Hitman 2016 is a game that does many things very well, but it is also a game that does one thing exceptionally well.
I’ve been feeling unenthused lately about a lot of AAA game narratives because the fundamental disconnect between how the games play and the story they’re trying to tell you became too vast.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a game about guilt and relationships and family but it’s also a game where the main character — a happy-go-lucky treasure hunter — kills hundreds of people and doesn’t really lose his trademark smarminess. Slaughtering people is never interrogated; it’s just how Nate achieves his goals.
Final Fantasy XV made virtually no sense at any plot level, but as much as I want a sensitive anime bro road trip fantasy to exist, the characters in that game and their attitudes and behavior had no coherent relation to their game world until the very end at which point I’d stopped trying to care and was just hate-finishing the game at the behest of my roommates.
I think the end of The Last of Us is borderline loathsome. I am extremely skeptical of readings of that game’s final act that think the game was portraying Joel’s decision to murder the scientists and rob the world of a possible cure for the infection as a bad thing to do. It stunk of wholehearted endorsement. And it is such a selfish act that it almost reeks of Objectivism. And the number of people who think Joel did the right thing scares the hell out of me.
There are plenty of games these days that solve these problems. Most of them are on the indie scene but there are a handful of AAA exceptions (The Witcher 3 or Saint’s Row IV). There are games like Firewatch that reinforce a narrative of emotional desolation and eventual connection with the rural isolation of the forest and the tender conversations of a new friendship (and maybe just a hint of something more). Gone Home tells a story of sexual awakening and domestic tragedy through the everyday objects of a lived-in home. The Talos Principle makes a connection between puzzle-solving, consciousness, and the human spirit.
Hitman 2016 is not one of those perfectly cohesive games. The story that it explicitly tells is that Agent 47 is an expert assassin. He’s as invisible as the wind and as deadly as the plague. But the game’s virtue is how absurd and varied and dynamic the stories generated by play are allowed to be. Each mission feels near endlessly replayable in its initial form and that form can be and quite often is remixed. You are never starving for a new challenge.
And every attempt at these missions has the potential to turn into a hilariously memorable screwball farce. You could be great at the game. You could be one of those people that finishes the achievements for killing targets with out ever changing your disguise or being spotted or anyone even knowing you killed the target until at least you’ve escaped. But, more likely than not, you’ll be a little clumsy. And when that happens, the game’s narrative absurdities become so delightful that you could give two shits that the “right” way to play Agent 47 would be to play him as coldly and expertly as possible.
The story below is something I shared on Twitter earlier this evening. It was far too long to go on Twitter (it was something like 61 tweets total which would be too high for a parody of an obnoxious tweet storm), but when I sat down to write it, I didn’t realize how much story I had to tell. I didn’t realize how cleverly these details I was honing in on the chaos I was causing were products of smart game design.
But it was a story worth telling. Because these stories are the heart of the Hitman experience, and if someone is curious what playing the game is like, it’s by experiencing this sort of story. And so I copied that story from Twitter and pasted it here and edited it (and deleted it from my Twitter feed afterwards cause nobody needs to read this much unedited prose from me).
In a year where only a handful of game “narratives” really landed for me, Hitman creates farcical comedies and razor tense thrillers through clever manipulation of player choice. And I’ll take the story I’m about to tell you over Bioshock Infinite any day.
I’m going to tell a Hitman 2016 story.
It’s the Bangkok mission. In the Bangkok mission, you’re infiltrating this “so decadent it should cause a Bolshevik revolution” hotel in Thailand. This hotel is outrageous. The highest luxury suite has its own private foyer gilded with marble and archways. The suite also features a small but comfortable meditation garden. Those are just its most egregious perks.
I’m there to kill two people. One is an “indie” rock musician/son of a billionaire who has rented out an entire floor of the hotel just to make a record. And the other… well, I remember his name is Ken Morgan but I can’t recall a single thing about who he is or why I am supposed to kill him.
