In a nocturnal world of oily shadows, where darkness carves wet surfaces lit by flickering solitary bulbs, the man with the green glasses is king. By the time the third entry in the Splinter Cell series, Chaos Theory, was released in 2005, we were already well acquainted with Sam Fisher’s skills; With only a year between this release and its previous release, we thought we knew what to expect, and expectations were high.
But in that short time between the two games, the industry has rode a technological revolution like Sam Fisher rides a narrow hallway with his split-jump; unthinkable things have become possible through untapped technologies like normal mapping and HDR lighting, playing directly into Ubisoft’s vision for Chaos Theory while shaping. It wouldn’t just be the third iteration of an already excellent series, but one of the greatest stealth games of all time.
After the creation of Pandora Tomorrow by Ubisoft Shanghai, the development of the third game returned to where it all began: Ubisoft Montreal. At the time, the focus was on getting games to run on the original Xbox, and the presence of former Nvidia chip designer Danny Lepage as a programmer on the game meant the team had insider knowledge on how to maximize the graphics power of the console (and in turn not restrict the PC version).
“Danny understood from a deep engineering perspective how the Xbox video card worked, unlocking some of the potential of shaders, normal cards, things like that,” explains lead game designer Clint Hocking. “None of us had ever seen a normal map before. John Carmack was always writing forum posts trying to describe it. Then when we started seeing this stuff, we were like, ‘ Oh my god, that looks amazing!” It totally upended our understanding of what game visuals could be.”
Normal maps, which “flatten” textures giving them the illusion of depth and distorted reflections from light sources, have become a must for Chaos Theory. During this time, the team’s rendering framework, facilitated by the power of DirectX 9, was so powerful in rendering reflection effects that it defined an elemental theme for the entire game: water. “The reflections were so unique that we thought they could be part of the game’s identity, much like the shadow cast was an identity of the original Splinter Cell,” producer Mathieu Ferland tells me.
Chaos Theory foregrounds its aquatic theme right from the start – a lighthouse off the coast of Peru where a computer programmer is being held hostage. Fighting your way through a cave system shimmering with humidity, you emerge into spitting weather conditions, at which point Sam’s distinctive rubberized stealth suit takes on a brilliant shine (thankfully not a factor in your visibility to enemies ). During this mission, you can see enemies through the condensation-clouded glass at the top of the lighthouse, and walk through damp tunnels where the walls glisten with damp and look so coarse you feel like you could run your hands over them. uneven surface and come away with moisture on your fingers.
Set in the wettest neighborhoods of New York, Japan and parts of the South Pacific, Chaos Theory is a game obsessed with humidity and takes every opportunity to show the verisimilitude offered by the technology of the time and the the studio’s ability to implement them. Basically, all of these technical advancements were in service of the Splinter Cell stealth experiment, which would also make serious advances in chaos theory.
Clint Hocking was inspired by immersive simulations, particularly Deus Ex and what he would in a later essay call his “meaningful agency across levels of storytelling, progression, and game entry”. With the series’ stealth foundations well established in 2004, Hocking saw an opportunity to begin exploring some of these more ambitious design philosophies.
At the heart of this would be the removal of autoplay from previous games when players set off alarms too many times. “It was my mandate from day one that there was no game over in this game,” Hocking said. “The game has to go on and adapt to your actions. And that was extremely difficult. It really put a lot of pressure on the team, but thinking that way also unlocked our ability to make these things work.”
This has led to the rise of what Mathieu Ferland calls an “emotion loop”: the process of keeping a player constantly engaged in a slowly building loop of tension, which may (or may not) culminate in a brief burst of emotion. action or violence when you are spotted, which then gives way to relief when we escape or evade a scenario. Then the loop starts again and the tension rises again…
We too, as players, had to adapt. With no endgame to bail us out, we had to think quickly as guards stumbled upon bodies and started marching towards the room we were hiding in. We flattened ourselves against the walls, trying to remember the escape routes through the windows and air vents. , and rely more on specialized movements like hanging on to pipes, doing separate jumps or even shooting sacrilege to get us out of trouble. Chaos theory forced us to be really present in certain very delicate situations.
