In a nocturnal world of oily shadows, where darkness cuts into damp surfaces illuminated by solitary swinging lightbulbs, the green-goggled man is king. By the time the third entry within the Splinter Cell collection, Chaos Theory, was launched in 2005, we have been already properly acquainted with Sam Fisher’s talent set; with only a 12 months between this and his earlier outing, we thought we knew what to anticipate, and expectations have been excessive.
But in that quick time between the 2 video games, the business straddled a technological revolution like Sam Fisher straddles a slim hall together with his split-jump; unthinkable issues grew to become doable by untapped tech like regular mapping and HDR lighting, taking part in right into—whereas additionally shaping—Ubisoft’s imaginative and prescient for Chaos Theory. This would not simply be the third iteration of an already wonderful collection, however one of many best stealth video games of all time.
After Pandora Tomorrow was made by Ubisoft Shanghai, growth on the third game returned to where all of it started—Ubisoft Montreal. The focus at the moment was on making video games work on the unique Xbox, and the presence of former Nvidia chip designer Danny Lepage as a programmer on the game meant the workforce had insider information on the right way to maximise the console’s graphical horsepower (and in flip not limit the PC model).
“Danny understood from a deep engineering perspective how the Xbox video card worked, unlocking some of the potential for shaders, normal maps, things like that,” says the game’s lead designer Clint Hocking. “None of us had ever seen a normal map before. John Carmack was still writing forum posts trying to describe it. Then when we started to see that stuff we were like, ‘Oh my God, this looks amazing!’ It totally upended our understanding of what game visuals could be.”
Normal maps, which ‘unflatten’ textures by giving them the phantasm of depth and distorted reflections from gentle sources, grew to become a should for Chaos Theory. Meanwhile, the workforce’s rendering framework—facilitated by the facility of DirectX 9—was so highly effective at rendering reflection results that it set one thing of an elemental theme for the whole game: water. “The reflections were so unique that we felt they could become part of the game’s identity, the same way that shadow casting was an identity of the original Splinter Cell,” producer Mathieu Ferland tells me.
Chaos Theory foregrounds its aquatic theme right from the beginning—a lighthouse off the coast of Peru where a pc programmer is being held hostage. Weaving your method by a cave system glistening with moisture, you emerge into spitting climate circumstances, at which level Sam’s distinctive rubberised stealth go well with takes on a shiny sheen (mercifully, not a think about your visibility to enemies). During this mission, you possibly can see enemies by the condensation-blurred glass on the prime of the lighthouse, and undergo damp tunnels where the partitions glisten with humidity and look so coarse that you just really feel you can run your palms alongside their uneven floor and are available away with moisture in your fingertips.
Set within the clammiest elements of New York, Japan, and areas across the South Pacific, Chaos Theory is a game obsessive about wetness, and takes each alternative to indicate off the verisimilitude proffered by the tech of the time, and the studio’s skill to implement them. Crucially, all these technical developments have been in service of the Splinter Cell stealth expertise, which might additionally make some critical leaps in Chaos Theory.
Clint Hocking was impressed by immersive sims, significantly Deus Ex and what he would in a later essay name its “meaningful agency across the narrative, progression and input levels of play”. With the collection’ stealth foundations properly established by 2004, Hocking noticed a chance to begin exploring a few of these extra formidable design philosophies.
At the crux of this is able to be getting rid of the earlier video games’ automated game over when gamers would set off alarms too many instances. “It was my mandate from the very first day that there is no game over in this game,” says Hocking. “The game has to carry on and it has to adapt to your actions. And that was enormously difficult. It really put a lot of pressure on the team, but thinking that way also unlocked our ability to make those things work.”
This led to the rise of what Mathieu Ferland calls a ‘loop of emotion’: the method of preserving a participant continuously engaged in a loop of slowly constructing rigidity, which can (or might not) culminate in a quick explosion of motion or violence once you get noticed, which then makes method for reduction once we escape or evade a state of affairs. Then the loop restarts and the strain builds once more…
We as gamers needed to adapt too. Without a game over to bail us out, we needed to assume on our toes when guards stumbled upon our bodies and would begin strolling in direction of the room we have been hiding in. We’d flatten ourselves towards partitions, attempt to recall escape routes by home windows and vents, and rely extra on specialist strikes like clinging to pipes, split-jumps and even sacrilegiously shooting our method out of bother. Chaos Theory pressured us to be really current by some significantly sticky conditions.
