I believe that culture can be transmitted through various mediums, and just as Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum expressed, “the medium is the message,” I believe that video games—at least in our present age—is one such medium. Whatever people may feel about the significance of video games influencing our culture, one thing is certain: it has become a medium for entertainment that is every bit as popular as books, music, and television.
Having said that, this article is about one of my favorite games of all time: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, a stealth-based video game developed by Ubisoft. And although it’s debatable just how much input Clancy has put into the series, one thing is certain: a lot of people love it.
The series centers on the story of Lt. Commander Samuel Leo Fisher, USN (Ret.), a veritable aging badass with a very dark sense of humor. With regards to gameplay, Splinter Cell is a thinking man’s game, and it focuses upon stealth as opposed to Rambo style manslaughter. Fisher’s Trifocal nightvision goggles, slick black suit, modified FN2000 (in earlier games), and old-guy dark humor makes for a good male fantasy.
Even as a guy living in a Third World country, I can say that I am a fan of Sam. He actually reminds me of my own father—efficient, intelligent, and scary. However, the Splinter Cell franchise can also be easily labeled as Neo-Con propaganda, in the sense that its basic narrative is based around clandestine black-ops conducted all over the world in the name of preserving Democracy, Liberty, and MTV.
Throughout the entire series (at least until the latest installment, ‘Conviction’), Fisher has worked for a fictional organization within the NSA called Third Echelon. Third Echelon’s agents are called Splinter Cells, and their mandate is based around the concept of The Fifth Freedom.
To make a long story short, the Fifth Freedom is the Freedom to exercise any means to safeguard the “Four Freedoms” which precedes it. In a lot of ways, it is the most succinct expression of Carl Schmitt’s State of Exception.
For reference, Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedom Speech’ highlighted the following “Freedoms:”
- Freedom of speech and expression
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom from want
- Freedom from fear
Splinter Cell however, takes FDR’s position one step further, and into Carl Schmitt’s backyard. According to the Splinter Cell Wiki, the Fifth Freedom is:
“ . . . considered to be the freedom that protects the other four. It is normally an unspoken freedom and is considered a form of diplomatic immunity. The Fifth Freedom permits members of Third Echelon (and other members of clandestine operations) to eliminate a person(s) without any Legal or Governmental consequence, as long as it is to protect the other Four Freedoms of United States citizens. During certain sensitive missions, the Fifth Freedom is not always a viable option to field operatives, who must then adapt to accomplish their goals. When the Fifth Freedom is made available, then an operative is permitted to remove any threats deemed necessary, without the fear of legal repercussions.”
So there you have it . . .
Despite the moral ambiguity implicit with an agency like Third Echelon, it is easily justified within the context of the game’s setting. The world of Splinter Cell, much like our own, is very politically unstable, and just like the real world, American society is in a state of crisis.
Fisher understands the dangers of the world that he is living in, and he knows what his actions imply about his country and the ideals that it’s supposed to represent. He also has no pretensions about his line of work . . . or its ethics. He even describes his job in the following manner:
My name is Sam Fisher. I'm a soldier. I'm not much of a philosopher, but if you want to know what I believe, I'll tell you. I believe the greatest threats to our freedom actually start small. They begin as random events that most people don't even notice. But they grow. They multiply. They start chain reactions that threaten the entire world. Some people call that "fate". I call it "Chaos Theory". But, believing in Chaos Theory doesn't mean you have to surrender to it. That's where I come in. I find those threats before they get out of hand, and I eliminate them. Quickly, quietly, relentlessly. I take the lives of a few to protect the lives of many. I commit acts of war to preserve the greater peace. I take no joy in killing, but make no mistake; I'll do what needs to be done. Because it's my job. It's my duty. My name is Sam Fisher, and I am a Splinter Cell. (My bold)
Rhetorics aside however, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Splinter Cell is the trajectory of Sam Fisher’s journey. He goes from a morally ambiguous avatar of American Neoconservatism into an avatar of American existential confusion throughout the course of the franchise.
In the very first Splinter Cell game, Sam Fisher fought fictional Georgian President Kombayn Nikoladze, and his merry band of terrorists in order to stop World War 3. As far as the plot goes, the first Splinter Cell game was pretty straightforward. Fisher was the good guy. The Eastern Europeans, with the bad accents, were the bad guys. Therefore, Fisher teaches the bad guys about Carl Schmitt’s “State of Exception” with the barrel of his gun.
In subsequent games, however, the good vs. evil narrative will not be as strong as it was in the first game. In the second game, for example, ‘Pandora Tomorrow,’ Fisher doesn’t just go against a group of Indonesian terrorists, the Darah Dan Doa, he also fights against a pissed-off ex-CIA agent turned terrorist by the name of Norman Soth.
The moral ambiguity comes from the fact that Soth was actually involved with the Darah Dan Doa prior to the events in ‘Pandora Tomorrow,’ when the US government, through Soth, supported the terrorists as part of its covert operations in South East Asia.
Unfortunately for everybody, East Timor happened, and because the US decided they liked East Timor better than Indonesia, managed to piss off the Darah Dan Doa’s leader, Suhadi Sadono, who then decides to unleash terrorist attacks on US soil with the help of his BFF, Soth. The bottom line is that Fisher, in ‘Pandora Tomorrow,’ fought to contain a geo-political mess precipitated by terrorists who were once supported and funded by the US. However, the moral ambiguity does not end there.
In ‘Chaos Theory,’ the third game of the series, Fisher would discover that the man responsible for almost starting World War 3 was his friend and PMC CEO Douglas Shetland. Shetland, an irate former Marine recon, was dishonorably discharged after the US government used him as a scapegoat for an incident which happened in Bagram, Afghanistan. Intead of going to anger management classes, Shetland instead decides to start World War 3 in Asia.
