Hitman Absolution: a straight man in a twisted world

By Dave Cook
29 August 2012 07:38 GMT

Hitman: Absolution has courted controversy since reveal. With release a few months away, it’s time for IO to take control. We speak with the lead designer about Contracts Mode and much more.

Hitman: Absolution

The fifth entry in the Hitman series, all developed by IO Interactive.

The unforgiving and somewhat sandbox nature of the series has earned it a reputation as something of a hardcore favourite. For this entry, IO has made shooting your way out of problem more tenable – but withhold the best mission scores for those who favour precision and ingenuity.

Although it’s traditionally viewed as a PC elite property, every Hitman game since the very first has appeared on consoles.

Due on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in November, the second major stealth game of the season following Dishonored.

First, Agent 47 was seen preparing to slaughter a nude woman in a shower set to a backdrop of classical music, close shots and slow-mo, as if taking part in some kind of torture porn fantasy. The world largely let it pass without incident.

Strike two: Agent 47 obliterates a gang of scantily-clad female assassins dressed as Halloween nuns. There was slow-mo, there was well-placed music and there was the feeling that IO had just dropped the ball on its own toes.

We won’t discuss the fallout of ‘Nuns with Guns’-gate today, but it is true that incidents like these do detract from the fact that this is a game we’re talking about – a game with features, mechanics and secrets we still don’t know about.

That’s why IO Interactive took things back to basics at gamescom, showing off its new Contracts mode with little in the way of glorified violence or any of that guff. Pure gameplay, that’s what we got, as well as a long chat with lead designer Torben Ellert. Take it away chap.

VG247: Contracts Mode lets players create their own missions. Where did the idea come from?

Torben Ellert: It came for our fans. That sounds trite I know, but if you go back and you look at what our fans did with Hitman: Blood Money, they came up with the most ludicrous and awesome ways to pull off hits.

There’s one example of a guy, and you can get his own protection detail to run him over in his car if you time it right. Some game designers might say, ‘oh they’re abusing our systems’, but my attitude is, ‘that’s awesome!’

So when we were thinking about what social aspects we could add in to Hitman: Absolution, it made sense to make a game mode where players could take a level, mark a target and kill them. This would organically create a contract without the need for editing or chopping down.

Because let’s be honest, many people playing Absolution are not game designers, and if you take content creators like in Star Trek Online, or City of Heroes – I haven’t touched them because they aren’t simple to use, and I’m a game designer.

We decided to call our method ‘Play to Create’, and essentially making it a statement of skill. If you pull off an impossible kill, and save it as a contract, then you deserve the praise

Have you seen any truly outstanding contracts so far?

We actually saw one at the floor show here in gamescom. The guy did a contract where there was an additional target. In order to get the pay-off from the contract, you had to take one of the targets and hide the body without being seen by or killing the other target.

Some players ran through the guy’s contract guns blazing and killed both targets straight away. They got their pay-off, because the only thing you need to do to complete a contract is to kill the target.

But if you want to get the full pay-off you need to meet the bonus conditions set by the creator.

So to basically emulate the same method that the creator used?

Achieve the same end result. When I played the contract I approached one of the targets – who is a police officer – dressed as another police officer. I’ve done that by putting on a police uniform.

I know that disguises will protect you at a distance, but if you get too close they start to see through it. The guy would soon start to think ‘there’s a two metre tall guy with a barcode on the back of his head, he wasn’t in the precinct this morning.’ So he was suspicious when I lured him away for the kill.

Watch on YouTube

Sam has a go at Hitman: Absolutions’ new
Contracts mode.

Other players found you could use different distractions to lure him away. One guy worked out that if you stood in an alley where a market vendor could see him and waved his guns around, the vendor would become alarmed.

The vendor would then run to the nearest police officer- my target – and tell him. That officer then came to investigate and then have an ‘unfortunate accident’.

Ah, very clever.

Yeah, and it’s that kind of emergence that essentially came for free thanks to all of the AI work we did for the game’s story mode. So contracts aren’t scripted, you just have to achieve the same end result.

But how do you do it? Well, if you can find a hole that the creator didn’t know – because you know the level better or you’re a better player – then you can choose to do that instead.

Rewarding that skill is also a part of your contract upload hub, where people can rate what others have created and so on.

Yes. Once you’ve played a contract you can rate it and say if it was good, bad or awful. You can also view information on contracts, filter by the most popular contracts, most played, most recent and things like that.

You can also enter a contract’s ID. So if you see the code on someone’s Facebook page, on a sticker or on an advert, you can type that in and get the contract.

Very clever, and you guys will be adding in your own contracts as well?

We have something called ‘featured contracts’, and there will be a regularly updated list of them. But the other thing that’s awesome is, some people may choose not to play contracts mode, and just stick with the story.

We really wanted a channel to show those players that there are contracts out there, and to also reward awesome contract creators out there. If I were to pause the game during a mission, the game will highlight featured contracts within that level.

We tried to think about what we could do to give people good tools post-launch to help people create and share content. Some contract will simply ask you to kill a target, but players can set bonus conditions such as ‘only kill the target’, ‘don’t miss shots’, ‘don’t change disguises’, or ‘kill targets in this order’.

