In 1975, a Soviet naval officer staged a mutiny aboard a nuclear submarine. His motives were unclear, but in Tom Clancy’s mind – who used the story as the foundation for his best-selling novel, The Hunt for Red October – the man, Captain Valery Sablin, had intended to defect to Sweden, taking his submarine with him. Perhaps that’s true. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for Captain Sablin. His mutiny failed, and he was executed.
Mr. Clancy decided to give his fictional version of the tale a rosier ending. In The Hunt for Red October, the mutinous submarine captain deftly maneuvers his way through a series of claustrophobic ship-board adventures, harrowingly authentic underwater engagements and dizzying political intrigues before being rescued from a near-certain death by a dashing, young government agent intent on rescuing both the submarine captain and his experimental submarine. The novel ends with the Russian and the American sailing the stolen submarine together up the Penobscot River in a glorious display of pre-glasnost Cold War defrosting.
Action, heroism and obsessive attention to technical detail; this is the Clancy formula. The Hunt for Red October sold at least 6 million copies world-wide, spawned a videogame and a feature film and turned the former insurance salesman and Maryland native into a brand – a multimedia empire glorifying the right of American military might.
Some have suggested over the years that Tom Clancy and Jack Ryan may be one in the same; that Mr. Clancy is actually a former military or CIA man who’s turned his classified adventures into almost-treasonous knuckle-biting fiction, ala Ian Fleming’s James Bond. One supposes that these rumors would suit the secretive Mr. Clancy and his Jack Ryan Enterprises just fine, but according to all reputable sources (including Mr. Clancy himself), there’s no truth in them. Jack Ryan, the hero of The Hunt for Red October and many of Clancy’s other novels, is a complete work of fiction and the technical details filling the thousands of pages of prose bearing Mr. Clancy’s name are all acquired through publicly available research sources, not (as some have suggested) from secret, classified documents.
Yet, whether the story is fact or fiction, the name on the cover is what’s important; more so than who’s actually written it. Two decades after The Hunt for Red October introduced the world to the techno-thriller, Tom Clancy is presenting more stories than he’s writing. His 12 follow-ups to Red October have each made the best-seller list, enthralling millions of airline travelers each year, but the popular NetForce, Op-Center and Power Plays series which also bear his name are all penned by somebody else. Several somebodies, in fact. You can find their names near the bottom of the book covers, underneath the gigantic Tom Clancy’s and the book’s title, and another credit for Mr. Clancy (and the cover illustration). That many readers have overlooked this fact over the years is in no way surprising, but has apparently gotten under the skin of some Clancy apologists.
“For the umpteenth time in this forum,” says one newsgroup poster, quoted from ClancyFAQ.com “[This] has been common in the publishing world for over four decades (that I know of) to indicate that the book has been written using a concept, or characters, or whatever, from the named author, by another writer, who is usually credited on the cover under the title, but not always.”
“Terrorists devise a scheme to take over a generic industrial compound for ransom under the watchful eye of corrupt US diplomats. The plot twists when the Terrorists hijack a shipment of nuclear warheads even after their demands are met, unless a rookie CIA agent eager to prove his worth can overcome his brooding self-doubt and stop the Terrorists once and for all. The movie ends with a mildly comical and/or ironic scene in which the Terrorists blow up or go to prison. Another satisfying tale of political intrigue and personal redemption closes, and we all walk away from this [book/videogame/movie] a little wiser.”
The practice referenced by our forum poster is called “ghost writing,” and it has been around for a lot longer than four decades. As long, one supposes, as famous writers have had more money than time. Clancy, the man, has become a brand, and Clancy, the brand, has put more books in the hands of more travelers than perhaps even the Gideons.
The Hunt for Red October was made into a videogame in 1987 and a feature film in 1990. Three more of his books would follow Red October onto the silver screen, but as successful as those adventures were, the videogame arena is where the Clancy brand found its true home.
