After a series of four successful games between 2001 and 2006, quickly followed by a movie adaptation that everyone would rather forget, the gaming world didn’t hear a peep out of the Hitman franchise until now. Over the last six years, the developers from IO Interactive have been hard at work on a follow-up that will successfully bring the game’s concept into the modern age.
Hitman: Absolution, out this month, will pick back up with Agent 47, a cloned super-assassin betrayed by those he once trusted and hunted by the police. The player will find him or herself at the center of a dark conspiracy transpiring in famously corrupt Chicago, navigating through layers of narrative with updated senses like “instinct mode,” a predictive ability similar to the lauded Arkham City’s “detective mode,” plus a few more bonuses that promise thatHitman: Absolution will land with a bang.
We met with Tore Blystad, director of the Hitman series, to find out more about this new entry to the series, discussing his writing process, creative influences, and his love for Twin Peaks.
The Creators Project: What will Hitman: Absolution bring to the whole series?
Tore Blystad: It will bring a lot of new things to the series. Basically, we’re starting from scratch to implement new technologies and change the game into a modern-day Hitman. Since the game’s inception, technologies have evolved and we needed to re-adapt the game. We chose to do it the hard way, by removing everything we had in order to implement every new feature one by one. Now, the game feels much more natural to play. We tried to resolve a problem we had with the previous games: many players complained that the game was too hard. The hard thing isn’t controlling Agent 47, but finding out how to solve the problems in your own way. That’s the reason we implemented five difficulty levels. Many gamers are not used to having complete freedom of choice, and we give them suggestions to go on to the next level. But if you want to play by yourself, it’ll be pretty hard to figure everything out. We wanted to think about the hardcore gamers and the casual gamers, so that no one feels left out.
For the first time, your game will be out on PS3. How did you take advantage of the platform?
We took this opportunity to bring a whole new interactive dimension to the game, for instance gamers will be able to unlock several upgrades according to their game score. It also allowed us to develop the artificial intelligence, which is the real star of the game. We were used to working with writers and having quite a big script for the games in order to anticipate everything that could happen, but for this game, it was probably ten times harder than anything we’ve done before. We really didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
How does the writing process of a Hitman game takes place?
Usually, we sit down with the level designers and discuss the main topics and themes. Then, we draw a few high-level goals, and the level designers work with the environment artists and character designers to work out the situations. Writers come in, write a draft, we read it out loud and record it with people from the team. Everybody makes voices, and I think that no one wants to listen to that because we’re awful voice actors. But it allows us to see if it’s interesting and what can work out in the future. In the process, there’s a lot of improvisation. We can’t predict everything with a synopsis and a script. Many of the actors improvise when they read our dialogues and come up with even better lines. It’s a very collaborative process.
Can you tell me more about the happy incidents you’ve encountered?
A few characters are actually developed that way. Lenny Dexter, who is the son of the main antagonist of the game, always tries to be cool but fails every time. It was also interesting for us to see if we could make him a likable character. The team was actually divided—some really hated him and wanted him to be killed at the very beginning of the game, others found him to be eandearing. That’s partly why we added features enabling the player to choose if they want to kill others or not. We wanted to question their morality as well—all options are possible, computer games are supposed to be interactive, and we wanted the player to be the main focus. At one point in the game, there’s a guard who gets a call from his doctor and is being told that he doesn’t have cancer. He’s extremely happy, thinking, “Yes! This day is perfect,” and the player has the choice to kill him instantly if he wants to. During test plays, we found out that many players made the choice to kill him, not because they’re psychopaths, simply because it adds a sense of dark humor coming from the player.
There’s been a strong trend during the last five years implying that games should be very directive, with a strong narrative. This isn’t always interesting because the gamer is being told exactly what he needs to do, there’s not much room left for exploration. Developing such a game has its challenges as well, because we want this dramatic dimension without forcing the player to do anything. We had to come up with different tools to dramatize the emergent gameplay. For instance, the music has helped us a lot to convey suspense—the game feels more immersive with “dynamic audio.”
One of the series’ trademarks is also its music, previously composed by Jesper Kyd. But for this game, you chose to work with Peter Kyed and Peter Peter. Why did you chose to change composers, and what did it bring to the game?
The music still plays a great role in our game. We worked with Jesper for many years, but as I said, there were a lot of things we wanted to change. When you follow the same path every time, you commit yourself to a project, it’s harder and harder to avoid redundancies. We had to force ourselves to do something different, though it didn’t mean that we didn’t want to work with him. Of course, working with the new composers was a challenge, because there is so much more music in this game. Inside every level, you have at least five different songs blending with the player’s actions. Each track is custom-made.
I’ve read that you estimated that only 20% of gamers played a game from start to finish. Do you think that advanced interactivity helps dealing with this sensitive challenge?
In general, about 20% of players actually finish their games. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about this. We really have to think more about the people who enjoy our games as an experience. It’s always a learning process, at least I can say from personal experience that I wasn’t always happy with what I saw, sometimes wondering, “Why did they do this?” when watching a movie. But when it comes to making a creative work, things don’t always go according to plan, because there are so many factors at play—technologies, skills, budget, and so on. When you make a game, you want every level to be great, but essentially, some ideas are just just better than others.
Speaking of movies, all of your previous games were very referential. What were your models of inspiration for this particular game?
From the beginning of the Hitman series, we’ve been really influenced by James Bond movies and Luc Besson’s The Professionnal. For Absolution, we took another direction influenced by J.J. Abram’s Fringe and David Lynch’s filmography with works such as Twin Peaks and Wild At Heart, with strong and strange characters. It was interesting for us to create our characters without one-dimensional supervillains. Regarding our art direction, Tim Burton’s old movies like Sleepy Hollow were huge influences. His very dramatic style was extremely inspiring. I can also quoteTony Scott and his approach with multiple cameras. I’m a huge fan of his works and his dynamic editing.
Did you take part in the development of the movie adaptation?
We had some input with them, but Hollywood did what they wanted to do with our original idea. We’re very honored that it actually became a movie, but it didn’t influence the game development in any way. What is rewarding is that we can see that the director [Xavier Gens] was a huge fan of the game. He tried to emulate the third-person camera in his movie, which is kind of fun. It’s interesting because these days, games are strongly influenced by movies, and many developers want to make a very cinematic experience. But the process is very different for a movie. Instead of filming things that are already there, you are starting from nothing. You can actually decide every single element of your creation, which also adds a lot of pressure. But that’s what makes it so interesting.
Hitman: Absolution is out on November 20th on PS3, PC, and Xbox 360.
All pictures are from Hitman: Absolution. Photo courtesy of Square Enix.