Splinter Cell and Michael Ironside: A rocky ride

Toronto-born actor Michael Ironside, a self-described pacifist and non-gamer, talks about the difficulties in playing Sam Fisher, the shady and violent protagonist of the Splinter Cell series.

Sam Fisher seems to be a character that Michael Ironside just loves to hate.

Despite a career spanning four decades and nearly 150 movies and TV shows, the actor is best known among the younger generation as the voice of the main character in the Splinter Cell video game series. For a man who doesn't consider himself a gamer and who describes himself as a pacifist, this must rankle.

Splinter Cell, a series that carries military and espionage writer Tom Clancy's endorsement, follows the exploits of Fisher, a highly trained agent of Third Echelon, a black operations division working for the U.S. National Security Agency. Over the course of four games, the first of which was released for the original Xbox and Playstation 2 consoles in 2002, Fisher has taken part in a host of morally murky and often bloody spy missions.

At the Comic Con fan convention in Toronto last week, Ironside talked openly about his often rocky relationship with Splinter Cell's main man. He recounted the story of how Ubisoft Montreal, the game's maker, offered him big money to voice Fisher for the original game. He accepted the deal, which let his wife buy a new SUV, not knowing anything about video games, and when the script arrived, he was shocked.

"I didn't want to do it," the Toronto-born actor said. "It was too violent. I was ready to return the SUV and give the money back. I was as ignorant of games as you can be when I got that first script. I really did think it was like Pong."

He was able to negotiate some changes in the script, an effort that humanized Fisher enough to where Ironside was comfortable playing him. The second game, Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (2004), further soured Ironside on the character because the plot felt "hollow." By the fourth game, Splinter Cell: Double Agent (2006), Ironside admitted he was in it for the money.

"I got sucked back in," he said. "They gave me too much money. How dare they?"

At the same time, Fisher has become familiar to Ironside — "he's like a brother" — and the actor is pleased the character has grown over the course of the series, an evolution that continues to build in the fifth game, Splinter Cell: Conviction, due out in April.

So far, Fisher has been a puppet for a military organization that Ironside doesn't believe in. With the fifth game he becomes more of an individual, which provided incentive — in addition to the money — for Ironside to come back once again.

"Sam ended up representing a sociopathic and sometimes pathologically lying organization in the third and fourth game," Ironside said. "It was sad. Sam was just sitting there thinking, 'I'm a gun in the hand of an irresponsible entity.' I didn't want to go any further with that.

"Now we're going to where he's going to try and hold those entities responsible for their actions."

A maturing protagonist

The new direction is important to Ironside, because Fisher is finally accepting responsibility for all that he's done in the previous games. The violence has contributed to changing and maturing the character, he said, which is key because it reflects how he likes to act. Many of the characters he's played on screen have been tough guys and villains, but they've all come from a common place.

"I play violence as an illness," Ironside said. "So what better person to play Sam Fisher than a pacifist?"

The game was originally due out before Christmas, but Ubisoft delayed it twice to apply more polish. As with every previous release, Splinter Cell: Conviction is expected to be another big hit out of the French company's key Montreal studio, whose previous major success was Assassin's Creed 2, released in November. The Splinter Cell series has garnered widespread acclaim for its superb graphics and stealthy game play.

Martin Walsh, the game's lead on technical artificial intelligence, said the new game has all of the single- and multi-player features of previous entries, but also brings in a new co-operative mode that two players can enjoy together.

The co-op mode puts gamers in a "prequel" of sorts to the game's main single-player mission. Enemy characters are also considerably smarter in these multi-player modes and can even take players hostage, requiring the other player to save them.

Conviction also frees up gamers to play at a faster pace, if they choose to.

"As a player, you can impose your personality on the game," Walsh said. "So if you want to play a little quicker, or if you want to play a little more tactically, or if you want to play a little more run and gun, the game can play in all those different ways."