As a Hitman lore enthusiast, I often find myself analysing the smallest details of the games, their stories and characters. The series would not be what it is today without its (forgive me for using this word) iconic main well-suited character and his bald head decorated with a (let’s hit all of the cliche words!) signature barcode. But it’s not the tie or the black leather gloves what made Mr. 47 so endearing for yours truly. You know my thoughts on the character as well as the recent developments of his personality. You know I’ve been digging and digging through all of the games to bring you the best analysis of our beloved protagonist and you might have thought my extensive piece is where I draw the line. Today, I’d like to prove you wrong.
There were itches unscratched in this lore-loving heart and this is why today I present to you the real insight to 47’s mind. An interview with David Bateson.
This is what happens when the lore expert talks to Mr. 47 himself…
First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. It’s great to see you are so open to interact with the fanbase. I was always enthralled by 47’s personality and how it was presented throughout the games. So naturally, I would love to ask a few questions for the man voicing said character and undoubtedly is the main reason as for my passion for Mr. 47. I am so glad we were able to make this happen.
Could you tell us what were the first pointers you were given when voicing the role of agent 47? Was he always meant to be a tough guy with a troubled backstory or did his past was unknown to you during the recordings for Codename 47? How much of the story was even known to you?
As I recall, I wasn’t given much information for that first recording. But reading the script, which I seem to recall were just inner monologues, I got an idea of how it should read. However, the atmosphere of the images I was looking at were haunting and stark, so the scene was set – it was moody and ominous from the start.
Can you tell us more about these images you were shown? Were these tech demos or just concept art? Do you remember what were they of?
They were of Hong Kong – both concept art and sequences from the game, as I remember. Very black and white, shadowy. Quite Japanese in look. but on the whole it reminded me of Blade Runner.
Ah, so you already had an insight to what the aesthetic was going to look like and played off that! That’s really interesting. So what was your opinion on the character when the role was presented to you? What influenced your choice in taking the offer?
I was deeply impressed and “moved” by those first images and graphics. A character that is created – with a specific purpose only – intrigued me. There is no history, nothing to hang an “attitude” on. So it felt like it gave me a broad blank canvas to draw on and shape, according to what was subsequently told to me and according to how my personality interpreted that. Looking back, though I am convinced that the original guys who developed Hitman and created Agent 47, knew or at the very least, had a good idea of how he should be; but because nothing existed before that time, it really felt like there was room to influence his development. As an actor, I am drawn to characters out of curiosity. I want to find out how they think and feel and then allow myself to think and feel like them. No filter, or at least, as little as possible. It’s a real trust exercise, in a way.
What will always intrigue me about Agent 47, is that I will never fully know him.
So you do, in fact, play a huge role into the creation of Mr. 47! I guess I have to thank you for creating my absolute favorite fictional character of all times. I don’t think anyone will ever fully know him… and believe me, I have tried!
How did your perception of 47 changed once it came to voicing Silent Assassin? The main storyline of the game heavily revolves around 47’s moral journey. A quite interesting turn of events when it comes to hitmen stories.
Now we’re getting to the point… You know, as I see it, every single thing we do in life, is a choice. We may be dealt some crap cards sometimes, but we choose how to play them. That choice is based on one’s own definition of morals. Does this feel right? Should I do this? Do my actions and behaviour benefit or harm others?
Well, it’s clear Agent 47 has a very purely defined moral code. He is programmed to fulfil a contract. That contract involves the taking of life. There is no doubt or repentance of what he does. It is as if he is either autistic or psychotic in that he is completely detached from his feelings. And yet…. he is not. It would be utterly boring and uninteresting to play him 100% like that. There is something in the cocktail of his genetic make-up that lingers. He is a human, afterall.
We’ve seen it before, in films from Total Recall to Blade Runner to Oblivion, where a character is haunted by something in their past DNA that makes them search for who they really are. It’s actually the same in real life. I see in my own children, behaviour patterns and quirks, that are mine and that were definitely not taught or consciously passed on by me. Where does that come from? Agent 47 may never find the answers as to who he is and what makes him the way he is. But it’s the subconscious search that makes the journey interesting. There is nothing new here. It’s life. But part of the appeal of the character of Agent 47 is that just ever so slightly, we are haunted by him. At least… I am.
This is where the origin of my interest of Mr. 47 lies. There is so much you can wonder about and yet I feel this side of him has been lost throughout the years and especially in the newest installment. I personally thought they could do so much more with him in HITMAN but as I understand, they focused on establishing the World of Assassination this time.
How do you perceive 47’s interest in religion? Is it something you can identify with?
Absolutely. I was really fascinated by the religious element that the developers and writers allowed themselves to express. Religion, any religion, is a set of profound beliefs felt and followed by billions of people in every corner of the world. Never under estimate the power of religious faith. Ever!
When we are younger, we tend to perceive life and sets of religious beliefs in pretty well defined terms. Good, bad, right wrong. With a few more years and experiences on our shoulders, I think it is fair to say that there is a good chance we may accept more nuances as to what is right or wrong. So when IO went down the religious road it made sense, as the fanbase was predominantly young and questioning. On the one hand, risky, as it might alienate this young audience. But on the other hand, appealing to the more clearly defined moral codes of youth.
I can identify with this. However, I will leave my personal faith out of this conversation.
It is really interesting how you mentioned young and questioning – as 47 can be seen as young and questioning as well. Yes, he can be described as adult by the time of Silent Assassin but he’s been truly free to explore and create his outlook on the world and his own life for a much shorter period. As for alienating younger audiences – I don’t think back then they were even attempting to reach that demographic. Part of why I find the older titles so endearing. They were mature for a reason and I love that maturity.
47’s character shines when dealing with side characters. There were many throughout the Hitman series but none as prominent as his handler. What do you think of their relationship? Do you think it is strictly business or have they grown to care about each other over the course of their work?
Well, what made Diana and Agent 47’s relationship so good from the get go – and this wasn’t in any way planned – was that Vivienne McKee happens to be my theatre company boss! Vivienne and I are close friends and when we started working on Hitman together we had already known each other 9-10 years. I think there was and is still, an unspoken chemistry between them. Of course, it can never be expressed and Agent 47 probably would not even know what it is that should be expressed!
However, I sense Diana’s instinct to want to look after her agent in the field both professionally, but also dare I say it, personally. This is not a bad thing to have in the mix. It just adds to the complexity of how we as players, become involved with these characters. I think there were some intriguing elements of this expressed in Absolution, when we experience Agent 47’s horror and dilemma of having to fulfil a contract on Diana – with all their history together over the years. I would like to think that that experience has made them even closer.
Personally, I think it’s a deep shame that Vivienne McKee wasn’t a part of Absolution. This particular moment in A Personal Contract would be so much more meaningful if that was the case. I always saw it as this missed opportunity for creating a truly powerful moment in the series, especially for the already existing fanbase. In the end, they did not only change the voice actress – they also made that scene completely inconsequential storywise.
All I can say is: Vivienne was majorly bummed at being replaced!
Did you ever happen to record with Vivienne McKee when it came to the Hitman series?
You know, we never recorded together. Occasionally, our paths would cross in the studio, as one finished and the other would go in to record. But sadly, for my part at least, there has never been the opportunity of recording across from one another.
There are also other prominent side characters in the series. Padre Vittorio is obviously 47’s friend and his moral guidance but we also have agent Smith whom 47 seems to dislike. Were there any directions or reasons given to you for why that is? And if not – do you have any suspicions?
What still intrigues me to this day, is that the writers don’t always tell me everything. And I try not to ask, sometimes. I mean, I need to know what happens before a moment of monologue/dialogue but as a character, I actually don’t need to know what comes next. Bit like real life, really. I thoroughly enjoyed my relationship with the padre – man, does that ever sound wrong, in these day and ages…! Ha ha! You know what I mean. I like the idea of having a mentor or someone to be able to ask those big meaningful questions, and trust in the integrity of their answers.
Agent Smith, I do seem to remember them keeping me a little in the dark, about him. This feeling of ambivalence helped me deliver lines about him. Truth is, I don’t want to know everything. Wouldn’t that be dull.
Absolutely. I imagine that would also show in the delivery. Knowing what 47 should not know might void some of the emotional impact!
Have you noticed any form of change in 47’s character as he evolves overtime? Do you agree with the changes or do you think some games did not portray him as well as others? (In particular – the dreaded Absolution!)
You know, I got to ask a lot of fans at the EGX in Birmingham, England, as to what their favourite game had been, up to that point. The majority of fans that day said Blood Money was their favourite. Here’s the thing: I loved doing Absolution! It had everything going on for me as a voice actor and to be able to more fully express some complex feelings of this otherwise, pretty surpassed character and dear friend – Agent 47! I also liked his reluctant relationship with Victoria. I personally thought the writing was brave and ambitious. Perhaps too ambitious, in hindsight, as the fans felt they lost some of the open sandbox of Blood Money, in the pursuit of such an “emotional” plotline. That’s definitely been rectified with the latest episodic release of the latest instalment this last year!
What is so cool with this franchise and the evolvement of it, is that the people who create it, from the programmers, graphic artists and creatives, to the writers who populate the games, is that they really, really care about what they are doing. May sound cheesy but it’s true. Added to which, the amount of time I have spent recording with them over the years, has meant that there is an immense understanding for this character and the direction in which they want to take it. Not everything works. That’s human. Personally, I can’t wait to see where we are headed next – both in terms of plot and character development.
Remember, no one stays the same. We all evolve and change in some ways, over the years.
Again, I have to agree with you. From my personal experience with the team, I can clearly see they care oh so much! Whether or not it shows on the outside is often another story…
You mentioned Absolution‘s plot being too ambitious… sounds a lot like what I’ve been saying in my HITMAN opinion pieces… It is a shame the writers might be making the same mistakes.
What kind of story do you like best when it comes to a Hitman story? Is it the more personal approach with the storyline directly involving 47 or do you enjoy seeing what else the World of Assassination has to offer?
Got me here! It’s both.
As I say, I liked the more personal approach of having Agent 47’s character tested and pushed, in terms of self discovery. But that’s just cos I am an actor! However, the World of Assassination has proved to be one big fat adventure! So I am equally drawn to the prospect of more of the same.
I will say this, though. I was at the BAFTA Games last year and I watched the BAFTA’s again this year, and the notion or theme being heavily appreciated, both by gaming experts and by the jury in some of the awards, is that a good storyline and character development should not be underestimated. Fans of course, will always want more of the same from their favourite gaming franchise. But they also want more. Of everything. So, more of the same is not enough, in itself, no matter good the graphics.
As humans we need to be engaged and drawn in to the action. That takes a strong storyline, great characters and a well crafted script. We need to feel for the them and be entertained by the story, otherwise what is the point? I know that is not the case for every game. Pokémon Go does just fine without all that.
Funnily enough, it was the storyline of Hitman that made me love the series, not just the gameplay. It all needs to flow together nicely to create an appealing package. And you are definitely a big part of it as well! How much involvement do you have in shaping the character? Do you sometimes step in and say “This isn’t how he would act”?
Good question. Occasionally, I will step in and say: “this sounds wrong or at least, not quite right”. The writers are in the room when we record so it will be discussed and alternates suggested and tried out. Normally, we all end up in agreement. After so many years working together, it tends to go pretty fast, if we have any disagreements.
I often record lines in groups of 3. Either the first instinctive approach is right or the third delivery is right. Never the second one. However, I need the second delivery to get to the third one. Time consuming and a little frustrating, sometimes. But with so much dialogue to get through, the rhythm of recording this way seems to work best.
What do you consider the main appeal of the character you’re voicing?
He’s cool. In every way. Strong, silent, determined, utterly ruthless. Yet, haunted. searching. Not quite vulnerable – at least not in any obvious way. With just a touch of very dark humour…
That dark humor we all love so much… I like how you described him as “searching”. That pretty much covers his entire journey up to this point!
Was there any moment in particular that is memorable to you out of your entire career of voicing agent 47? Any interesting tidbits or stories to share?
That’s not fair. I have many but I’m afraid I’ve run out of time. The memorable moments have mainly got to do with my relationship to the writers and people of IO, and the physical process of recording the dialogue. It is simply unique – not only to be playing the same character for all these years, but to feel like I really have got to know him. He is a close friend of mine, and as such, I accept that I don’t know all of him. Like a real good friend, we accept them for who we think they are. That’s good enough.
Do you have any favorite quotes or moments from the series?
“I need to use the bathroom” will probably be engraved on my tombstone! Actually, there are others but they are either quotes or misreads that occur during the many hours of recording, and I can’t think of any now. If I do, I will drop you a line with a quote. Promise.
I’ll hold you to that promise!
How do you see the character going forward? He’s been through so much already, I’m sure his mindset now is completely different from what we’ve seen in the past? Do you ever see him taking a well deserved retirement?
You know, I honestly just wait for the next adventure to unfold. That’s the joy of my part in the process. Everyone else at IO has to work for months – if not even years, sometimes – on all the practical aspects that go into making the next instalment. I just get to turn up on a recording day and have a lot of fun, finding out what happens next.
Agent 47 has grown so much and evolved and matured, even. Though he did get a bit younger in appearance, from Absolution to World of Assassination 1, I noticed! I think he can cope with a lot more than he could 17 years ago.
Hitman isn’t the only game I pay a lot of attention to. I take great interest in the gaming industry and am a fan of many franchises. I enjoy taking part in unique experiences and try not to get boxed in a single genre. I also love exploring the legacy and culture of video games and frequently play catch-up to learn about older titles. This is how I’ve grown to love American McGee’s Alice – a horror-themed 3D action platformer loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s creations. The game has never received a sequel at the time I first played it and a continuation wasn’t even planned. This has obviously made Past White truly saddened as they carried on without a hint of hope towards either an Alice 2 nor Hitman 5. Both of these are titles which will be discussed in this piece as, even though very different, present similar flaws in execution. Join me, as I will tell you a tale of missed opportunities and misunderstandings in this “what the hell has happened here?” type of article!
First though, we have to get at least a basic overview of the victims of our analysis. I highly recommend you play some of these games for yourself (and trust me, you’ll know which ones I’m talking about). Unfortunately, this particular one isn’t available digitally and pretty tough to get a hold of otherwise but I trust you will manage. After all,
“Only a few find the way, some recognize it when they do, some don’t ever want to.”
American McGee’s Alice has been released in 2000 by a company called Rogue Entertainment. The game’s title was branded with its creator’s name – Mr. American McGee – but this choice was made by the publisher – Electronic Arts – to differentiate the franchise from other works based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This version of Alice was unlike any others. It definitely did not look even remotely similar to Disney’s. It was dark, edgy, almost putrid. Madness has been presented as a realistically scary concept instead of rooting itself in goofy clumsy characters. Alice was also the first Electronic Arts game to have received a rating of 18+ or, in case of American territories – Mature. The letter M was previously given to such titles as Mortal Kombat, DOOM or Resident Evil – all of them thematically far from a colorful world of Wonderland. That is because this Wonderland also was not full of joy. It was a place of misery, created in the protagonist’s mind.
Taking place after the events of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlands and Through The Looking Glass;American McGee’s Alice shows us the continuation of Alice Liddell’s life. The brunette (yes, Carroll’s Alice was, in fact, brunette!) is a troubled young lady introduced to us in a short FMV scene. From said scene we can learn that she is the last surviving member of the Liddell family as her parents and sister died tragically in a house fire presumably caused by their pet cat. This traumatic experience has lead to Alice blaming herself for the fire and become mentally unstable causing her to get locked away in Rutledge Asylum under the care of Dr. Heironymous Q. Wilson. We can find his notebook in the manual of the disc release of the game (remember game manuals?! Also, don’t you find weird that the other series in focus also has a casebook written by someone calling themselves a doctor?).
Alice was comatose for almost a year. She’s been recovering from her wounds quite well but she’s delirious, has severe memory issues and responds poorly to outside stimuli. Her only possession is a toy white rabbit which she deeply cherishes (more similarities between the franchises!? What are we going to do?!). As her physical and mental state were both in a dangerous territory, Dr. Wilson has decided to use her for the final evaluation of his experimental serum. But not before testing it on other patients. Alice has heard their agony-filled screams many times at night and began putting blame on herself for their pain and mistreatment. She was seen as completely insane and with little chances of getting back into society. In truth, Alice was alive and well, only on a different plane of existence. She was stepping into the backdoor in her own mind – the only home she was left with: Wonderland.
In there, she has lived accompanied with creatures like Cheshire Cat or The White Rabbit. She began drawing those characters in the real world as well and Dr. Wilson noted that the cat in her doodles is barely like any cat he has ever seen. Alice was muttering words and describing places which could only be of Hell. The experimental treatment has begun and soon the girl was acting either dormant and still or belligerent and destructive. She now has willingly been taking her next doses, presenting the staff with even more images of nightmarish places filled with abominations. She spoke tales of chess, rabbits and tea parties. When there’s no pencil in sight, she turned to poetry instead. She started mentioning particular details: a blade she’s supposedly carrying, a place called the Fungiferous Forest and a demon by the name of The Red Queen. Dr. Wilson soon realized that it’s Wonderland Alice was stuck in. The Red Queen was the one who has bound her there and will only let her escape once the girl slays her.
“I wait for the day when she claims victory over the Red Queen and her minions, when Wonderland will be restored.”, he claims. “Perhaps by this Alice will cure herself, regain her balance and leave this place of her own volition.”
This is how the backstory of Alice paints itself in this version of her adventures in Wonderland. Although the tale of the game itself isn’t very sophisticated and comes around to a classic “do this, get that” idea of video game objectives, the writing is still absolutely amazing. And you only need one character to prove it. The Cheshire Cat.
Of course, The Cat isn’t the only character with outstanding lines. All of them speak in distinct patterns and have unique personalities attached. The supporting characters are all native creatures of Wonderland. We briefly see The White Rabbit, The Catterpillar is a major figure in the quest, The Mock Turtle is a helpful ally, The Duchess is one of the first antagonists Alice has to face and even the fabled Jabberwock appears acting as the protagonist’s Pyramid Head. And those are not the only familiar faces either.
