June 16, 2021

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If Ubisoft wants to cling on to Clancy, it’s time to talk politics

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How do you duck a question about the politics of a game which pits a citizen militia against a corrupt government in modern-day Washington DC? Well, you could start by talking about the weather. “I loved the coldness of the first game, and to be able to go to DC and actually get to feel the humidity and hot summer of East Coast weather,” The Division 2’s creative director Terry Spiers remarked to Polygon at E3, when pressed about what it meant to stage an armed uprising in the capital of his own country. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”

This kind of chipper, non-committal platitude has become as natural as breathing for Ubisoft, even as its various Clancy properties bury their expensively accessorised noses in topics like the South American narcotics trade or the ethics of torture. It’s all rather odd when you consider the pride, not to say enormous smugness, Tom Clancy himself took in the links between his stories and the shadow realm of superpower relations and national security. Here he is on TV in 1998, for instance, arguing for a change of law to permit the assassination of heads of state with reference to his 1996 door-stopper Executive Orders. Here he is in a memorably unsympathetic Washington Post profile, boasting of the “half-million” calls he received from admiring reporters in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

With their starchy casts of alpha nerds and special operators, visions of an America that is at once wargod and underdog and steamy accounts of missile launches and fleet manoeuvres, Clancy’s books were warmly embraced by the military establishment. Colin Powell – former US secretary of state and one of the minds behind the bogus case for Saddam’s secret WMDs – once declared that “a lot of what I know about warfare I learned from reading Tom”. Ronald Reagan was also a fan: while negotiating with the USSR in Reykjavik, he recommended Red Storm Rising to Margaret Thatcher for its “excellent picture of the Soviet Union’s intentions and strategy”. Clancy, who never served in the armed forces thanks to acute near-sightedness, reveled in all this, name-dropping high rank contacts to reporters and railing against peaceniks and grifter politicians in speeches at academies and bases. You wonder what he’d have made of Ubisoft’s determination to avoid seeing Tom Clancy games in any kind of context, to show us footage of democracies on fire while talking gaily of blue skies and “exploring a new city”.

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