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.

Show Hide image

On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State