“Contracts is really a perfect storm of something players wanted from the franchise, and something that makes sense for the franchise. There is a general move from the industry towards a more social experience, and talk about why everything has to be multiplayer or co-op.”

User-generated content is an increasingly popular facet of games today. Was this always something you wanted to deliver, but perhaps didn’t have the tech to achieve?

We’ve been away for a while, and a lot of that time has been spent on developing our Glacier 2 engine to make it do some awesome AI tricks. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while.

But contracts is really a perfect storm of something players wanted from the franchise, and something that makes sense for the franchise. There is a general move from the industry towards a more social experience, and talk about why everything has to be multiplayer or co-op.

I was asked an interesting question yesterday: ‘What about LAN party play?” and I said, “No, the world is a LAN party.” I mean, I game with friends from Holland all the time, and I’ve never met them.

Back to Glacier 2. You can tell that Hitman: Absolution is one of those games that exists at the bleeding edge of console hardware. With all the work you’ve put in to the Glacier engine, do you now consider yourself proofed for the next cycle of hardware?

There’s a lot of talk about what these next generation consoles are, and we know no more about them than you do. There’s no doubt that they will be more powerful and have all sorts of tricks up their sleeve.

We built Glacier as strong as we could and if you’ve seen the PC version of Absolution, the bells and whistles really are impressive. I think it’s a robust engine that we will be able to use for a lot of very interesting things.

Another impressive aspect of Glacier 2 is its crowd capability that you first unveiled at this year’s TED conference. Just how powerful is it?

The crowd tech is really powerful and I’m really glad that we have it, because it means we have these really social levels like Chinatown Square where you can hide and move with a crowd. It gives players a lot of potential in contracts mode.

You can kill anyone in a crowd and make it a challenge using Contracts Mode, but then again Agent 47 can be passive and leave those people alone. Why is this moral ambiguity important to your franchise?

It’s core to Agent 47, I mean, he is many things to many people. The interesting thing I’ve found about him in all of our games is he’s the straight man in a twisted world, almost. There are very few nice guys in 47’s world.

I think he has a great deal of respect for what he does. I mean, he takes lives. There is no more serious thing than that, and he has an enormous gravitas about it.

It’s one of the reasons Absolution is such an interesting story because we see him – not out of his depth – but definitely more vulnerable than we’ve seen him before.

He’s reacting, rather than defining the rules of the game as he goes into it. He’s a strong character with the feeling of a gritty urban legend, and I like that.

Watch on YouTube

Here’s the controversial E3 2012 trailer.
The inexplicably sexualised enemies and
high impact violence raised eyebrows.

He does exist in an animated world where everyone is larger than life, or exaggerated in some way. Why has this always been the case in Hitman titles?

I think it’s important as you have the ultimate straight man in the middle, and if it was just him in a realistic world the game would really become grim. By twisting the world just a little bit you come to a setting that can have dark humour in it.

In the first game 47 walks up to his target – who I think was a big fat man sitting in a restaurant – and says utterly deadpan, “Fatty foods an kill”. I mean, that’s great but it only works because he’s the straight man and the world around him is so twisted.

You’re right in saying that there is a danger of violence pushing too many boundaries as it becomes more realistic. Is this going to become a problem for the industry as realism increases?

I think as the industry grows there’s more space to do things that would have been impossible. When I look at the Mass Effect games, or when I look at what those games do for relationships between characters, I think, ‘That would have been unthinkable just a few years back.’

That a game can now not only do it, but attach gameplay to it, and let you construct an experience around it that is meaningful without just showing you it in a cutscene – I think that is awesome.

Yes there are games that will push the edge – Spec Ops: The Line has does very interesting things in questioning the morality of what you’re doing – and as the industry grows I think we will see more of that. I mean, thank goodness for that.

Meaning is important, and its interesting because in Hitman games you have a sandbox where people can craft their own stories of how they pulled off a hit. How powerful is that freedom to you?

I think that came logically from a lot of the things. One of the most interesting kills in Hitman: Blood Money could actually take a long time to pull off. You could kill one of the targets in the opera by replacing the bullets in the gun with real bullets.

The play would be acting out on stage and then the target would be shot, and job done. That’s a great achievement but it’s maybe not so much fun to do.

I think there’s always a balance, and my personal attitude is that narratives can be great, stories can be great, but that is lost the moment you start straying too far from a fulfilling gameplay experience.

Watch on YouTube

Here’s Sam playing again. I’m not so
jealous I could skin and eat him at all.

And within Absolution’s narrative, how much deeper will get inside the mind of Agent 47 now that he’s on the run and vulnerable?

He’s in deeper water than he’s ever been in before. He’s more vulnerable and the angle I like to put on this is, he’s been betrayed, and maybe for the first time he’s really angry, and I’m sure certain people are going to regret that.

We’re going to see him in situations where things are going on that we might not have expected, and see inside the character from ways we haven’t before.

Once his vendetta is over, what do you want players to come away with?

I think I’d like for them to come away with a renewed understanding of who Agent 47 is, and the world that he lives in.

Hitman: Absolution is out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 November 20.

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