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The Brilliant Repetition and Brilliant Repetition of Hitman

June 8th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in video games

I’d never played a Hitman game until very recently. Well, that’s a slight lie; I did try one at some point. I think it was Hitman: Blood Money, but it was only for a few minutes and I didn’t even have time to finish the training sequence.

But properly? No, I never got the chance to really inhabit the body of cold, resourceful Agent 47. The games, though, were still of interest to me. They sounded like a lot of fun. They seemed to be a rare example of brainy violence…of turning the ultra-frequent video game action of murder into a longform logic puzzle that required far more than a quick and precise trigger finger.

The games seemed to be sequences of little sandboxes. A mansion, a neighborhood, a foreign city. Somewhere within that framework, your target was busy going about his or her day, unaware that it was the last one they’d get. You’d have weapons, sure, but firing a gun or detonating an explosive would blow your cover immediately, and so you’d have to pull closer to your target through stealth, through stolen costumes, through clever use of the environment.

None of which, of course, could be plotted in advance. You’d have some concept of where you were and what you might find there, but that was it. If an opportunity presented itself, it was up to you to figure out how to take advantage of it, and up to you to react to every unforeseen obstacle you’d encounter on the way. You’d know almost nothing going in, but accumulate an enormous amount of data with every step you took; you’d learn the routines of NPCs, eavesdrop on conversations that may contain hints, identify unsafe wiring or loose chandeliers that might be put to some use.

And therein lies the delightful evolution of the experience: you’d start by know nothing, which was a necessary step to learning everything. The next time you’d play the same level you’d know a little more. And a little more the time after that.

But…so what? To varying extents, isn’t that the case with any level in any game?

Well, yes. The first time you step foot into any level in Super Mario Bros., you are at the complete mercy of the designers. The second time, you know where many of the enemies and items are, so you’ll adjust your play style accordingly. The third time you’ll have an even stronger and more distinct understanding of the safest way to go about things, which means you can spend more time and attention looking for secrets. And, to some degree, that’s something you’ll passively learn by replaying almost any level in almost any genre.

Repetition, in short, builds familiarity. There’s a Starman in this block. If I get it, I can blow through the Buzzy Beetles I know are just up ahead. If I don’t, I’ll have to avoid them, which is trickier.

You plan ahead based on foreknowledge, because the experience won’t change. That Starman is always there, those Buzzy Beetles are always waiting, the flagpole is in the same place every time. Wrinkles and digressions are minor. Maybe you find an underground coin room, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you take damage, so that Fire Flower you were counting on is now just a Super Mushroom. Maybe an enemy glitches and appears in an unexpected place.

But those are minor deviations. They give us a bit of room for flourishes on the fairly narrow path between A and B, but, ultimately, A leads to B, and it’s only a question of whether or not we make it there alive. Rarely do the specifics of how we go about that task result in a difference that’s anything beyond superficial.

But Hitman, as a series, seemed to offer repetition that would provide a different kind of familiarity.

Sure, you could play it the same way you’d play any level: turn up, find a way to accomplish your task, and then move on. If you come back, you’ll have experience accomplishing that task, and you might be able to perform it more quickly or with more grace.

But here, repetition offers a lot more than that, as I’m learning by playing 2016’s quasi-reboot Hitman.

I’ll say right here that the game is great. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, packed full of impressive design, and it turns contract killing into an experience of genuine invention and beauty. Okay? So, there.

What I’d prefer to talk about is how the game encourages replaying levels in a way I almost never see.

Usually level-based games encourage replayability in a few ways: harder enemies, tighter time constraints, optional achievements, secret exits, and things along those lines. To be frank, those don’t really work on me. Sure, sometimes I’ll dip back into a level I’ve completed for the sake of an achievement, but even if I do, it doesn’t keep me playing beyond that. It makes me feel as though I might as well perform some action, as opposed to making me feel like I’d really enjoy performing that action. That’s a huge difference that developers don’t seem to understand. And so the only games I truly replay again and again are the ones that I just like spending time with; any replay-enhancing gimmicks (or lack thereof) don’t factor into it.