Alice herself isn’t the naive, clumsy cliché girl protagonist we’ve been taught to expect. She is fierce and determined even though she realizes the risks (“I am destined to battle The Red Queen. The outcome is uncertain.”) but also has visible character flaws. She takes blame for every bad thing that happens around her (“Everyone I love dies violently. I’m cursed. Why go on? I’ll just hurt others.”) and ends up being quite rude to others that try to guide her on the right track (“Or, perhaps, there’s more than one way to skin a cat… if you pardon the expression.”). Her wits and drive definitely make her a likable and somewhat relatable character and you end up rooting for her not minding all of the horrible mutilations she commits with her range of weaponry.
And those are many. You will need to use your whole arsenal to deal with variety of enemies placed in clever positions throughout the levels. This game is brutal, especially on higher difficulties. It knows it offers a Quick Save feature and makes players use it frequently as it does not checkpoint at any point except for major location changes. It also doesn’t matter that the enemies all drop Sanity (health) and Will (mana) refills (Meta-Essence). They hit hard and later encounters often have to be played strategically to balance Alice’s HP and MP. A great example of that is the first boss battle in fact. The Duchess hits like a truck and even though refill pickups are dotted around the room, you don’t want to run through them once you end up without a Will to fight. You are better off leaving them until you need to get back your Sanity instead. This can lead to Vorpal Blade kiting and sniping battle pretty quickly as you dodge The Duchess’ projectiles and worry on survival until the pickups respawn. The Blade is the only weapon which secondary projectile attack does not use mana. This makes it a reliable tool to switch to on the fly even in later parts of the game. American McGee’s Alice does a fantastic job in making you want to use all of the weapons available. They all have two types of attacks and serve different purposes. They are also amazingly balanced. Some have homing projectiles but are weak so you might want to leave them to deal with more annoying yet more fragile enemies whilst using a higher speed projectile weapons for more dangerous opponents.
Remember how I mentioned the game plays off the Quick Save feature? It isn’t afraid to be difficult or even straight up unfair at times. Everything leads you into dangerous situations, even The Turtle takes you through every single bit of every single room in the underwater section just so Alice can get her toes bit by a few piranhas on the way. Her tools of the trade aren’t the only aspect with variety. Much care have been put into the design of enemies as well. Both visual and gameplay. The opponents are threatening. They not only do loads of damage. They look ferocious, too. From classic Card Guards to flying beetles, ants and even demons – each enemy is distinct in their looks, animations, sound effects and actions. The game places them in locations unfavorable for the player for an even bigger difficulty curve. The beetles hover around Alice dropping explosives during a semi-automatic leaf-riding section. The ants can easily pick her up and throw her off great heights. The Boojum are often encountered in already tough platforming levels and their one screech is enough to fling Alice off her course.
This title understands pacing. Not just in storytelling but gameplay-wise, too. It isn’t just wave after wave of opponents to beat. For example – after an enemy gauntlet, we are presented with a pure platforming level. Then, an intense boss battle followed by a story cutscene. Speaking of platforming sections… American McGee’s Alice isn’t as unforgiving as it may appear. It offers some help in form of a visual representation of player character’s jump length and hidden pickups. One of them can temporary turn Alice into a demon-like creature and up her damage output. Interestingly enough, Alice does cry in pain every time she uses said pickup, further signifying how terrifying and agonizing this experience is for the protagonist.
The game makes great use of the theme it carries. Every single detail makes sense in the world. You could already notice that as soon as I mentioned Sanity and Will. The environments are beautiful. They still manage to carry the feeling of Wonderland albeit broken and deranged. The motives such as clocks, chess and mirrors are used for minor puzzles dotted around the levels and the game makes a great deal out of everything appearing dangerous and eerie. Major antagonists are introduced well before their respective boss battles and the player learns to despise them. Not only because we are told that some of the characters are villainous. The environmental storytelling does its job, too. The Jabberwock, for example, uses Alice’s greatest fear – fire – to hurt her, and the battle with it takes place in a burned building. We can also see Mad Hatter’s twisted creations and realize for ourselves why he must be stopped. If American McGee’s Alice can portray simple roses or chess pieces as life-threatening danger, it must be a sign that it is doing it right.
I cannot stress enough how important it is that it does things right. The game deals with themes of depression, trauma, delusions and extreme loss of sanity. It never makes a single joke out of mental illness and it never glorifies it, instead treating it with utmost respect. It uses imagery and atmosphere to make its statement on the importance of mental health and I honestly think it’s doing a remarkable job. It is mature because it has to be. It doesn’t simplify or disregard Alice’s issues. It takes its themes and runs with them and it is exactly why I fell in love with it.
As you can see, a bunch of aspects featured in American McGee’s Alice mimic the ones of my absolute favorite franchise of all time – Hitman. I fell in love with Hitman because of its maturity. I adore how it shows death in a different sense that we’re used to in media. Yes, it is still a silly video game about putting laxatives into the virtual food of polygonal figures but it’s so thought-provoking in its narrative and atmosphere. That I believe I have proven in my previous pieces. Silent Assassin is the greatest example. 47’s moral journey is the point the game is centered around. Pairing that with religion, guilt and arising sense of revenge in our protagonist is absolutely brilliant in my opinion. Playing Silent Assassin and noticing those tiny changes in Mr. 47’s behavior is a thrill as the experience gets enhanced, the tension gets higher and peaks when the player returns to the Gontranno Sanctuary for the very last time. Same can be said about Contracts in particular but there are definitely some of those moments also present in Codename 47 and Blood Money.
Time has passed as I was lurking the online forums hoping to see a glimpse of another entries in my favorite franchises. The rumors were spreading and thriving, as it happens so often on social media. 2009 brought us a vague announcement of “The Return of American McGee’s Alice” complemented by a steampunk-inspired concept art. But it was the next year that officially announced the sequel to Alice’s adventures.
Alice Madness Returns – claimed the title card at the end of a dark and moody CGI trailer. First interviews with the series creator also have started to appear. American McGee spoke highly of the fans of the original Alice, saying that the game became sort of a cult classic in a sense and definitely assuring that the team is going to do it justice with the sequel.
“This is a natural sequel, a narrative sequel to the first game. So we get back in there and people who know the first game are going to have a lot of reward in terms of seeing locations that they may have seen before, characters that they knew from the first game.”,
he said setting up a framework for Alice’s return to madness. It appeared that the creator is on the right track when it comes to analyzing the success of his product and wants to play off those even further:
“The first Alice was actually EA’s first M-rated game. We are trying to seek common horror — not that it’s simple or expected, but instead of being that in-your-face cliché horror, we’re trying to go for a much more psychological, deep, disturbing horror. The kind that would juxtapose something like the blood and the teeth and this beautiful girl to try to create — that is a dissonance that you’re trying to pull up.”
“Whatever she sees or experiences in Wonderland has to be derived from something that she might have seen or experienced in real life.”
The team, albeit a completely new one, knew what they had to do. According to American McGee, the basics of Alice was to create a solid platformer with memorable art and story. The latter was accomplished thanks to R.J. Berg who was confirmed to be on board with Alice Madness Returns as well. This focus was what guided the development of the sequel: American McGee wanted to create a satisfying platforming experience in a gameplay sense but also to be on par with storytelling, art design and puzzle elements. This image of Alice Madness Returns ended up rooted in fans’ mind during an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit:
“The first game is often knocked for being both too difficult and too simplistic. It’s sad to hear when people loved the game but were unable to finish it because it impossible to get past some stage or enemy. Fortunately, we’ve made sure to address all those issues with the new game.
The first game was much like I imagined it – but I never expected the sort of response I received.”
The comments have already noticed the fact that this difficulty is a big part in what made American McGee’s Alice such a memorable and thrilling experience. None of us were expecting that the creator’s words were to end up being a double-edged sword, however. Or, I guess, in this case, a double-edged blood-sprayed Vorpal Blade…
CGI trailers tend to be misleading, although they often give out a fair assessment of the product’s atmosphere and general theme. This, as well as the fact that Spicy Horse – the studio responsible for Alice’s sequel – has hired Ken Wong to direct the art style of the game, cemented the idea of a dark, mature title. Why was Ken Wong such a big deal? He was previously a fan of the original American McGee’s Alice and was so inspired by the art design that a fanart of the protagonist appeared in a doujinshi fan book. From there, he was contacted directly by the series’ creator himself to work on returning Alice to her state of madness. Weirdly enough, however, albeit still quite beautiful and unique, the environments shown in the first gameplay trailer weren’t even close to moody scenes featured in those three CGI teasers.
Here, we can catch a glimpse of the cutout animation style that was then used in the game itself to deliver greater story aspects. Speaking of story, this framework is also being set – Alice is heard having a conversation with, presumably, her psychiatrist whom we’ve not heard of before, admitting that she is trapped inside her own mind once again. The trailer shows us major locations featured in the game before shattering the screen as our protagonists mentions Wonderland being destroyed.
This wasn’t the only gameplay trailer however, as we can easily dig up a video full of beta content. This, in addition to analyzing concept arts and going through leftover files of Alice Madness Returns, can give us a pretty good idea as to what the game was going to look like if not for various cuts and changes. Before we can take a look at those however, let’s see how the final product turned out, just so we’re on the same page.
From the very first seconds, the tone is already quite different. We are introduced to Wonderland by Alice herself during one of her many sessions with a man whose voice we’ve heard in the trailer. Doctor Bumby guides her through a peaceful day spent having a tea party with The White Rabbit before the world starts shifting and disrupting its balance. Alice wakes up in Bumby’s office in London and we hear a sad violin soundtrack accompanying this Victorian setting. In addition to the main Wonderland portion of the environment, we can also run around the English capital city itself, although it appears merely as filler content between the five chapters of Alice’s adventure. Yes, the game is split into five different chapters, distinguished by five major Wonderland locations. Each of them is approximately two hours in length and every time, Madness Returns throws the player back to London to present a quick inside into the life of actual physical self of Alice Liddell. Unfortunately, there isn’t much gameplay during these parts. They all come down to mindless running through linear levels with few instances of “interactions”. I say that in huge quotations as said “interactions” are simply boxes of text featuring Alice’s thoughts.
It’s a shame that London isn’t used for any meaningful gameplay segments. The feeling of melancholy is captured perfectly. The art style and the choice of colors represent exactly the mood I’d imagine in a Victorian London setting. Conversations we can overhear mostly during our first visit could have easily be improved upon to paint a better picture of how the outside world sees our protagonist, though. There are bits of dialogue that touch on said subject and honestly, I was expecting there would be more emphasis put on physical Alice in addition to the expression of her mental self. Especially because there is one surprisingly clever detail never clearly explained in the story and it’s a real treat for the player once they piece it together themselves. I’ll give you a hint – it’s about Alice’s hair length.
As it is, England isn’t seen much and isn’t very memorable – a missed opportunity considering the ending which heavily revolves around merging the physical and mental interpretations of reality. We do see the London streets gradually twisting around Alice and the same thing is true for Wonderland but those changes are never as drastic as to be notable. In fact, those scenes are so forgettable I catch myself thinking “oh yeah, that happens” every time I replay the game.
How does the game play, you ask? It is as close to the original game as it is far away from it. The framework is quite the same. That, once again, being a 3D action platformer with puzzle elements. It features a storyline revolving around a troubled young woman dealing with mental issues and finding her solace in escapism. Much more focus was put onto combat this time, as the game borrows heavily from titles such as The Legend of Zelda and incorporates a lock-on system to compliment much faster pace of enemy engagement. You can see how Alice Madness Returns wants to be a hack’n’slash in addition to all of the other genres it tries. Unfortunately, if you decide to cram all of the video games inside one product, none of it will end up competent and this is the main issue with this sequel.
Every time I play Alice Madness Returns(and I truly wish this is the last time I had to), I start it off thinking that it can’t be as bad as I remember it. The first few chapters aren’t horrible, albeit they definitely overstay their welcome. The problems start arising as the game progresses though and you notice small annoyances, non-polished mechanics and segments which are straight up lacking any meaning or content in the long run. Those, unfortunately, include most of the present storyline.
Remember how I mentioned that American McGee’s Alice grounds itself in the most cliché of “go and do that thing cause you are the hero” video game logic? The sequel does it to extreme by making the protagonist do chores for side characters in order to “progress”. Again, I use that word in huge quotation marks as it never feels that way. The first couple of chapters are waves of fetch quests, often asking the player to receive three items or rescue three characters. Honestly, if I wanted to go on such a quest, I’d just pop in any game in The Legend of Zelda franchise instead, as the experience Alice Madness Returns offers in this regard isn’t the most exciting or, again, remarkable.
Let’s stop wording things nicely – major portions of Alice Madness Returns are straight up boring. There are long gameplay sections with no story progression, as the player runs around from person to person. None of them say anything meaningful or further the plot. They simply give you another random objective so you can traverse further into the world. There are no satisfying conclusions to conflicts, either. There’s a suspicious lack of end chapter bosses even though certain characters are clearly set up to be large-scale antagonists. Dormouse even goes as far as to say “Battle time, missy!” before a massive robot rises in front of Alice and is immediately shut down by The Mad Hatter. This happens multiple times throughout the game, too. Chapter 4’s The Executioner would be a perfect late game boss if only you could actually fight him head on. In place of this imaginary encounter, Alice promptly states that the opponent is too powerful to combat him and the conflict is resolved later in a short cutscene. Thankfully, an ending boss does exist and I’m not going to lie, the fight is quite clever thematically, but at that point, the player simply expects more.
Maybe it’s for the best that we didn’t get those big boss battles though, as combat in Alice Madness Returns is a bother. The enemies are varied but they often only have one way of dealing with them until you get your next weapon or upgrade after which it feels as if you are simply swatting waves of flies. Weapon array has greatly diminished. Instead of presenting you with a new toy to play with, the game wants you to spend imaginary currency to improve said toys. Those tokens being teeth; a common dream sign often interpreted as an extreme symbol of fear. The sequel to Alice still plays fairly well with the themes it features, but strays further and further from the original concept of Wonderland, instead focusing on the concept of memories. Those are mostly prominent in the storyline itself as well as the title’s collectibles.
Don’t know about you but I do enjoy secrets and hidden rooms in video games. Everything to break through the monotony of a linear level design and make me feel as if the world is a lot bigger than in reality. Alice Madness Returns features a variety of collectibles, ranging from classic concept art unlockables, additional pieces of dialogue portrayed as the protagonist’s lost memories, bigger secluded areas which include challenges rewarding you with the game’s idea of TLoZ’s Pieces of Heart (thematically brainy though as those are vials of red paint used to turn white roses into red ones akin to the subject matter) and, of course, the pearly or gold variants of the game’s currency. Those are usually uncovered by peppering a Pig Snout – or, in simple terms, using your ranged weapon to activate a trigger. Again, I have to admit that I do like how Pig Snouts have distinct sound effects that help you with locating both them and the secrets themselves. There is also a shrink button which allows Alice to squeeze into tiny mouse or key holes to uncover hidden rooms. The game of hide and seek in Alice Madness Returns is rather impressive and even though I came close on every occasion, I still haven’t managed to 100% it.
The problems start arising once you notice how it disrupts the natural progression of the game. The shrinking ability makes you realize how many invisible walls are scattered throughout Wonderland, therefore breaking its illusion. You end up picking up so many teeth throughout your adventure that the game economy feels lackluster and it is revealed how short and linear the game becomes once you decide to skip going out of your way to pick up imaginary items. Which you are encouraged to commit to. The weapon upgrade “mechanic” is introduced as early as in Chapter 1. Here we meet up with our friends Quotation Marks once again, as it is simply boosting your weapons’ damage output and adding another attack to its “combo”. This allows the player to be able to press A even more times than the regular combat demands it. Not only the enemy engagements are quite boring to begin with and Alice does not have many tools in her arsenal to make them more interesting, the combat itself revolves around hitting a button… a lot of times. There are no multiple button combinations to test out player skills. Alice is equipped merely with her four weapons (two melee and two ranged), an umbrella used for deflecting projectiles and the most compelling of all – the Clockwork Bomb: a tool for both puzzle solving and distracting opponents. She also has an ability to dodge and you will be doing this as often as hitting A. All of this may be compared to the system popularized by the Batman Arkham series, but somehow even more simplistic in its execution. It’s mind boggling how a game heavily featuring combat makes it feel bothersome. Not only that, the player is required to fight as Alice’s sequel borrows from actual spectacle action titles such as Devil May Cry or Bayonetta by locking progression until you clear out a room of enemies.
The shallow nature of AMR’s gameplay only becomes more prominent because of its terrible pacing. The first three chapters drag on forever, featuring fetch quest after fetch quest. Those are filled with either basic platforming segments or lengthy combat sequences, none of them being particularly enjoyable. There is no penalty for dying so there’s never any feeling of danger. Not even from the enemies’ looks as it was the case in American McGee’s Alice. This time, the opponents are much more cartoony and even barely threatening on some occasions. There are also just a few variations of them if you really think about it as most of the basic melee enemies act in similar fashion and Bitch Baby is very close to being a rehash of a previous ranged baddy. I often point to the case of Menacing Ruins – an unfortunate name as its design is a bunch of smaller enemies mashed together and it takes a considerable amount of time to do its counterable attack… in a counter tutorial.
The other big portion of Alice Madness Returns is its platforming sections and those aren’t the best either. It can often be fiddly due to weird collisions, mostly seen once the game starts adding obstacles between the platforms themselves. The player character has an ability to clear long gaps thanks to multiple jumps, twirls and hovers but that also makes it hard to judge the distance you can actually reach. This, in addition to invisible platforms – the other downside of the shrinking “mechanic” – and many other gimmicks piled on top of each other creates a frustrating experience furthered by instances of fixed camera angles in certain rooms and the last big focus of the title…
I mentioned how the title wants to be many genres at once and does none of them well in the end. In fact, every time I play Alice Madness Returns, I think of other games I would rather play that do what Alice’s sequel attempts. I dream of those that do 3D platforming, cutout aesthetic 2D sidescrolling sequences, rhythm games, 2D shooting portions, ball rolling and barrel mini games, quizzes, chases, chess puzzles, sliding puzzles, actual slides, giant character setpieces, theme and glitches better than Alice Madness Returns does and I am sure I forgot at least one other gimmick. Chapter 2’s ship is slow and janky as the game wasn’t made specifically for it. Chapter 4’s chase levels are uninteresting as there are no obstacles in your way and the only thing you do is mash the dodge button to make it go faster. If you end up wanting to cram every genre into your product, you will never polish any of them. This is the reason as to why swimming sections in video games are so dreaded. Titles that feature them never focus on those segments specifically so the controls and physics aren’t designed to be used under special conditions. Chapter 4’s giant Alice level is a fine setpiece but it is boring and clunky and I think someone didn’t get the memo regarding rhythm minigames. Those are usually fun because the player hits buttons to the song’s rhythm, not seemingly at random. And don’t even get me started on the ball-rolling minigames in Chapter 5. The physics do not compliment such gameplay mechanics and neither the ball nor the camera want to do their thing. I truly wish there was at least an ability to skip those frustrating segments like you can do with chess or sliding puzzles. There is no penalty for skipping those, in fact, the game prompts you to do so. Why then does it require me to play through sequences that are clearly broken instead?
