[2 February 2010]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The thing that generally distinguishes a game from a book or film in terms of storytelling is that the reader is moving around a kind of textual landscape. Espen Aarseth makes this point in his book Cybertext by coining the term “ergodics,” which suggests a kind of physical story. While the meaning of a linear story can vary depending on the reader based on what details they notice or forget, in a video game large portions of the story can only be discovered if the reader specifically seeks them out.
There’s a system in place that determines how things relate, barriers that the player must overcome, and experiences that numerous readers will not catch on their first playthrough. A game isn’t just its content or game design alone, but rather, the space created when all these pieces come together. One of the best games to really explore and emphasize this strength is Hitman: Blood Money. Each level works like an ergodic vignette, a space with numerous possibilities that players can explore and discover new layers with each session.
You play as an assassin who must infiltrate an area and eliminate a target. While your character Agent 47 is capable of doing quite a bit of damage, you’re not unstoppable. Health is limited to two purchasable upgrades, so even if you plan to shoot everything that moves, you still have to approach the situation carefully. Difficulty settings change how paranoid the AI is, how many saves you can use per level, and what the penalty is for leaving evidence behind. These two design quirks facilitate a methodical style of play that encourages you to study your surroundings more intimately.
Unlike your average shooter, where you might only pause for a minute to admire the scenery, in Hitman: Blood Money you study the world carefully to find one of the many ways that you can take out a target. Every level contains dozens of options. You can poison someone’s drink, slip a sedative to a guard, wear a disguise, sneak around the back of a target’s location, plant explosives, and even rig “accidents” for the target. Jim Rossignol in his retrospective at Rock, Paper, Shotgun called it a “Rubik’s Murder Sim” to describe the huge number of solutions to the game’s levels. You can technically beat the entire game without firing a single bullet (not counting the last level) as long as you’re willing to carefully organize your approach.
From Rock, Paper, Shotgun
What makes all of this come together so well is how Hitman: Blood Money encourages you to create a role for yourself in this virtual space through disguises. Trespassing into forbidden areas of the level only results in a guard asking you to leave. You’re not just arbitrarily fired upon for no reason. Characters will often have routines that go beyond the normal patrol AI you see in games. A senator’s son won’t budge from his drunken hot tub party until you slip him an aphrodisiac. When you’re assigned to take out an opera singer with a penchant for pedophilia, you can watch him rehearse an entire scene from his show before he retires to his dressing room. Options for killing him include swapping out a set prop with a real gun or just timing your sniper shot with the scene in which he is shot in the play. The guards will even break routine occasionally for bathroom breaks.
The AI isn’t perfect. On his Fullbright blog, Steve Gaynor puts it well when he points out that it works like a disturbing Groundhog’s Day simulation since everyone repeats the same pattern. However, like a clockwork system, once you get a grip on the patterns you can slip into the mechanism and blend with it. The system makes it possible to engage with the people and get to know them personally if you want to kill them really skillfully.
The game builds on this engagement by making each of your targets have a quality that humanizes them. You’re never just killing someone who is an absolute asshole. Don Fernando runs a cocaine and vineyard operation, but when you finally sneak into his villa, you find him practicing the cello while looking out at a beautiful waterfall on his porch. Following that level, a newspaper reports on the job losses that come with the vineyard closing. When intercepting a team of assassins trying to take out a politician at Mardi Gras, two of them turn out to be lovers.
One of them continues to attempt to flirt with the other over the radio even after you kill one and listen to the other giving away their location with coy jokes. When you first observe another target, he is berating women and being a complete ass. Slip him a drug and wait for him to finish having sex with his current girlfriend, and he’ll eventually go to the far end of the mansion to be alone. Part of the reason that he has a contract on his life (put out by his own father) is that he accidentally killed a call girl, and it was caught on tape. However, this theme of feeling conflicted about your targets is most obvious in the first mission when you are assigned to take out an amusement park owner who had a string of bad luck.
