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.
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.
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.
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.
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!