Once you make your way through the first few chapters, it does become quite apparent that the game was never truly finished. Chapters 4 and 5 are notably shorter than previous ones. Granted, this actually does Chapter 4 a favor as it feels better paced in result. Chapter 5 however features segments beginning and ending in an abrupt fashion and The Infernal Train is a set of huge empty rooms, cutscenes and loading screens. All of this for a major portion of the story being thrown at the player at the last possible moment instead of maintaining the tension throughout the entire adventure. In fact, the dialogue in early chapters sound like a filler, especially if you consider that most of it is trying to explain vague connections between level themes and the storyline. I already mentioned how the game strays from the subject matter of Wonderland and you can clearly see it in the environments. Granted, the art style is beautiful and if there is something positive to be said about Alice Madness Returns is that its world is simply gorgeous. The fairytale feeling is definitely there. The game is colorful and bright, the character design is clever and stunning (origami ants come to mind) and some portions even feel like the original American McGee’s Alice!
…That is because most of the title unfortunately doesn’t. Only Queensland, with its grotesque imagery truly makes the original Alice come to mind. Every other location is held together thematically by strings of dialogue hidden as glorified audio logs.
The biggest offense to that is my beloved Vale of Tears which changed from being desaturated and visibly miserable to cheerful and twinkly instead. Mad Hatter’s Domain still remains as a place full of half-broken machinery and robots. Chapter 2’s Tundraful is a stretched reference to Through The Looking Glass. Deluded Depths and its Barrelbottom makes you seem as if you’ve taken the wrong bus albeit the Dreary Lane Theatre is absolutely beautiful. Chapter 3 features Oriental Grove inspired by Asian territories… I guess because Spicy Horse was a company based in China. And Chapter 5’s Dollhouse is there because… porcelain dolls can be creepy? As much as I love the art design of all of these locations, there are way too far from the unique American McGee’s Alice aesthetic and come closer to Disney’s version of Wonderland – something that strips the character out of the series and makes it forgettable as a result.
So what about the storyline, you ask? It’s nothing to write essays about, as I’ve already said. The major portion of the game revolves around fetch quests as Alice blindly trusts everybody even though she clearly knows better, questions their loyalty and they end up double crossing her every single time. The writing itself took a huge dip in quality. We could point at The Cheshire Cat during our look at AMA and we can do the same here, as I honestly have no idea why The Cat is even featured in the sequel. He serves no practical purpose and his quotes aren’t witty or smart. Some are repeats from the original game and he ends up stating the obvious on more than one occasion. Let’s compare some of The Cat’s quotes from the original game and its sequel, as I don’t think I have to say anything more once you see it for yourself.
As for the rest of the plot, Alice Madness Returns does the worst thing a sequel can do in my opinion. It is basically a huge retcon as it is revealed that the events leading to Alice’s condition actually happened quite differently. It also introduces an entirely new character which ends up being the original antagonist as well. This renders American McGee’s Alice meaningless, highly diminishes the value of the original game and thus, can be seen as almost disrespectful. I personally think this is the biggest crime the sequel commits, especially seeing how it had a chance to bring the series back to its former glory and present it to the new generation of video game enthusiast. What it ended up as was a half-broken lackluster forgettable product which did not have its own personality and instead was a subpar platformer with bothersome combat system and an gameplay identity crisis.
This is where we come back to the aforementioned beta as it portrays a much grander and fuller experience. Cut content would not singlehandedly save Alice Madness Returns but it would at least make it seem like a finished title. A lot of the problems definitely come from the fact that the development team working on the sequel was derived from people mostly new to the franchise, in fact, it was the same team which worked on American McGee’s Grimm – a fairly simplistic episodic title. A major portion of the Alice assets were outsourced and even then, the studio did not meet the deadlines and throughout the development cycle, the creator’s role in the project was slowly changing from actively working on the product to merely supervising. During another AMA session, American McGee says it himself:
“(…) we knew the game was uneven and bloated as we got towards the end of development. I asked for more time (a month or two) in order to trim and polish. That request was denied. I think if we’d been given the time we could have made the game an 80+.
Now, the reason I put “” around “blame” is that I can’t honestly blame EA for denying a request related to our team’s failure to deliver what we’d promised in the time we’d been given.
And yeah, we had internal problems. “Too many chefs” problem, “ambitions bigger than abilities” problem and more.”
The PC version got shafted as a result. An even bigger punch to the face is the fact that additional dresses (altering gameplay and absolutely gorgeous mind you) which were later sold as DLC, came with the PC version. They were just disabled and required simply changing the value of one of the strings from False to True. More importantly, though, instead of being properly optimized, the game got locked to 30 frames per second. The framerate can easily be unlocked by changing a few strings in the configuration file and the animations look and feel great once you do it but the screentearing is almost unavoidable.
“I didn’t personally lock the FPS to 30 on PC, but I imagine the engineers did that as a function of the console build being locked to 30 FPS and not having enough dev time to optimize the PC version in any way. We were pretty constrained at the end of the dev cycle”, the creator states once again.
All of that is still not enough to save Alice from herself as it seems like there was no clear focus for the gameplay. There was much more pressure put on the themes, the story and overall presentation which can be clearly seen in the final product. The plot is the main culprit here, as originally, it was much more fleshed out. If you remember, Alice Madness Returns was also supposed to be an M-rated title. Just like the first game. The team struggled with deciding on the level of violence they wanted to feature but the breaking point of the Mature rating was to be the plot itself. As it is now, the biggest reveal is only briefly being mentioned in hidden audio logs and the story feels like it’s missing at least a few lines explaining what has truly happened before the fire which killed the Liddell family.
That was indeed the case. Digging through the game’s files uncovers its true story. Not only it was supposed to be paced throughout the entire adventure, it was also to feature a lot more active involvement from the player rather than sections of walking simulator in form of the streets of London. Starting from the tutorial, which was meant to be a police escape, Alice would find herself most likely violently killing people in the real world whilst fleeing to Wonderland in her head. The beta trailer shows off these escape sections and various existing moments of the story point at this being the case as well. Specifically, Alice’s meeting with Doctor Radcliffe and most of her sudden faints. London itself was meant to be used for so much more. In the same video, we can clearly see Londerland coming to life and being actually playable instead of having its role stripped to merely last segments of the narrative. There were multiple characters scrapped during the development – namely someone called Jack and Mr. Payne, whom Alice mentions once and he’s never heard of again, as well as talking chess pieces – and, of course, the entire point of the overall story which would push the game to receive the Mature rating. [Spoiler warning – Doctor Bumby being in love with Alice’s sister which then led to his obsession, causing him to rape Lizzie and set the Liddell family house on fire.]
We can only speculate if that was done in order to keep the image Alice Madness Return was blessed with during its marketing cycle. As you can remember, the actual first gameplay trailer was quite different thematically from the three CGI videos. The horror inspirations were gone and with them, the uniqueness of American McGee’s Alice’s Wonderland was, too. Putting blame on the marketing side is what the creator has stated himself and this was the origin of controversies back in the day:
“What was frustrating was how EA Marketing interfered – telling STS [Shy the Sky – the company responsible for the first three CGI trailers] from the start that ALL creative direction and final say would come from them, not from us (the developer/creator of the story/tone). That resulted in trailers that were much darker and gorier than the game … and that was a calculated disconnect created by EA. They wanted to “trick” gamers into believing A:MR was a hard-core horror title, even though we refused to develop it in that tone. Their thinking is, even if the game isn’t a hard-core horror title, you can market it as one and trick those customers into buying it (while driving away more casual customers, like female gamers, who might be turned off by really dark trailers). It’s all a part of the race to the bottom EA, Activision and the other big pubs are engaged in. Expect to see it get worse before it gets better.”
He later apologized and backed down on his words, saying that “tricked” gives out a bad impression but it is not the only time he blamed the marketing side of the gaming industry for his misfortunes. In fact, American McGee’s Grimm would probably succeed in the creator’s mind if not for the way it was marketed and distributed. Same with the platform which allowed the episodic nature of Grimm – GameTap. The consumers are also to blame. “Games aren’t special and they aren’t exempt from the forces of that shape business and commerce.”, he has said on the topic of downloadable content in fully released titles. There are continued mentions of American McGee not believing that people will pay for entertainment, as his company’s focus was on creating Free 2 Play titles and it’s next (and only) major game was Akanairo – again, a title with amazing art style but not much substance gameplay-wise – before moving to mobile platforms and closing its doors with barely any explanation given in the second half of 2016.
Before the latter happened however, there was another Alice-branded project in works. Alice: Otherlands was the name of a Kickstarter campaign launched in July 2013. The pitch was to gather enough funds to purchase an Alice movie license, in addition to creating a couple of animation shorts to present to the higher ups. Interestingly enough, the concept of Otherlands was originally for a third game in the series but Electronic Arts was not in favor of funding it. The next idea was to crowdfund the project (concept arts were presented and the game was to be a Massively Multiplayer Online title) and release it independently after getting the rights to the Alice franchise. That portion of the Kickstarter itself was successful – it has received $222,377 – but the game never came to be. In fact, this was the only aspect of the campaign which wasn’t rid of problems, as those were gradually rising until the breaking point.
In the end, only two out of ten animation shorts were created. “Somehow” the goal wasn’t high enough and the company had to spend 105% of the funds. Most of it was on physical rewards for backers, instead of the actual animations which were the promised product. There were long periods of silence and continues delays. The physical reward aspect was problematic and lead to being unsatisfactory for a lot of backers. The plans to buy rights to the Alice movie were unsuccessful and once the shorts came out, they were heavily criticized for the subpar quality. American McGee’s retaliation was to say“You don’t like the style of the Otherlands stuff? Don’t watch it.” and disregarding people’s complains by claiming that the original pledge was to pay for the film license. Once again, the blame was put on communication between the creators and the consumers and I suspect it will not be the last time it happens.
To finish this segment on a lighter note, let’s see what Alice Madness Returns could have been if not for many of its unfortunate cuts:
The beta trailer shows of sections of swimming in Chapter 2’s Deluded Depths as well as London police escape sequences and a playable Londerland. Concept arts present us with a bigger arsenal of weapons and combos, featuring a fan favorite Ice Wand returning from American McGee’s Alice. In fact, the weapons were to be based around Tarot cards and Alice’s dresses were to change color depending on the tool she was holding. This was later changed for her style to compliment the location she was in and the dresses themselves were an homage to fans. Since Alice fanatics loved to cosplay and draw the protagonist in various clothes, the creator also wanted to give them more material to work with.
Rabbit was to play a bigger role in the story, guiding Alice throughout Wonderland. There were clearer objectives given to the player both in Wonderland and London portions of the adventure. The locations were supposed to be bigger and more distinct, as the Oriental Grove had an East and West sections. A lot of memories were either removed or rewritten, same with multiple characters’ dialogue – most notably Cheshire Cat’s and The Red Queen’s. And of course, there were cut enemies and locations which did not appear in the final product. We do not know if the game would succeed if those were in place. Maybe it would still suffer from subpar quality and overextending it’s boundaries to every video game genre it can think of. And after following the series for such an amount of time and witnessing the return to Wonder-, Londer- and Otherlands, I honestly don’t think I still wish to know…
At this point, I am pretty sure all of you coming here strictly for Hitman content might have closed the page but if you are still here by some chance, we’re now onto talking about my favorite franchise of all time! …Unfortunately, that meant I had to dabble into the unspeakable as this time, we’re are taking a look at Hitman Absolution.
Just like Alice, the sequel was long overdue. I fondly remember my excitement every time even a slight hint to a mention of Hitman 5 appeared in the wide sea of the internet. Those were, of course, fished out by the most diligent of fishermen of the HitmanForum community. Lack of proper news led to overextending as much as it was possible and multiple actions were then required to stop rumors floating around the murky water. It was 2007 when Xbox Magazine published an article with a so-nicely-looking word and number combo of “Hitman 5” but after that, a silence worthy of the Silent Assassin himself was in place.
This might have been because of financial problems of Eidos – the published of many titles now known under the banner of Square Enix. That is because the Japanese company bought out Eidos after an unsuccessful attempt to restructure the business plan by laying off old Eidos management and making entry for SCi Entertainment – a British publisher responsible for, more notably, Rally Championship, Carmageddon and the Futurama video game. Their regimes did not go as planned and after cutting ever more losses – closing off Rockpool Games for example – they accepted an offer of over 84 million pounds and became a part of Square Enix.
It was 2009 when more rumors resurfaced. In an interview with Gaming Indians, Ian Livingstone – the appointed “Life President of Eidos” – revealed that Io-Interactive is actively working on three projects. Those being a sequel to a third person shooter Kane & Lynch, a fifth entry in their beloved Hitman franchise and, surprisingly, a completely non-violent kids game by the name of Mini Ninjas. There were also mentions of the story being partially related to the then-soon-to-be-released movie (funnily enough, this has happened on both occasions when a Hitman movie was coming out) and Rocksteady Studios helping with motion capture (a mistake made by an actor working on the project). 2010 brought us David Bateson confirming his role in the new installment and swiftly removing the statement from his website, more opportunities for the phrase “Hitman 5” to appear due to new people adding the title to their LinkedIn profiles, a fake trailer which was revealed to be an April Fools joke, a fake poster created for the artist’s portfolio and having nothing to do with the game itself (although looking at it now, some story/thematic connections can be made), Peter Peter confirming that Hitman 5 is, indeed, in the works as he has contributed his skills to the audio department of the game, more interviews with Mr. Bateson and suspiciously quick responses by the spokespeople of Io-Interactive and even more fake concept art and rumors!… phew.
But all of this wait was to be worth it as April 2011 was the birth of the greatest Hitman-related picture there ever was. And it was a photograph of caster sugar sprinkled donuts.
“Mmm, doughnuts.” ~ Nick Price, Io-Interactive, February 14th, 2011
Valentine’s Day could not get any better in 2011 but the fans were understandably suspicious. We have witnessed so many leads going nowhere. So many rumors and fake assets floating about. Why should we suddenly believe a random ad in, what ended up to be, the Sundance Film Festival catalog? Barcodes are quite common and the box of donuts has nothing to do with the bald assassin. Still, there was hope. And a handy tool known as e-mails. Not expecting anything to come out of it, a virtual letter has been sent to the project manager of an advertising company called Faircount Media Group.
“You are on the right track” was probably more than on the nose. Even more-so was an image attached to the e-mail. I think I can claim that this hand is probably the most famous of hands ever featured on the HitmanForum and what a handsome hand it is! …There’s also everything else beside the hand, like, for example, a giant barcode and a page straight from some sort of a script. Almost as if they are working for the CSI, the fans have started to grab every piece of possible data from this simple image. You don’t need any fancy IT-work however to notice the speaking character’s name in the script.
This is my last gift to you.
There are also mentions of a strange NECKLACE, the Hitman himself, a “beautiful girl”, a BAR CODE, of course and a key word “Gameplay” at the bottom of the page. What came next was (after an intense period of indescribable excitement) analyzing each scribbling and detail. That led to connecting Nick’s posts (“Interesting doughnut fact: In Denmark, we call this kind of jelly doughnut a berliner. They can be filled with jelly or custard. They tend to be covered in caster sugar and we hold contests where you have to eat them without licking your lips until youre done. Its surprisingly difficult but lots of fun.”) to the only text in the return e-mail’s body. “Greetings from Berlinale.” Another film festival. This time, held in, you might have guessed, Berlin.
The donuts were hinting at something else, mind you. Fat Thursday was coming up soon and with it, the Game Developer Conference 2011. Yet another big event and yet another photograph. Similar premise once again. Scribbles, barcodes, a storyboard featuring the Hitman insignia and, most notably, a glimpse at the famous hand. Feminine hands were about to click on the huge “ACTIVATE” button on the laptop screen in-front of them and I can only presume it was to fuel another wave of excitement on the HitmanForum.
Thankfully, not all of the fans have lost their minds at that moment. One of the yellow sticky notes shown on the photograph was full of seemingly random numbers. Those ended up to be coordinates leading to the Toronto Direct Energy Center. This meshed well with the other set of seemingly random numbers from the first picture as those were a Canadian phone number. Even more-so, the Direct Energy Center was a home to the 2011 edition of Comic-Con. I guess the track was right.
And so it was, another picture, right from the CN Tower in Toronto. No hand this time, but you might have noticed that each of the photographs shown had something in common. A barcode. The numbers were slightly changed in each one and after looking at them closely and comparing them to the original barcode sitting on the back of Mr. 47’s head we can deduct a date of June 7th, 2011. What else than the date of Electronic Entertainment Expo, better known as E3! …But that was not it, as there was something more hidden in the shadows. The metadata guided the fans to another picture. Confirming for the last time that they are on the right track. Not a photograph this time, but a peak at what’s to come. A CGI hand! A moving CGI hand, as it was revealed by the first Hitman Absolutionteaser trailer!
