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In his article, “Analysis: Splinter Cell: Conviction and Moral Quandaries,” which I caught over at Gamasutra, journalist Fraser McMillan wrestles with the bloody new direction that Sam Fisher has taken in the newest Splinter Cell game. I know what he’s talking about. Sam Fisher has become either callous or outright bloodthirsty.

Back in the series’ third installment (my favorite), Chaos Theory, Sam Fisher was met time and again with the choice of whether or not to kill the thugs, mercenaries, and other armed guards he encountered on his missions. As I wrote about years ago in an article for The Escapist, “Magic Words,” Chaos Theory is constantly providing you with human context for the AI characters that Sam Fisher is up against. It uses dialogue to turn pixels into character sketches — the enemy yields, the enemy argues, the enemy pleads for its life — and the effect is a constant quandary: do you kill this enemy that you could neutralize just as well non-lethally?

Killing was often easier, often faster, but it wasn’t necessarily Sam Fisher’s way. Sam Fisher was about subtlety and precision, about getting things done through guile and stealth that other, lesser agents would do through brute force alone.

Or, at least, my Sam Fisher was. The many choices you make throughout Chaos Theory are rather like a character-creation routine, sort of like a feature-length version of the character-creation decisions you make early on in Fallout 3 to define your character. My Sam Fisher, in Chaos Theory, grabbed guys into sleeper holds, interrogated them, and then knocked them out. Your Sam Fisher might have silenced enemies with a suppressed pistol shot to the head. Over time, all those kill/spare switch-flips add up to describe a complex character, dangerous but perhaps merciful, wryly superior and with a grim sense of humor. Or they might add up to be just a flat, murderous operative. We were personifying Sam with each pull of the trigger.

And the trigger was key. In Chaos Theory, when you grabbed a dude to interrogate him, you had two choices at the end of it: Kill or Knock Out. (Notice how Let Him Go was not an option.) Push one button and this talkative thug died. Push another and he lived. Whatever you pressed added another pencil stroke to Sam Fisher’s character sketch.

Sam Fisher: Killer

Sam Fisher: Killer

I was only able to play about a little bit of Conviction, plus the demo, before my Xbox died (the same day the game came in), but even in just a level or so of play it was clear that the character we control in this new game is different from the one I built through play back in Chaos Theory. Now, when Sam ends up near an enemy, the only options that come up on screen are kill options. (You can use enemies as human shields, but that just draws out their death.) The mark-and-execute ability that I wrote about before always results in death. When you end up hanging outside an open window near a vulnerable enemy, the button doesn’t say Neutralize, it says “Press B to Kill.”

This is a degree of murderousness that I’m not altogether comfortable with. The game seems to try to make it clear that these are all terrible people who would kill me if given the chance, but the Sam Fisher I constructed back in Chaos Theory, and sort of managed to maintain intellectually through the intervening Double Agent, wasn’t the kind who was out to Kill — it was, if anything, an unfortunate means to a vital end. The Sam Fisher of Conviction feels like he’s seeing the world through a red, psychopathic haze. The screen, like some indoctrination device, is constantly telling me: Kill. Kill. Kill. It’s a little unnerving.

I’ll grant that the story is set to turn Sam into a kind of antihero, and suggests that avenging the death of his daughter (with a big asterisk) explains why he’s become so callous. I worry that the game creators think this also exonerates him, as though one murder justifies countless others. For a game that seems influenced by the Bourne movies, it sure didn’t pay attention to what they were saying about murder.

If the goal is to create a struggle between me and the character, they’ve done a great job. I’m invested in Sam Fisher, but asking me to tactically plan and authorize his revenge killings sort of strains my relationship with him. Now, that’s fair game — we don’t have to like characters to watch their stories unfold, after all — but it’s taxing. And, troubling to me, I don’t think this meta-experiential notion of taxing the player’s relationship with the main character is what the designers were after. I think they wanted to turn Sam into a merciless badass — into a panther, as producer Maxime Beland said — and they didn’t care how many crudely sketched mercenary thugs died along the way.

But my Sam Fisher would have cared. Their Sam Fisher has displaced mine.