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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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism