Agent 47 is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, a dead-eyed sociopath devoted entirely to the perfect execution of assassination, which is another word for murder.
While you and I are sitting together in cozy armchairs, enjoying a nice glass of wine and a chat about football or the weather, Agent 47 is watching us, hiding behind the curtains, silent, patient, garrote in hand. This dude is an out-and-out nutcase.
Thankfully, when we encounter him in Hitman games, he is generally kept in front of us. If you absolutely must be in the general vicinity of this deranged serial killer, walking directly behind him is the safest place to be.
Were the camera to swing alarmingly across an arc of 180 degrees and point back towards us, Agent 47 might stop and slowly turn his head. He might appoint that frosty gaze upon us. He might consider the various … interesting … possibilities.
To be fair to the lad, he was born and raised in an asylum by a mad doctor with an interest in DNA manipulation, extreme military training and world domination. We ought to be sympathetic to those who’ve experienced early disadvantages.
After 15 years in the service of developer Io Interactive, Agent 47 is returning in another Hitman game. This one is called Hitman.
It’s coming to PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One on Dec. 8, as a series of digital assassinations, published by Square Enix.
At E3 this week, creative director Christian Elverdam is showing a section of the game to reporters, set in a large Parisian mansion. It’s a beautifully portrayed space crammed with art and finery, offering loads of nooks and crannies where a heavily armed and highly dangerous nutter might happily lurk.
Elverdam talks about why Agent 47 is so popular.
“He’s a canvas,” he says. “He’s emotionless. The only thing he wants is perfection. He’s a bit obsessive-compulsive when it comes to [killing people]. I think that’s what people find appealing.”
Here’s the set-up. Agent 47 has been tasked with assassinating a Russian oligarch (a bad man) as well as a criminal associate, a bad woman.
The mansion is hosting a fashion parade, so there are lots of fancy people milling around, as well as their unwitting lackeys, who had best not get in the way of Agent 47.
Agent 47 is not really one for fashion. His get-up is black, white and red, the same color as a swastika flag (rarely a hit on the catwalk). The crazy-looking bastard with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head is going to have to find a way to fit in, to be inconspicuous. To be perfect.
Hitman missions are basically Groundhog Day for people who prefer a perfect kill to Punxsutawney Phil.
This Paris fashion party is an endlessly repeating loop of roughly the same events, during which the player, as Agent 47, becomes highly competent at anticipating and manipulating happenings. It is a ticking world in which a sociopath is given an extraordinary level of control and power.
You are rewarded by setting up sequences of events that will allow Agent 47 to conduct his business without fuss or interruption. Ideally, the hit looks like an unfortunate action.
This has been the hallmark of Hitman games, the ability to be smart about killing people. With the new Hitman, developers have focused on expanding this key gameplay element.
Though killing people is the point of Hitman, it’s really about time, and how we make use of it. It’s about the rigidity of the present, and the fluidity of the future.
People move about, they live their lives, oblivious to the fact that the only person with any power here is a man who has meticulously, gracefully murdered hundreds of people.
The coming of vastly superior consoles and PCs, compared to yesteryear, gives Io an opportunity to create highly complex scenarios featuring dozens of people and hundreds of objects, all of which can whizz off in thousands of different potentialities.
So, as Agent 47 makes his way to the basement, to the place where the workers dress for duty, he dons a bartender’s uniform, and the world is very differently than it would be if he, say, crawled into an industrial lighting storage box that is being hoisted skywards, towards the rafters, above the little people.
Then again, there is also a potential world where, knowing that the oligarch is meeting a confederate at a certain place and time, he strangles a security guard and waits behind the curtains, unblinking, garrote in hand, listening for the satisfying pop of a bottle of Merlot being uncorked, the gentle murmur of conversation.
With the aid of modern consoles and PCs, Hitman becomes a pretty impressive platform for ultra agency, for impacting a fictional world in unexpectedly powerful ways that were not available in previous games.
“This game is not about giving Agent 47 a lot of new abilities,” says Elverdam. “It’s about multiple AIs operating in a complex world. The sheer detail of things you can tamper with has increased in ways that we haven’t been able to do before.”
This is best explained with the help of explosives.
In Hitman, Agent 47 can plant a bomb literally anywhere on the map. If the bomb is discovered, or if it explodes, it will set off a sequence of events that must all play out and be accounted for in subsequent events, so that the story can continue. It’s that butterfly-in-Peru thing. For a games player,fooling around in a fictional world, this is fun. For a game designer, it’s extremely challenging.
There are some scenarios which the designers are pretty sure will occur, once players get a hold of this game. If you have played a Hitman game, or any stealth game, these may be familiar to you.
“We know people will try to kill a lot of guys silently and put them on top of each other in a room,” says Elverdam. “The game has to to behave in a way that handles that.”
If key narrative AIs are among the bodies (say, a newspaper reporter who is meeting the villain, or a supermodel or a security guard) the game must react and accommodate.
The world of Hitman is a place of endless loops in which dozens of AIs do pretty much the same thing over and over again, for eternity. Only Agent 47 can alter their movements. Only Agent 47 can poke his finger into the ripples and fully appreciate the magic of disruption.
You stand behind Agent 47 as he emerges from behind the curtains. The doomed oligarch has died many times before. Today perhaps, his end will be a sublime act of perfection.
Agent 47 goes to work.