My roommate was watching me play, and as he and I watched the parts where the game expounds on its explicit “plot,” we were discussing politics instead of listening. This game’s dialogue/exposition driven narratives aren’t going to be winning any awards.
I get to this hotel and check in. I’m escorted to my suite by a bellhop. Nobody has anything less than a suite at this kind of hotel, and as we’re walking, I’m admiring the breathtaking architecture of this hotel — there’s this salon on the second floor of one of the hotel’s wings that is an almost pornographic fantasy for bibliophiles and interior design nerds — and I’m already deciding that I’m going to knock this bellhop unconscious the moment he enters my suite. I’ll take his outfit and I’ll be able to wander somewhat invisibly as I attempt to acquire intelligence on my targets.
I’m feeling very clever.
We reach the door to my suite. I walk in; I’m anticipating the moment that I commit my first violent act of the mission. But the bellhop only shows me the door. He doesn’t follow me in.
To make matters worse, there’s a security guard standing within view of said bellhop. Someone would see if I just punched this servant in the face and dragged his unconscious body into my sitting room. I don’t know what to do.
I see there’s a phone in my sitting room and there’s an interaction icon above it. I can call for room service. My plan hasn’t fallen apart after all.
I call for room service. I wait and think about how absurd it is that I’m about to physically assault this presumably innocent server just to kill two dudes whose villainous backstories were exposition dumps I was already beginning to forget. And, finally, room service arrives. And there are two of them.
The game is excellent in that specific way. It gives you a solution and then finds ways to complicate those solutions.
But I luck out yet again. One of the servers goes into the bedroom of the suite to refill my minibar while the other acts as hostess and waits with me in the sitting room. I ignore the hostess and follow the house keeper who goes into my bedroom and suffocate him quietly til he passes out. I then put on his clothes.
I walk out of the room and know the hostess will know that I am not her partner. Being a white guy with a bar code tattooed on the back of my head is a bit of a giveaway.
I manage to confuse her just enough so that I am able to walk right to the side of her face and knock her out with a single blow. I currently have two unconscious hotel staffers in two separate rooms of my suite.
The hostess saw me before I knocked her out. If someone else finds her and wakes her up, hotel security will know that a man with my physical description wearing a uniform of the hotel staff is an infiltrator. I have to hide her and her partner who is still lying unconscious in the bedroom.
Easy. I’ll hide them in a closet. There are closets and lockers and chests and all sorts of convenient Body Compartments in Hitman. They’re prevalent to the point of almost absurdity.
But, oh fuck, there isn’t a single Body Compartment in my hotel suite. I panic because I think another housekeeper might wander in and find her assaulted coworkers. And so I drag both of their bodies into the bathroom and stash them behind the tub. I drag the man that refilled the minibar. He’s only wearing underwear. I’m wearing his clothes.
I’m breathing so easily that I decide to do a hard save here in case I fuck up in the immediate future. This was firm ground.
During the events thus described, I became so preoccupied with dragging these bodies that I wasn’t paying total attention to the game’s HUD. The game has a minimap that lets you know the general structure of the building you’re in and the exact location of anyone in your relative vicinity. It’s useful for knowing if someone’s near the room in which you’re doing something you know you probably shouldn’t be doing.
Immediately after hiding these bodies and walking out of the bathroom, a third housekeeper walks in through the sitting room entrance of the suite.
He didn’t know I was a fraud yet — he just assumed I was a regular housekeeper — but before he got very far into the room, I knocked him out as well… with the door to my room still open.
Nobody saw me knock the third hotel staffer out, but one of the security guards spotted the unconscious body in the room and came to investigate. I had no choice but to choke the security guard out as well.
I now had four people unconscious in my hotel room.
I also realized I’d gotten lucky. It hadn’t been pretty but I’d acquired a security guard’s uniform. That was the highest level of clearance in the hotel. I could go nearly anywhere I desired and not be bothered.
I took the guard’s clothes, hid the two new bodies behind the tub — quite a pile had formed — and left my suite.
