Game Crossovers and the Lack Thereof: Sam Fisher in the Wildlands

Yesterday morning I got a notification that a new mission had been added to Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which anyone who actually follows this blog knows was one of my favorite games from 2017. The team of four “ghosts” that constitute the game’s core fighting force receive a directive that they’re to accompany Sam Fisher, the lead character from Ubisoft’s long-running Splinter Cell series, in a stealth mission at the headquarters of the Bolivian state police. At first it felt odd to see a fairly iconic character from one series of games appear, seemingly from out of nowhere, in another series of games from the same publisher. Yet, after a little thought, I realized that it was even odder that I’d never seen Ubisoft or any other game publisher do this sort of thing before.

 

Justice Society
All-Star Comics #3 – Wait a minute! What are these guys doing in the same room with each other?

There’s a long history of character crossovers in other media, from television to comic books to novels. The first that I can recall — and, I hasten to add, it happened long before I was born — was in All-Star Comics #3, where DC teamed up all their most popular superheroes (minus Superman and Batman) in the Justice Society of America, breaking the unwritten rule against characters from one comic book appearing in stories about other characters. Years later, DC and Marvel broke that other unwritten rule about characters from one publisher appearing in comics from another, with their joint venture Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century, a crossover that occurred long after I’d stopped reading comic books, but that at least caused me to pause at the newsstand and thumb through a copy.

Superman vs Spiderman
Superman vs. Spider-Man: Wait a minute! What are these guys even doing in the same universe?

By the 1980s, comic book character crossovers had become the rule rather than the exception and they spanned entire lines of comics, with massive events like DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths basically retconning every long-running series in the publishers stable and throwing them into a giant blender, from which they emerged substantially scathed. Now it seems that one comic book publisher or another has a cross-series event running almost constantly, e.g., Marvel’s Civil War series, which was loosely adapted into a film. Hawkeye even recently  murdered Bruce “The Hulk” Banner in a crossover Marvel murder event. Comic book characters can’t seem to stay in their own comics any more.

Civil War
Civil War: Pretty much every character in the Marvel line crossing over into one event.

TV shows also do it occasionally. CSI would begin a story in one of their franchises and end it in another. Lisa Kudrow’s character from Mad About You crossed over in the 90s to interact with Lisa Kudrow’s character on Friends. When St. Elsewhere flippantly ended its six season run by revealing that all the events on the show had taken place in the mind of an autistic child, somebody calculated that, when crossover events were taken into account, almost every series on NBC had been part of that child’s fervent imagination. I hope he grew up to be a network executive.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula
Sherlock Holmes and Dracula – Aren’t public domain characters wonderful?

Crossovers are less common in novels and generally involve characters who have long ago passed into the public domain. Sherlock Holmes, in the decades since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went on to that great apiary in the sky, has become a crossover favorite, going up against Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the real-life Jack the Ripper multiple times. I’m sure by now someone has written a novel where Conan Doyle’s Holmes has teamed up with Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger. The combination would be a natural.

So where are the gaming crossovers? Maybe it’s because no other publisher has as many similar series running simultaneously as Ubisoft does. Solid Snake (who gets a nod from Sam Fisher in Wildlands) never got to appear in any other Konami games, but maybe that’s because Konami doesn’t have any other games where he’d be a comfortable fit (and Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima may not have wanted any other developers playing around with his signature creation). But Id Software has established several long-running worlds and has at least one signature character other than the anonymous space marines in Doom and Quake. Why hasn’t it occurred to anyone to let B.J. Blazkowicz cross over into the Doom or Quake universes? Raise your hand if you’d buy a game where Blazkowicz shoots demonic aliens instead of Nazis, which would hardly be a stretch. I’d buy that game in the click of a Steam button. And if Bioware could send Commander Shepard of Mass Effect back in time to fight alongside dwarves in the Dragon Age series, the demand might finally get some people to start running Electronic Arts’ Origin interface again, especially after Mass Effect: Andromeda tanked.

(SIDENOTE: It occurred to me after I wrote this post that the Walt Disney Company, in collaboration with Square-Enix, is responsible for the most ambitious game crossover project ever, Kingdom Hearts, where Mickey Mouse and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty can mix it up with characters from the Final Fantasy franchise, but Kingdom Hearts is fairly unique as a gaming concept and aimed largely at younger players, as are the various Nintendo games where Mario can race go-karts with Diddy Kong and other signature Nintendo characters, games that are also aimed at younger players. As someone way past the age where racing karts sounds interesting, it’s crossovers in adult games that I find far more intriguing — and promising.)