The sound design and music helped maintain this loop, and Amon Tobin’s score was an integral part of it. The electronic music producer, renowned for his experimental and often arrhythmic music that ranges from smooth ambient beats to industrial drums and bass, was recruited after Ubisoft used his music for an internal gameplay video. Tobin’s soundtrack was exceptional, from the disruptive snares and drum rolls that kick in when you get caught, to the cool bass and spectral radio chatter of the stealthy themes.
I reached out to Tobin to talk about his contribution to the game. “The motivation was to write music that wasn’t typical of a game at the time, in that it drew influence from both vintage film scores (like the work of Mission: Impossible theme composer Lalo Schifrin) and what I used to play in clubs, namely d’n’b,” he tells me. “The idea of adapting the intensity of the music to the gameplay was also not something that was technically feasible to the degree that we wanted at that time. It attracted technical innovation from Ubisoft as well as creative challenges, like ensuring that the individual layers of a composition were as musically compelling as the sum of their parts.”
Expanding player freedom also required expanding level design. While previous games offered multiple stealth solutions for traversing a given room or sequence, their relative linearity allowed the game to easily highlight the threats and challenges you’d face in each section. Individual missions have been conveniently split into segments separated by loading screens, effectively wiping away any mess of sleeping bodies and broken lights you may have left in your wake.
By contrast, Chaos Theory maps were see-through stealth sandboxes that had to account for the possibility that you could enter most spaces from any angle, bypass certain areas altogether, or even “break” the narrative flow. . You could play with the order in which you completed objectives, or from which angle you would approach certain scripted scenes, and the dialogue with headquarters would change depending on the bespoke path you charted through a mission.
But in those sandboxes, there were dozens of special moments, where you could cut through a Japanese Shoji wall to grab a guard on the other side, or with a meticulously placed barrel, indulge in a bit of swagger. explosive Tom Cruise style. At one point, I was wandering along a pipe when, just at the right time, a guard peered through a door, instinctively forcing me to hang upside down and smack him in the face with my silencer. These moments were sporadic, but broke the stealthy flow in a hugely engaging way.
Many of these seemingly accidental moments were handcrafted, designed even before the levels themselves, and based on a giant internal repository of stickmen. “There was this documentation where anyone on the team could come up with a contextual idea related to a situation, whether it was upside-down interrogations or shooting an enemy on a rail,” recalls Ferland. “Those ideas came from stickman drawings. Even though there were multiple paths, we wanted to find a way to draw the player into those scenes.”
When I ask Hocking what his favorite level is, he immediately gives me the Panamanian Bank – an early mission that sees Fisher start out on the grounds of a lavish building and work his way up before freely exploring its vast interior. The initial approach is classic Splinter Cell, as you climb to the roof of the building and pass through a skylight. Once inside, the level becomes a maze of opportunities.
Keeping these levels transparent wasn’t easy, due to the lack of streaming technology built into Unreal Engine 2.5 and the high demands on normal mapping and high-fidelity texture assets. “Breaking the levels into small chunks was going to force them to be super linear, like there’s literally just three rooms, then another level, then three rooms, then another level. So we couldn’t even do the game we wanted to make,” Hocking told me. “We had to write a streaming solution, and the programmers were working full time so that no matter how a player got through a level, you went through choke points and they were dumping textures behind you and loading textures in front of you. ”
Chaos Theory was more than the latest “one-year” iteration of a prolific series from Ubisoft, it was a pinnacle of stealth gaming. It cast a long shadow over the series, which would later tone down some of its identity by opting for a more linear and fast-paced experience (more or less paralleling when Hitman Absolution and the thief remake seemingly forgot the defining qualities of their predecessors). But now, with Splinter Cell returning after a decade-long hiatus, it has a chance to return and build on the design ethos that made Chaos Theory so special.
With so much to evolve in such a short time, the development process took its toll on Hocking, whose obsession with bringing his vision to life often saw him working 80 hours a week on his own. “I had only been making games for three years. I hadn’t realized how much I had put myself in,” he recalls. “I sometimes wonder if 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 moment of contemplative silence before Hocking adds a caveat so common among relentlessly driven creatives. “But it wasn’t free,” he concludes. “It wasn’t free.”