Eventually, I killed the rock star. I won’t get into the details but it involved my emotionally robotic hit man apparently having been given “J.K. Simmons in Whiplash” level lessons on how to play the drums and then pushing the target off a roof. It was beautifully absurd.
I figure it’s time for me to get out of the clothes I was wearing when I murdered the musician. Ya know, just in case.
I’m wandering around this hotel, somewhat hopelessly lost because this game’s maps are remarkably labyrinthine, and I’m looking for another housekeeper to knock out because that felt like just the right thing to wear in which to be invisible and collect intelligence again.
I can’t find a single hotel worker vulnerable enough for me to prey on without getting exposed, and my wanderings unconsciously lead me back to my hotel room. At which point I remember that I have three unconscious hotel workers and one unconscious hotel cop laying behind my tub. One of the hotel workers and the unfortunate security guard are stripped to their underwear because I had taken their clothes. Their clothes that magically fit me.
At this point, my roommate and I are laughing hysterically. Just the outrageously serendipitous nature of it all. None of the decisions I I made “had” to happen. There are a truly considerable number of tools that the game lays at your disposal. It also always has something prepared to make your life tougher for utilizing that particular tool. And it finds ways to let you succeed if you persist despite this new complication.
I put on one of the three hotel staff uniforms that are lying around my suite and feel exhausted and then remember why I needed a uniform in the first place. I still have to kill the second target… this other guy that I have to kill but I couldn’t tell you a single fact about him beside his name.
And my heart sinks.
Now, before I get to the climax of this story, I have to explain a game mechanic I haven’t mentioned thus far. I probably should have introduced this Chekhov’s gun earlier in the story but is it really a Chekhov’s gun if it was an accident?
You pick your load out in Hitman. You choose the weapons that Agent 47 brings w/ him to the mission initially.
The default weapons/items are a silenced pistol, a fiberglass wire (for garroting targets), and a coin (for distraction).
I had decided in my playtime that the fiberglass wire was a worthless weapon for me. I could just as easily choke someone out as use it. And so I equipped a poisonous syringe instead.
I start walking in the general direction of the other wing of the hotel. Because of a magic vision mode the game gives you that lets you know where your target is at all times, I know where to head.
Very shortly, I make it to the foyer of the hotel and the target, Ken Morgan, walks out to the foyer from the hotel restaurant a fair distance ahead of me.
My target is a brisk walk in front of me. I remember I have the syringe. The target only has one personal bodyguard. There’s another security guard on the far side of this room, but his attention is elsewhere. I look out the main entrance to the hotel’s foyer and see a pier in the distance. It is where my escape boat waits.
I realize I can stab Ken Morgan with the syringe and just run like hell before anyone realizes exactly what happened and I’ll be at my boat and gone by the time they do. I walk up to Ken and stab him with the syringe as conspicuously and slowly as humanly possible right in front of his guard. And, to be fair to the game, I’m stabbing the guy with a syringe… not scratching him with poison. This has to be done with at least some care. I have a bad habit of not thinking initial plans through.
The bodyguard immediately starts firing at me but miraculously misses and I run as guards swarm the jetty but I somehow reach my escape vessel and my boat jets off into the Italian seaside.
There was nothing pretty or skillful about that contract. I certainly did not do it nearly as well some canonical version of 47 would do it. But the game constantly responding to my decisions in ways that had meaningful consequences (and opened up new avenues for success and failure) felt like more of a story than 90% of the more traditional scripted stories games have thrown at me over the years.
One reason that stories work is because characters inhabit a world, a world with rules and others characters and the goals of these characters and, by proxy, characters that make choices in the pursuit of their goals. And that inevitably creates conflict. Hitman soars not just because it gives you so many tools to solve conflicts — although it does — but because every choice you then make gives you new, possibly unexpected conflicts to solve. You’re always figuring out how to answer a problem (which is what storytelling so often is) cause the answer gives you new problems. But the game rewards your patience because each struggle sets you a little further down the path to your ultimate goal. It knows how not to overstay its welcome.
And if you have any interest in a precisely designed but chaotic comedy of errors, Hitman is one of the most fascinating AAA games in years.