Why Hitman (2016) Works

hitman-episode-one-review-501715-22The superpower of the protagonist of most challenge-oriented videogames is time travel. Through the loops of failure and dressage that conventional videogame design depends on, the player fails at a task again and again until they have memorised how to proceed through the events that, on the current playthough, have not actually happened yet. This might be a muscle memory, ingraining in your hands the exact rhythm of movements required for a Rock Band track or a Super Meat Boy level. Or it might be a more traditional memory of remembering placements and patterns: the trap door full of monsters you could not have predicted in Doom kills you once and then, on the next attempt, you’re ready for it. Instead of dying you get a glimpse at what is about to happen. You remember what hasn’t happened yet.

The analogy has been made by various critics in the past (I think Janet Murray might have been the earliest) that the videogame player is not unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, repeating the same system over and over again: at times taking it seriously, at times playing with the system, at times bored and frustrated by it. The more recent Edge of Tomorrow provides a similar conceit, but is I think more accurate of how videogames train players, killing Tom Cruise over and over again on the battlefield until he makes the exact right movements to get through it alive—exact movements he can only make with the memories possessed from the previous attempts. Edge of Tomorrow is how videogames work to train their players; Groundhog Day is more the wide range of emotions that players go through while existing in such a temporal spiral. 

To be ‘stuck’ in a videogame, to feel a sense of unproductive frustration, is to not be able to enact the powers of time travel the game’s pleasures depends on.

Such a temporal model is by no means natural or required, but is dominant in those challenge-oriented games whose design model was birthed by an economic model that asked for money for each act of time travel. We don’t see ‘Game Over’ or ‘Continue?’ or a finite number of lives as often as we used to, but the idea that the player must work for and be prevented from reaching the end of a game through multiple failures is a conventional aesthetic that lingers from the arcades of the 70s and 80s.

For a lot of videogames, this is just how it is: you die, you go back, you try again until you stop dying. Checkpoint placements have become more forgiving over the years (I personally think Halo played a large role in demonstrating how putting the player immediately back in the action doesn’t detract from the experience, but the ‘quick save’ functions of late 90s PC games probably was just as important, as was games like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysey doing away with finite lives). At the same time, no shortage of videogames have consciously played with this way that time travel functions in videogames, working in into the diegesis of the game world and the actual act of play—that is, time travel as play as opposed to time travel as an interruption of play. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is probably the most popular example, with not only the diegetic mechanic of rewinding time, but the whole game framed as a story that the Prince is telling, allowing him to undo the player’s fatal mistakes with a simple “Wait, that’s not how it happened”. Time rewind mechanics like Sands of Time or Braid or Super Time Force explain the time travel enacted by the player by giving the character the same abilities. The jumping back and forward now happens on the other side of the screen while the player continues ever forward in the act of ‘playing the videogame’, rather than the jarring stop-starting of lost lives and game overs. Other games go the other direction: making time travel impossible. Permanent Death game modes play with this, as do roguelikes. The lessons learned in death in such games is about how to approach systems or certain probabilities, not specific situations. The Spelunky player will never be able to memorise what happens next, but they will learn ways of dealing with different combinations of elements. They don’t learn the hand they will be dealt, but they learn what cards are in the deck.

More generally, this is just how death and ‘interactivity’ work together generally. Death and reloading is where players explore the ‘what if’ that interactive storytelling provides. It is where we see Lara Croft die gruesomely as a detour from a story where Lara Croft never dies, or where our Skyrim character slaughters a whole town for fun.

In short: conventional videogame design is about repetition, about overwriting inauthentic strands with authentic strands, and the best conventional videogames are those that acknowledge this and play with it, rather than simply and uncritically reproduce it.

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The Hitman series has, generally, relied on this core loop of repetition without really considering or harnessing it. It’s a series I have generally found frustrating. Each mission provides an elaborate little clockwork diorama. Different people who respond to different events in different ways and who will be in different places at different times. An assortment of items located in different places to be combined in different ways to different ends. And, among it all, a person that needs to be killed quietly enough that you can then get out alive. The focus of the series is on planning and perfect (excuse the pun) execution. A key aspect of the games was that different difficulty settings provided a finite number of saves per mission attempt. It’s a sort-of-almost permanent death experience. You only get to screw up so many times.

