TBT – Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

More and more open world games are released every year. The sheer size of a large, expansive piece of land with many locations to visit, quests to complete, and lore to digest are certainly alluring to developers and gamers alike.

 However, it isn’t player freedom or the amount of in-game content on their own that leads to compelling gameplay. It’s about how a game balances player freedom and player restriction. Puzzle games in particular do this well by revealing certain information to the player (how to solve a puzzle), placing restrictions on how the player can achieve their goal, and then letting the player explore the world in order to see how they interact with freedom and restrictions. While Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory isn’t a puzzle game, its gameplay design mirrors the concepts of freedom, restriction, and experimentation that are seen in the best puzzle games, from Portal to The Witness.

Chaos Theory isn’t the first title in the Splinter Cell series and it benefits greatly from the criticisms lobbed at the series’ two earlier titles. While the first two Splinter Cell games were applauded for their technology and level design, both were criticized for being far too rigid in how they restricted players. Chaos Theory changed the Splinter Cell formula by allowing players to be less stealthy in fulfilling missions. Bodies could be left out in the open because alarms wouldn’t automatically be raised – now, cameras or guards would have to see the body in order to enact an alert status. New equipment and combat moves – along with a new Mature rating from the ESRB – granted Sam Fisher multiple ways to incapacitate or kill enemies. This spirit of freedom wormed its way into Chaos Theory’s level design as well. They were more open than ever, giving the player options on how exactly they wanted to infiltrate an area.

Chaos Theory also changed the formula for how Splinter Cell equated the status of the player to the game state. In past games, being revealed to enemies equated to losing the game. In Chaos Theory, being revealed by enemies means that the player is in danger and will need to act quickly, either by hiding or incapacitating the guard who spotted you. This changes the gameplay from the simple, and often frustrating, trial-and-error to something more complex, where the player is able to interact with the world in more ways as well as improvise and experiment more liberally. In short, the game became a whole more fun.

Adding to this fun is the variety of weapons and equipment that the player can choose from before departing on a mission. Guards can be killed, interrogated, incapacitated, or left alone. Sticky cameras can be placed around the level and can be accessed at any time. A new pistol attachment allows you to power down an electronic system so that you can sneak by. Lights can be shot out. A number of levels have unique elements such as a rock climbing wall or walls that are thin enough for you to grab enemies through. Water could be shot with a device that would electrify it.

All these elements added to the gameplay, which allows the player to experiment and adapt to errors they make or to new obstacles they come up against. Players no longer had to use only stealth. In fact, many levels allowed them to treat the game like a third-person shooter. This freedom allows the player to create personal goals within the game that fit their playstyle. If you wanted to get through the level without killing anyone, you could. If you wanted to kill everyone in sight to complete the main mission, have at it. Some missions still required you not to kill certain enemies, but the majority of Chaos Theory’s gameplay was more open than its predecessors.

All this freedom doesn’t make for much of a game without some challenge, however. With each new level, Chaos Theory restricts the player ever so slightly. Maybe guards have thermal vision so they can see better in the dark and through smoke. Maybe it’s as simple as making key lighting fixtures impossible to damage. But the important note is that with each new restriction, it isn’t just about making things more difficult, it’s also about forcing the player to do something different. The first few levels of Chaos Theory can basically be completed by staying in the shadows and shooting out certain lights when needed. In later levels, confrontation becomes more and more difficult to avoid, hidden paths harder to find, and players generally can’t rely simply on timing their path in between patrolling guards. With these challenges, the game implicitly suggests that the player explore equipment, moves, and other gameplay elements that they haven’t yet used through their playthrough. By arming the player with various techniques and equipment, the developers supply a range of ways for the player to interact with the game world and reach their goal.

The constant back-and-forth between freedom and challenge is the thesis of Chaos Theory’s gameplay and it mirrors the nature of the very best puzzle games. If we look at Portal or The Witness, we can see how they share similar design philosophies with Chaos Theory. They present the player with a clear goal along with restrictions and rules for how they can go about achieving that goal. But while they reveal certain information to the player, they also hide quite a bit. For example, players aren’t explicitly told in Portal that their physical momentum transfers as they fall through one portal and exit another. Instead, they learn this through experimentation that comes naturally through gameplay.  In The Witness, there are no tutorials. The solution for an extremely simple puzzle is presented, then the player learns through experimentation how this solution can be classified as a rule that extends to all other puzzles.

In this way, Chaos Theory’s gameplay design is very similar to Portal or The Witness. The objectives of Chaos Theory are clear, presented at the start of each mission. The restrictions are numerous and include enemies, the mission’s or player’s commitment to stealth, and what Fisher is not able to do (such as walk undetected in front of a guard). And while these restrictions are numerous, they are also clear and able to be tested by the player. An equally long list of equipment helps the player work within, around, and through the rules. Like puzzle games, experimentation in Chaos Theory is how the player interacts with the game in order to learn exactly how far its rules really stretch. There is enough freedom so that players can try different plans for achieving a goal, but also clear restrictions that add enough challenge so that success feels earned, not granted. Chaos Theory takes puzzle-game philosophy and applies it to small but open maps.

There are a lot of reasons that I love Splinter Cell Chaos Theory. The graphics are strong, the lighting effects are terrific, the story takes you to numerous and varied places around the world, and the soundtrack, created by musical god Amon Tobin, is absolutely incredible. But as I think more and more about one of the best stealth games ever, I realize that the game’s design is its true star. The game is an ideal example of how developers can set up a game environment where the player is allowed to explore exactly how different aspects of the gameplay interact. And Chaos Theory helps prove that it isn’t the exploration of a huge open world that makes a game fun or exciting, it’s in exploring a game’s systems, and how these systems interact with each other and with the game world, that a player connects with and enjoys a game.


Daniel Podborochynski

A Canadian who loves video games, soccer, sandwiches, reading, cats, dogs, Aphex Twin, bike rides, Fallout, Daft Punk, barbecue, and beer.

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