In 1997, Tom Clancy co-founded Red Storm Entertainment. His stories had long been a staple of computer and board gamers everywhere, but with Red Storm Clancy would break new ground; not simply transplanting his novels into the digital medium, but creating characters and stories specifically for use in a game. The company’s first game, Tom Clancy’s Politika, released in 1997 (packaged with a paperback copy of Tom Clancy’s Power Plays: Politika, the novel) was a hit, and paved the way for two of the most successful videogame franchises in history: Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six (timed for simultaneous release with Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, the novel) and Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon. Both of which re-wrote the books for their respective genres, and redefined the role of story in videogames, mainly by following Clancy’s winning formula. Rainbow Six puts the player in the black boots of a counter terrorist squad, employing true team-based tactical action, while Ghost Recon employs a similar style of play, but instead enlists the player into an elite squad of Special Forces commandos. Both games inspire bravery, patriotism and an appreciation for authentic depictions of military hardware.
“[Clancy] gave us entry into his world for developing games,” says Richard Dansky, Lead “Clancy Writer” for North Carolina-based Red Storm. “There was a lot of collaboration on the original Rainbow Six. We’ve concentrated on Clancy titles since then, but at the same time Ubisoft has gotten other studios involved in the Clancy franchise, making it much more of a company-wide and world-wide endeavor.”
In 2000, Red Storm was purchased by publisher Ubisoft, who quickly began development on their own Clancy title. In 2002, Ubisoft’s Montreal-based development studio released a startling stealth action game called (Tom Clancy’s) Splinter Cell. The game starred a grizzled “black” operative named Sam Fisher, who was voiced by B-movie veteran Michael Ironside and written by J.T. Petty, the latest in a long line of Clancy ghost writers who’ve made an art out of distilling the Clancy “feel,” as Richard Dansky calls it, and replicating that feel throughout the various extension’s of His universe.
“There’s always this incredible urgency in the Clancy books because so much is on the line,” according to Dansky. “And that’s the sort of thing that lends itself precisely to great gameplay. Knowing that what you are doing matters and that you’re running out of time to do it in makes for exactly the right type of tension to drive a game narrative.
“We have two people with primary writing responsibility [at Red Storm].” Two people not named Clancy, that is. Being one of them, Dansky points out that the typical day in the life of a “Clancy” writer begins with brushing up on current events:
“The first thing I do in the morning is check a bunch of news and reference sites to see if anything interesting happened in the world. You never know when current events are going to catch up to your storyline, which can have all sorts of repercussions. Besides, I always want to stay on top of material for potential future storylines.
“In the office, the writing process generally involves a lot of touching base with designers and other folks to make sure that what’s being written fills the game’s needs, is appropriate for context and gameplay and doesn’t impinge on other aspects of the game. There are a lot of meetings on the front end, and then once implementation of the dialogue happens, you do a lot of walking through and tweaking to make sure that everything fits just right.
“It’s always good to have the writing experience in the building,” says Dansky. “Both as a resource and also as a way of making communication a lot easier and cleaner.” And, one supposes, as a way of injecting great story into great games. To date, Red Storm has released over a dozen games embossed with the Clancy brand, and is currently working on a next-gen installment of Rainbow Six, set in Fabulous Las Vegas.
“I think people are going to be more than a little surprised with the territory we’re starting to move the Clancy storylines into. We’re delving more into the consequences of the actions the characters take, and the hard decisions have to be made. What’s Sam Fisher willing to do in order to fulfill his mission? How many people can you sacrifice for the greater good before the scales start tipping? That’s actually one of the unique opportunities we have doing the Clancy stories, the idea that these are decisions and issues that players can relate to. Just the fact that it’s people in the real world gives the material an emotional oomph that you don’t necessarily get when it’s a question of space lizards or trolls or Roman legionnaires or whatever. We’ve got that added advantage – and responsibility – of letting the player think ‘it might be you.'”
Richard has been with Red Storm since 1999, having written for Shadow Watch, Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow, Ghost Recon: Island Thunder, The Sum of All Fears and “plenty of others.” He is currently working on Splinter Cell: Double Agent and Rainbow Six: Vegas, although you’d be hard pressed to find the name “Dansky” anywhere on any of those games’ Clancy-emblazoned boxes. One assumes that’s all a part of living in the shadow of one of the world’s most prolifically ghost-written authors, but we may never know for sure. The Escapist asked Richard about that, but he wasn’t allowed to give us an answer. Apparently, that information is classified.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for the Escapist, host of Escape Radio and proponent of the long-held theory that if we play our cards right, maybe – just maybe – we can ice both Starsky and Hutch.