It’s a good setup, and one that has no shortage of fans. But I found my endless mistakes and restarts required for that perfect execution frustrating and unenjoyable (and discouraged by the finite saves). Repetition was all but demanded of the games to really understand how the systems on any one level actually worked, but repetition was not framed as a satisfying and meaningful part of the experience. Repetition was failure, imperfection.

The intent was, I think, that a player would want to return to a level and play it over and over again, and no shortage of players did. The sort of player who favours ‘immersive sims’ just to see how all the bits might work together would no doubt enjoy returning to each level to figure out its systems and experiment with it simply for the sake of experimenting. But without the game offering some sort of reward or progression in repetition, I just found them dull. I was never going to repeat a level multiple times just to understand how it worked. I’ve already killed the target once. Why wouldn’t I just do it the same way each time? Why bother experimenting if I know what works? If you do not innately find the ‘what if?’ of systems interesting, there’s not much there for you beyond an unforgiving and obtuse stealth experience.

Which is what makes the 2016 Hitman such a triumph of design iteration and iterative play. Like the previous Hitman titles, it relies on repetition and understanding just how each mission works. It presumes prolonged and intimate research of each environment. Unlike the previous Hitman games, however, it explicitly encourages and rewards such behaviours, rather than just setting it as an implicit prerequisite for enjoyment. Here, the time travel enacted by players is not diegetically acknowledged like in Sands of Time or Braid—47 doesn’t have time travel abilities—but it is acknowledged in how the game is framed and how the player is asked to approach Hitman as a game.

The most obvious manner in which Hitman explicitly encourages the player to spend some good time getting intimate with each environment is its episodic structure. Before the game’s initial release (and indeed, for quite a while after it), there was a lot of confusion about how this would actually work. It felt a bit exploitative, like a cash-grab forced DLC ‘season pass’ like thing. People did not know what this sort of release model meant, and it was not well explained. As a consumer model, it was unclear and this no doubt was to the game’s detriment. As a design decision, however, it perfectly amplified a particular way of engaging with Hitman.

Instead of getting the whole game at once, every so often another mission would be released for download, pacing the game more like a season of television released slowly over time than a single film. While in most videogames you would finish a level and move on to the next one, only potentially coming back to experiment with ‘what else’ you could have done once you are finished, in Hitman, once you finish a stage, there is nothing else for you to do until the next episode is released other than to play that level again. It’s a drip feed that forces the player into the pacing that the previous games implicitly asked for but never demanded.

But this alone wouldn’t be enough. An episodic release doesn’t alone solve the issue of players who don’t intrinsically want to experiment for experiment’s sake. Even if you only have one stage to play every month, you still need reasons to actually play it more than once.

The next element that Hitman uses excellently are achievements and unlocks, those most superficial, gamified, and cynical elements that, elsewhere, have become all but meaningless. Each mission in Hitman has a series of challenges. Some of these are the same on each mission (finish the whole mission without being seen, make the assassination look like an accident, etc), and many others are specific to that single mission (kill the target with the chandelier while he is giving his speech). Accomplishing challenges award experience points for that mission which, in turn, unlock different starting locations and available gear for that mission, in turn making other challenges more viable. No less importantly: the challenges provide a number that goes up, a bar that nears completion.

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Importantly, this is how achievement points used to work! When the Xbox 360 first introduced Gamerscore, games didn’t just give the player points for finishing levels on every single difficulty. You got points for doing this cool thing that you never needed to do, but you could do. Reading through the achievement list on an early 360 game didn’t tell you what you would do in the game, but told you things that were possible. At their best, they opened up the playspace and provided alternative means of engaging with a game. Over time, though, as their use was mandated by every major publisher for games of all sizes, they’ve become more arbitrary as developers forced to use them chuck in any thing to meet their quota and appease certification. Cool, you beat the game on each difficulty. You killed 10,000 baddies. But at their best, through the most minor extrinsic motivation, achievement points opened up playspaces.

