Is Hitman’s gameplay designed to be broken?
Hitman is now onto its penultimate episode in what has undoubtedly been a successful first season. With all the talk focused on its episodic release model, some of the focus has shifted away from its gameplay systems, let’s talk about them.
What Hitman kind of is
On a surface level, Hitman is lying to you. You explore lavish hotels and vibrant markets, styled for the occasion in a slick, tailored suit. You attend catwalk shows with 1-percenters and blend in at an affluent Italian coastal town by pretending to read a newspaper like you’re Gene Hackman in The Conversation. However, roleplaying normality in these settings is impossible and not just because you’re a bald weirdo with a barcode tattoo on the back of your head.
The Hitman franchise is often praised for its black comic sensibilities and love of irony, but its greatest joke is that it peddles an espionage narrative (complete with people meeting at airports, talking with their backs to each other cryptically) and jet setting, slick contract killer wish fulfilment – while consistently putting the player in a position to make themselves look foolish. In part this is due to the ‘disguise’ system, in which 47 can blend into a team of traditionally dressed housekeeping staff (all of whom are Thai), despite being a 6 foot 4, Scandinavian looking brute. There is no question that Hitman’s tonal jumble sale is part of its charm, but it isn’t the intentional silliness of a ‘Vampire Magician’ costume that’s the problem – it’s the game’s mechanics.
Breaking immersion through gameplay mechanics
The illusion of reality is so well established in Hitman that the player character’s complete isolation from it is even more obvious. Large groups of NPCs populate the levels and every one of them fits into part of the grander puzzle of the game. A man drinking coffee near your target can spy you in the act, he could find your carefully placed bomb and report it to a guard who can recognise you and end your hit in an instant. In this way Hitman is the ultimate example of cause-and-effect. There are no window dressing NPCs and all of them witness and react. This also serves to make the player always seem ridiculous. You can’t really walk past people without bumping into them, so you’ll run through a restaurant like a lunatic because you want to get to the escape quicker for a higher score. You’ll do ridiculous, immersion-breaking things like crouching down behind a fountain or climbing a drainpipe in broad daylight, in front of everyone – because you can. Sure, you might get a weird comment and instantly shattering the façade of a cool looking assassin blending into his surroundings, but the game won’t punish you beyond that.
At its core, Hitman is built around a repeating cycle of patrols, opportune swigs on poisonable champagne and targets walking under conveniently located chandeliers. As 47, your goal is to expose these elements and disrupt the cycle. Perhaps unwittingly, Hitman is doing better what games like Goat Simulator or Surgeon Simulator have been attempting somewhat successfully; to make breaking the game a key component in its gameplay mechanics. While there are quasi-scripted, linear forms of assassination involving the correct combination of disguises and props to pull off a trailer worthy accident, Hitman’s most valuable gameplay comes in the form of creating ‘fire extinguisher catapults’ or bumping into a bodyguard so many times that his AI routine breaks and he is too far away from his target to perform his only function.
While it’s unclear whether this was necessarily IO Interactive’s intention, they have embraced it through the years since the original Codename 47, with the addition of user created contracts and escalation mode. The contracts mode allows players to select an NPC from any level and kill them: that NPC then becomes the target, with other players attempting to replicate the method behind the hit. User contracts more often than not are about tracking how another user sequentially disrupted or broke the game in order to pull off an impossible hit; like setting off a fire alarm and then using an object to block an AI path to delay said NPC’s evacuation – allowing for the kill of a character in a crowded area who otherwise remains entirely static. Escalation mode challenges this further by adding time and gameplay limits (such as an inability to hide bodies or subdue bystanders).
Others that follow
Hitman is just one example. During a recent Gamescom interview, Arkane Studios, the team behind the Dishonored franchise, spoke of how they have been liaising with popular Youtuber StealthGamerBR to improve and tweak the sequel’s mechanics. StealthGamerBR broke through the saturated playthrough sector of Youtube with videos displaying not just quick reactions and accuracy, but a creative disassembling of the gameplay systems of Far Cry 4, Metal Gear Solid V, Hitman and the aforementioned Dishonored game. While developers could look at exploitable systems as a lack of polish, the publicity potential of absurdist clips made from lateral approaches to mechanics now results in a conscious move towards creating systems with rules that can be broken. On more than one occasion, the developers would speak of how gamers are achieving feats within the game that were never even planned, like negating fall damage by possessing an NPC in mid air, in the case of Dishonored.
Studios often talk about freedom to ‘do whatever you want’; when in reality options are deliberately cut off from you for fear that you aren’t experiencing it within a pre-defined set of parameters. With that in the mind, we should welcome developers who want to create playgrounds with their gameplay mechanics.
Of course this comes at a cost. There is no question that exploiting a game’s mechanics to break or bend its rules is an immediate immersion breaker. When the game world’s façade is immediately compromised in favour of gameplay, doesn’t that automatically make it considerably shallower thematically? While this is less apparent in a games such as Dishonored, where a supernatural component negates a lack of realism; how can we take 47 seriously as the slick operator and master manipulator he’s supposed to be? Perhaps you can’t have it both ways. You either lock players onto your rails and have confidence in your game world, or you throw away the rails in favour of anarchy.