Here’s an anecdote from Hitman. I’m clarifying this upfront, because Hitman anecdotes always sound like stories of actual murder and mayhem if you don’t state ‘it’s about a video game!’ upfront.
I’m standing at a bar on the second most upper deck of a ship, blending in with the other staff thanks to the white uniform I nicked from the now-unconscious chef moments earlier. I watch my target as I wipe down the bar with a cloth, waiting for him to return to his drink. While he chatted with a clearly agitated woman (I can hear their conversation but can’t quite follow it), I’d slipped the contents of a box of rat poison into his glass.
I was confident he’d take another sip – not because he seemed thirsty, or even because I could tell whether the glass actually had anything left in it, but because Hitman has rules, and because one of the level’s challenges explicitly suggested that I poison the target.
My target slugs down his drink, and within moments he’s staggering around, looking sickly. I press circle to stop blending in as he started staggering to the toilet. I follow him in, and as he chunders into the toilet, I fulfil another one of the game’s suggested challenge conditions – I dunk his head into the bowl and drown him in his own vomit. I feel the exact sort of thrill you’re not meant to feel when you do something like that. It’s that old Hitman feeling of pulling off a perfect murder.
But still, part of me wishes the game hadn’t explicitly told me that I should try poisoning and drowning this man, or that something had gone wrong along the way. In another attempt at that mission, my plan to set up an accident (which, again, the game itself had suggested) went array when I was spotted planting explosives on the life boat on the top deck. The thrill of concocting a new plan on the fly was far more exciting than simply meeting the game’s prescribed conditions. Because that’s the other, arguably more important feeling Hitman can evoke – the panic of a botched hit, the elation of pulling things back and making it work.
This, of course, got me thinking about Hitman: Blood Money. That game remains one of my favourites, and one of the rare games that I make an effort to return to every few years. What makes Blood Money so great is the way its systems mesh together to create a perfect anecdote-spawning machine. I have a story of course-correcting a botched attempt at the opera mission that I have been feasting off for nine years now. I have told it on PAX panels, I have written articles about it for Edge, I have told it sober, drunk, and in every state in-between, and it never fails to interest people. That’s not because I’m an amazing storyteller; it’s because you can’t play through Blood Money without coming away with beautiful stories.
Hitman: Blood Money is one of my favourite games to talk about, because every success or failure I went through in that game felt like a perfect synthesis between my own ideas and the game’s various systems. I love the mission where you have to kill the groom and father of the bride during a wedding, for instance – partly because it’s one of the few missions where the suit 47 wears fits in perfectly, and partly because of all the many wacky ways I’ve managed to off the groom. The father has a clear and obvious ‘best’ death – whack him with a shovel while he stands over an open grave in the family cemetery plot – but the groom is a bit more open. You can sneakily garrotte him, you can creep into the attic and shoot him with a sniper rifle (it’s difficult to evade capture after this one), or – you’re in the mood for some real dramatic panache – you can plant a bomb in a bucket of chicken, leave the bucket conspicuously on the wedding aisle, and then blow it as he walks up to meet his bride.
In Blood Money I committed assassinations by shooting the bottom out of glass spas, by rigging barbecues to explode when turned on, and even by walking up and shooting people point blank in the face, every now and then. I loved the newspaper reports that would pop up at the end of each level, reporting on the incident and describing the kill. There was always a ‘right’ way of doing things – a method that would make everything look like an accident – but finding these methods, experimenting and failing and figuring out new options – was part of the fun, because the game never explicitly said ‘hey, here’s a fun idea’ – it was up to you to figure things out.
Blood Money was the guiltiest of pleasures, a game that relied on your ability to be despicable above all else. It’s a game where walking up to a cop who has spotted you, grabbing his gun, shooting him in the face and stealing his clothes to blend in felt like a massive achievement. It was a game that encouraged you to be silent and deadly, but also let you be loud and weird and stupid in how you solved your problems, to search and experiment and see if your crazy ideas would work. Yesterday, I watched a speed run video in which the player killed two targets at once by hurling a coin through a skylight, showering them both in broken glass. It was beautiful.
The rebooted Hitman, in the short beta I played, felt a little less open than Blood Money did. Once I got caught out because someone spotted me dragging a body, even though I was in a closed room with absolutely no one else in it – they spotted me through the wall. That’s a glitch, of course, and they’re easy to patch out. But then there were other characters who saw through my disguises from massive distances, involved themselves in affairs that they had no stakes in, and made me wonder why there was no button I could press that would have 47 say ‘it’s my first day on the job, that’s why you don’t recognise me, my name’s Arthur and I’m looking forward to working with you’. The AI isn’t necessarily any smarter than before, it’s just a bit more thorough and suspicious.
Another quick anecdote – in the beta’s second mission, you’re encouraged to kill the target by sabotaging a jet plane. By dressing up as a maintenance crew member, you can tamper with the plane’s ejector seat, and then ask the target to come down for a safety test. Do it properly, and the ejector seat will go flying out of the plane while your target is seated in it, killing him. The game guides you through this step by step if you overhear a certain conversation, and for some reason, no one questions whether this might not have been an accident. The whole thing feels a little empty. I much preferred my botched first attempt to complete this, when one of the other maintenance crew spotted an imposter and ran off to warn everyone, and I realised I couldn’t safely go back down to complete the demonstration.
Instead, I walked in to the room my target was in, introduced myself, and asked him to come down … and then pulled out my silenced pistol, shooting my target’s personal guard in the head. The target had a moment to realise what was going on before I put three bullets into his chest. I nodded to myself as I climbed out the window, noticing that the guards outside had come in to investigate the commotion the maintenance man was making.
This was, I reflected, the Hitman feeling that I really loved. It reminded me of Blood Money, and that’s genuinely all I could have possibly asked for.