Sound design and music helped maintain this loop, and Amon Tobin’s rating was integral to that. The digital music producer—famend for his experimental and infrequently arrhythmic music that ranges from liquidy ambient beats to industrial drum & bass—was introduced onboard after Ubisoft used his music for an inside gameplay video. Tobin’s soundtrack was distinctive, from the disruptive snares and drum rolls that kick in once you get caught to the cool bassy twanging and spectral radio chatter of the stealth themes.
I reached out to Tobin to speak about his contribution to the game. “The motivation was to write music that was not typical for a game at the time, in that it took its influence from both vintage film scores (like the work of Mission: Impossible theme composer Lalo Schifrin) and what I was playing at clubs, namely d’n’b,” he tells me. “The idea of music intensity adapting to gameplay was also not something that had been technically achievable to the degree we wanted at that moment. It drew out technical innovation from Ubisoft along with creative challenges, such as making sure individual layers of a composition were as musically compelling as the sum of their parts.”
Expanding the participant’s freedom additionally required increasing the extent design. Whereas earlier video games provided a number of stealthy options for getting by a given room or sequence, their relative linearity made it straightforward for the game to spotlight the threats and challenges you’d face in every part. Individual missions have been conveniently damaged into segments separated by loading screens, successfully wiping clear no matter mess of snoozing our bodies and damaged lights you’ll have left in your wake.
In distinction, Chaos Theory’s maps have been seamless stealth sandboxes which needed to account for the chance that you can enter most areas from any angle, bypass some areas altogether, and even ‘break’ the narrative movement. You might fiddle with the order you probably did aims, or what angle you’d strategy sure scripted scenes from, and the dialogue with Headquarters would change relying on the bespoke path you carved by a mission.
But inside these sandboxes have been dozens of particular moments, where you can slice by a Japanese Shoji wall to seize a guard from the opposite aspect, or with a meticulously positioned barrel bask in a little bit of explosive Tom Cruise-style swagger. At one level I used to be shimmying alongside a pipe when, right on cue, a guard peered by a doorway, forcing me to instinctively dangle upside-down and plip him within the face with my silencer. These moments have been sporadic, however broke up the stealth movement in a particularly partaking method.
Many of those seemingly incidental moments have been handcrafted, conceived even earlier than the degrees themselves and primarily based on an enormous inside repository of stickmen. “There was this documentation where anybody in the team could propose a contextual idea related to a situation—whether it’s upside-down interrogations or pulling an enemy over a rail,” Ferland recollects. “Those ideas were coming from stickman drawings. Even if there were multiple paths, we wanted to find a way to pull the player into those scenes.”
When I ask Hocking about his favorite stage, he instantly offers me the Panamanian Bank—an early mission that sees Fisher beginning out within the grounds of a palatial constructing, and work his method in earlier than freely exploring its huge inside. The preliminary strategy is traditional Splinter Cell, as you’re employed your method as much as the roof of the constructing and drop in by a skylight. Once you are inside, the extent turns into a maze of alternatives.
Keeping these ranges seamless wasn’t straightforward, due the shortage of streaming tech constructed into Unreal Engine 2.5 and the excessive calls for of regular mapping and high-fidelity texture belongings. “Breaking the levels into small pieces was going to force them to be super linear, like there would literally only be three rooms and then another level and then three rooms and then another level. So we wouldn’t even be able to make the game we wanted to make,” Hocking tells me. “We had to write a streaming solution, and had programmers just work full-time so that whichever way a player took through a level, you’d move through chokepoints and they’re dumping textures behind you and loading textures in front of you.”
Chaos Theory was extra than simply the most recent ‘one-a-year’ iteration in a prolific Ubisoft collection, it was a peak of stealth gaming. It cast an extended shadow over the collection, which might later water down a few of its id by choosing a extra linear, fast-paced expertise (roughly parallel to when Hitman Absolution and the Thief remake seemingly forgot the defining qualities of their predecessors). But now, with Splinter Cell set to return after a decade’s hiatus, it has an opportunity to return to—and construct on—the design ethos that made Chaos Theory so particular.
With a lot to evolve in such a brief span of time, the event course of took its toll on Hocking, whose obsession to ship his imaginative and prescient usually noticed him working 80-hour weeks of his personal accord. “I’d only been making games for three years. I didn’t realise how much trouble I’d put myself in,” he remembers. “I sometimes question whether it was really worth it. In the end I feel like it was. I’m very proud of it and it’s something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life.”
There’s a contemplative second of silence earlier than Hocking provides a caveat so widespread amongst relentlessly pushed creatives. “But it wasn’t free,” he concludes. “It wasn’t free.”