Back in 2018 I played through Hitman (2016). I liked what I played, but couldn’t envision myself continuing to enjoy it, so I didn’t end up playing the recently released sequel. However, three years on and Jason, my co-host on Frosty Canucks, convinced me to play Hitman 2. I’m glad he did because I’m having a lot of fun with it, even more so than I had with the original. Both titles are so similar that I couldn’t figure out why that was, but after a bit of reflection I think it may have something to do with my growing enjoyment of rogue-likes.
For those who aren’t in the know, Hitman is a game by IO Interactive where you play as the mysterious Agent 47. You are tasked with killing one or more targets in every level and are graded on your performance. You’re given a lot of freedom in how you go about doing this, but discretion and accuracy are key. You’re a professional after all, so you want to draw as little attention to yourself as possible while only disposing of your intended targets. Despite the violent subject matter, it’s a really neat experience the relies heavily on pattern recognition and problem solving.
However, where other games lean heavily into traditional stealth Hitman relies on systems driven gameplay. Instead of sneaking through the shadows you’ll be hiding in plain sight using a variety of disguises. Instead of killing your target exactly how the designers intended, you’re given a variety of tools and asked to figure it out yourself. In this way, a lot of Hitman’s best moments are born out of the consistency of its rules and how its many interlocking systems respond to one another.
Writer notes: I’m about to dive into spoilerinos to make several points for the remainder of the article. Consider yourself warned.
As an example let’s look at the Miami level in Hitman 2. This level is set on a race track that tasks you with killing Sierra and Robert Knox. The map is broken up into two large zones: the racing area on the right and bayside area on the left. The racing area contains the paddocks, stands, a VIP lounge, garages, and a medical bay. The left has the Knox expo centre, docks, and podium. For context I’ve included the map below.
For our hypothetical let’s say that you wanted to poison Sierra. The first step in poisoning her would be to obtain some poison. There is a jar of poison in the medical bay at the Northern quadrant of the map, so that’s where we’ll want to go. However, we can’t walk into the storage room where the pills are being kept unless we’re a member of the medical staff. So we’ll need to lure a nearby medical staff member behind the building and knock them out to steal their uniform. With this disguise we can now walk right in the front door and take the poison that we’re after.
Now that we have the poison we need to figure out where Sierra is heading to see if there are any potential opportunities to poison her. If we follow her into the Knox racing paddock we’ll find a tray of delicious sandwiches and some drinks, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in either. After a bit she’ll head over to the VIP lounge asking around for her racing rival Moses Lee who she lost the race too. Eavesdropping will inform us that she wants to challenge him to a drinking contest. Bingo. We have our opportunity.
Luckily for us the drinks for the contest have already been set out, so we just need to find or take a bartending outfit. Once we have our disguise we can spike a shot with poison because as a bartender we obviously know what we’re doing. Following this we’ll need to impersonate Moses because he has no interest in actually engaging Sierra in the drinking contest himself. Then we just need to approach Sierra about the contest and make sure she drinks the poisoned shot walking away afterward like it was an accident we had no part in orchestrating.
Alternatively, the first place trophy has champagne that we can poison. The winner of the race receives the trophy and drinks the champagne out of it in celebration. This has the added wrinkle of requiring players to figure out how they can sabotage Moses so Sierra will come in first. These are two different angles that we can take for poisoning Sierra and represent only a fraction of the potential ways that players can execute her.
So what the heck does any of this have to do with rogue-likes? Well, one of my favourite aspects of rogue-likes is how replayable they are. The best members of the genre feature a wealth of elements that help to keep things fresh during each playthrough. You’re still playing the same game each time, but the specifics can vary wildly. For example, a run of Slay the Spire will differ based on the class you’re playing, what cards you draft, which cards you upgrade, what relics you find, and which encounters you have to overcome. This helps makes an otherwise painfully repetitive experience really enjoyable.
Hitman doesn’t use procedural generation to remix its levels as rogue-likes do, but the sheer wealth of opportunities and means for executing your targets provide a ton of replayability. Levels are so densely packed with potential that players can spend several hours going through them and still not uncover everything. This provides players with a reason to come back and try a level one more time similar to how rogue-likes constantly beg players to continue playing with the promise of something new.