The Sam Fisher crossover in Wildlands is short but difficult. I haven’t been able to complete it yet, but I watched a video on YouTube where somebody did. You have to slip into a Unidad compound (which, as any Wildlands player knows, is the toughest thing you can do in the game without getting all hell rained down on you) with your hands tied behind your backs by an injunction from Fisher himself forbidding you from killing anyone or even being spotted on your way to meet him. The moment an Unidad officer sees you crawling along the ground, the familiar skull symbol engulfs the screen and you have to start the mission again from roughly 300 meters away. Fortunately it’s a night mission. If it took place during the day it would be impossible; as it stands, it only requires infinite patience.

Once you’ve slipped into the base, you have to protect Fisher while he hacks a computer. That’s when you can start shooting, as soldiers and helicopters descend on your tiny bunker in an attempt to turn Fisher into one of those corpses the cartels love to hang from bridges. If you’re lucky, you’ll have enough ammo, and good enough aim, to let the Splinter Cell icon finish his hack. Then you have to rush him to a vehicle and drive him to the nearest rebel base alive, where Fisher quite clearly has a romantic interlude with your handler Karen Bowman while you and your companions are ejected into your next mission, albeit 1,500+ experience points richer.

This isn’t Ubisoft’s first Wildlands crossover. The earlier one, released a few months ago, spans media for its premise, pitting you against the invisible alien from the Predator films in a tedious, frustrating round of shooting at someone or something who can vanish and reappear at will. But this is the first time the crossover has actually involved someone from a completely different series of games.

Has this been done before? If not, why hasn’t it been? Why isn’t it done more often? Is it too redolent of comic books and Nintedo consoles for sophisticated game players, who like to think of their hobby as a nascent artform?

The hell with art: I think we should petition Id to let Ubisoft borrow Blazkowicz for an anachronistic Nazi fight in the Bolivian jungles. After all, South America is where all the surviving Nazis fled after Berlin fell. Their grandchildren and great-great grandchildren would make terrific rifle fodder for the ghosts. And Blazkowicz, who went bionic in his last game (also one of my favorites of 2017), will probably live forever.  Ghost Recon: Wolfenstein — now that’s a game I’d pay $60 for!

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Lara Croft and Scrooge McDuck: Tomb Raiders of a Feather

I feel almost embarrassed that I’m enjoying Rise of the Tomb Raider so much. This is the kind of overproduced, overly linear, overly prompted AAA shooter that sophisticated game commentators tend to disdain, but my sophistication as a game commentator can be measured in nanometers. I enjoy well-produced AAA games, even when they’re part of a series that began in the 1990s as masturbatory fantasies for 14-year-old Playstation owners who enjoyed watching Lara Croft’s ample curves trotting down the hallway ahead of them with a pair of guns in her shapely arms. Guns and curves: If it weren’t for those low-res  Playstation graphics, the original Lara could have been a centerfold model for Gun Owners Monthly.

Lara Croft shooting at a wolf
Low-res Lara Croft, unlocked and unloading.

The newer Lara Croft is a lot higher resolution, though, and except for her uncanny ability to survive landslides on ice-covered landscapes (which usually requires a half dozen returns to the game’s last checkpoint for less agile tomb raiders like me), she could pass as a credible young woman just realizing that her life has a purpose beyond cramming for final exams and wondering when the hunkier archaeology nerds at Oxford were going to notice her subdued but undeniable attractiveness. This is a Lara Croft that young women can identify with and that young men might actually consider an intellectual equal rather than (purely) a sex object. (For some reason, though, she spends much of the game’s cut scenes hanging around with handsome older men, maybe because she has an almost Freudian obsession with her father, Tomb Raider, Sr., whose suicide over the rejection of his archaeological theories is something she blames herself for.)

The new, subtler Lara.
The new, subtler Lara.

In this post, though, I don’t want to talk about Lara so much as I want to talk about the tradition her character and her stories grew out of. And this tradition is not so much a gaming one as it is a literary and a cinematic one. It’s a tradition that in my case I learned to love at the age of five when my mother began reading me comic books about a feathered zillionaire named Scrooge McDuck. Yes, that Scrooge McDuck.

A Duck Tale

Most Americans not of my generation are probably familiar with Scrooge McDuck from the Disney Duck Tales animated TV series that began in the 1980s. But the avian mogul goes back a lot farther than that, to the comic books of the 1950s, and he was created by a man whose very name has an almost godlike resonance for me: Carl Barks.

For those who aren’t into older comic books (or who aren’t European; for some reason Barks has a much higher recognition factor in the hemisphere opposite the one where I’m sitting), Carl Barks was a Disney animator who produced Donald Duck cartoons in the 1930s, but his job as an animation artist never suited him. He wanted the creative freedom that self-employment would give him and in 1942 moved from creating Disney animation to creating Disney comic books.