After one of his rides accidentally kills several people, a grieving parent demands you show his son’s photo to him before finishing the mission. As you progress through the level you find out that his wife is divorcing him, gangs have taken over his park, and his life is falling apart. He begs and cries to be spared after he sees the photo, apologizing for everything. You’ll eventually have to shoot him just because he’s making so much noise.
Contrasting these complex assassination targets is your own character, Agent 47. A cloned killer with a barcode on the back of his head, he’s interestingly the most artificial person in the game both literally and figuratively. Like the player who is not bound to the consequences of their actions in the ergodic vignette, 47 is a character without remorse or reflection. When his contact with the Agency that hires out his work confesses that she’s being hunted by a rival group, 47 only asks dryly if his payment has been deposited. When his pet bird is making too much noise in one cutscene, 47 reaches over and silences it permanently.
Agent 47 is the one who isn’t human. The barcode on his head that you constantly see is a symbol of this artificial nature. The game shows this deliberately when you explore his hideout. While all of your targets live in gorgeous homes or have luxurious parties, 47 resides in an abandoned warehouse full of weapons. He’s a good video game avatar because his lack of empathy or emotion makes sense. He’s a clone who is trained only to kill. It’s the people we’re targeting that we are meant to relate to.
The core principle of the ergodic vignette is accepting the fact that a player is not going to see everything during their first experience of it. Or even their second, or third, and quite possibly never. Exploring the narrative possibilities is entirely up to the individual. Consider the level “A New Beginning” in which Agent 47 is sent to a Southern California suburb to assassinate a Federally protected witness. The mission is one of the best in the game because of the many options that you have for infiltrating the house. A walkthrough video shows the most efficient method: poison the surveillance van’s doughnuts, cut the power so that a guard checks the fuse box, and strangle the target while that guard is gone. Then, rig the grill to explode so that his wife has an accident without anyone connecting it to you, rush forward like you’re trying to help, and steal the microfilm around her neck before anyone is the wiser.
You can also complete the mission by dressing up as a clown and acting like you’re helping with a party for the target’s young daughter. Or, for speedrunners, you can kick open the doors of the house and shoot everyone in 48 seconds. Personally, I took the sniper approach to the mission. A tree house next door makes a perfect spot for viewing the pool party, and the husband becomes easy prey if you just slip inside at the right moment. None of these approaches force you to go upstairs to see the bedroom of the little girl whose parents you’re killing. Painted pink and covered with boy band posters, I only discovered it when I was looking for a place to hide a dead body.
Every level of the game is like this, full of tiny details and potential moments that encourage you to explore the space and get to know the various parts of its brief story. In the Vineyard level, you can pretend to be a tourist, go on the tour into the cellars, or just sneak around back and strangle a guard. One mission has you disposing of three mobsters in rehab. A lone person sits outside the clinic, smoking a final cigarette while his admission papers sit on the bench so that he can begin rehab. You can steal them or take out a patient who begs you to buy him some alcohol near the dumpsters. At a wedding party set in Mississippi, guests shoot guns in the backyard while others square dance underneath a huge oak tree.
Step onto the dance floor, and everyone stops and chides you for interrupting. Notice a drunken guest who vomits before passing out, and you can score an easy wedding invitation. While waiting inside the luxurious plantation home to catch the groom sneaking a taste of icing from the cake, I noticed one of the walls had a dark section of wallpaper, the kind that appears when someone moves a painting that has been in one place for years. That’s how impressive the attention to detail in Hitman: Blood Money can be.
An ergodic vignette is not a story in the sense that there are dramatic plot arcs. Instead, it’s about capturing the sense of a place becuse of the people that occupy that space, their reactions, and the details of their lives—a couple sneaking off from a tour to make out, a bachelor party at a casino, and countless other things that only become coherent when you realize that their purpose is to be part of a whole. Hitman: Blood Money is a game where you insert yourself into this place. You learn how this place works, assume a role in it, and then strike your target when there’s an opening. Each mission’s total possibilities can become a vignette of place, made without words or linear images, instead, composed of spaces and choices.