In service of this style of play, IO Interactive has implemented a couple really clever tricks into the levels. Firstly, whenever you pass by an interactable object the game will let you know that it can be interacted with even if you don’t have the appropriate tool. This is crucial as it plants a seed in the back of the player’s mind informing them of a new possibility that begs to be explored on a future attempt of the level. The inverse of this is also true: when players discover a specialized tool they will be pushed into figuring out where and how they can make use of it.
Secondly, IO uses what they call mission stories. These are scripted kills that require the player to fulfill a handful of specific conditions to kill their target usually in a cinematic manner. Hitman informs players about these stories by having NPCs loudly chat about them while Agent 47 is within earshot. The idea here is that it provides a concrete goal to work towards. While completing mission stories you’ll likely come across a number of tools and props within the environment that can be revisited on future attempts, thus ensuring all players are exposed to the wealth of available opportunities in each area.
Both of these systems work great independently, but together they help to push all players toward playing Hitman in the most enjoyable way. Wherein other games repetition would be a burden, in Hitman it enhances the experience. Going through each level over and over helps players uncover new executions, which further pushes the player’s understanding of the environment allowing for increasingly complex assassinations. Just like the best rogue-likes, Hitman gets better as more time is invested into it.
In 2018 I wasn’t very receptive to the idea of replaying a level over and over. However, in the intervening years I’ve come to really enjoy the rhythm of replaying rogue-likes and learning with each subsequent run. Going through a familiar setting with a fresh approach or new goals goes a long way in negating the negative feeling of repetition that can accompany this style of play. And with that new found appreciation for repetition, I’ve been able to play and enjoy Hitman 2 where I was originally tepid on Hitman (2016).
The necessary repetition also gives Hitman a great sense of mastery progression. Each time you play a level you learn a little more about it, which improves your ability to play within it as a deadly assassin. You’ll learn where and how your targets move, where specific items are located, what types of disguises you need to get to certain areas, and how to infiltrate and escape from a location. You may start as a clumsy bumbling fool, but with each iteration you get closer to mastery and becoming the top-notch assassin that Agent 47 is portrayed as.
However, mastery is typically an intrinsic motivation factor. This means that only those players that enjoy setting and achieving their own goals are likely to engage with it. This being the case, there are a huge number of players who may be unwilling to engage with Hitman in the way that makes it the most fun. Because of this, IO included two different factors to help keep extrinsically motivated folks engaged.
Firstly is scoring. After each run through a level you receive a score based on your performance. You receive score bonuses for hiding the bodies of your targets as well as not being discovered and lose points every time you kill someone who isn’t your intended target. You’ll learn more and more about the environment with each play-through and thus you’ll increase your proficiency for killing your targets. In this way, not only are you able to see your own improvements, but the game acknowledges them which further validates the time you’ve spent on mastering each level.
Secondly, Hitman has in-game achievements known as challenges. Each level has a collection of these that are earned by killing your targets in specific ways and collecting specialized tools. These challenges provide incentive and direction to players who aren’t intrinsically motivated and need an extra push to master each level. These also function like mission stories in that they can help push struggling players toward discovering interesting assassinations, which will hopefully be enough to get them into making future discoveries on their own.
Regardless of what type of motivation you find most engaging Hitman has you covered. Mastery is the most important factor for keeping me playing a rogue-like and Hitman has all of the same building blocks to deliver a similar experience. Deep games like this beg players to sink their teeth in and become more rewarding the longer you stick with them. Understanding and accepting that has, again, allowed me to enjoy Hitman 2 a boatload more than Hitman (2016) when I originally played it.
Rogue-likes are a sub-genre that I’ve grown to love by shifting my mindset toward playing games for their own enjoyment. Hitman may not be a rogue-like, but approaching it from the same mindset helped to make it truly enjoyable. Like the best rogue-likes, Hitman has so much on offer for players to discover and experiment with that you’d be doing a disservice to yourself to not get sucked into playing each level again, and again, and again. If you tried the recent Hitman games and bounced off them like I did then I’d encourage you to give them another shot. You may, like myself, find that Hitman gets better the more time you invest into it.
Writer notes: I’m a frequent viewer of Mark Brown’s Game Maker Toolkit series and feel like there is a bit of overlap between some of what I’ve said here and what he speaks about in his video about Hitman and the Art of Repetition. Consider it an external reference for the article and check it out as well.
Also, big shout-out to hitmaps.com for providing that awesome map of Miami.