With Hitman, I’m compulsively playing levels over and over again. I’m sure I’ve played one of them more than a dozen times, and I’ll keep playing it for probably a good while longer. And it’s nothing to do with gimmickry. It’s entirely to do with design.

Early in Hitman, you’re given two training missions help you learn the controls, a nudge in terms of potential puzzle solutions, and a few wrenches in the works to help you anticipate future circumstances. In the first training level, your target is aboard a small ship. In the second, he’s in an airplane hangar. And in each case, I had a decent amount of difficulty even seeing the target up close, let alone orchestrating his undetected murder and making a clean escape.

Which I liked quite a lot, and which quickly revealed itself to be every bit as complex and rewarding as I hoped it would be. For instance, in the first mission, I know my target is on the ship, so I head toward it. But I can’t board, because I don’t belong there. So I get turned away and amble around for a bit until I find a mechanic in a shed with his back to me. He’s working on something and is completely unaware of my presence. So I conk him on the head and steal his outfit.

Now I can board the ship, because it looks like I have a job to do. But I still don’t have free run of the ship, because as a mechanic the crew wants me to stay below deck. What’s more, other mechanics will recognize me as not being one of them if I stay in their line of sight too long, so I need to find a higher-ranking disguise if I want to make any progress.

All of this is just to start the mission, which I adore. Not only have I still not seen my target, but I have yet to observe his patterns, to find any method of taking him out, to identify opportunities to separate him from witnesses.

Once I do find him, I have a wealth of options. I can drop a lifeboat on his head. I can plant an explosive to take him out while he’s sitting at his computer. I can shoot him, stab him, or strangle him. I can drug him. And those are just the obvious solutions.

The gameplay experience is rich and rewarding, giving me both a) myriad ways to approach my goal and then b) myriad ways to accomplish it. In fact, we should even add c) myriad ways to exit the level, because, of course, I still need to get out alive and preferably unnoticed.

And so, yes, what Hitman offers is multiple solutions. But many games offer those, and I wouldn’t call most of them as replayable. The Fallout series, for interest, is a common touchpoint for me. I love it. I believe the games do great things in deeply engrossing ways and, at their best, brilliantly complicate the morality of your decisions.

But Fallout is also an example of how relatively shallow “multiple solutions” in games often are. For instance, you may get to choose which side of a battle you’ll be on. Or you may get to talk your way out of a battle. Or you may be able to quietly steal whatever important item exists in the area without having to kill someone to get to it. In short, it’s more binary. The obvious (and probably easier) solution is A, but if you scout around you may be able to find B. Or you’ll be fenced into a situation in which you need to align with one faction or another, with the superficial result being the same: a clash with the opposing army.

And multiple solutions are fine. But Hitman offers something a lot deeper: multiple stories.

I’m not exaggerating. If we consider a story to be less what a game tells us and more our experience of playing the game (which we should, as that’s how novels and film work as well), Hitman offers an infinite number of stories, many of which deviate from each other in substantial, crucial, unexpected ways.

In my first true mission, I’m sent to a fashion show in Paris to take out two targets. One of them is on the first floor of a massive estate, and the other is on the third. It won’t be a quick in and out, and around any corner I might bump into an NPC who knows I shouldn’t be there. But the large play area and varied environments allow me a wealth of options, and I keep replaying this level (and others, including the training missions) because the options lead to different stories.

There’s a story about a hitman who haltingly worms his way through a crowd, spies his mark from a distance, and gradually attempts to work his way closer. The hitman has no plan, but he knows he has a job to do, and expects that he’ll find a way to do it soon enough. So he overhears two men that are waiting to meet with his target, knocks out a bodyguard and steals his uniform, and then leads the men out to the meeting place near the Seine. They phone the target and the hitman waits behind the bushes.

