Tuesday 29 June 2010

Hitman Blood Money: Some Belated Respect For its Storytelling & Decision Making

Hitman: Blood Money isn't a game with a great narrative. It's actually a game with next to no overarching story at all, and that's one of the things that's great about it. Following recent discussion on the dificulty of providing believable decision making in games I was overcome with the urge to pick Hitman up again - it's one of those few games I desperately wish I'd completed. Outside of that series it's very hard to find a true 'plan and assault' type game these days - the likes of Thief, Rainbow Six and Project IGI have given way to more prescribed experiences like Splinter Cell and Crysis - but I was surprised by just how much Blood Money drew me in.

I go on, perhaps too much, about how providing a meaningful interactive experience - ie my job - doesn't necessitate good writing. Shit, the blog's named after just that observation. But Hitman really succeeds in hammering that home. Here's a game where missions are largely unrelated jaunts into the central character's memories; a central character whose unique personality trait is that he hasn't got one; and whose exploits don't revolve around anything more complex than bringing bad guys down to room temperature - and yet its world and the stories within it are infinitely more engaging than most million word epics.

The key, of course, is in the dynamic nature of it all. Sure, your interactions within the world are limited and - for the more interesting ones - predefined. Certainly the way the AI discovering a murder will barely interrupt the party feels feeble against the otherwise plausible, real world scenarios. But even so: those scenarios and the freedom of choice provided within them are simply breathtaking even four years later.

One utterly key point for me are the locations of those scenarios. With few exceptions, they are all familiar and believable. The opera house, the suburban household, the cruise ship... what's incredible is the depth of these relatively small spaces. Action games tend to do very little with their environments and end up reusing assets - we blast through each area so quickly there'd be little point in providing more detail. In Hitman, the joy is in exploring, observing and planning, and this allows the environments to become characters of their own. The tour party taking snaps outside the vineyard walls, the boozed up couple making out around the corner, the playboy in the hot tub and his secret sex dungeon - these elements play out believably and dynamically, and manage to not only provide gameplay opportunities, but to wrap those opportunities in lavish narrative detail. Forget Spore - each of Hitman's levels are true virtual microcosms.

Within these worlds, the more regulated assassination solutions - loading the stage pistol with live rounds - are pared by the more flexible abilities - stealth, explosives, multiple approach points. This means that while ultimately our stories may 'only' be about knocking people on the head inventively, they are at least true stories.

If we could apply this sort of thinking to something more *ahem* thought-provoking than dressing up like a clown and poisoning the cops' donuts just think what we could achieve.


  1. Great observations. I think there's a lot to be said of games which let the player tell his or her own story as it plays more to the strengths which distinguish games from other media. And I think games like Hitman are better examples of that than games like STALKER. I think it's a bit too much of a stretch to expect the player to come up with all of the fun on his or her own and games like Hitman much more smartly focus the experience and put fun things there for the player to see and do at his or her leisure. That way, fun things are always happening unlike in games like STALKER where something fun might happen only every now and then. It gives everything an added weight when every tense moment is ostensibly a tense moment which you have brought upon yourself rather than some scripted sequence.

  2. I've got Blood Money sitting on my drive, ready to be installed. It's been sitting there for some time. Yep, for some god damn time now.

    I think there's plenty of room for both narrative approaches to be used - player-driven and author-driven.

    Far Cry 2 was lauded for its player-driven narrative but, to be honest, its story was fairly light and its world was populated with interchangeable ciphers. Although running about in a jeep, smacking down gangs and blowing up facilities led to fun emergent gameplay, the environment was like a paper-thin backdrop, diminishing its sparkle.

    And at the other end of the scale we have cutscene-heavy borefests like Lost Planet.

    I like to look at something like Thief as one of the best combinations of the two forms. A strong, show-not-tell narrative combined with an emergent, largely unscripted experience about how you got in, stole the goods - and got out.

    I think I had point here somewhere. If you find it, let me know. I've got to give it back.

  3. I'd agree with you about Thief, at least in so far as it does a great job of combining the attitudes. In many ways, as I touched on in the post, I'd consider the Hitman series something of a spiritual sequel, possibly even the student who surpasses the teachers (though I suspect Looking Glass' writing will always surpass IO's).

  4. I am surprised that no one has really replicated the clever blend that Thief pulled off. Or perhaps I've just missed it? System Shock II was well executed, but Thief is a much tighter, perfect experience all round in terms of storytelling. (And strange that the heavily managed sandbox of Thief 3 seemed to undermine how open it felt.)

    I'd never heard of Blood Money until RPS did a retrospective on it, and that led to the still unplayed purchase.

  5. Hmm, I've never played any of the Hitman games because I've always been under the impression they were pretty mediocre but over the years I've witnessed a lot of love for Blood Money.

    It's interesting you mention the environment becoming a sort of character in itself because that's one of the things I loved so much about System Shock 2 and the Thief games and more recently Penumbra: Overture. I think Dark Messiah deserves a mention here as well despite it's bollocks storyline. The environments felt tangible and real; they felt like there were things to discover and it wasn't simply a static and cosmetic entity surrounding the player. More than anything I think this feeling is down to the slower pacing of these games, the environments being smaller and tighter (as you mention) and the various ways in which we can connect and interact with them, whether it's finding a scribbled note behind a bit of furniture or setting a trap of some sort.

    I recently wrote an article that touches on this topic of having the freedom to carry out tasks in your own way, but more within the context of roleplaying. You can take a look here if you're interested.

    Anyway, I may very well have to look into Bloody Money Tom, you've more than sold it to me.