The first trailer for the game has indeed show up during the 2011 edition of Electronic Entertainment Expo. (My personal memory of it is that I was about to head to sleep after watching all of the conferences which was around 4AM my time and was checking the HitmanForum one last time. The trailer was just leaked and I managed to sneak a peak before it was removed. Best 4AM ever. Suffice to say, falling asleep failed after that.) It wasn’t void of controversy among the fanbase. The trailer documented 47’s infiltration of Diana Burnwood’s mansion, featured heavy focus on action although the overall atmosphere felt right for a Hitman title (at least in my honest opinion). Before all of that, however, a few concept arts came to the light of day. One picturing a rainy night, the other showing our protagonist leaping from a ship. A slew of media was thrown into the hands of the HitmanForum, as a few members already playedAbsolution during a community event in Copenhagen. The mission they experienced was “Run For Your Life” – the same one which was then shown behind closed doors during E3 itself. A consensus was made that the game has shifted into more of a third-person stealth action genre rather than a 3D environmental puzzle title the series was known for. New phrases appeared, wanting us to pay attention to them. Gameplay mechanics such as “Instinct”, “Point Shooting”, “Cover system”, “Subduing”. Names of “Glacier 2”, Tore Blystad, Marsha Thomason, Keith Carradine. Mentions of a more personal story, using performance capture technology to put emphasis on the human emotion, advanced AI, combining classic gameplay features with more modern additions to the arsenal and more. Hitman was back after spending five years in the hidings. He was new and fresh, developed on an original Glacier 2 engine which took all this time to be fleshed out. And yet the waves of excitement spreading across the HitmanForum have hit the shore and what remained of them became simply a muddy sand.
The fans were not keen to the approach presented by the title. Yes, it was dark and mysterious, akin to my beloved Contracts but maybe a bit too gritty for some, as 47’s facial expression brought a particular cat meme to mind. The Inception-inspired sound cue and what we’ve seen from the 90-second excerpt of the Run For Your Life presentation, paired with killing the character of Diana Burnwood and getting rid of David Bateson as 47’s voice actor (a “reason” given by the Lead Producer Hakan Abrak being the studio “creatively moving into another direction”) meant bad things for the series. Some wanted to justify the changes, others were enraged by them. Petitions were created to have Mr. Bateson back on board and were successful at that. Diana’s voice actress though – Vivienne McKee – was still gone. The credits were instead filled with “better known” names such as previously mentioned Keith Carradine, Marsha Thomason, Steven Bauer, Vivica A. Fox, Powers Boothe, Shannyn Sossamon, Jon Gries and others. Bad news also came for the Hitman soundtrack enthusiasts as it was confirmed Jesper Kyd will not return for Absolution.
A big concern was the freedom of choice, as the presented level was quite linear in its structure. Learning that Absolution will take place around the United States was a letdown. One of the important hooks of the Hitman franchise was that it featured multiple cultures and settings, giving out a feeling of traveling the world. The new gameplay features also seemed aimed at a very different target audience than the core Hitman fans. The Instinct especially was criticized for being an easy mode (or “noob gamer features” dubbed by some meaner fans), showing the players enemy paths and silhouettes akin to Batman Arkham’s Detective Mode. In truth, it was a substitute for the classic map screen, as the devs were of mind players need a good tool to deal with the AI advancements. The stealth aspect of the series seemed pushed to the side, as all of the materials presented a lot more action this time around and the developers cemented it in interviews. There were many mentions of how the player might feel overwhelmed and discouraged from the title if they cannot break that initial wall of learning the locations and game mechanics, so a lot of focus was put on creating a feeling of empowerment. The player needed to be able to get out of a troublesome situation, instead of having to restart the mission. In turn, the artificial intelligence got a huge boost, allowing non-playable characters to communicate between each other and react accordingly. Once the player enters combat, the enemy will try to flank them and do their best to contain the situation. The pressure has been put on improvised weapons as well, as tools and items are now scattered around the levels in more quantity than in previous installments. 47 can also take out NPCs with his bare hands, completely nullifying the need of weaponry. The comparisons to the 2010’s Splinter Cell Conviction were more than plentiful, as the fans drew conclusions based on the limited amount of content they were presented with. They also blamed Square Enix for this change in direction as this was the first Hitman title after the acquisition of Eidos and, in turn – Io-Interactive.
“That was only a small section of the game, showing this ‘hunter being hunted’ scenario that we’ve never done before. Throughout the game, things will turn into the more classic Hitman scenarios you remember from the past.”,
Tore Blystad said in his interview for Spong.com. Every time an action section was shown, it was immediately tried to be brushed under a rug with words of assurance. Some slipped through the cracks however:
“One of the things we are very focused on is to make the game even more hardcore in certain areas… but we believe that we have something for everyone – our spectrum is much broader than before.”
“This time it’s not hard to be a good assassin. Instead, it’s hard to keep the situation under control, and hold yourself back from going berserk. We’d rather try to tempt the stealthy players to go into a more action-oriented direction. “
Going onwards, the marketing for the game was all over the place. I specifically remember waiting for each and every Friday, as 2PM brought a new video onto the Hitman YouTube channel. This was part of Io-Interactive’s plan. A new community site was launched, called The Barcode Society, which featured a media vault and a developer blog. Unfortunately, as the fanbase already had an established outlet, the site was closed down and is often forgotten. Marketing practices were many, some more controversial than others, like the highly offensive Facebook app allowing people to tag their friends for an imaginary hit because of reasons such as “hairy legs” or “small tits”. The app did not even last a day before it got pulled.
Not all of the pre-release marketing was bad, though. Pre-order bonuses were, are and most likely always will be seen as damaging for the consumers and Absolution featured those as well in form of additional virtual firearms for 47 to play with. The good side of the coin was Sniper Challenge – a standalone semi-arcade title featuring a classic sniping hit on top of a huge skyscraper. A benchmark worthy of the fresh Glacier 2 engine. The game was graphically impressive, had solid gameplay and featured multiple objectives and easter eggs which unlocked content to use in Absolution. It also brought us my favorite of Mr. 47’s outfits but that is maybe a bit less important… I particularly enjoyed the Absolution companion mobile app as well, mostly for its lore content. Unfortunately, the lore vault was never completed and the app was discontinued.
Trailers continued to feature high action scenes and the bar was raised to the extreme once a set of new characters were introduced. Attack of The Saints was the classic Hitman fan’s biggest nightmare. It borrowed from flicks directed by Quentin Tarantino. Beautiful women dressed in skimpy nun outfits and carrying heavy weaponry wasn’t what the series was known for. Curiously, almost half a year before said trailer was released, Tore Blystad was asked this question during an interview with Rock Paper Shotgun:
RPS: Trailers. How hard is it to do a stealth trailer without making it really boring? Tore Blystad: (laughs) It’s very hard. We have in-house group of people doing trailers and ideas, and it’s getting out to the PRs; “more action, you have to have these big set pieces.”
If Attack of The Saints proves anything is that they never figured out how to come out of this problematic situation. It wasn’t just the fans, either. After having spread to media outlets, they accused Io-Interactive of playing on controversies akin to how Rockstar does it with their Grand Theft Auto series. The marketing materials for Hitman Absolution were showing a massacre happening in an orphanage ran by nuns as well as oversexualized women dressed in tight outfits and yet the latter “wasn’t supposed to be a sexist trailer.” Apparently, the level the trailer was based on was later modified following the media outcry (albeit, a tiny bit too extreme in some cases). Whether that was the case or not, we may never know but the changes were obvious and many, as we will discuss later on.
“If we knew it would get such a negative reaction we would have done it in a different way.”
Let’s keep this quote in mind as we go forward and look at what Absolution ended up as.
Absolution released on November 11th, 2012 and I fondly remember the day when I had to call the post office for them to bring me that huge Professional Deluxe edition box as the courier “did not feel like it” that day. (If there’s anything good that came out of Absolution [disregarding Sniper Challenge, as even though it’s a great game, it was a pre-order bonus…] it would be the statue included in the Collector’s Edition.) It appears that the fans weren’t necessarily in the wrong in their assessment of the pre-release material. The title was definitely a step in another direction. It switched the core mechanics from, what has been previously dubbed as, social stealth – i.e. using disguises to gradually uncover more and more of the location – to a typical third-person cover stealth gameplay. There was no more of the sandbox-style design which was in its prime in Blood Money. Instead, the levels were shorter and a lot more linear. This might have been due to technical limitations of the seventh console generation. In addition, most of them did not have a target to eliminate. The goal was merely to get from point A to point B either without getting seen or after a terrible bloodbath as, yes, action was a viable option this time around.
Even though optional, using Instinct was encouraged as being stealthy rewarded the player with filling up the magical glowing meter which was a part of a huge Heads-On Display plastered on the screen. The only way to turn off those UI elements (without the use of mods) is to play on the highest “Purist” difficulty. This gets rid of every visual player feedback, such as ammo counters and suspicion meters. It also disables the tutorial at the beginning of the game even though the Purist difficulty is available from the start, leading more ambitious players (*cough* such as myself *cough*) to not have major gameplay mechanics explained to them until they released how much they needed them… having already played twenty hours of the game. Coming back to Instinct – it was quite unclear as of how much of it was “noob gamer features”, as it also offered interesting stealth mechanics. Our main hero could briefly hide his face to avoid being seen which I personally thought was quite clever and it is a shame it wasn’t reused in the 2016’s HITMAN. As obvious as it would be for 47 to cover himself facing situations he ended up in and how much I think it’s absolutely adorable, it is still a case of a panic button – something hardcore players disapprove of in fear that the franchise will turn to the more “casual” crowd of video game enthusiasts. It streamlined the gameplay, by allowing players to fix their mistakes. I personally think there is nothing wrong with giving different people different options, but maybe not if those options hold back the enjoyment of the franchise’s main fanbase.
Point Shooting – another feature of Instinct – was a big leap into the action-oriented gameplay as it allowed the player to freeze time for a brief moment, tag enemies and then watch how Mr. 47 eliminates them in a truly cinematic fashion. The game still featured highly scripted scenes such as the “Run For Your Life” helicopter setpiece even though it was promised that those would not be the case if a player chooses another approach. The tone wasn’t right to begin with. The atmosphere felt gritty and angry, akin to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It was also filled with stereotypical crude characters. None of them were likable and there was no-one to really root for as the main damsel in distress was uninteresting and quite annoying. None of the characters were developed in any fashion and the title ends on the same note it starts meaning the entire adventure was meaningless. Every character in this game is simply flat. Even Travis and Dexter could be actually great characters if they had proper development. If characters are stuck in one place, it takes the story with it. Travis starts and ends in the same point. Dexter does that too. Victoria gets a small action scene, yet then goes back to being a vulnerable child. 47 never develops either. He never grows out of the “I killed Diana” phase. The game focused on the storyline – an idea that’s not bad on its own. The thing is, Absolution sacrificed the core design philosophies of Hitman and built its gameplay structure to compliment the story which was pretty simplistic and non-enjoyable to begin with.
The cast of characters lacked motivation and backstory – another aspect which was promised and not delivered in the final product. The entire storyline was based on one simple concept stretched to its limits. It featured obvious holes as some segments ended in an abrupt way. It had a ton of potential to be a truly thought-provoking plot about a protagonist having to cut ties to the only thing he truly had in life. It was supposed to be a personal story filled with regret, empathy and harsh decisions only to be ruined by stereotypes and juvenile humor. It missed its mark trying to present 47 as a man wounded both physically and mentally. The worst part is that the franchise has already managed to do this successfully in Contracts. A good example would be to compare the scene happening right before Terminus to any cutscene in Contracts.
Contracts was all about showing us 47’s mind. He was hurt, he was vulnerable at the time. He was having fever dreams and horrifying nightmares. But was it ever shocking? No, it used the environment as a storytelling device. It understood how flashbacks “work” and pictured the protagonist’s mental struggles in a respectful fashion. Contracts has managed to stay classy. Absolution went all out to shock players. It was an over the top action flick in a series known for its subtlety. Most importantly, it diminished the value of the previous installments in the franchise by immediate dropping everything that linked the protagonist to his past. The story did not take its time to properly introduce or establish any characters and killed off Diana Burnwood way too quickly for it to have any effect on the plot. It feels as if it was supposed to be a truly powerful moment in the franchise yet it is completely disregarded at the end of the adventure and means nothing in the long run. If you need a more in-depth retelling and analysis of the Absolution storyline, these are the two links you should probably follow.
All of the characters are used only as tools to further up the mindless gameplay. It never feels as if there’s anything important going on in the background. The already mentioned damsel in distress trope overstays its welcome. The new sidekick character ends up being just a mild inconvenience throughout the story. Yes, he does push it forward by leaking more and more intel yet this seems like the easiest, most laziest solution the writers could think of. It’s a case of “you have to go there now, cause you are a main hero in this video game” kind of a story and an enormous amount of potential that has, unfortunately, gone to waste. Imagine if this sidekick character (Birdie) was used throughout the adventure to contrast the relationship 47 had with his longtime handler Diana to the one he develops with Birdie himself. Imagine if the damsel in distress (Victoria) decided to not trust the protagonist after he clearly barely cares about her and dumps her in the orphanage. He is only protecting her because of Diana’s last wish and some vague relation to his own past anyways. What if she ended up blaming 47 for Diana’s death for the entirety of the game and this was why he is having such hard time with coping? Instead, we are left with characters that never develop and a frustrated writer who is lamenting about this for the third time in their pieces…
So let’s go back to the gameplay side of things. Although there is not much more to talk about as Absolution is a basic cover-based stealth title. The linearity and small scope of the levels mean there isn’t much freedom left for the player. The game does feature some missions akin to the traditional Hitman design philosophies and those are probably the highlights of this installments. Unfortunately, there are few and far between meaning most of the time, the player will simply traverse the grounds in his quest to defeat the hardest end boss!… and by that I mean, open the door leading to the next cutscene or chunk of the location…
The game featured collectibles in form of meaningless intel, as well as disguises, weapons and unlockables. These were not available in the main adventure however, instead having their role in the (seemingly as important as the campaign, as we’ve discussed previously) online component of Hitman Absolution: Contracts Mode. It was developed as an homage to the fanbase by letting them create their own hits inside the main story locations and challenge each other online. To compliment said mode, a scoring system was devised instead of the traditional rank-based rating used previously. This gave Absolution a more of an arcade feeling although it only ends up being confusing to the majority of the players.
I have to give credit where credit is due, though. The art style and graphical fidelity are fantastic, especially at the beginning of the game. The entire Chicago portion feels to me like what I’d love a modern rendition of Contracts to look like. Once the story moves forward to Hope, the country vibe and Texas inspirations can be noticed and the title can also be atmospheric when it wants to. The Death Factory is the greatest example. And it doesn’t just look well. It plays well. It is definitely a great product on its own but not a Hitman title in the slightest. It lacks important elements established in the Hitman franchise and effectively renders the previous installments meaningless because of that. It fails as a game structured on its story by delivering a plot with so many holes and cuts it is difficult to keep track of it. It doesn’t have a satisfying conclusion, instead blatantly setting up a sequel. It starts and ends its acts in an abrupt fashion and uses shock factor to create seemingly memorable moments instead of taking liberty to develop them. But at least it is a better product than Splinter Cell Conviction…
You thought we were done talking about Absolution’s promotional materials? There are still a few bits and pieces left but they relate to the cut content we are about to discuss. As the game was meant to be focused heavily on the main protagonist’s personal story, an “official prequel” was released in form of a novel. The piece was written by Raymond Benson of James Bond novelizations fame and Metal Gear Solid novelization infamy. You can read about it in detail in my Part 6 of the original Storyline of Hitman write-up as I don’t recommend digging into the novel itself. It is worth mentioning however that it was supposed to be a link between Blood Money and Absolution. An explanation to the events that followed Blood Money’s ending was a hot topic back in the day and Hitman Damnation was supposed to answer all of our questions. It also had a goal of introducing new characters – Benjamin Travis, Jade Nguyen and Birdie – as well as provide a backstory to Diana’s supposed betrayal of the International Contract Agency. As you might expect – the book does a horrible job at any of these tasks, constantly breaking characters and ending up as something I’d call being worse than some of the worst fanfiction I’ve ever read. And that’s mostly because it seems like the author had no idea about the Hitman franchise and instead, tried to fit 47 as an international spy instead… why does that sound familiar?…
The second piece of marketing material we skipped was another alternative reality game. This time focusing on the character of Cosmo Faulkner – a police detective determined to catch “The Hitman”. His only lead at the moment is a mysterious “Birdie” person and he needs to find his location ASAP. Unfortunately, the IT team hasn’t been successful in the search and sources have been drying fast. He’s been stuck in his old ways for far too long. Something even his boss is telling him to change. To help with that, Faulkner starts up a digital journal using the power of social media. This allows him to document everything he’s found so far and get help from other people. Looking at his Google+ profile can reveal how this relationship between the detective and Birdie could link into the game itself. Instead, Birdie’s involvement with the police case is barely mentioned and only used at the end of the story to set up a followup. It’s interesting how one of the most prominently featured characters in the pre-release materials only appeared in a few scenes in the final product. As most of the first act takes places around Terminus and we know Cosmo Faulkner has specifically mentioned taking interest in the hotel, there was more to the connection than what we’ve ended up with.
Focusing your title on its story may lead to difficult choices. Building a universe is important and it was a big part of Absolution’s marketing as well. A huge chunk of the trailers came in form of “the ICA files” to establish major characters of the plot. Interestingly enough, a bunch of info featured in said videos are not even mentioned in the final game and some details can clue us into what the storyline could have been. Most notably, in the trailer featuring Benjamin Travis, we can clearly see 47 shooting through his hand – a reason as to why it has been replaced by a mechanical one and then never mentioned in the game itself. This has been confirmed in the Hitman Absolution Full Disclosure app. Originally, the entire scene of getting Victoria out was meant to end at the last confrontation with Benjamin Travis, leading 47 to shoot him as his last “no” to the Agency.
A lot of what ended up in the game was started in early concepts. From the very start, the title was supposed to explore a more emotion-driven side of 47 and feature him on a run. That has also led to changing the gameplay structure to compliment the main character cutting ties with the Agency. All of this is detailed in the previously mentioned Full Disclosure app so it you are curious, I’d recommend you take a peak. I’ll simply focus on the most important details.
It seems like all of the major setpieces and vistas were to show off the power of the new Glacier 2 technology. Many of the chase scenes presented in the concepts are still part of Hitman Absolution – the train station and hotel comes to mind – but thankfully, the game did not go fully Splinter Cell with a light/shadow mechanic. From the beginning, it was supposed to be a cinematic experience, often going as far as focus on the dreaded Point Shooting mechanic.