Hitman uses achievement points in this way: to open up the place space. To encourage you to return to an environment and figure out what else it can do. My traditional method of engaging with a new Hitman mission: first, I just try to complete the mission, stumbling around the level until I finally figure out a way to do it successfully. Second, I go and look at the list of challenges for that level, at all the different things that are possible. On the first mission, there is a challenge for killing one target by pushing the other target off a balcony onto them. I had never before seen either target walk outside and, if not for this challenge, would never have found out this was something that the system was capable of producing.

In the time between episodes, when there is nothing else to do, the challenges of each stage give you a reason to play that one level over and over again, approaching the same puzzle from different directions, slowly building an expert literacy in this space and its temporalities. While doing one challenge, you notice two characters talking about something that would probably be relevant to a different challenge, or you find a tool in a closet that would be useful. You learn the easiest spot to find a gardener’s costume, to find a waiter’s costume, to find a wrench. You explore the toybox and you memorise it.

But it is not longer a memorisation of pure force or of failure and perfectionism. It is now one of playful experimentation. You killed that guy, now do it again but with the rat poison. Now do it again with an unsilenced pistol. How would you achieve that? Well, you know from experience that he walks by this spot that is an exit to the map, so you could shoot him there and flee before the guards investigate the noise. The game doesn’t just provide an intricate system of things you could do, but provides a variety of challenges that take full advantage of this spectrum of possibilities.

In addition to the challenges are escalation missions which work as alternative quests in the same diorama, just with different targets to kill. Instead of that guy, now you have to kill that specific butler. Cool, you do that, and now you have to do it again except you have to do it with a letter opener. Now you have to do it again but you have to do it with a letter opener and you have to be dressed as a security guard. They escalate. They add more and more conditions to the mission, iteration the mission as you repeat it. More explicitly that anywhere else, repetition is ingrained into the design of escalation missions. To progress an escalation mission is to repeat it. Repetition isn’t failure; it is progress. And, in that repetition, you become even more intimately aware of each diorama, even more expertly aware what it is capable of.

Implicit to all of these—the episodic structure, the challenges, the escalation missions—is a trivialising of story in favour of a privileging of the toybox. Games aren’t necessarily “better without stories”, but it is nevertheless true that “narrative” can become an uncritical stand-in for actually articulating the broader expressive powers of the videogame medium. Videogames aren’t better without stories, but they’re not better with stories either. Stories are just one of the things videogames can do. Hitman has a story. Something about proxies and secret groups. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not really important. The game reinforces how unimportant it is through the killing of each target, the achievement of each storybeat goal, not being significant. You kill the target, but then you kill them twenty other ways as you work through the challenges. Then you ignore the target and just go kill some random character instead. It is a toybox, a beautifully crafted little diorama of systems, and the game is set up to help you appreciate its intricacies for itself, not for some trite conspiracy story of 47 and the Illuminati. That merely frames the true, innate meaning of the game that is an exploration of the toybox.

This has an add-on effect of the player not really caring if they perfectly enact 47. Not doing a mission perfectly in a previous Hitman title felt like you had done badly, like you had acted the character out incorrectly. You did the mission once before you moved on, so doing it badly felt like you were not doing the character justice. Blood Money formalised this with your notoriousness on one mission passing over to the next. But in Hitman, the story doesn’t matter. 47 doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you don’t do it perfectly because you’re going to do it a dozen more times anyway. The run button you never hold down because 47 is too cool to run now gets held all the time because this is a just a toybox, not a movie scene. And, besides, this escalation mission asks me to kill two targets within twenty seconds of each other with the same shotgun. Where the previous games encouraged perfection with a range of systems that were Not Ideal and one that was Ideal, Hitman encourages experimentation by providing a range of arbitrary conditions and challenges that mean sometimes it is okay to shoot a shotgun or throw a knife or to not do any of these things at all.

Hitman is not afraid to be a gamey game—to be a game about the systems and the motions you go through—and is all the better for it. It is a masterclass in understanding just what the game is intending to achieve and ensuring all aspects of the game, both diegetic elements and framing elements, work together to produce this experience. It takes the experience players were meant to have with the previous games, and finds ways to ensure these desired experiences become probably experiences. It’s a smart, beautiful, intricate, elegant, and sophisticated videogame with a confident style and equally confident pedagogy. It is a form of iterative play that embraces the ways in which repetition can be fulfilling and is, I think, system-centric ‘immersive sim’ videogame design at its best and most accessible.

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