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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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage