The great irony of spy fiction is that spies – the real on-the-ground, in-your-face, bring-home-the-secret-plans guys who are out there right now saving the world while we sleep in our beds – aren’t very cinematic. Spies by their very nature are inconspicuous. You could know one for years and never realize they have a secret agenda, let alone what that might be. Spies fade into the background, go unnoticed, slip in and out and are gone before anyone’s the wiser. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

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Take the example of real-world diplomat-turned-spy Ken Taylor, a Canadian ambassador to Iran during the historic Iranian hostage crisis. Only recently, more than 30 years after the fact, has it come out that Taylor not only sheltered escaped American hostages, but also spied on the Iranian government for the United States by photographing potential helicopter landing sites and communicating with American agents to help rescue the remaining hostages.

Mr. Taylor was, until the hostage-taking, a model diplomat who had never considered acting as a secret agent for a foreign government. And yet, one fine day, he became a spy – and no one noticed for three decades.

What is it, then, that drives a spy? In the case of Taylor, he says he believed the taking of the U.S. hostages, captured during the Iranian invasion of the U.S. Embassy following the 1979 Revolution, was “something that wasn’t right,” and he pledged to do whatever he could in spite of the risks.

As brave and valorous as Taylor’s spying may have been, however, it doesn’t exactly spur the imagination. Imagine a videogame in which you file papers, take notes on the size of football fields and pester the American government to come and pick up the people hiding in your basement. Not exactly Game of the Year material. Probably not even a decent movie, to be honest.

This is why spies – our spies, the spies we know and love and dream about becoming – are far more interesting, if entirely unrealistic.

Sam Fisher: An Army of One

Take Sam Fisher, for example, the hero of Ubisoft’s Splinter Cell series. He’s about as far from Ken Taylor as one spy could possibly be from another. Fisher, decked out with the latest military technology, solo-infiltrates heavily guarded installations, takes what he needs and bails, all the while scaling sheer cliffs, planting bugs, hanging unseen from pipes and performing acrobatic maneuvers that would give Cirque du Soleil cramps just thinking about them.

“I don’t think it matters whether one person can do all the things Sam can do so much that it’s believable that one person could do all that,” says Richard Dansky, Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft and part of the team who built the upcoming Splinter Cell: Conviction, due for release in April of 2010. “Sam’s awesomeness is accessible in the same way that Batman’s is, or that Superman’s isn’t – he’s a human being who, by dint of training and determination and willpower, is capable of remarkable things. Deep down, that says to all of us, ‘If I worked that hard and got that kind of training, maybe I could do that stuff, too.’

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“Mind you, I know that even with the best training the world, I couldn’t do half of what Sam does – if nothing else, I’m too short – but there’s that little part of me that goes maybe … just maybe …”

Conviction finds Fisher after he’s been hung out to dry by his former employer – a secret arm of the U.S. Government called Third Echelon – and just found out his daughter’s accidental death may have been no accident at all. After having devoted his life to the higher cause – as defined by his superiors – he now finds himself set apart from what he thought he believed and whom he thought he could trust. It’s a spy story for the modern age if ever there was one.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Conviction really starts a reinvention of the Splinter Cell mythology by putting Sam in a wider context,” Dansky says. “He’s out of the hermetically sealed world of Third Echelon and forced to make his own decisions – who to trust, what to do, what’s important to him – and that opens up all sorts of new situations and relationships. What had been very clearly defined working relationships are now being re-invented on the fly, because everyone’s got an agenda and everybody’s got a different idea of where the post-3E Sam fits.”

All of which raises the question: Where does post-3E Sam fit? Ken Taylor was driven to commit brave yet dangerous acts of espionage because he saw a wrong he wanted to help right. What drives Sam Fisher?

“That’s part of what marks Conviction as a turning point in the Splinter Cell series,” says Dansky. “Previously, what drove Sam was the mission. He had orders, he had objectives and he had someone whispering in his ear telling him what needed to be done. He was a highly efficient part of a highly efficient team and an instrument of foreign policy. Now, with Sam on the outside, the answer to the question of ‘What drives him?’ has to change. What’s driving him now is what he needs – in this case, finding the answer to the riddle of his daughter’s death – and a lot of the narrative tension in the game comes from balancing that vitally important personal good against the quote-unquote ‘greater good’ he’s been sacrificing for all his life.”

Alpha Protocol: To B, or B, or B?

Luckily for fans of the spy-game genre, Sam Fisher won’t be the only spy in town this year. Also slated for Q2 of 2010 – just in time to go head-to-head with the summer blockbuster movies – is Obsidian Entertainment’s Alpha Protocol, an RPG in which you play a spy in a modern-day setting.