Showing 47 physically and emotionally drained was a big part of what the title was meant to be. This is something we can still see in the controversial Attack of The Saints trailer. It starts by giving us a good look at 47’s naked wounded and scarred body as he’s cleaning himself up. The CGI also focuses on the back of his head – the barcode has been slashed and the protagonist’s head is clearly bleeding. First, the idea was to set up Blake Dexter as an antagonist by making him cut 47’s barcode off the back of his head. Whether or not you think this is a better choice than the self-harm scene we ended up with, it is good to mention that originally, the cutscene happening before Terminus was quite different. A lot more aggressive and over the top. This has been toned down significantly in the final product, albeit I’d argue that some of the removed features were a better representation of 47’s state of mind. I talked about this in my character analysis if you are curious. The disconnect from the Agency was in a spotlight leading to more creative decisions being made. Instinct symbolized the main character having to rely on his own skills instead of the ICA support. Improvised weapons also showed how he now had to take care of himself. Not just 47 was meant to be given an emotional background. One of the bad guys of the game – Clive Skurky was to play a more significant role. His role in the story was to smother Victoria with a pillow which would lead to 47 following him to his home where we would learn about Skurky’s personal problems.
And now for a RARE-style character parade featuring all of the mentioned cut characters of Absolution: the crazy bum guy was supposed to be one of 47’s friends. Anna was a name of a girl 47 was emotionally invested in. After her death, he ends up getting a tattoo in memorial. Babble was a private eye related in some way to Diana. He was also to be a sidekick character for 47. All of this sounds as if the concept was later reworked to become Birdie himself. “Ma” or “The Nosy Neighbor” – a favorite of the development team was to appear in the Hope section of the game as a unique enemy type. Fei Zhu was to play a more significant role as one of Birdie’s people. Various witnesses of 47’s actions which would be explored in Cosmo Faulkner’s substory. We first see a glimpse of The Saints in an early concept, still inspired by Grindhouse and rock’n’roll culture. This is also where the snake comes from – an underdeveloped yet heavily marketed theme of Absolution. Originally, Victoria was meant to be a little girl instead of a teenager. Full Disclosure features a concept art showing us what the first meeting of 47 and Victoria could have looked like.
There is also a ton of cut locations such as an enormous warehouse, a hotsauce factory, a supermarket, a literal Burning Hope – the town was meant to be set in flames during the course of the storyline, the previously mentioned house of Clive Skurky, a bowling alley, Diana’s mansion being a cottage placed in a mountain setting, an antique radio shop, a high action airplane setpiece ending at a busy freeway, a bigger-scope train station, Ort-Meyer’s training grounds as part of 47’s flashbacks, open nature locations, a moving ship and probably more.
I wonder if you’ve made the connection between the two big titles featured in this post yourself. As I stated at the beginning, there is a reason as to why I decided to compare those, very different yet so similar games. Both are disappointing sequels, developed after a long period of silence and meant to bring new generations of video game enthusiasts to a respective universe. They both decide to focus on a wider target audience whilst trying to evolve the aspects that made the originals great. In both situations, it ends up doing them more harm than good as they attempt to fit it concepts which clearly do not work in their specific scenarios. They feature amazing art styles and are their chosen theme is a focal point. They decided to go for a storyline-heavy approach but multiple cuts and incompetent writing proved that it was not the right choice. They are also victims of marketing and a lesson to all of us – do not trust everything we see unless we are sure it comes from a neutral source. I’m sure you can find more pieces coming together as you explore the history and analyse both of those titles for yourself. If you wish – this is your homework for this time. I have done mine. After all, in Cosmo Faulkner’s own words:
“Evidence is everywhere if you know how to look for it.”
Thank you for my beloved Patreons for making this piece possible.
Empathy is a strange ability to explain. Technically, all of us should possess the power to express it yet it seems like over the years, said skill have been slowly diminishing across the mankind. Myself? I seem to have been gifted (or cursed, depending on the point of view) with a surprisingly strong ability to gather energy from outside sources. Whether it’s other people or works of media, this is definitely the cause of yours truly being able to see otherwise unseen reasons and over analyze literally everything about a video game character…
We all have those fictional characters we feel we connect with in a strange, almost magical way. It might be because of our personal experiences or the similarities in their personality. For me, it’s because I can feel their point of view. I can put myself in their shoes and see the world with their eyes. After all, even though the character is fictional, their characteristics, both physical and mental, are very much real. Their struggles and adventures aren’t limited to their imaginary universes either. They are based on the “real world” equivalents even in the most extreme of cases. Yes, maybe Skyrim’s Dragonborn wouldn’t be able to really possess the power of Dragon Shouts as our “real world” lacks the magical creatures required to do so, but their story would certainly be a one of escaping a difficult situation and overcoming challenges in order to discover their true self.
I have been given a lot of flack for over analyzing video games in the past, especially when it comes to Hitman. I was also praised for being observant when it comes to 47’s character and presenting the community with details they might have missed during their playthroughs. I have been criticized for going to far with my viewpoint on Blood Money’s story or laughed at because of my theories on the ongoing storyline of HITMAN (H6). This is simply how I use my power of empathy to experience works of fiction and seeing how said power is slowly fading in others, I have decided to share bits and pieces of it with you, so you can see the true magic of fiction and, as it goes hand in hand, my love of Hitman.
With a bit of deduction and if you’ve been following me for a while, you might now answer the question I’ve been asked more times that I can count in the active Hitman community: “Why does White adore Contracts so much?!”. Think about it. A major portion of my love for Contracts came up within my analysis of Mr. 47 as it’s a story that literally takes place inside the mind of our main character. Not only that, that game oozes atmosphere. And it does that from the very start. It is enough for the player to simply launch the game to be immediately taken into its dark and foreboding world. Beginning with a harsh tone of the white noise coming from an unreliable television screen and then distorting our vision of reality as it switches rapidly through various channels. It stops to inform us how handguns operate, successfully setting us up for a story about not only a person that uses weaponry in their daily life but also a one that has just been a victim of said tool. That followed by a loud gunshot, the sounds of panicked screams and a white flash is enough for me to put Jesper Kyd’s “White Room and Main Theme” on loop as I continue writing this piece.
I always listen to music as I’m writing. It’s often either video game soundtracks or pieces of ambient work as, again, it allows me to travel to other worlds and become embraced by their atmosphere. Music is a pure expression of emotions. Sounds are daily occurrences in our lives. We trick ourselves to fall asleep by putting on relaxing noises created by rain or the waves of the sea so we can at least partially be in this world and forget about our “real” struggles. So what was the music I was listening to before I totally fangirled on Contracts once again and will now be looping its main theme at 6 AM in almost complete darkness and only a cup of warm tea, a bar of chocolate and the harsh white-blue light coming from my laptop screen as I’m writing this piece? The recently released official soundtrack to H6. As you can see, it did not hold my attention long enough to not become easily replaced by the wonderful works of Jesper Kyd.
I have been criticizing H6 for over a year now. In fact, I had an idea for an exact piece like this one back when we were given an access to the Prologue during its beta days. Back in February 2016, the community’s major issue with that portion of the game was that it lacked the “Hitman atmosphere” and instead, became more akin to the world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. This can be called more than simply an inspiration as the Prologueliterally takes scenes from the 2012 movie about this classic character – Skyfall – and uses them in the supposed Hitman universe. Even the premise of said scenes is the same: the main character of the story is being tested and observed by the higher ups as they don’t believe he can take on the task at hand. A man with a mysterious past which is being actively researched and profiled on his personality. The goal is to present the viewer with an easy to swallow version of the lore before diving deeper into the proper storyline but as it takes place literally at its beginning, it is a subject to first impressions. This is why having a setting clearly taken from a spy movie flick just isn’t the right choice in my honest opinion. Especially because, as I consider myself a pretty big fan of the franchise, and H6 is majorly targeted to an outside demographic who only begin their journey with Mr. 47, a scene from Skyfall sets up a misleading framework of the already established World of Assassination.
But even though these are one of the first scenes the player experiences once they begin to play the game, it is not the first thing they see. Remember how I mentioned the very beginning of Contracts? How it grabs the player into its hands immediately once they boot up the application? There is a lot that goes into first impressions. A lot of factors people simply overlook. Have you ever wondered what is the point of pressing Start when the game prompts you too as your input? Obviously, one of the reasons is to recognize the controller used to properly operate the virtual environment but there are also others. If you’ve been following the gaming industry, you might have noticed that those “PRESS START” screens are often used whenever products are in their introductory, often incomplete stages. It’s all part of the marketing and an attempt to win over the potential consumer. This is the first image you see and it has to be a perfect representation of the entire product. (As well as a good way of showing off new technology, in case of Super Mario 64 for example.)
Take a look at this screenshot of the Super Metroid title scene. Are you not immediately brought to its world – dark and mysterious as only few of the elements on the screen move and those are the flickering of futuristic monitors and some unusual alien creature? The ambient tones in the background only enhance this feeling of being lost and, most importantly, alone in this foreign universe.
What about The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time? A new dawn rising as we see the fields of Hyrule and a figure riding on their horse to a great adventure? Mirror’s Edge with its minimalistic white and red aesthetic, presenting us with the harshly cold and sterile environment paired with soft ambient music – perfect representation of the freedom of movement Faith – the protagonist of the game – possesses with her skills at parkour. Psychonauts has a very cartoonish huge human brain suspended in vague imagery and its main character Raz as the player interacts with the main menu and accesses the proper game by walking through doors into the brain itself. Portal with its futuristic sounds and the very first room of the adventure – a locked chamber with transparent walls and a timer which counts down using its huge red glowing numbers. Similarly – Portal 2 – picking up where Portal 1 has left us with an image of the well-known antagonist lying on the floor of the destroyed and overgrown facility. Quick, simple and subtle – the original Mass Effect and its ambient alien sounds and a view looking out to space – a look at the Mass Effect franchise pretty much in a nutshell.
As you can see, the examples are many and you can analyze every title screen in this very way. One of my personal picks (and a childhood favorite) is Rayman 2: The Great Escape as it captures the fairytale atmosphere perfectly and gives us a glimpse at the strange creatures living in the Glade of Dreams. And even though I grew up with the PC version of this 3D platformer classic, I can definitely say I prefer the PS1 title screen featuring the game’s universe creator Polokus in his natural habitat.
And now let’s go back to Hitman, as it is the main victim of White’s over analyzing efforts this time around. Both Codename 47 and Silent Assassin’s menu screens are very similar yet subtlety different. Both use the whiteness and fog to create the sense of mystique as well as: present the beginnings of 47’s journey in, appropriately named, Codename 47, or the clean nature of our contract killer protagonist in, also appropriately named and centered around the theme of, “Silent Assassin”. The differences come from the music and 47’s appearance on the screen. In Codename 47, what we’re hearing is a lot more dynamic and electronic, more akin to a danger-filled adventure with a hint of mystery. Silent Assassin’s background music brings to mind a lot more mature and serious tone with religious undertones and the main character of the game is looking at the camera with his signature Silverballers in both hands – a setup for a story about revenge with a scent of religion.
My beloved Contracts has the already mentioned atmosphere-oozing “White Room and Main Title” and a very different menu screen to the previous installments. This time, we are not presented with the cleanliness of the very basis of colors. Instead, we are instantly thrown into the hotel room number 306, where the majority of the game takes place. Similarly to Portal – this is the place where the protagonist is trapped at the beginning of their adventure and the entire premise is to escape. And while Portal’s Chell only has the luxury of having to physically flee her starting room at the Aperture Science facility, 47 has to also overcome his mental struggles to be able to leave room 306. This is why we might assume he is shown to us pondering during a stormy night accompanied by his trusted sniper rifle and a very clever easter egg I already mentioned in my “Overthinking, overanalyzing – 47” piece.
Blood Money takes its menu screen a bit further when it comes to setting up the framework of the upcoming adventure. The title screen changes based on the players progress in the game itself. It starts out in an empty church which fills up with familiar faces depending on the completed missions of 47’s adventure. Eliminated targets then show up in the glass building as guests of this unusual funeral which is at the end revealed to be our protagonist’s. It is all a part of the big ploy played by Blood Money’s narrative. We are to believe 47 is dead and this is, in fact, the end of the great Silent Assassin (which, honestly, looking at the following titles might as well be the case for a certain portion of the fanbase). This is a similar case to, released two years later, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ title screen which was from the very beginning designed to be the last of the series and the one ending Solid Snake’s story – therefore the player is shown said character substantially older than in previous installments of the series and at the graveyard with his mind clearly wandering.
As you can see, all of these, although very different, have something in common. They all place 47 in focus even if they don’t explicitly say so at first (Blood Money’s final title screen is a straight up shot of our protagonist lying in the coffin). Absolution’s changed that format by instead going in a very action-oriented direction with its menu screen. It is obvious that the side mode of the game – Contracts Mode – is just as important as the main story as it is given to the players as a choice immediately after they launch the game and the storyline’s menu plays dynamic scenes from theE3 2011 Debut Trailer. A stark contrast from the usually static screens of the previous installments. One thing I have to admit though is that, even though Absolution’s menu isn’t as memorable as Contracts’ or Blood Money’s, I approve of the main original music theme as it captures the darkness and the feeling of threat. That is, of course if the game decides to not play the abysmal “Black Bandanna” song or the other ambient soundtrack featuring cartoony Texas-inspired samples.
And yes, I did not mention Blood Money’s “Ave Maria” because it was honestly ruined to me by the fanbase and the already played to death (ironic?) references to it in literally every other Hitman media that came out after 2006. But if you want to read my thoughts on that, I redirect you to my “Class of the Cross” H6 Bangkok opinion piece. Now that I mentioned HITMAN, I guess it’s a perfect time to look at it in the microscope.
Launching H6, one of the first things we see is a notification that the online connection is almost mandatory to play the game… which sets up a clear expectation in our minds, doesn’t it? The “PRESS START” screen is minimalistic – the redesigned logo sits boldly in the center of the screen, pressed against a blood-red background which appears to be a map. Again, the game isn’t based around the character of 47, so we don’t see him at the title screen. Instead, attention is given to the nicely sounding PR term of “A World of Assassination”, therefore said World is the focus of the main menu.
Again, I actually quite enjoy the music theme as I feel it brings out some form of a mysterious tone even though it is basic and maybe a bit uninspired (like the rest of the soundtrack). It does start out slow and quiet and builds up overtime giving the feeling of power and rising danger. We will come back to the music aspect of Hitman in the later portion of this write-up however.
Once we press Start, we are then brought to the main menu which gives out a clear impression once again. This is a product designed to be a platform for adding content. There are tiles advertising new added missions everywhere and I imagine, this can be almost overwhelming to a player just arriving at the World of Assassination. Especially one that has no idea what an “Elusive Target” is or why it has a big timer underneath his image. With all this criticism though, I do approve of the visual design of the menu. It is one of the only things I’m seriously impressed with when it comes to H6. It is pleasant to look at and quite atmospheric for what it is. But when we press it against the previous installments, we can clearly see the differences in the core ideas. Just as the main menu, the storyline of H6 takes its credit in an attempt to fit new ideas in the already established universe rather than stay closely to the character of 47 as he almost seems like simply a point dotted on the huge map of the World of Assassination.
Of course, the main menu screen isn’t the only one we can look at and analyze. We can do the same with briefing screens, “Load Game” menus and literally everything else we can think of. I’d argue that briefing screens are the most interesting out of those in the Hitman franchise and we could have a bunch of fun with them – for example: notice how in Codename 47, much focus is put into keeping every screen in-universe. The equipment menu, maps and virtually every other in-game menu except for the options screen is placed against an ICA-branded background of Mr. 47’s laptop seen during one of the first cutscenes of the game. Right before “Kowloon Triads in Gang War”, we can observe our protagonist getting up, looking through a window and then sitting in front of the screen of his computer. We are then brought to the same image he is seeing. Brilliant!
This is what I love about analyzing media. Those little details you can notice and appreciate the work of art even more than you were already. Going out of the bounds of the Hitman series, I would like to present you with some of my favorite screens in video games. Maybe to sparkle your interest or simply to share my love for other virtual universes.
The Binding of Isaac’s main menu is completely devised out of pieces of paper and child’s artwork. In fact, all of the tabs take the player into simply the next screen on the same huge map of drawings. Even the death screen is Isaac’s last will, scribbled on a poster and signed with a sad “I leave all that I own to my cat Guppy” before listing off all of the items the player has picked up during their run.
Silent Hill 2 has a peculiar save screen which basic idea was then reused in Silent Hill 3. 2 brings us the image of the main character – James Sunderland – bathed in red. Red is also the color used to signify save points in the game universe itself and is theorized to be connected with a central item – a letter seemingly written by James’ dead wife which brings him to the town of Silent Hill. In 3, the screen also shows the protagonist – this time a teenage girl going by the name Heather – and a foreboding symbol. During the course of the adventure, the player learns the meaning of said symbol and is able to make a connection of why it appears on Heather’s face. An interesting detail is that both of the characters express feeling especially lightheaded as they come around their respective save stations.
Metroid Prime is a great example of a game going full force in keeping the player in its universe. The world itself is hugely atmospheric and the title seems designed to be best enjoyed as an immersive experience. So immersive in fact that all of the in-game menus are shown as parts of Samus’ visor software but my absolutely favorite little detail is her own face appearing briefly as a reflection if she gets knocked by an enemy in certain situations. In-universe menus aren’t anything new though. Multiple games have used this immersion trick, most notables being Doom 3 and the Dead Space franchise. The latter going as far as placing the health bar on the player character model itself.
HITMAN does not go out of its way to involve the player in its infamous “World of Assassination” other than by what the environments have in store. The menus, although beautiful and simple, lack that special “something” that would make them memorable. That’s not to say the previous titles were better at it. Besides Codename 47 and Blood Money, none of the installments had anything interesting going on with their menus and Absolution had decency to put huge Heads-On Display over the impressive graphical fidelity of the, then fresh out of the press, Glacier 2 engine and the marvelous art direction in the Chicago portion of the game.
H6 gives out a different vibe. It definitely does its job at presenting itself as an episodic experience. In addition to the already mentioned main menu screen, the story tab shows us missions and cutscenes laid out in a way that brings to mind a season of a TV show and Escalations and Contracts Mode tabs also show that off perfectly – although we might argue it becomes a showcase of inconsistencies in quality once enough of the content has hit its imaginary shelf. That is probably one of the biggest issues I have with the game. The hit and miss quality is so obvious when playing the game, it is hard to get immersed in the experience and therefore, in “A World of Assassination”. Even the most interesting of TV shows have to be consistent as once that falls apart, the player’s projection of the universe crumbles with it. None of the other Hitman games had this problem as none had to face it – they were all released as standalone titles and in their fullest. They were all complete experiences in their own rights. H6 does something different and bless it for trying but I am personally of mind that it didn’t accomplish its task in a way that would satisfy me as a consumer and a fan of the franchise. But there is a lot more to this argument as we go further.
