I realized earlier today that it's been ten years since Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory shipped.
Obviously, a lot has changed in that time, but I'm not going to wax nostalgic about that. I thought instead I would regale you a never before made public tale of what that game meant to me.
Chaos Theory was a hell of a project. I began as the Lead Level Designer and the Scriptwriter, which meant from the start I was doing two serious, full time jobs. I had to get the level design team queued up to deliver 12 maps that were of much higher and much more uniform quality than those in the original game, and I had to make sure we had a story and script that worked all the way through. I also had to get a commitment from that entire team that - come hell or high water - we would not cut a single level. This was doubling down on both the team, and on quality - it meant everyone on the level design side was bought in, but it also meant I could work with confidence on a script that would not later be hobbled by having to move or cut levels.
At the same time, there was a lot of stuff to fix in terms of the global vision of the game. The original Splinter Cell had been a big hit, but it was not without its serious faults. Punishing 'Game Over' gating and brutal trial-and-error gameplay that we should have fixed in the original needed some challenging and innovative solutions if Splinter Cell was to be moved forward.
Development was hard. Sometime around Alpha, mandate came down from Ubi that all internal projects needed to have a Creative Director. Mathieu Ferland - the Producer - asked me to do the job. I said no. I was not convinced that it was not just a bullshit management position and I was worried that I already had two jobs. But after a few discussions with friends and family and the team, a week or so later I changed my mind and became Creative Director, Lead Level Designer and Writer for the game. If you watch the credits, you'll see that three of the first five names in the credits are me. The other two were Mathieu Ferland, and the Art Director, The Chinh Ngo. Anyway, these responsibilities came with a heavy price, though. I spent most of the 24 months of Chaos Theory's development working 80 hours a week.
About six months after I became Creative Director, when the game was around Beta, my good friend Dave (who had been an AI programmer on the original Splinter Cell, and who is currently one of the founders of Tiger Style) came to Montreal to visit. He stayed with us, and he slept in our spare room for a week or ten days. That week I took 'time off' - by which I mean I left work at 6pm or so every night so we could have dinner and hang out. It was fun - I've been told. I don't really remember.
I went to GDC in March of 2005, while the game was in the distribution process, and I gave a talk about the narrative structure of the game. Of course, I also got to hang out with Dave under far less stressful circumstances. Over dinner one night, we got to talking about the time he'd last been in Montreal. During that discussion, I kept correcting him about what we'd done the last time he was in Montreal, but we kept disagreeing about the details and the timing. Over the course of the meal, we realized that I actually had no memory of his trip to Montreal six months previously, and that I was recalling a previous visit he'd made about a year or so before that. Dave had spent a week living in my house. I had curtailed my work week down from 70-80 hours to a normal 40 in order to spend time with him. We had eaten great meals, gone to great bars, seen movies, played games, and talked about our careers and the industry and our pasts and our futures, and all of it was simply fucking gone. I could not remember any of it.
To be clear - I do not mean I didn't remember what we did or what we talked about. I mean that I literally had no memory of the events. To me it was like it never happened. It was like he never visited. There was just an empty space in my brain that had been overwritten by the stress and anxiety of Splinter Cell. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory gave me brain damage.
Once we realized that the incongruities in our conversation were the result of a legitimate failing of my memory, Dave helped me trying to find a handle. We talked about it over dinner, and then on and off over time. I spoke with my wife about it (she, of course, had full recollection), and eventually, I was able to pin a few minor pieces of my memories to the cork board of my brain and piece together a kind of past.
Over time, I was able to slowly reconstruct some significant part of that lost week. I remember a few meals and a few conversations in a few bars. I remember my friend being in my house. I remember us drinking coffee together and smoking cigarettes.
Writing it all down, now, I have to confess I have mixed feelings about it. I am really, truly proud of what we accomplished with Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. It stands the test of time as one of the best games ever made. At the same time, the personal cost for making it was real and serious. It's not about forgotten beers in some bar on St Laurent. It's about brain damage and the loss of life. To this day, I am still not sure what the right equation is there. I'm still not sure if it was worth it. I'm still not sure if I would do it again if I had the chance.
Anyway, here's something you've never seen before: