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.