You already know my opinion on the H6 story and how it doesn’t feel like a Hitman story at all. We’ve touched on that on multiple occasions and in many of my previous write-ups going as far as distinguishing the previous Hitman titles as psychological thrillers and the new game as a spy flick. The picture H6 is painting is getting clearer now as we’re literally pulling all of the pieces apart, doesn’t it? Not only it doesn’t focus its story on the psychological aspect of our protagonist – so it also does not have to include him on the title screen – it effectively hides him behind a plot of espionage and mysterious intelligence agencies.
If you are about to make the “But White, Blood Money–!” argument, stop now, as I already answered this in my “Tomorrow is Never Enough” opinion piece. You are on the right track though, as we may as well look back at Blood Money. It also lacked a distinctive atmosphere and was pretty close to going full Bond with its plot about the ICA and The Franchise rivalry. The hook with Blood Money’s story wasn’t the interactions between the organizations however. It was between the characters. I showed you multiple times how many little details are hiding beneath the seemingly obvious factors of Blood Money. Whether it’s how the characters react to certain topics or how their body language speaks louder than their words. Even though a person who we’d technically call the game’s antagonist – Alexander Cayne – is clearly visible from the very beginning of the game (in fact, he appears as the first person in the church featured on the original main menu), there is a person hidden in the shadows. A person I always called the true protagonist of this story but at the same time is both a major threat and a major help to our beloved Silent Assassin.
What’s important and beautiful in Blood Money’s story telling isn’t the main plot. It’s everything that’s in the background, hidden from view. I was often criticizing H6 for showing off faces of its characters when it really doesn’t need to. Giving Diana Burnwood a proper face was controversial from the very first time it happened – in the Hitman Absolution E3 2011 Debut Trailer– and even though it is almost six years from that day as of when I’m writing this piece, I still believe such a reveal to be a bad decision. Same goes for continuously featuring more and more of the ICA facilities and the inside factors of the organization. Especially if those factors aren’t even well thought-out or understood by the writers themselves. Take the series of Absolution ICA Files Trailers for example. Have you noticed how the ranks of specific individuals make no real sense? I researched this extensively trying to find anything that might have served as an inspiration and even asked the developers if they have any clue of how the ranks work inside the International Contract Agency. The only real explanation I can think of as to why The Saints have a completely different set of ranks assigned to them is that Benjamin Travis simply decided that is going to be the case. …And knowing the writing of said character and Absolution’s as a whole, I would not be surprised if that was indeed what happened.
Everyone in the World of Assassination has a face assigned to him. And, if they don’t, they are only briefly mentioned before getting killed off-screen in a truly suspicious airplane crash. There is no mystery and no room to let your mind ponder about the possible resolutions for the plot. The best stories – not only in video games – are created by leaving some windows open. Once a tale is done, it thrives on its recipients. The Harry Potter franchise left its mark on the world by creating a new one and painted Hogwarts as a place every kid wanted to go to.
Silent Hill approaches storytelling in a clever way of specifically hiding major elements of its story behind themes and leaves breadcrumbs in forms of enemy and room design. This has led to oh so many fan theories and picking the game apart in order to know the true meaning of every single little design detail. As I mentioned in my “Overthinking, overanalyzing – 47” write-up, this is something Contracts does surprisingly well, too. Playing around with themes and motives is what visual media does best. Movies are often criticized for taking away from the experience by eliminating the need for imagination but is this actually the case? In fact, what is most interesting is what is not clearly seen. Mentioning Silent Hill wasn’t just a one-off thing. Horror and horror-inspired titles offer so much when it comes to battling with player’s imagination. They use the darkness and the unseen to turn cogs in our minds. The most memorable example of this in recent video gaming history would probably be Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s water monster but it is also the entire basis upon which a tiny indie game Slender managed to build up its success.
Hitman games also heavily used the concept of the unseen to create mysteries and subsequently – its atmosphere. In Codename 47, we barely got to see Otto Wolfgang Ort-Meyer before Meet Your Brother. Always in the shadows like the cartoony evil scientist he was. We see him clearly only at the very end of the game, in the last room, as he hides behind his army of 48 series clones. But let’s over analyze this just for the pure fun of it – look how much this silly video game concept of giving the player a wave of enemies before the final boss can serve as a storytelling mechanic. Ort-Meyer was never specifically shown to us, he was always around other people more powerful than him. His friends were drug lords and famous terrorists. And The Professor himself? He always stood in the shadows, deep inside his secret facility, hiding from the outside world, using a contract agency to do his dirty work so he can stay in his lab guarded by his ongoing creations. This is how much you can get out of a minor detail if you think of it in uncounted quantities.
Silent Assassin introduced us to our unseen in the very first scene of the game. Even right before the main menu screen, the player is shown a cutscene featuring the antagonist of the story as well as a person without a face nor name, dubbed “Mystery Man” or “Mr. X” by the fanbase. This character has become infamous in the community as questions about him pop out every now and again even though it’s been years since the original release. How is it that this character is still remembered by the fans and someone like Lei Ling is barely getting mentioned? She was featured in way more Hitman titles than Mystery Man ever was. She is also not a very interesting character, only thriving on one concept instead of having something to offer to players’ imagination.
This is also what Blood Money has over H6. It is full of the unseen. The biggest plot point of the series bases itself on this concept. H6 has nothing to hide, maybe besides the Providence vault which, to be frank, isn’t that intriguing with limited information on what Providence is or does. The most memorable storyline moments of H6 involved me scouring the game world to find information about the targets themselves as they were the focus point of the missions. At the end, they were nothing more than names on a cork board and the knowledge I gained by playing detective did not feel rewarding in terms of the overarching story. That, honestly, is a big shame. Do not get me wrong – I was never against target characterization. In fact, I was and still am largely in favor of it as it gives much needed context to the arcade feeling of the new, more sandbox approach to level design of Hitman. The issue I’m having is that I do not feel rewarded by picking up the clues and spending my time on uncovering those stories. You could argue that having this information is a reward in it of itself but since it ends up being meaningless put against a greater picture – what is even the point in putting it in the game in the first place?
This next argument I am going to bring up might seem tiring to a lot of you as it’s been debated countless times on various message boards during the pre-release stages of H6. I wonder if based on that one sentence you already managed to guess it’s about 47’s character model and, specifically, his face. H6 presents us with a much younger-looking perception of the protagonist even though it takes place at the end of the timeline. It was said to be because he’s at his prime and that he has changed multiple times across all of the iterations of his player model throughout the series. That is correct but never so drastically. I can definitely understand the need to show off 47 as a powerful character. He is the Silent Assassin after all. Yet I think there are simply better ways of doing it than pressing his face against the front cover and having him walk towards the screen in the same way all of the other video game protagonists are doing lately. I talked about colors and shadows back in my “Let the show stop and the sky fall” opinion piece and I still hold what I said back then. Having an older-looking main character isn’t specifically bad. It also means more experienced and in the oh so dangerous World of Assassination, looking like a rookie seems like a bad idea overall.
There are many details like these that have come up over the course of the first season. There were countless times when people criticized the developers for overusing certain, notable voice actors and the lack of foreign culture in places where said culture should shine. Hearing a different language in the sea of words you can easily understand is a wonderful feeling. As we’re dealing with a product heavily focused on the idea of travel, I cannot see a reason as to why the presentation of folklore was mostly limited to visual aspects. Older titles had a brilliant idea of NPCs conversing in their native language and at the end, H6 started doing a similar thing. It also ended up featuring some appropriate background music, especially as the player walks through cramped streets of the Marrakesh marketplace. Still, a lot of work can be done to make those locations feel more like the places they are based off of. I already mentioned how I feel the apparently iconic Hitman setting – the hotel – never felt fully utilized in my opinion but I honestly feel the same way about every location in H6. This is, again, why I’m in favor of smaller, more focused levels. The Final Test or Situs Invertus look so much more complete to me than a bigger scale location like, for example, Sapienza.
I did briefly mention music multiple times in this piece already and I guess this is when I should finally address that topic as well. Music is not something one can be truly objective about however so bear with me. I personally think that H6 is bland and uninspired, based mostly on generic action movie cues which are way too loud for a title about a Silent Assassin. Adaptive soundtrack is a wonderful tool which video games can use but it can go wrong pretty fast. Another side of this deadly coin is that the player may also never hear the music offered by the composer because of his preferred playstyle. This is the reason as to why I never even knew Absolution had any music in it, except for the godawful “Black Bandanna” song. I just never heard any.
Previous titles had the pleasure of being a home to folklore-inspired background themes composed by Jesper Kyd. I’ve done an experiment once and let a completely non-Hitman person listen to the music outside of the game. Then, I’ve asked them if they can pinpoint an area which was the inspiration for the piece. They managed to accomplish this task in most of the cases. This cannot be said for any of the tracks on the H6 OST though as the closest thing it can be associated with is a typical Hollywood flick. Sound design is as important as visual design when it comes to creating atmosphere and I think it would be of much benefit if we were truly given the experience of a foreign culture as we roam around the virtual World of Assassination.
It almost feels like it’s all about the details. After all, details are what people latch onto. It’s understandable that not every studio has the same budget and therefore 47 eating an apple in Absolution wasn’t as impressive as Nathan Drake doing the same thing in Uncharted 4 but you don’t really need expensive technology to make the world feel more immersive. A lot of people mention Metal Gear Solid 2’s Tanker chapter as one of the most memorable moments in video games. They remember being in awe of the atmosphere as Solid Snake jumps down the George Washington Bridge and onto the ship itself. The rainy night probably wouldn’t be as profound if not for the attention to detail. Raindrops falling on top of the camera in first person view has already become a staple but what about wet footprints left by Snake once he enters the inside portions of the ship directly from the outside? What about the rain bouncing off of solid surfaces? And the player character making obvious ripples as he runs? And the cardboard box getting wet if you sit in it in the rain? All of these add so much to this very simple concept and made it look unique against all of the other rainy nights in fiction.
And have you ever thought about all of the little details going into designing combat in video games? The visuals and the auditory feedback needs to be just right so the system feels satisfying to the player. I am particularly fond of the notes sound effects introduced in The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker but the most famous trick would probably be a tiny slowdown before connecting hits in God of War. There are reasons as to why we usually use big badass swords in video games and the fact that weaponry in H6 looks like toy guns definitely doesn’t help, especially if you take into consideration my next point…
There is another big factor I feel is missing from H6. In fact, it was already missing in Blood Money – a game that was a huge inspiration for the direction H6 headed into. The level of threat is nowhere near as intense as in the previous installments. A lot of that comes from the switch to more sandbox level design as the player no longer has to traverse linear corridors that lead to the main objective. A good example of that would be Silent Assassin’s Tubeway Torpedo which has 47 literally hugging walls in order to sneak past the Russian soldiers. I am obviously not advocating linearity in Hitman. I dislike Absolution for the same reasons you all do. It’s not about the level design however. It’s about the stakes. And the small design details like the freedom to run anywhere you want without the suspicion meter going out of control in the corner of the screen. That concept was introduced in Blood Money and was carried over to H6 (although footstep noise detection was later added back in the Professional mode difficulty). Granted, with H6’s huge maps, having to walk everywhere would be a nightmare.
Thematically however, the Hitman series always carried a level of high stakes when it came to 47’s targets. The man is one of the bests of his job – he is the Silent Assassin after all so him receiving important and hard contracts is a given. Codename 47 had us killing well-known terrorists and triad bosses. Silent Assassin made us travel all over the world in order to eliminate established military leaders, yakuza and cult leaders. In Contracts, the heavy atmosphere was enough to enact a level of threat but we cannot forget missions such as Rendezvous in Rotterdam where most of the other character models seem twice as large as 47 himself. Dangerous-looking enemies were also the reason as to why I still whimper thinking about sneaking around the Absolution’s ICA army even though lore-wise their existence makes zero sense.
Blood Money was the first to drop this level of high stakes, as the first mission we get to experience is a hit on a troubled man and all of the other NPCs around the tutorial are simple goons. A high-class opera house, a well-protected target arriving at the casino and the White House itself are pretty much the only instances where I felt danger in any way and yet that was quickly negated by the fact I could just hold the sprint button one hundred percent of my playtime. H6 also has its moments. The Final Test, Freedom Fighters and Situs Invertus all carried a level of pressure. A lot of that comes from the storytelling point of view. As the stakes were getting higher on the protagonist’s front, the game also got tenser. Previous missions also carried a hint of danger, whether it was about the Ether virus or the riots in Marrakesh but I never felt like I care enough about the matters of the World of Assassination as a whole.
Maybe this is why I never felt like H6 is a Hitman game. It completely dropped the concept of telling a story centered around the Agency and 47 instead focusing on the idea of “A World of Assassination”. The plot itself seems to want to reestablish the entire universe all at once, too and maybe that is a bit too much for my tastes. We naturally root for the main characters in the story which is why centering it around 47 himself was such a good idea in the past with bits and pieces of other world building sticking through his personal struggles. Even though the protagonist is an antihero, you can still build interesting stories without making him a cliché good guy. This is what is wonderful about 47 and why I’m so intrigued by his character. He carries a level of class that is severely missing from the newer installments of the series. It seems it’s not about respecting and differentiating life from death like in Codename 47, Silent Assassin and Contracts. It is instead about going about shooting at random gang members to get to some slightly more powerful guy of the bunch in the very flat and fairly boring “World of Assassination”.
I didn’t know what I was expecting when I posted my original Storyline write-up on February 10th, 2016. I never wanted to show it off in the first place. I thought it wasn’t good enough. In fact, I almost completely scrapped it. It was supposed to be a script for a series of videos containing the summary of the Hitman lore – something I’ve been truly enthralled by since I first played the series in 2009. I spent years researching and unraveling the hidden bits of the story amazed at how deep the rabbit hole goes. “How are people thinking these games don’t have a storyline?”, I remember thinking as for me, the World of Assassination was a place I was using to escape my own. I knew everything there is and I was still finding new things to latch onto. I read every word in every game. I listened to as much dialogue as I could. I even went out of my way to find obscure promotional materials, so I was sure there was nothing I could be missing. And yet I was still thinking “this isn’t good enough”. And I almost scrapped it. If not for the community, this would never happen.
I never wanted to be active in the community. When I discovered the series in May 2009, I also started lurking on the HitmanForum and the, now sadly silent, Polish Hitman message board. I am shy. I will not go out of my way to present my opinion if the situation doesn’t need it. I will just keep silent if other people fill in for me. I’m also emotionally invested in the series since it’s helped me in overcoming many obstacles over the years and it’s always been there for me to escape to if I needed it. Let me tell you, you would not want to be around me when Absolution was announced, during its pre-release days and also after it launched. Since then, I’ve calmed down a lot. Dissociated myself, I was able to step back and leave that emotional attachment locked away deep in my heart. Nobody likes a fanboy. Or a fangirl. Definitely not on the internet. So I hid again, waiting patiently for the next installment of my beloved series.
E3 2015 was… interesting to say the least. Big bold letters were claiming that HITMAN is back! But it didn’t look like Hitman, dressed in calm blue. And the bald man wasn’t 47 either. They were claiming it is agent 47 but it wasn’t my 47. I spent years looking at that man. I have no idea how many times I found myself staring right at him as he was staring at me from my computer desktop. I should probably let you know now that my eyesight is absolutely terrible and has been since I was young. Because of that, I don’t go by faces. I don’t notice the details. I focus on distinctive features, on body language. And for me, the man in the trailer was not 47. There was only one time I truly saw 47 in HITMAN. If you’d ask me, every other time it’s an imposter. Someone I started calling “goon 47” because of the way he moves and behaves in the entire game. He’s a goon dressed in a nice suit. An imposter that couldn’t even get the barcode details right.
I was sad and angry. I needed to vent. I knew I couldn’t go on the HitmanForum though. There were way too many people there. Names I recognized since back when I started lurking. They had reputations and I didn’t. I was a nobody. So I looked for a different place. Somewhere where there was very little chance for people to read what I wanted to say. I could scream into the void. And that was my plan. I went on the Hitman subreddit… and immediately got downvoted to hell because I was negative.
Did I care, though? Not really. My goal was fulfilled. Fun fact; I even called out the James Bond inspirations and specifically mentioned Skyfall in my reaction post to the E3 Announcement Trailer. Later on, when the alpha build videos started to surface, I posted the exact same criticisms that people later had once the first episode came out. Nobody cared, I was getting downvoted and that was it.
I pushed on because I was passionate, at this point I didn’t have much hope for the series but I was open to giving the devs one more chance. I knew I was making a mistake by purchasing the game. I knew I will not enjoy it. The love for the series, locked away in my heart whispered “but it’s Hitman, White!”, so I caved in. But first, there was an aspect of Hitman people didn’t see, claiming the games don’t have a story. How come since I’ve spent years digging through it? I wanted to bring it out. I wanted to show it off so they understand they are wrong!
And goddamnit, I almost scrapped it. And then I asked if people would actually be interested in catching up with the story before the new game launches. They said: “do it”.
Up to this point, I have written 62743 words and they are all about Hitman.
2. The Promising Outset – Story bits and inconsistencies
There was another reason as to why I picked up HITMAN. After countless trailers and promotional materials I didn’t like, the seemingly hastily put together beta trailer had me excited. Why? Because of the lore. The fifteen seconds of a possible story we’ve been shown in said video was enough to get me thinking that maybe I am wrong about this whole ordeal. I was ready to be proven wrong, in fact, I am ready every time I criticize the game. Going back to 1999 was something I was willing to do. We were never shown how the relationship between 47 and Diana bloomed and if it was to be done in a tasteful and not-very-revealing manner – why not? It was a ray of light I could go with being shined at my face.
