Tuesday 27 November 2012

Hitman: Absolution: In Support Of

 I played Hitman: Absolution this week. Like everyone else I was disappointed by the radical departure from the original gameplay format, but I wasn't entirely distraught. I enjoyed myself. If the stealth system were separated out from the disguise system, and the balance struck a little more in favour of larger levels, I think the rest could have been quite palatable. More than that - these vignettes of blending into train station crowds, hunting nuns in cornfields and stalking cops on rooftops bring dashes of dynamism and variety to a formula that, dare I say it, stands to benefit from it.

Absolution also got me thinking about Hitman's oft-fraught relationship with narrative, and about how the bland cutscenery of the last two games seems to be missing the point. I love IO and I love these games - and I want to formulate something constructive. To do so I'll ask a simple question:

What is the point of Hitman's Narrative?
The narrative design in a game is there with one purpose, which is the same purpose as every other element in development - to help deliver an interactive experience that focuses on the controlling idea. The controlling idea is what the project is about. It's a description of what the end-user experience should be.

Hitman's controlling idea (its point) is plain enough: to be an expert assassin; to explore, understand and violently participate in a living world. By focusing on realistic environments, psychological judgements (or understanding of AI routines if we're being cynical) and calculated subterfuge over blind Rambo-ism, Hitman is, more than most stealth 'n gun games, a simulator. Albeit a simulator with a dark sense of humour.

How do you usually plot a simulator?
Usually not with cutscenes. The more popular alternative is simply to avoid plot altogether. A plot supposes some artificial linearity - some element of the game that isn't simulated, but locked in - and that would be opposed to the very concept of what a simulator is. Silent Hunter, SWAT 4, the various brilliant flight sims - they don't force you on a particular path. They give you enough background detail for context, then let you go off and create your own tale.

I'm not sure this is where Hitman's going. For one thing, Hitman is different from some other simulators in having a protagonist with a personality (sort of) and - so the argument goes - therefore you need a character arch, and a plot, and cutscenes... we know where this ends up. For another thing - and it seems strange to admit this - but I just can't imagine Eidos biting the bullet and accepting that they may not need a plot. Hitman is a AAA game, and AAA games have stories now!

So if we're committed to putting something in between the assassinations (and it is surely the assassinations that are at the heart of Hitman) what should it be?

How else could you design Hitman's narrative?
How about this: Career Mode. I'd argue that if we want anything from Hitman's narrative, it would be something that supports the simulation feel of the core gameplay. What's cool about 47 is not, I think, what he does when the people he works for betray him and he's left with a genetically engineered little girl to protect. What's cool about 47 is that he's a professional. A cool Hitman story would focus on that.

What would a year in the career of a Hitman be like? What would fill the gaps between the hits? I think there would probably be a bunch of the things you'd expect - upgradeable, explorable hideouts, collectable weapons, a currency based on mission success... You'd also want to make greater use of some other elements from earlier Hitman games - Blood Money's procedural newspaper articles could be developed into something that gave us a sniff of the larger world.

What might turn out to be particularly useful are those little vignettes from Absolution. A career mode would need something more than a few management elements to deliver the sense of being 47. We'd want to see just a little of the pain-staking preparation that goes on behind the scenes. So perhaps we'd have some side-missions: a trip to the blackmarket weapons dealer, a hit on a potential witness, a scouting mission on local police patrols. If we were really clever we'd have these develop and overlap in unexpected ways: perhaps on the scouting mission we'll spot the weapons dealer entering the police station. Depending on 47's actions he may come home from his next mission to find them knocking at his door.

What I suggest is that by building up this little web of fiction we could bring another layer of detail to Hitman's world. Instead of breaking from the core missions for another video of 47 being betrayed and not being caring about it, let's use that time to tell a different sort of story - one which reflects the core themes of the gameplay experience. One which makes you feel like a Hitman.