Hitman's NPCs are fascinating

Sandbox games live or die by their small details, and Hitman's NPCs sure know the pain of assembling an IKEA chair.

It’s been an up-and-down couple of years for the Hitman franchise.

It started with the announcement of Hitman (2016), back in 2014. The prior Hitman game, 2011’s Hitman Absolution, sold well, but it was panned for its linear gameplay and its pulpy plot (leather-clad nuns with bazookas, anyone?)

The marketing team billed Hitman (2016) as a course correction. No more seedy strip clubs and underground cage tournaments. No more hayseed gun shops or Chinatown back alleys. Instead, Agent 47 would stake out a fashion show in France, a high-end, riverside hotel in Thailand, and a Swedish consulate in Morocco. Agent 47 would be back to killing moneyed jet-setters, in foreign, high class settings.

Near-universal acclaim followed; several publications named it as one of their Games of the Year in 2016. But in May 2017, Square Enix announced that it would ‘withdraw’ from Io interactive. Perhaps the sales were not high enough; Hitman (2016) was released in episodes, which fragmented the marketing effort. And Hitman fans, even if they were interested in the game, held off on buying it.

Today, Io Games is an independent entity, looking for a new publisher. It retains the rights to the Hitman franchise as part of its deal with Square Enix. And hopefully, once the dust settles, the rumored sequel to Hitman (2016) will be released.

The franchise has a reliable, winning formula: find the target, kill the target, and do it unnoticed, while surrounded by innocent bystanders. These innocent bystanders are no mere window dressing; they highlight the striking juxtaposition between the mundane, everyday regularity of their polite society, and Agent 47’s murderous intent. In Hitman (2016), hundreds of NPCs in each location have no investment in The Plot; they have their own personal concerns and problems. And because of this, one of the most fun things to do is to eavesdrop on their conversations and learn about them.

The developers created an incredible illusion of depth -- of a living, breathing world that is much bigger than Agent 47 -- through these sometimes-mundane, sometimes-hilarious looks into the NPCs’ inner lives. For example, at the start of the Paris level, you run into a news reporter who’s covering the fashion show. Most players will walk right by her into the building—they might hear just the beginning of her news report, which fades as they get further away.

But if you decide to stick around a little, you see that she actually attempts to (and fails) to get through her report three times. She and her cameraman take a smoke break. And while she composes herself, she checks her phone, and we learn that she’s trying to meet people online.

Another example of random, funny conversation happens in Sapienza. There’s a man smoking by the patio stairs when the level starts, and eventually, he’ll walk down one level to answer his phone. These phone calls are varied and randomized. Sometimes, he’s talking to his girlfriend. Other times, he’s talking to his lover. Other times, he’s meeting a prostitute for the first time.

A lot of Hitman consists of waiting around— of scouting locations, tracking targets’ travel patterns, and assessing which guards and which cameras are where. It requires patience and time, and these conversations serve a practical purpose, by maintaining the player’s interest and focus. The further you progress, the more areas you gain access to, and the more of these random conversations you can listen to. They’re little amusements on the way to the Big Goal.

These conversations also hide the game’s mechanics from view. Hitman is based on patterns and awareness -- of knowing NPC’s walking patterns so that you can sneak past them, and knowing which way everyone is facing before you make your move. But it doesn’t make logical sense to have a person turned in a specific direction, following a predictable pattern, for hours at a time. Unless, of course, the game provides a clever narrative reason. Like this woman, who can’t decide which ice cream she wants:

Or this man, who’s hopelessly assembling an IKEA chair and later calls the helpline:

This gives the NPCs a narrative purpose for acting repetitively. Of course, their real reason for being there is to be game obstacles and get in the way of the player’s objective. But it’s admirable that the developers were so committed to hiding the game’s seams and making the game feel less mechanical and more organic.

And sometimes, the game offers social commentary -- again, suggesting a greater depth to this world beyond the mission. In Bangkok, there’s a big game hunter who’s flirting with a woman, and he tells her a series of creepy, unsettling stories about his exploits abroad.

These conversations remind me of people like Walter Palmer, who killed Cecil the Lion for sport. That behavior is ugly American exceptionalism at its worst; a tourist going to a third-world country and exploiting its resources for a trophy. It’s no coincidence that Hitman’s developers placed this big game hunter in Thailand, which has major problems with poaching and human trafficking. Those industries rely on the money of Western tourists to keep them afloat.

Even without all this added detail, Hitman is a fantastic game, with creative kills, excellent stealth mechanics, and a clean, readable visual style. But the little snippets of conversation elevate the entire experience. Most players will hear some of it, but much of this dialogue will go completely unheard. That’s the nature of a sandbox game; every player’s playthrough is slightly different. The team exercised a tremendous amount of effort to create these smaller experiences. But it’s worth it, absolutely, and that effort should not go unnoticed.