The Legacy Trailer was another piece of media I truly enjoyed. Hell, I like going back to it even now. The daunting voice of the Shadow Client, the remastered kills from previous titles (albeit inconsistent when it comes to how they really happened. Also, we still have the ticket date to talk about as it ended up making me very sad that nothing actually happened on my birthday!). It was all setting up so promising. Maybe, after the very disappointing Absolution, this was truly to be the World of Assassination I was going back to? As you can see, I quite like that term. Not really because of what it represents but because it gave a name to what I used to escape to so many times in my life already. With a threatening antagonist on the horizon and brief, respectful mentions to the previous titles, I was even more willing to give the game a go. I got my hands on the beta, went back to 1999 and visited the ICA secret facility just as many of you did at the time.
The difference is that I’ve done it with a huge physical notebook to jot things down in. After posting the original Storyline write-up and receiving massive encouragement and positive energy from the community, I was jokingly called the “resident lore expert”. I was now committed to digging up the lore and presenting it. People seemed interested in it after all and the messages I got from them after they’ve read the piece gave me huge strength. It was truly the first time I felt proud of something I’ve done. It was the first time someone liked what I’ve done. And all of that because of a thing I already loved. That’s a pretty cool feeling, I am not going to lie.
After the beta came out, I started receiving even more messages. The community was asking me about my thoughts on the game and its story. Something I wasn’t prepared for. In fact, I was shocked that someone wants to know my opinion. As I said, I never speak up unless I feel I absolutely need to. Now that I set up my blog that was really only going to be used for the original Storyline write-up, I had a platform to pump my writings onto. And since people were already intrigued in what I have to say, why not give them a roundup of my thoughts on the beta? This was the origin of the opinion pieces that lasted throughout the season and now the community doesn’t want to let me go. We will come back to that a while later.
There isn’t much I can add on the overall “storyline” of HITMAN. There is barely a story to begin with. But I am always asked about what I would have done if I was to write it. First of all, I am honestly of mind that the cutscene right after Freedom Fighters would be a way better conclusion to the season than the actual season finale. “Partners then?” felt like a beginning of act 2 whilst “Old Friends” was a scene worthy of ending act 1. It simply felt right, not being fueled by a horrible attempt at a cliffhanger. Obviously, if the decision was mine, I would never give players an incomplete experience. Not story-wise and never gameplay-wise. The episodic nature of HITMAN truly hurt the game’s presentation of the story by dragging it out and disturbing the pacing. Two minutes of cutscenes at the end of a lengthy gaming sections just isn’t enough to tell any kind of a meaningful plot. Especially not a one where you have to introduce new concepts, characters and do some major exposition work before you can even begin thinking about setting up the actual story arc.
HITMAN suffers from the same basic problems that Absolution’s story had. It is an interesting concept which has a lot of potential but is then destroyed by not realizing it. HITMAN steered away from Absolution’s stereotypes and went into trying someone’s discounted version of a spy movie. A theme that does not fit the series in any way and is almost comical at times. Showstopper never felt less Hitman to me. The wannabe spy atmosphere was so thick it’s closer to a Gex level than to Hitman. It did have some ideas I truly liked about it however. The target characterization was spot on (although the later reliance on mental issues to explain every quirk got tiring and honestly, maybe in some cases even a tiny bit insulting) and the detective work the player had to do to uncover the plot was a great experience which gave birth to what I ended up calling “lore runs” – a kind of playthrough where I run around the level for ages trying to trigger and listen to as much of the dialogue as I can and find as much of the overall lore as I can dig up. Again, this concept was then misused several times and it ended up feeling bothersome in later levels, especially in Situs Invertus.
What I liked, however is that after leaving the ICA facility behind, there was nothing more to ruin the old games’ mystique. We had a new set of characters, all of them quite promising. We had intriguing concepts being bounced around the walls of Palais de Walewska. The Church of Ascendants, Jordan Cross, IAGO itself. The game wanted to set itself apart by presenting us with its new ideas. I was willing to give that a chance too, although, as you might or might not know, the essence of the Hitman story for me is the maturity, the thought-provocativeness as well as the hidden complexity of 47 and his relationships with other characters. All of that was missing from HITMAN, so it never felt and will not feel like Hitman to me. Granted, I somewhat understand why the maturity isn’t there anymore. Open world-inspired levels where the player can run around and do anything they want might lead to awkward ludo-narrative dissonance. We will be back at gameplay talks later however.
I will not go on about every mission separately as I’ve done so before in huge details. What I will say however is that right up to “Old Friends”, I was of mind that the story can be fixed. One of my personal quirks is that I overthink a lot and I often end up in situations where my headcanon is way better than the actual plot. This is why I am usually so disappointed in stories other people might be amazed by. When Freedom Fighters came out, I was actually blown away at how much I enjoyed it story-wise. The main story being in the background was exactly how it was in the old games – Silent Assassin in particular – and I truly liked that. The plot of the mission mattered in the long run instead of being a throwaway – something I felt was rampant since the characters barely even mentioned IAGO or Erich Soders anymore. After the Shadow Client was revealed to be more than randomly interested in 47 though, the magic was gone. HITMAN ended up in this convenient place of trying to latch on and justify plotpoints that were never meant to be explained which is why they were left alone in the first place. Sometimes, the writers themselves just don’t want to give an explanation to some of their ideas. Ort-Meyer’s experiments were never truly given away, same with 47’s childhood or how he ended up at the ICA. Everything was heavily implied and it was fine that way. It created a sense of mystery and got us closer to 47 himself, especially in Silent Assassin since the player knew just as much as the main character and was able to put themselves in his shoes. Trying to cram new plotpoints into the old plot can and will most likely lead to story inconsistencies, as it was already the case right after the beta came out – something I pointed out in my beta story coverage. It will come up again, I can assure you. That’s because the HITMAN story is already inconsistent and troublesome in its own rights. The constant usage of the name Tobias Rieper is one of the biggest examples but how could you not realize that by sending 47 to a medical facility closely related to Providence and as a patient, you are giving away the most valuable asset the Agency owns? 47’s DNA which is the main plotpoint of all of the games. For the rubber ducky deity’s sake, Diana was willing to risk her own life for it in Blood Money and you just handed it to your biggest enemies so willy-nilly!
Do I still think the story can be fixed? Not really, although I do have some ideas. The best one would probably be to try and connect it to loose ends of Blood Money and try to get out of the Shadow Client’s links to “that place” mess. Is it possible? With some creative writing and understanding of the lore, I claim it is. Will they do it? Most likely not, as the concept of his character already is set in stone and it would require major rewrites to even attempt fixing it. I also don’t hold much hopes for the series or its writing anymore. I was willing to give it one more chance after Absolution. There are no more chances left in me now. That was the last of the Get Out of Jail Free cards.
3. An Open Decision – Gameplay
“But White, it cannot be that bad, I am sure you are having fun with this game! Otherwise, you wouldn’t be playing it!” is something I’ve heard many times over this year. Because I am so focused on the lore and story aspect of the series, I think a lot of people simply dismissed the fact that I can also be looking at the gameplay. They cannot be more wrong. I don’t like to limit myself when it comes to video games. I will expose myself to every genre if I feel like a particular title provides me with a respectable amount of entertainment. I obviously have my preferences, as every single person in this universe but even with my underlying distaste for everything high fantasy-related, I will still play and enjoy Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls series.
HITMAN is not a video game that has provided me with enough entertainment to justify the purchase. That’s as simple as I can put it. It is ridden with design decisions I do not agree with as they seem to be made to contrast Absolution’s without looking at the bigger picture. Absolution wasn’t in the same genre as the old school games to begin with. This is why the community is so upset about it. It’s not just about the “small levels”. Absolution is a third person cover stealth action game and those small levels were built to accompany it. HITMAN went with trying to go back to being an environmental 3D puzzle game but still attempting to fix Absolution’s problems. A game which doesn’t even follow the same design principles!
It all went from small levels to huge levels. From one extreme to another. The times I actually had fun with HITMAN were when I was playing smaller missions. Both The Final Test and Situs Invertus were a lot more focused in level design and felt more complete because of that. Those are the closest the game is to the old ones in my personal opinion. See, I keep a notebook of all of the issues I have about the game. I call it “The HITMAN Book of Complaints”. The majority of my problems with HITMAN are because the levels are so huge. Yes, even story-wise! If the levels were smaller, there could have been more focus on specific plotpoints, such as Ether or characters – half of the targets in Freedom Fighters seem tacked on just to boost the number. Going from one huge level to multiple smaller missions would give out the feeling of a more complete experience, which would benefit the episodic model as well as the presentation of the plot and its pacing, as there would be more opportunities to tell the story. It would also elevate the problem of locations feeling incoherent (Marrakesh being the ultimate example) and lead to less frustration as the player wouldn’t have to replay major portions of the level, therefore eliminating the need to rely on the save system.
As of now, HITMAN is bloated with additional content. Escalations and Contracts Mode – both of which I do not personally play as there is simply not enough context to get me going but I know there is a large playerbase that cares about them and would not want to take it away from them. I’d like to direct your attention to the fact that players have always created challenges for themselves even in the old games – the ones without massive levels. Playing the old titles on Professional difficulty created almost a ‘rogue-lite’ experience in a sense. The players were limited in what they can do but the levels weren’t long enough to start being a bother once the inevitable restarts were in play. In fact, most of the hated levels in the old games were bigger levels. Plutonium Runs Loose, Hidden Valley, Find the U’wa Tribe. They were frustrating because they led to having to replay mindless sections of simply traversing an empty space. And for me, HITMAN does the same. It relies too much on the HUD, the hints system and the save system to create its experience, therefore it is not a game for me. I enjoy planning my hit and executing it absolutely perfectly. If that means I will have to restart up to thousands of times, I will do it. Two of the eight main missions in HITMAN allow me to do that. A handful of Elusive Targets did too. Everything else felt too big and too open world-inspired for me to care about it. Yes, open world titles aren’t the ones I usually go for when it comes to choosing a video game for me to play but I have also recently very much enjoyed Metroid Prime. If the product is able to convince me to enjoy something I don’t care about otherwise, it means it’s a great product. Apparently HITMAN just isn’t for me.
There is also a distinct lack of tension in the game. I speculated why that’s the case. One of the aspects might be because the NPCs could not care less about the player character running everywhere. Second is because there are just so many options available to us. I know, it sounds crazy but think about it. Back in the days, we had to work with what we had to complete the level. We had to work around the limitations to solve the problem presented to us. In HITMAN, there are so many items that are not worth carrying around, even The Signature Fibre Wire™ as we now have a handy “snap neck” option. There is also no need for Silent Assassin’s limited anesthetic as we can subdue every NPC we can dream of. Back in the old games, doing that meant we had to use an item, therefore giving it a purpose. Not to say, I cannot imagine game balancing will become easier as items will continue to pile up. At the same time, I would also never want to take away creativity and freedom of play. I just think there is a better way of doing it.
With its major design decisions being the ones I didn’t like the most and the lack of aspects I did enjoy in previous titles, I think you can now see why I am so negative when it comes to HITMAN. But there is one concept I actually quite liked… albeit now my feelings towards it are somewhat mixed.
4. Those Who Hold The Power – Elusive Targets
Elusive Targets were meant to be this breath of fresh air. This inspiring concept that would bring us closer to the “assassin fantasy” we are all craving. A limited time offer set of missions mixed with a “one chance!” mindset would require extensive map knowledge and would highlight player skill. They would also be this special event in the World of Assassination, causing us to literally drop everything we are doing to throw a digital fire axe at a polygon-built fake man in a video game… at least in theory. The Elusive Targets were to be the cherry at the top of the “LIVE” content yet for many ended up being the only worthwhile “LIVE” content.
I definitely see the appeal of the concept and once the first couple have finally come out, I even called it “the most fun I had in HITMAN yet”. The missions handled the tension nicely. Upping the risk was a good call, even though we could technically still restart the mission if neither the player character or the target is dead. Scouting the area before assembling a plan and trying to execute it was something I was craving in HITMAN for a while, so I took advantage of the restart opportunities to adjust it to my own playstyle. Even though the levels were still huge, Elusive Targets were using a definitely smaller percentage of it, therefore the player did not have to spend hours trying to figure out a good way of eliminating them. That paired with the “one chance!” mentality gave me a truly refreshing ‘rogue-lite’ feel once again and I did end up having actual proper fun.
But then something was starting to feel off about those missions as well. I personally thought they were coming out in an alarming rate, to the point of not feeling like a special event, and instead being pumped out because the devs have finally realized this is something the community is interested in. You know, instead of all of the other content. Especially Escalations which I’ve heard got a lot better over the time but I have no interest in trying them after getting burned by the first few. Now, I honestly think that maybe it’s not the release rate that is the problem but instead, the other “LIVE” content that was meant to accompany the Elusive Targets. If those are the only instance of those types of missions I play, it definitely does not feel like a special event. In fact, after eight or so, they all started mashing together in my mind and at this point, I cannot even tell you how many they were or what they were off the top of my head. They are simply not memorable anymore and that is a big shame.
Probably the biggest shame of all, as those targets appear to have actual good pieces of lore and story behind them. Every Elusive Target we’ve killed (or not, depending on your accomplishments) had a unique set of dialogue, backstory and links to other characters in the World of Assassination. That is, however, something I personally do not get to experience because of my playstyle. As mentioned before, I enjoy limiting myself in my options to have to work harder to achieve my goals. This is why I don’t go seeking the story in Elusive Targets, as I’d know too much about the mission and trivialize it. I cannot go back to it, as it’s the nature of the mode and I am pretty sure most of the people have no idea how interesting those backstory connections are. This is the lore I am sure I’d be down with. These are the characters I’d like to explore. This is where the hidden goodies of the story are in HITMAN. The unique concepts, the meat of the World of Assassination. Quoting another of my favorite video games of all time – What a shame.
I am curious if the Elusive Targets will end up becoming a double-edged sword at some point in the game’s lifespan. They were a great selling point at first, but now that so many of them have come out, would new players care about buying a game if they have already missed a large portion of content? I know I personally wouldn’t and maybe acquiring new players is something that should be on the radar.
5. The Contrived Boundaries – Community
I’m not sure I ever wanted to be a part of this community. As I’ve said before, I am shy and don’t particularly like people. I like being left alone, in my little corner or in the World of Assassination. I guess I only became a part of the community because I was so frustrated at the initial E3 announcement and simply had to vent. The Reddit part of the fanbase being so nice and encouraging after my original Storyline write-up is why I have stayed. I enjoy being the voice of communities, I like helping them. I already had experience doing that as I was once heavily involved in a Polish The Sims community. This time, I got addicted to nice words being thrown at me. But that is not an experience everyone has in this community and it’s why it has begun to split apart. In multiple ways. I like to think that the community has layers. There are now many outlets for people to share their opinions on Hitman. There are many contrasting views on the direction the game has taken. There are many people that simply do not want to be involved with the series anymore as they feel burned by the developers yet they still want to come back as they made friends in the community. Hitman is a niche series, therefore the potential fanbase is smaller. And instead of trying to keep us together, what ends up happening is that we split up into even smaller pieces. I cannot imagine this going in a right direction.
Every outlet now is daunting. There are people that have reputations and an “old school fan” tag to them. There are people that actually enjoyed Absolution and have no idea why a portion of the community heavily despises it. There are people that will go out and tell me that I am wrong for my opinion. I especially like when someone tells me I look at Absolution through hate glasses and I’d change my view if I was to give it another chance, when in fact, I did enjoy Absolution to a degree and only started truly disliking it after repeated playthroughs. The community is not a nice place to be if you are an average fan. There are multiple walls we are hitting. Within the community and outside of it. But there is not much we can do on our own if there is nobody to care for us.
I have no idea why people started valuing my opinions. At some point, I feel like I have become a voice for the community, as it was asking me to post something on Twitter to get the developers to notice their complaints. I never did that if I was not agreeing with what they have to say but it was definitely quite alarming. Since then, we’ve had many conversations about the state of the community. I still do not truly see it going in a favorable direction. The Discord server that was set up earlier this year ended up being a throwaway outlet for people to vent about the game. They come back to complain and elevate their frustrations with the series. They often don’t even play HITMAN anymore, burned out by the title and the lackluster feeling of the episodic release model.
The community is a dire place. I’d like it to become better, more friendly. I’d like to feel I’ve done some things to push it in that direction but that’d be giving myself credit. I always try to see all of the sides of the problem and that is probably the most infuriating as I personally know this community is full of kindhearted and amazing people. They gave me a place to care about and to come back to. They gave me a purpose. If not for my opinion pieces, I’d probably never play HITMAN after Showstopper. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, that’s up to you to decide.
I’d also like to credit them for helping to fulfill my dream of visiting the Io-Interactive HQ in Copenhagen which I had the pleasure to do in October 2016. I met some wonderful people there, both community and developers and I even though I cannot talk about my experiences there, I can assure you I gave my all to hopefully push the designers onto the right path. For you. For the community.
6. Scorched Hopes – Future
Because of that visit, I am in a troublesome place. A place I’m not sure I even know how to get out of. I’d like to help the people working on the game, as I truly love each and every one of them and I could discuss with them for hours. I do not, however want to support the company anymore as HITMAN was the last chance I wanted to give them and I am heavily disappointed in the final product. There are also other matters at hand. The community wants me to go back for season 2. I’d be a fool to completely disregard the position I’m in and to give up the chances that opened up for me over the course of this year. Silly as it may sound, I am a bit scared of being left behind. As I’ve mentioned, the community is a huge part of why I’m here. Probably even bigger than you might imagine.
What I want to be doing? I always had plans when it comes to writing. I wrote a few pieces on other video games, if you’d like to take a peek. I’d like to continue doing that and if it’s something you’d be interested in, I encourage you to stick around. I do however know that people stuck with me mostly because of Hitman. I never want to disappoint you, I have some plans for that, too. I don’t want to stop writing about Hitman. I love writing about Hitman. All I’ve ever written was because I wanted to do it and I enjoyed doing it. Still, my absolute favorite piece is the extensive character study of 47 which took me countless hours to put together. I have a few Hitman pieces in mind already and I’m always open for suggestions. As for other things? Livestreaming was always on my radar. Not only Hitman, although if I was to cover season 2, I’d definitely love to livestream my lore runs. I have a few games in mind that I’d like to share. My love for video games does not stop at Hitman. I am an avid fan of Silent Hill, I want to experience new games with you, I want to expose you to some great stories in this media, I play The Binding of Isaac more than I’d like to admit. This is something I truly would like to do if you’d also like to hang out. For all of this, there are a few ‘buts’ however.
