of gadgets enabling them to sneak their way through levels; the other two play as heavily armed mercenaries, slow and clumsy but making that up with firepower. Even the objectives were different for each team. The spies had to hack encrypted files from terminals scattered around the levels, while the mercenaries had to stop them.

"Spies v Mercs" was quietly revolutionary in its asymmetry, so I asked Jade Raymond, the Managing Director of Ubisoft's Toronto Studios which produced Blacklist, whether there was anything as groundbreaking in the new game. "I certainly hope so," she says. "The thing about our multiplayer is that we haven't spoken about all of it yet, because we do want to save some surprises." But in the new game, distinguishing multiplayer from single is harder said than done: "what we've done with Blacklist is blur the line between all the modes." The metagame doesn't distinguish between single- and multiplayer missions. Instead, it dishes out the same rewards for winning a multiplayer match, beating your friend's score in a single-player mission, or for continuing the overall story. "No matter which mode you're playing, you're accumulating money which you can spend on Sam's upgrades, on upgrading the plane, on upgrading your Spies v Mercs characters. It's just a single experience and anything you do in any mode helps the global economy."

It's an interesting proposition, although slightly scary to someone like me who is, on a fundamental level, a bit crap at multiplayer games. But it doesn't feel like the same breakthrough that the original was. Does Raymond still think the big console games are innovative? Might the excitement not be in mobile gaming, where whole new genres are being invented? Or even in board gaming?

Following a short digression where we swap stories of rolling dice – "I love board games!" – she defends her turf against the upstarts. "You're seeing a lot of interesting stuff going on in the indie scene, but there's certain types of innovation which can only happen with an HD level of realisation. Like, I think the Last of Us had a big impact in terms of storytelling, and emotional connection with the players, and you can't really do that with a mobile game."

But sometimes it can feel like that the ability to make that connection is wasted. Reading previews of Blacklist in the gaming press, lines like "visually, Splinter Cell still has some of the best shadows seen this generation" jump out. It's uncomfortably reminiscent of Heavy Rain designer David Cage's comment at the launch of the PlayStation 4, that the machine's ability to render "30,000 polygons" let them "go further to create subtle emotions". Raymond defends the preview, arguing that "in Splinter Cell, shadows do have a little bit more meaning than in any other game, because that dictates whether you're hidden or not . . . I agree, talking about shadows is kind of pointless if there's no gameplay mechanic associated with it."

Raymond is upbeat about the state of the gaming press – even though it has frequently been less-than-reasonable back. Such as the time a Kotaku writer said: "I'm personally hoping she announces a new game where you just move the camera around a 3D model of her person for hours at a time". Throughout her career, the community has not allowed her to forget her gender.

In the run-up to the launch of Assassin's Creed, the first AAA title she produced, the abuse got particularly bad. Someone spread false rumours that she would be posing for Maxim; a popular webcomic artist drew her into a pornographic scene. "That was the first time that I really had that kind of thing happen. Obviously it was pretty . . . it was pretty difficult, to be honest, because even though . . . you can't take that kind of thing personally, it has nothing to do with you, but obviously it does affect you."

But unlike some women working in gaming, Raymond doesn't think the industry as a whole has a problem. "Working in the game industry I've never felt that there was really sexism. I feel like I've been respected for what I bring to the table. I started out as a programmer, so, you know, you're either a good programmer or you're not a good programmer."

Her analysis is more positive than that of many others in similar positions. Between critical studies like Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs women project, which assessed the role of female characters in gaming, and movements like the #1reasonwhy campaign, which passionately detailed all the reasons why there are so few women in gaming, many women are speaking up.

I ask Raymond what she thinks about these movements. "Well, I definitely see a lot more people talking about it, so I think that that is probably healthy. I guess, you know, I would look forward to a time when it's not a topic of discussion. 'Oh, you make games, and you made this super-successful game . . . tell me what it's like to be a woman.'"

Jade Raymond.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser