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Splinter Cell: Blacklist director on terrorism, patriotism

At E3 2013, Catherine Cai sat down with Splinter Cell: Blacklist creative director Maxime Béland to discuss the game. Eventually, she broached a subject she'd been curious about for a long time.

Initially, my conversation with Splinter Cell: Blacklist creative director Maxime Béland was about the game and the series' transition from one of unforgiving stealth into something more palatable for a wider audience. I had always wondered how it felt for developers working on franchises that were primarily focused on Americans and American patriotism.

You see, Splinter Cell's development has almost always been handled by Canadians, as it was juggled between Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Toronto. And of course, Ubisoft itself is based out of France, so it's a rather interesting thing to realize that Tom Clancy games (a name that's heavily associated with American patriotism) have almost always been handled by non-Americans.

I asked Béland how he felt, as a Canadian, to be developing a game for a franchise that's so heavily associated with American Patriotism. The sense I got from him was that American culture was so prevalent in Canada, considering its proximity to the States, that there wasn't much of a problem at all.

"For me, we're Canadians, but we're also Americans in a way," said Béland. And of course, he's right. Canadians have just as much of a right to claim the American name, considering its location.

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Splinter Cell: Blacklist E3 2013 - Scope Trailer

"They are our neighbors. We watch their TV shows. We eat their food… maybe too often. We're North Americans, definitely."

And in those instances where there might be something culturally that the studio might not necessarily "get" about Americans, Béland explained that there were plenty of Ubisoft employees that he could go to for an explanation.

"It's not something we stress too much about," he said. "It's interesting because Ubisoft is a French company and we're making Tom Clancy games. We're—especially at Ubisoft Montreal and Ubisoft Toronto—a very diverse team. My lead writer [Richard Dansky] is an American. He lives in North Carolina.

"Sometimes, I'm like, 'Hey, I'm seeing this, but it might be my vision as a Canadian. What do you think?' And Richard's like, 'For this, you don't want to touch that because that's very sensitive for Americans.' I have my go-to American friends slash coworkers that I can be like, 'This is touchy. How do we approach this? How do we talk about this and do it well?' And again on the team we got a lot of Americans. Patrick Redding, our game director, is an American."

Béland also points to the rise of a global culture, no doubt due to the fact that the world is becoming increasingly more connected due to the Internet.

"Yes, we're different. But it's really starting to feel like we're one world," said Béland. "Everybody's watching Game of Thrones. Everybody's watching Breaking Bad. I think we're getting influenced... most of are getting influence from watching the same things… having the same music more or less."

Perhaps what's most interesting to come out of this discussion was to see how that non-American perspective impacted the development of Blacklist. Part of what has made U.S. culture so globally dominant has been due to its military might. Having troops in a majority of the countries of the world is a pretty good way to ensure the spread of American influence. In fact, it's this very idea that helped birth Splinter Cell: Blacklist in the first place.

"I was with Richard Dansky, our American writer. And we were talking," said Béland, as he was explaining to me the background to Blacklist's plot. "He told me that the United States has soldiers in more than two thirds of the countries in the world. I was like, 'What? Really?'… As a Canadian, I'm like, 'Hey! What if we don't have soldiers everywhere in the world and we mind our own business and we let everybody in the world take care of their own things? Maybe the world will be better.'"

In fact, that's the motivation behind the Engineers, the terrorist-hacker group that's featured as the big bad in Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Their only demand is that America extricate itself and withdraw its influence from the terrorists' respective countries, something that's completely understandable for a country wanting to stand on its own.

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Splinter Cell: Blacklist E3 2012 Trailer

"[The Engineers] are basically saying: America, take your troops away from our homes, away from our churches, away from our schools. Or if you don't, we're going to bring war to you. It's easy to go kill people that are not in your country, but how are you going to feel when we bring war next to your school and your homes?" Béland explained, "I really hope it's never going to happen, but…"

But of course, it's already something that's happening. It's why Splinter Cell: Blacklist exists and is relevant to its player base. It raises an issue that's hard to ignore and close to home for both Americans and Canadians.

"I've worked on a lot of Clancy games and terrorism is a lot stuff I work on and talk about," said Béland, "I started to jog a year and a half ago and when the Boston Marathon happened, I was like, 'Holy s**t. This is not good.'"

I realize now that while Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an "American game" with an "American focus", that's not really the point. Whether it’s a Canadian developer or not telling the story doesn't matter. We've become so connected in this world that the impact of major events spans country borders. Sam Fisher's story is relevant, because it touches on a subject that people around the world can relate to, be it the countries who have been touched by terrorism, countries that are war torn, or countries who have been decimated because of foreign occupation.

"We live in a very interesting world," said Béland. "We're meeting a lot people we don't know. I find our world is very fragile. Our lives are very fragile. It doesn't take much for someone to ruin our lives."

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is out on PC, PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 in August; the franchise will continue on next-generation consoles.

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