The target appears. He meets with the two men. No further opportunity presents itself. The hitman worries, knowing that if his target returns to the fashion show, he will have to find another way to get close to him, essentially starting all over. So the hitman, in something like professional panic, just runs over to the target and shoves him over the railing into the river.

That’s one story. It’s a pretty fun one. It involves a lot of fumbling and a bunch of people who accidentally walked in on me stealing somebody’s clothes, who then had to be knocked out and stashed away before they could tell anyone. So not only did it have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it had some tension and comic relief along the way.

And that’s just one of the two targets, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s stop there.

Now I can replay the level, and figure out a way to push him into the river without all the wandering and buffoonery.

…but why would I do that?

See, as I observed him during my first playthrough, I learned that he’s upset that the bartenders he hired can’t mix his favorite cocktail. One kind of hitman runs out from behind a bush and shoves you over a railing. Another kind of hitman, though, tracks down the recipe for your favorite cocktail, impersonates wait staff, mixes rat poison into your drink, and drowns you in the toilet as you vomit.

That’s not just an alternate solution; that’s an alternate story. None of the beats are the same. There’s a victim and a murderer, but the entire framework of what happens — and when, and why, and how — changes.

And on that playthrough, I observed even more. There are reporters at the event waiting to interview my target; what if I planted an explosive in the camera? There are gas lamps all over the estate; what if I loosened some valves and waited for my target to crave a cigarette? There’s a lighting rig over the stage; what if I poisoned the fashion designer so that he couldn’t give his speech and my target had to go on instead? Underneath those lights? Those lights I can reach if I can climb up there without drawing attention to myself…

Those are all different stories…and, again, I have to emphasize that I’m not even bringing up the multiple methods of infiltrating the estate, the multiple methods of escape, or any of the things I can get up to with my second target. Each playthrough isn’t another playthrough; it’s a playthrough of an entirely different level, because the level allows itself to be played entirely differently.

A different kind of hitman would do each of those things, and there are countless other solutions I haven’t mentioned. All of them offer different experiences, different kinds of preparation, different things to watch out for. They require you to collect different items, interact with different people, explore different rooms. And each of those things are likely to require different costumes, which you’ll have to figure out how to obtain in your specific circumstances. If you need a chef’s outfit to get somewhere, you’ll need to get into the kitchen. But if you can’t get into the kitchen with what you’re wearing currently, what do you need? Where will you find it? How will you get it without alerting security?

Each playthrough of the level has the same basic objectives, but the experience of achieving them is always different. Which is keeping me coming back over and over again in a way that trophies or some other ancillary award would not. Is it worth zipping Agent 47 back to Paris just to unlock an achievement by setting off the fire alarm? No, I wouldn’t think so. Is it worth zipping him back to Paris because setting off the fire alarm will cause your targets to head for safe rooms which you can boobytrap for another entirely unique experience? Why yes…now we’re talking.

And I think that’s the difference. Hitman is bottomlessly replayable because you never have to do the same thing twice. Or, if you choose to do the same thing twice, you never have to do it in the same way, or the same place, or at the same time. You’re writing a new story as you go. The same characters die at the end, but that’s never been the most important part of any story. A story is a journey. Hitman rewards replaying it because there are as many journeys within as you’d care to uncover.

There’s even another element to it that — so far — I think is best exemplified by the next level: Sapienza.

Here, again, there are two targets, as well as…something else that needs to be taken care of. Including the infiltration and escape options, those are five objectives that can be accomplished in any number of ways, leading to easily dozens of possible, distinct routes through the level and ways to play the level.

And so on my first attempt, I learned that a new cook was hired at the home of my target, so I tracked that guy down, stole his uniform, and used the opportunity afforded to me as cook to poison my target. (Again, I’ll focus only on one target for simplicity.) Similarly to the steely professionalism I displayed in Paris, I waited for him to vomit, shoved him off a cliff, and ran like hell.

So that’s one kind of story.

