The question, of course, is why the bad guys can’t see the three lights glowing like a Christmas tree in the middle of Sam Fisher’s face. The answer is a sigh and an explanation that only makes sense to people who play games: they exist for the player, serving as an essential beacon by which to pick out Fisher when all else is darkness. They’re as much a videogame contrivance as the floating hit points in an RPG fistfight or the succulent roast chicken Mike Haggar finds in a bin. Those three green lights are pure videogame language intended only for players, but they’ve become Splinter Cell’s signature, sitting right there in the logo of last year’s Fisher rejuvenation, Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Fisher’s goggles have changed over the years. The first generation, featured in Splinter Cell and Pandora Tomorrow, gave him grainy night vision and infrared views of the world. Electromagnetic vision joined that pair in Chaos Theory, letting you track the connections from security cameras, say.
When Double Agent moved the series to 360/PS3, Ubisoft Shanghai gave Fisher a full-colour night vision mode, but Third Echelon must have introduced a carrot-heavy diet in the years between Double Agent and Conviction, because Fisher has perfect night vision without gadgetry by the latter. Instead, the Sonar Goggles he collects in the campaign give him a limited view through solid objects, with the same three lights and startup whine from past Splinter Cells, but a softer glow. In a game where Fisher can see everything, players no longer needed help to locate him in the dark.
But by losing the three lights, Ubisoft lost Splinter Cell’s identity. The Trident goggles are to Fisher what the ‘S’ is to Superman. More than that, they were once his only superpower. In a world where being seen means death, clear sight in absolute darkness makes Fisher superhuman. In shadow, he’s the only one able to see with perfect clarity, able to move inches from his enemies unseen and to explore spaces others can’t. In the kingdom of the blind, Fisher is a three-eyed man – he sees heat, he sees electrical current, and he sees through walls. With those goggles, Fisher is empowered by darkness just like Superman is powered by Sol’s light.
But if Fisher’s strength is drawn from darkness then light is his Kryptonite. Bright light overloads the goggles and renders them powerless, blinding you as the lenses adjust. It was a gift to the designers of the early Splinter Cells, who could ramp up the danger with a flick of a light switch. But since Double Agent, Fisher has operated so frequently in daylight that the stab of fear when the lights come on is gone. “The main consideration with the reduced usability in Splinter Cell and Chaos Theory was that being invisible in the dark required a trade-off,” says Clint Hocking, designer, director and producer of Splinter Cell. “Limiting the player’s [vision] was one of the things we did to balance this ‘invisibility’ so he would not be too powerful. It’s pretty basic.”
What was once a piece of basic design was lost on Blacklist, which once again put Fisher in the multivision goggles, but gifted him with countless superpowers. There’s his insta-kill button held over from Conviction, his drone that can reach out and touch enemies several rooms away, and enough firepower to win any shootout if he’s caught with his pants down when the lights come on. With or without his headgear, the modern Fisher is empowered to the point of invincibility, and the designers’ only recourse is an overwhelming flood of powerful enemies. Once, two men and a light switch would strike fear into players. Now it takes an army.
But at least Blacklist marked the return of the game’s signature tool. Double Agent and Conviction shipped without the three lights anywhere on the box and only occasionally in the game, but that aged, ill-equipped Fisher could never last. Sure, you can turn Superman into a living lightning bolt or break Batman’s back, but in the end fans remember what a hero was about and want that back. They’ll cry out for a return to the character’s roots and lobby creators for the hero they loved, so Ubisoft Toronto listened and responded by putting the trident on everything.
Those lights have never glowed brighter, filling the screen with piercing lens flare and appearing on every piece of promotional art. Blacklist’s collector’s edition steelbook case features a set of goggles dangling from a disembodied fist without even a logo. The Trident is in Blacklist’s trailers and all over every piece of key art, it was 40 feet high on the big screen at last year’s E3 presentation, and it sits between the words ‘Splinter’ and ‘Cell’ in the logo. “They were always a consideration and they are prominent, going all the way back to the original,” Hocking explains. “I suspect that if you notice it more now, it is likely because of a more coherent, more intentional or more carefully orchestrated marketing/brand campaign to make those three green dots as iconic as possible.”
And with good reason. Those three dots were never as important as they were the day Fisher’s face wasn’t Fisher’s face any more. In Blacklist, the grizzled Michael Ironside Sam Fisher is replaced by a Fisher who looks 30-something, with a new voice and fewer lines on his face. But thanks to his headgear, he’s recognisable even with a new head on his shoulders. Those three lights gleaming in the darkness are Fisher’s superpower, his emblem, and the only face he’ll ever need.