It’s not surprising that he settled on the Disney ducks, Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, as his subjects, but the Donald of the comic books was a very different duck from his animated counterpart. He was no longer given to incoherent explosions of anger, but became more adventurous, not strong on initiative but encouraged by his nephews, who were members of the Boy-Scout-like Junior Woodchucks, to engage in exploration. Under Barks’ tutelage he would uncover pirate treasure and discover Viking ships encased in ice. But it wasn’t until Barks introduced Donald’s uncle Scrooge that the duck family’s wandering ways began taking them into the realm of genuine legend.

Scrooge McDuck swimming in his Money Bin.
Scrooge McDuck wallows in his luxurious Money Bin.

Scrooge first appeared in 1947 as a miserly old curmudgeon as dislikeable as his Dickensian namesake, but when he was given his own comic book in 1952 Barks turned him into something else entirely. He was still greedy and given to uncontrolled outbursts of anger not unlike those Donald was prone to in the cartoons, but he was also wistful for the adventures of his bygone youth, when he had been poor but ambitious, chopping firewood in the forests of his native Scotland and prospecting for gold in the wilds of the Yukon.

In later life he would be drawn into explorations, along with his relatives, that promised monetary gain but that turned out to be mythic in scope. He wanted to find the golden fleece sought by Jason and his Argonauts, but to find it had to negotiate the Greek island of Colchis, with its dragons and its larkies (the Disney version of harpies). He wanted to find the Philosopher’s Stone, which would transmute ordinary materials into gold, but ended up almost turning into gold himself. He wanted to find the fabled treasures of the Seven Cities of Cibola, but instead found an underground metroplex wired to trigger an ancient, horrible, spectacular trap.

Barks was actually working from an even older tradition, one started by novelist H. Rider Haggard, whose much-filmed 1885 bestseller King Solomon’s Mines launched a craze for stories of lost cities and lost civilizations buried in the last unexplored corners of the earth. It was a tradition that was later followed by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his Tarzan novels, where the archaeological genius raised by gorillas was constantly stumbling on the populated remains of bygone empires. Barks simply took Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain and Burrough’s Tarzan and refashioned them as ducks, but they were such ingeniously conceived ducks that they brought a kind of wry yet thrilling humor to the Haggard-Burroughs sensibility that appealed to me immensely when I was five years old and still appeals to me today.

Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain in King Solomon's Mines.
Sharon Stone goes all Lara Croft in the 1985 film version of King Solomon’s Mines, with Richard Chamberlain as Allan Quatermain.

George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg also grew up with the Uncle Scrooge adventures and Indiana Jones is basically Donald Duck in Harrison Ford drag. (In the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Sean Connery essentially becomes his Uncle Scrooge.) And given that Lara Croft was quite consciously modeled on Indiana Jones she’s a linear descendant of Scrooge, Donald and the Haggard and Burroughs heroes who had preceded them. Lara, like Scrooge and Indy, is always in search of an artifact of ancient power. And like her predecessors she discovers lost cities and lost civilizations on her way to locating them. Rise of the Tomb Raider reminds me more of the Uncle Scrooge story “The Land of Tra-La-La” (the Barks version of James Hilton’s Shangri-La) than it does of any Indiana Jones stories. Both Scrooge and Lara stumble on peaceful societies of good shepherds living in nearly inaccessible mountain valleys, endangered by the encroaching forces of civilization and the greed that those forces represent.

The peaceful society of Shangri-La.
The peaceful society of Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s film version of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

I like the new Lara for many other reasons too, not just for her more realistic personality but for the meticulous graphics of her lost cities, which remind me of Barks’ work at its best. Compare these two images of Scrooge and Lara:

Uncle Scrooge and the Seven Cities of Cibola
Scrooge and his relatives get their first view of the Seven Cities of Cibola.
Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider
Lara Croft gets her first view of a barely ruined civilization in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Lara’s stories are still basically linear, though there are large, explorable areas and multiple ways to get past some of the game’s obstacles. She still climbs walls of rock and falls off them a lot. But the Scrooge stories are, by their nature, even more linear and the thrill of discovery, heightened by the sense of learning that a piece of the ancient past is still alive, is always present in stories about both characters. In Rise of the Tomb Raider even more than in the previous reboot (or the earlier games) Lara finds herself treading the path that Allan Quatermain, Tarzan and Scrooge McDuck have trod before her. And I love both Lara and Scrooge for that magical voyage into living history as much, or more, than for anything else about them.