Back in March, after I posted the Paris opinion piece, I had Patreon in mind. I thought about giving the community an option to chime in if they enjoyed the writings, especially since after telling people in the daunting “real world” about what I’m doing online lead to questions such as “why aren’t you getting paid for doing this?”. I absolutely hate the idea of asking someone for money and receiving money for something I’ve done from the kindness of my heart. This is why there are no ads on my blog and I always specifically said that I’m not getting a cent out of these writings. I still do not ask you for money. That would be simply wrong. Patreon is a great idea for content creators and I have a few ideas regarding it but at this time, I honestly do not feel like I can deliver for reasons completely out of my control.
It’s been hard to even getting around to writing this piece. See, I was planning it to come out a lot earlier after the release of the last HITMAN episode. Approximately a week or so. Throughout the year, I’ve been working on these pieces in addition to battling everything life was throwing my way. The World of Assassination has been my escape point once again. Thanks to the community. I’m not going to go into details about my personal life as I am sure you are not even slightly interested about it and I don’t want to sound pessimistic or whiny. The situation isn’t ideal, however (you may know few bits and pieces if you’ve either seen my tweets or came across me on Discord) and I am not able to provide you with the content you deserve in time you deserve and in quality you deserve. If I was to cover season 2 of HITMAN, I am not even certain if my outdated rig will be able to run the game and I am in no position to spend money on it at this point in time and probably won’t be in the nearest future. I want to give you all that the community deserves, I want to be a part of it. I want to give back because of the amazing support I’ve received. And I cannot do it. Not right now. And it’s infuriating as I constantly think soon my voice won’t be relevant anymore.
I have a bunch of things planned. I probably need to get around updating the original Storyline write-up with HITMAN’s “story” at some point before season 2 comes out. If you’d like to follow what I’m doing more closely, I do have a Twitter account if you don’t mind a dosage of complaining every now and again. Covering season 2 isn’t completely off the horizon but I cannot justify buying it in my current situation, especially since I know people want me to go back. I will also not make the same terrible consumer decision for the second time. I will not personally be purchasing a product I know I will not enjoy.
For now, all I can say is that I thank you for everything. And I hope to come across you again at some point.
Disclaimer: I was a part of a community event held at IO HQ in Copenhagen taking place October 18th and 19th. I’ve also received multiple gifts and shook hands with a lot of people when I was there. It was dope.
“Do you realize what kind of world you’ve been shaping?”, is one of the first lines we hear in HITMAN. After a short Prologue, which established our main duo and showed them in action, the proper storyline starts off 20 years after, and with a seemingly strong antagonist to spruce it up. That question, however, extends beyond the barriers of a simple video game universe. This “world” is obviously our World of Assassination but I wouldn’t call it being shaped. It definitely tries to appear in some form, yet it doesn’t go far enough and it ends up feeling like it’s being painstakingly dotted around in an attempt to catch its tail like an Ouroboros snake.
I took a different approach to this level. Knowing that it is the last mission of the season, instead of rushing to the next two minute ending cutscene, I instead took my time and explored the location. I figured that if I learn more about what’s going on, I’ll be more open-minded when it comes to the CGI finishing touch. After all, the only reason why I’m so partial to Colorado is because of its lore-heavy in-mission storytelling as well as not spoiling it to myself beforehand. I approached Situs Inversus without watching any trailers or reading much about it. I wanted to have a fresh experience to be able to fairly assess the presentation. So what happens in Hokkaido, you ask?
Not much. I was desperately running around trying to find bits of the story like in previous missions. I was pumped to do my lore runs after the fantastic Freedom Fighters and was very disappointed in Situs Inversus as it is a huge drop in quality in regards to storytelling. There’s not much going on behind the curtains and the only meaningful character ended up being… not even Erich Soders but instead, the other one of the two targets. Let’s start with her.
Yuki Yamazaki feels like someone Ken Morgan should have been. Only now that Ken Morgan was introduced in the same story, she sounds a lot like a rehashed Ken Morgan with some actually interesting ideas thrown into her character. First of all, her design is tickling my fancy. But I am absolutely done with everything being so great and amazing in this universe. Every character we meet is the best in what they do, and Yuki Yamazaki is no exception. One of the first lines I heard in the level was about the “trial of the century” in which she was involved! Maybe that’d be something if it wasn’t downplayed by people in Bangkok saying the same thing about Ken Morgan.
To be fair, I would be absolutely down with having Yuki’s characteristics instead put into Ken Morgan’s character. Why? Mostly because her being a strong handed lawyer born from Yakuza doesn’t even fit the Japanese culture. The attorneys in Japan are few and far between as people don’t sue each other that often, instead settling on compromises and discussing things in private. Especially in high caliber situations. There are also many technicalities you need to go through to become a lawyer (being a part of your local prefecture’s bengoshikai, wearing your assigned badge of honor at all times during work) and to keep your status. In Japan, Yuki Yamazaki would most likely be shunned for not respecting her clients and opponents and damaging the reputation of the profession itself. I don’t think even Providence would help her if she’d be seen in such light and by such culture-focused community as the Japanese.
In addition, I doubt that any Japanese hospital would have a room marked with the number 4 as it’s the case in Gama. The Japanese numeral for 4 can be read in many ways, one of them being “shi” which also means “death”. For that exact reason, it is seen as an unlucky number and public places refrain from using it in numbering floors or rooms as to not wish bad luck on people staying there. Although I don’t really care about Amos Dexter, who is residing in room 4 of the Hokkaido hospital…
Then, there are other minor discrepancies, such as major plastic surgeries being performed in the same facility as organ transplants and the calm female voice of a robotic AI presence which runs the entire place. To be fair, I’ve seen these in so many sci-fi media already that after my first reaction of wondering if it was inspired by Deus Ex Human Revolution‘s Eliza Cassan, Zone of the Enders‘ ADA or one of the other millions of AIs voiced by a female, I completely disregarded it and paid no attention. As I mentioned before in one of my write-ups, this “couple years in the future” trap you are falling into will probably not look as impressive in the actual “couple years in the future”.
As for Mr. Erich Soders, you can barely even tell that he’s there. For such an important character in the lore you are trying to build up, you sure sabotaged his potential of being a threatening antagonist by making him a stationary objective with multiple ways to complete. To add to that, the pacing feels completely off (once again) as the set up of him being a traitor was only at the end of the last episode and it is now suddenly resolved in this one. I do appreciate a tiny bit of his backstory added in the briefing and Diana’s remarks once 47 eliminates him but all of that feels like a filler, especially since the time gap between the Prologue and Situs Inversus is so huge. I was hopeful that even though Erich Soders will not be up and running during this mission, the storytelling will still manage to get its points across. There is one opportunity that leads to a few names being dropped but even those matter more to a person we’ve never seen before than to Soders. All we hear about him is that he is a big fish in the Agency and that he is willing to sell their people to Providence. That is the plot of H6 summed up in one sentence for you.
Speaking of in-mission storytelling, I am absolutely tired of using the same old trick in each level. What I said was fun in Showstopper, now becomes tedious and straight-up boring as I stood in one place trying to listen to every piece of Yuki Yamazaki’s dialogue. The phone call which happens during her cycle has five different sets of lines. She also has a few other lines but those conclude a lot earlier so I ended up placing 47 next to the restricted area in Sakura Sushi and playing Solitaire on my phone. Not only that, the conversations were only mildly interesting, giving bits of context to cutscenes we’ve already seen. I know you want me to catch onto these pieces of info during normal playthroughs but how many people are going to take an hour to kill the target, especially in such a condensed environment? Role-playing detective in Paris worked because the lines were spread across multiple NPCs and there was quite a crowd of them. Both in Hokkaido and previously in Colorado though, if the player wants to get the full story, they absolutely need to spend an hour of their time to find it (Colorado’s interrogation scene comes to mind). And let me say, as much as I enjoy my lore runs, I am quite fed up with standing around doing nothing just to maybe overhear a namedrop.
And of course, there is the infamous easter egg which I will not spoil but again, as with Soders and the huge, never-to-be-filled time gap, the circumstances are summed up in one sentence making it seem like there’s been not much care put into it and instead it was thrown in just so it makes sense within the plot. Actually, it almost seems like the story had been written and approved before realizing a terrible mistake. To which someone said “Ah, just give him an additional line of being a part of Interpol now. Done!”. Kind of sounds like a cop-out…
Now that we have that out of the way, in what seems to be a very short amount of time in comparison to other levels, let’s have a look at the CGI finishing touch of this season!
As for the cutscene itself, I honestly wasn’t expecting much. Somewhere deep in my lore-loving stone cold heart, I was maybe expecting some closure to the story so far but if you’ve been following my write-ups from the start, you’d know I’d be lying if I said I was expecting more than this to end on a cliffhanger. And it did, as predictably as all of the plot points of this story. Mr. Wannabe Mysterious Syndrome, presented to us previously for entire two minutes of screentime, has found our beloved handler Diana Burnwood and is trying to strike a deal with her. To be fair, this is more than enough for a summary but let’s go through the “Partners then?” cutscene as we always do. You like me rambling about lore and illogical behaviors after all.
The scene takes place in a suspiciously empty non-descriptive train somewhere in the world. There is some writing at the top which is a nice touch but it still doesn’t paint any picture in regards to any time or place in which the events are happening. Mr. Wannabe Mysterious (cleverly hidden in the shadows, in contrast to the bathed in warm light Diana) approaches the ICA handler and calls her by her name. The name which, as we quickly learn isn’t even on Diana’s ticket so any mention of it would already set off alarms in her head and she probably wouldn’t respond in any way or have some sort of silent way of an emergency contact with the Agency. Let’s not forget, she is responsible for their best man and has extensive knowledge of the World of Assassination. Would she really be so naive as to confront a random person that’s just walked into the compartment and called her out?
She continues reading her book yet the man isn’t discouraged by her behavior. He takes a seat on the opposite side. Very slowly and very menacingly. Diana is obviously uncomfortable with this behavior (again, you should probably have something in case of emergency. Just sayin’!) but they have a little talk regardless.
“I didn’t catch your name.”, the handler says. Another red flag that you should most likely not even respond, don’t you think? In addition to everyone else never catching the man’s name as he was never properly introduced… The dove pin is still there, though!
Mr. Wannabe Mysterious claims that Diana has gotten close to someone that’s been playing with the Agency for a while now. That is technically true but you never explained how she did that, boiling it down to a sudden “there is a shadow client” and “the ICA analysts are closing in as we speak”. I wish I’d known how impressive Diana’s work was when it comes to unveiling the mysterious of OUR MAIN BAD GUY but that is, sadly, for Mr. Wannabe Mysterious’ eyes only. Another example of how details are important and add depth to your writing… although figuring out the identity of THE MAIN BAD GUY OF THE STORY is hardly a detail.
The man offers her a job in the organization he’s a part in, yet she isn’t interested. She catches on to the fact that they are talking about Providence and still does nothing about it because that would be logical. She continues in this fruitless dialogue for several more lines before coming to a conclusion that they cannot be trusted. Can you believe that this is the same Diana Burnwood that has infiltrated The Franchise and played literally everybody in that group as well as her own agent back in Blood Money? And if we go that far and put Absolution into the continuity, this is the same Diana Burnwood that has fooled the entire Agency and her agent again and faked her own death?
“Some twenty years ago, your agency took in a young man with no past and– extraordinary skill.”. Mr. Wannabe Mysterious claims because there is obviously no other way of summing up 47’s character. It’s laughable at this point. Same as with using the fake name of Tobias Rieper in almost every mission of H6. You’d think someone would catch onto that. Surely booking anything under that name is now as dangerous as Diana using her own on some random train.
“In his own special way, he cares about you and vice versa.” Good thing you pointed that out cause I would never be able to tell with how their relationship was presented in this game. I actually do enjoy those tiny facial reactions we are being shown here but the close-up on Diana’s face may be a bit too much. To be fair, there is, once again, nothing else for us to look at and the only thing the camera does is shot reverse shot… once again…
With complete disregard of any non-disclosure agreements or even pure respect for Mr. 47, the handler clearly states to an absolute stranger (who is working for a very powerful and not very friendly organization, no less) that her agent is a product of some mad scientist’s experiments and that said mad scientist is now gone. Mr. Wannabe Mysterious offers her a deal for the second time and this time, she looks at the photo he has brought with him. She doesn’t do anything to indicate that she has changed her answer but I guess Providence can read people’s minds in addition to everything else, so the man asks “Partners, then?” and claim that they are the lesser evil. He calls the shadow client a terrorist to which Diana comments that “he’s only a terrorist if you win”… whatever that means. Mr. Wannabe Mysterious is quick to correct her on that fact.
“Miss Burnwood. We won a long time ago. This? This is maintenance.” Can I ask how can this statement coexist with the previous one about Diana getting to the shadow client closer than they ever could? This conversation was actually quite down to earth before all of those weird metaphors kicked in. But I guess it’d be too boring if nothing out of the ordinary happened. The scene ends with the camera revealing (and I use that word loosely cause, to be frank, it wasn’t that hard to figure out) a photo of a bald and somewhat angry child. Diana never accepts or rejects the offer, nothing concludes, I’d even argue that it would be a way better cliffhanger if they never showed us the photo. CUT TO THAT HITMAN LOGO!
So in the end, you’ve just decided to once again recycle the old ideas instead of stepping back and looking at the existing lore to find other points to base your plot on. How is it that after so many years and after Absolution, we are again at a point of destroying the mysteries of the series? Even Blood Money had some dignity when it came to that. Never showing us Diana’s face, placing her always outside the lens of the camera even though she was the main character in the story. Blood Money couldn’t do 47’s character right but it constructed its plot in a very skillful way. Building up from the series theme; cloning, and basing its premise upon it. That game shaped the world in a much better way than H6 and it could have easily been used as a starting point especially when Alpha Zerox still exists in the universe and the albino clones subplot was never truly closed off. Not to mention, Blood Money was actually quite adept in presenting its story to the players. Giving them subtle hints in characters’ reactions and interactions and using cinematography to paint the picture. As it should be. Cutscenes are a form of non-interactive visual media. In H6, we are instead shoehorned into uncovering the mysteries. Because Romania is so interesting and unique! Do you know where that uniqueness came from, though? It came from the fact that there are so many unknowns, so many questions and so many tales that are fun to be simply theorized about rather than strictly told. I don’t want to be shown 47 as a child. As much as I love that tiny section in Enemy Within, I think that’s enough for me. Do not run Romania to the ground as you did with the Agency in Absolution. It’s the last unique plot point of the series and if you milk that, we might as well have nothing to stand out in the sea of other works of media tagged as “assassin” or “agent”. I miss the maturity. I miss the mystique. I miss the uniqueness. I miss Hitman.
That’s not to say H6 doesn’t have good ideas. Of course it does, this is what I liked about Freedom Fighters! Those are the ideas that should shine! Even I found things I’d be interested to hear more about. After all, it was me who complained that this game isn’t “Hitman enough” and I am now complaining that it’s forcing Hitman on me and that’s bad, too? No. See, Hitman was always using Romania as an origin, not a central plot point. If you look at every game and every story, they all start at Romania, even if they don’t specifically say so (Silent Assassin). The difference is in the implications this origin brings up and how the story plays out each time. Codename 47 had a fairly standard plot about killing powerful people which concluded at presenting us why those people were important and how our main character’s life wasn’t as straightforward as we first thought. In Silent Assassin, all of that transformed into 47’s personal moral journey with a theme of Christianity to spice it all up. In Contracts, we saw consequences of said journey and Blood Money, as discussed earlier, threw a spin on it. Even Absolution tried to latch onto Romania in a promising way but failed and now H6 is doing the same thing. Instead of exploring the intriguing worlds of Providence and thought-provoking concepts such as using expensive technology to prolong lives of their own people instead of giving out that information to the public, we get an attempt at an emotional reaction in form of a sad picture of a bald child we never really wanted or cared about.
I think what I’m mostly disappointed with is that even though I’ve been clearly smelling a cliffhanger from miles away, the cliffhanger wasn’t even there. The fundamentals of a cliffhanger are that it’s an unexpected event happening right before the end of an episode, to drag the viewer in, to make them want to know more, to crave the next piece of the puzzle! None of that was there as of the end of H6. What you call a “story” was so predictable throughout and involved no emotional attachment. Cliffhangers are often used to create tension but there’s none because I don’t care about any of your characters. Who am I supposed to care about anyways? Completely distant to each other 47 and Diana? A random scared guy we’ve seen in one cutscene? An antagonist that is portrayed to be capable of taking care of things for himself? A huge organization that has for years worked as a middleman in killing for money? Or another huge organization that is said to be basically the Illuminati? There is nobody to root for in this “story” so the cliffhanger is absolutely pointless.
I would even argue that it works for your disadvantage. You promised us that the story will have a proper conclusion at the end of the season, in addition to painting the world you’re trying to establish. Having such a blatant “ending” is completely disrespectful to the consumer who now feels like he needs to throw in more money to know how the story unfolds. The last time I read a book, it didn’t close itself at chapter four and expected me to pull out my wallet. In fact, if it did, I’d probably just not bother. And that’s exactly what I’ll be doing in H6’s case, as I’m disappointed and simply annoyed with this situation. I’d also claim I’m not the only one.
Do people care about the story of Hitman? I boldly claim they do, purely basing it on the experience I’ve had this year as well as the raw statistics of my blog. I’ve received so many private messages thanking me for revealing the lore hidden in previous games and bringing it to people’s attention. Some found validation of their own opinions in my pieces and some were already huge fans of the story and were glad that they can come out of hiding without people dismissing them for caring about an aspect of a video game which they find enjoyable. Others never had any idea how rich the Hitman lore is and ended up enjoying the games a lot more after reading my original Storyline write-up. Throughout the season, the community showered me with questions and asked about my take on the plot. Every time a new episode was coming out, people were already checking my blog to see if a new piece is up. There are those who care. I truly believe that. It’s a big shame that you don’t. I guess I don’t care anymore either.
You can try telling your overambitious story in mere twenty minutes of runtime. I think I’m through that. I’ll stick to the old lore, thank you very much. I’m going to the garden shed. Time to dig up the pa–