The next time through, I learned that my target was expecting a visit from a therapist…who I found at a nearby cafe. Taking him out took some planning and effort in itself, but before long I was in that man’s clothes and heading toward my victim’s home…where I’d be a much different kind of killer than I was before. And I’d therefore be in a different kind of story.

My role as therapist allowed me privacy with the man. I sat in a chair, and he lay helplessly on the couch. Nobody else was there. No witnesses. There was a button prompt to smother him with a pillow. It would have been easy and ruthless, and the ease with which I could do it was empowering, especially compared to my previous, less impressive run through the level.

But then something else happened: my victim talked. He opened up to me as a patient. The prompt to smother him hung there, waiting, patient. I could have pressed it at any time.

But I listened.

And he unfurled a story of childhood trauma, of a lifetime of anxiety and struggle, of loneliness and isolation. None of this could I have learned elsewhere, what with the man’s lavish mansion and beautiful environs and private golf lessons and servants and wealth beyond imagination.

My target became human.

And therefore my story became, again, something else entirely.

I still killed him. I had to.

But it meant something different now.

The first time through a Hitman level, I don’t know how what I’m doing. I don’t know what my options are. I don’t know how I can track my target, incapacitate my target, and make it home alive. I don’t know where to go, what to look for, or what any of the items or objects strewn around can be used to achieve.

So I’ll figure something out, as I must, and find the end of the story.

But the next time through, I know more. Things are recontextualized. I can build upon my understanding and, in doing so, find more inventive, more satisfying, more tempting solutions. And that’s another kind of story.

By the third or fourth time, I’ll look for more complicated solutions that I can set up like a row of dominoes. Not because I’ll get an achievement for doing so, but because I’ll feel achievement by doing so.

Technically any solution is possible from the outset of any given Hitman level, but in terms of the experience, it’s layered. The way you play the story the first time shapes and informs the way you play it the next, which makes it a different story entirely.

I’ve never looked forward to repetition more than I look forward to it in Hitman.

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4 Responses

  • Jordashe says:

    I think I’ll probably get this. I saw a nice video that showed that you could keep luring people into an electrified pool of water, piling up an infinite number of bodies.

    There’s a typo in your post-
    “But Fallout is also an example of how relatively shadow “multiple solutions” in games often are.”

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake!

      I waited for a sale on this one, as I knew I loved the concept but had no way of knowing if the execution (ho ho) was up to snuff (ho ho). Part of why I wrote this was to convince any other fence sitters. It’s a really well-done game.

      I’m actually kind of shocked that you can pile up bodies that way! So far the NPCs have been very smart about catching wise to what I’m doing. Either that, or I’ve been really dumb about what I’m doing.

  • Dan the Shpydar says:

    You excellently touched on what makes the Hitman games so great — not just the repetition, but the _desire_ to engage in that repetition.
    .
    I haven’t played the most recent (2016) game, but have played most of the previous entries. I highly recommend you revisit Blood Money, which is one of the best. I’ve played through every mission in that game, multiple times, and on every difficulty level. Sometimes (on the easier difficulty settings) i’d be a more bumbling or no-stealth hitman. On the higher levels, i’d go for pure professionalism, trying out every method of getting through “perfectly”. And even after several playthroughs of a level, i’d still be discovering new methods of executing (pun totally intended) my goals.
    .
    Great game series, and definitely amongst my favorite franchises. Glad you are enjoying it!

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Yeah, it’s rare that I finish a level in a game and immediately think, “Okay, screw the next one, I’m doing that again.” I consider that to be an achievement in itself.

      I’ve been playing this game for weeks now, and if you count the tutorial missions, I’ve only completed five of the stages. I’m holding off on the next one because it evidently takes place in my home state of Colorado, and that sounds too good to dive into too quickly.

      I actually have Blood Money! I picked it up used a while back and just haven’t gotten around to playing it properly. I’m looking forward to it; I’ve heard nothing but good things about that one.



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