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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge