Hitman: Contracts is the best role-playing game I have ever played. It’s also the only real role-playing video game that I’ve ever seen.
Sure, there are lots of video games that call themselves role-playing games. These pretenders cloak themselves in fantasy elements stolen from Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons and hope that simply the inclusion of dwarves will earn them an RPG categorization. But role-playing means more than just questing for some lost ring of Alakthar, arming yourself with a +2 flaming mace, and fighting hordes of ice trolls.
Typically, the only role you get to play in a video game RPG is that of a consumer. The only real decisions you get to make are things like whether or not you’re going to buy the leather armour or shell out for the jeweled stuff. You get to ask yourself, “What goes better with my iron shield, the Short Sword of Dexterity or the Staff of Disruption?” In better games, maybe you’ll get some kind of non-linear element to play with. You get to decide whether to kill the High Orc or not kill the High Orc. Whoopee.
These games never challenge you to be anything other than just somebody who’s playing a video game. Unlike the original pen-and-paper RPGs, where assuming the role of your character was the whole point, video game role-playing lacks any such immersion. Even players of online role-playing games rarely bother to actually play a role. Is there anything more destructive to the atmosphere created by a virtual online universe than overhearing two elves talking about the latest Star Trek episode as they try to defeat a Frost Dragon.
Maybe I’m just a big nerd, but getting into character for me is one of the biggest thrills of playing a video game. My girlfriend (yes, I do have one) gets so involved with the characters in the games she plays that she feels horribly guilty every time she accidentally lets them die. Our fun comes from being able to leave our real identities behind and become someone or something else for a while.
In this way, Hitman: Contracts is to video games what Method acting is to drama. Unlike most games which create only a superficial bond between gamer and character, success at Contracts comes precisely from how well you assume the role of the protagonist. To complete the game’s missions, you literally have to think like a hitman.
The game progresses through a series of linear missions, but the missions themselves are radically non-linear. Each mission presents you, as hitman Agent 47, with a map and a target (or series of targets) to kill. How you go about accomplishing your goals is completely up to you. Will you try and infiltrate the mansion and poison the target’s food? You could try to find some high ground and take the target out with a sniper rifle. For those with real professionalism, why not try and sneak past all of the guards and take out the target with your bare hands? You can plant car bombs, smother the target with a pillow while he’s sleeping, or just go in with guns blazing and massacre everyone in sight.
The missions take 47 to exotic locales, each with their own challenges. Gamers get to infiltrate a biker gang’s hideout in Holland, an aristocrat’s castle in Britain, and a Russian terrorist’s ship among other locations. Most addicting is a mission in which 47 is contracted to hit two targets who are staying in a huge luxury hotel that’s swarming with security, guests, and the targets’ guards. The mission requires navigating through the labyrinthine hotel, slinking from room to room, stealing keys from hotel maintenance personnel, and making numerous costume changes. This one mission alone is playable for days as you explore every possible way of meeting your objectives as stealthily as possible.
But choice alone does not make a role-playing experience. What makes the Hitman series unique is its emphasis on getting the gamer to try and act in character at all times. A critical aspect of the game involves using the proper disguises. Sneaking through a swarm of police officers is next to impossible unless Agent 47 is wearing a police uniform, for example. More than just this, though, you need to make sure 47 acts like a police officer while the other characters are watching him. This means carrying the right weapon, not being seen going somewhere a police officer should not go, and even not running when everyone else is walking. Any suspicious acts result in your cover being blown and usually, in 47 being blown away.
Actually killing a target is less important than how you do it. You earn weapon rewards at the end of each mission depending on various factors such as how few innocents you killed, how many times guards spotted you, and how accurately you fired your weapons. With this incentive, gamers are inspired to try and attain the highest level of professionalism while taking out their targets. In other words, Contracts specifically rewards those players who are better at playing the role of a hitman. I know of no other game that so strongly encourages gamers to take on the persona of their onscreen avatar.
For this reason, I call Hitman: Contracts a role-playing game, if not the role-playing game. It stands as a call to other video game designers to try and invoke the same level of immersion into the role of a game’s character. Until then, I look forward to the day when those that call themselves role-playing games start living up to their name.