Naturally, it was Fisher’s job to stop him, and his Japanese partner, Admiral Otomo from starting a war. However, the chinks in Fisher’s mental armor are getting worse at this point. Fisher probably had a hard time getting used to the idea that an American PMC, with very close ties to the US government, almost started World War 3. And although it was explicitly stated in the game that the US government did not know about Shetland’s hidden agenda, Fisher is sure to have some doubts and questions floating around inside his head. And really, who among the readers of the Alternative Right would believe a story about the US government being duped by one of its own Private Military Contractors?
In the fourth installment of the game, Fisher jumps the shark. In Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Fisher is no longer just an agent working for a secret and extrajudicial branch of the American government. He got promoted into being a double agent, after his daughter was “killed” in a car accident.
And his first duty in his newly acquired position? Why, it’s to spy on a domestic terrorist group known as the John Brown’s Army. This time, the bad guys were extremist militia types who wanted to blow up New York and LA. Moreover, it’s also strongly implied that the JBA may be a white nationalist organization because one of its main members, Carson Moss, was “a racist and was linked to several hate crime beatings.”
During his stint as an undercover agent, Fisher’s gray morals also turn into an even darker shade of gray, and his hair into a stronger shade of bald. In order to maintain his cover within the JBA, he was forced to do certain, let’s call it, morally reprehensible things. In canon, for example, Fisher kills his African American boss and best friend, Irving Lambert, a man who is every bit as ruthless and morally ambiguous as Fisher, so as to maintain his cover, and thus stop the bad guys from blowing up New York.
The ending of ‘Double Agent’ is not linear in the sense that the player’s actions will determine whether or not New York is given a thorough purging. Canonically, Fisher saves New York, but at the cost of killing Lambert. However, with his daughter dead, the living symbol of what he is fighting for, and the death of his boss and best friend by his own hands, Fisher has lost all faith in his country.
However, the true implications of this change will not appear until the latest installment of the Splinter Cell franchise, ‘Splinter Cell: Conviction.’ In ‘Conviction,’ Fisher is no longer bald, but he is still in an existential funk. After several years of being emo, Fisher now quietly lives in Southern Europe.
This all changed however, when he got a call from Anna Grimsdottir, an old colleague from Third Echelon, who tells him that someone is trying to kill the president of the United States, a short haired blonde woman, who may or may not be based on Hillary Clinton.
To make a long story short, Tom Reed, the new director of Third Echelon, wants to use Splinter Cells to kill President Patricia Caldwell (the Hillary Clinton look-alike), on behalf of Megiddo, a secret cabal of very naughty people who are out to control the American government and use it serve their own naughty agendas.
Naturally, Fisher comes out of retirement, struggles with his inner demons, finds out that his daughter’s death had been faked, reunites with his daughter, and of course, saves America’s first female President from being murdered by the new director of Third Echelon, Evil Guy (possibly womyn-hating) Tom Reed. The game has Fisher run around Washington DC beating up people and shooting up a massive body count. The end of ‘Conviction’ sees Fisher victorious, and Reed dead, who is either killed by Grimsdottir or Fisher, depending upon the player’s choice.
The underlying message of ‘Conviction’ is that America can only be saved if Fisher can find the bad guys who are trying to take control of the American government. However, there is a more important issue at hand here than fighting Megiddo, and that is the system created Third Echelon, and it is this system that has created most of the disasters and problems Fisher fought against throughout his long career.
In truth, Third Echelon and the Fifth Freedom have set the precedence for the terrorist attacks in Conviction. The agency and the motivation for its creation are—in a sense—an implicit recognition that the American system—as it was established by its original founders—cannot cope with the changes posed by a new and emerging geo-political system. The conspiracies and terrorist attacks throughout the Splinter Cell series are merely the symptoms of this problem.
Moreover, Fisher is more than just an anti-hero. He is also in a lot of ways a reflection of the evolution of American morality with regards to the War on Terror. He is a reflection of the confusion, ambiguity, and general cynicism of the American public with regards to the current geopolitical order. And although Fisher’s convctions of serving the “greater peace” may seem commendable, his actions as a Splinter Cell sets the precedence for many of his own problems later on.
This confusion is also expressed, among other things, in paranoia over an unknown evil that’s mysteriously corrupting the American government. In the game, it’s Megiddo, but this archetype exists in various other franchises and stories. The significance of the secret society archetype is that it is the personification of uncertainty and fear that people have towards the vulnerability of the system they’re living in. It is a tendency to project one’s fear of the unknown towards a group or a system. It is an attempt to contextualize and even humanize the problem that they’re facing.
The truth however, is that they’ve already taken over, and they’ve taken over a long time ago. How far back depends on your mileage and how you define “they.” And Splinter Cell, although it has dared to push Fisher to the very limits of acceptable metapolitics, has failed to push him through the threshold of something profoundly radical, and that is the idea that mass democracy and the American experiment have both failed. The world that is living in has failed.
It’s easy to make a game about a good guy fighting off some group that’s based on the illuminati, but in the real world, those forces that are causing the decline of the US, and arguably perhaps the world, are not some secretive organization that could be brought down with an FN2000. The military industrial complex, hyper-capitalism, multiculturalism, unlimited mass immigration, globalization, egalitarianism, totalitarian humanism, etc.—these are Fisher’s real enemies. And to attack them is not to attack some evil cult or NWO secret society, it is to attack the American System itself.
And Sam Fisher, as the avatar of American Patriotism, is still trapped within that system. He is trapped within a system based around the Fifth Freedom, and to break out of that system is something that Fisher, and most Americans, are not prepared for.
Splinter Cell is a fun game, but its story, Sam Fisher’s story, is also an interesting parable of the American story, and the paradox it has created over the course of Pax Americana.