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Alpha Protocol‘s spy is named Michael Thorton – about as inconspicuous a name as one could imagine, but his personality more than makes up for it. Far from being a mousy picture-taking diplomat, Thorton can behave like one of the three most famous fictional spies; which one is entirely up to you.

“We always use ‘The Three J.B.s,'” says Obsidian’s Senior Producer, Ryan Rucinski. “There’s Jack Bauer, James Bond, Jason Bourne. Each have their strengths and weaknesses. Jason Bourne is stealth, kind of like ‘I’m going to beat you up really close and get the hell out of here.’ Jack Bauer: gun forward, amazing with the 9mm. And of course there’s the James Bond, who is more of a suave, sophisticated type of guy who uses more linguistics with the ladies as well as other people to kind of get through things.”

In Alpha Protocol, you will have the option to choose from moment-to-moment which spy’s toolset is most useful. Says Rucinski, “You decide what kind of spy you want to be.”

“You can choose to be a jerk, you can be a smartass, you can be very professional and you can also just be very aggressive. You can be Jack Bauer (‘You can tell me what you know; I’ve got a gun in your face and I can shoot you’), you can be suave – you can convince your way into getting information, and all the people you talk to have different responses. Then of course there’s James Bond. We do allow a lot of romantic relationships, so we kind of throw that out there.”

What drives Thorton, then, is entirely up to you – as is how to go about getting what you want. It’s a novel take on the spy genre, and with so much fictional fodder out there from which to draw, it’s sure to please fans who think they know all there is to know about spies – which is part of what inspired the game’s creation.

“I’ll be honest: After watching several seasons of 24 and various spy movies, I want to play that character,” says Chris Avellone, Lead Designer for Alpha Protocol. “So what we did was we had the real-world spy/espionage roleplaying game pitch, and then from there we wanted to explore, ‘OK, what kind of espionage hero do we want to bring to this game and allow the player to be, or what sort of hybrid of traits from various archetype spy guys do we want to be in this experience?’ And then we just sort of went from there. It’s been quite a ride.”

Rucinski says that although the game allows players to choose their own spy-type, he doesn’t expect too many players to take the “jerk” road too often.

“We did some focus tests with this. We noticed that people like to think they’d be a bad guy, but some of the decisions they have to make to do it they just can’t. I know I couldn’t. Like, ‘Yeah I’m gonna shoot a puppy.’ Ugh, I can’t do it.”

Spies Like Us

So where does Splinter Cell‘s Sam Fisher fit in the pantheon of spy icons? Which J.B. is he? According to Richard Dansky, he’s “none of the above” or “all of them” depending on whom you ask.

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“I give a lot of credit to JT Petty (writer for the original Splinter Cell) and Clint Hocking (Ubisoft Creative Director) for being ahead of the curve when it came to the spy genre,” he says. “When Splinter Cell was created, the old-style uber-smoothie James Bond spy felt like it was about played out. Once you go to invisible cars, all you can really do is jump the invisible shark. But from the beginning, there was always a brutality about Sam, a sense that style points didn’t matter. And now you look around at the fictional landscape and see Jason Bourne killing a Spetsnaz assassin with a spork, or James Bond drowning a guy in a men’s room sink, and you have to think that Sam was really at the start of that trend.”

Dansky, like the designers of Alpha Protocol, says that ultimately what drives a fictional spy is not really about the spying, but about us. Our fictional spies are really extensions of our own sense of powerlessness in the face of global upheaval and chaos.

“I think the niche that [spy fiction] fills is that it provides the possibility of one person being able to create tremendous change,” he says. “You can’t just look at the spy genre for the spies – you have to look at it for the enemies as well, and those are always massive, massive organizations. We’re talking conspiracies, we’re talking governments, we’re talking all the giant, faceless, unstoppable entities that seem to run amok over our lives in the real world. So slipping into Sam Fisher’s shoes is a way to hit back. It’s a way to flex some power against these seemingly all-powerful forces. It’s a way to remind ourselves that we can make a difference and that we do matter.”

Who’d Win in a Fight

Which brings us full circle back to real-world spies like Ken Taylor. His story might not make good fodder for videogames, but his actions are at the heart of what makes spy stories such good yarns and why we keep coming back for more, no matter which spy is in the starring role. Ken Taylor was one man who wanted to do something – anything – to make a difference. While you and I may never be in the right place at the right time to follow his example, we can at least pretend through videogames.

As for the really important issue, I asked Dansky who would win in a fight: Sam Fisher or Jason Bourne? His answer: “Well, the point is to avoid fighting, after all, or at least to avoid a fair fight. And I’ll put Sam’s ability to get the drop on someone up against anyone’s.”

Russ Pitts is a spy in the house of love. Also, the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist. He blogs at www.falsegravity.com, and tweets as @russpitts.

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