by Shawn Alexander Allen
In the first mission, Hitman Absolution does what few AAA games that invest heavily in creating a cutscene driven narrative do; it immediately throws away the pretense that anything in the game should be taken as anything but that, a game. Rather than effortlessly working to create a world where game mechanics are not spoken of and then trying to dance around the inevitable awkwardness that ensues when an in game character has to break the 4th wall and mention “Pressing X” or “Holding the Left Bumper”, the female-voiced tutorial overseer outright refers to Hitman Absolution as a game. She says that your score is kept in the upper left hand corner and that all of your acts are being monitored to the effect of being given a penalty or bonus based on the manner in which the missions are completed.
The numerous assertions that the tutorial makes about Hitman Absolution The Game over Hitman Absolution the Wannabe Gripping Thriller Drama, however, creates a certain irony when the first mandatory kill objective assigned to the player is taken away mere steps from the goal. This moment could have been one of intense gameplay bonding the player to the game world. Instead, the moment is played out in an awkward cutscene.
This is a big problem and something that gaming is supposed to be moving away from; forcefully ripping control from the player to insert narrative into situations that would be stronger if the player was allowed to actually interact with the scenario. The first big kill was apparently too important to leave up to the player with its importance hinging on a backstory that is quickly thrown at the player previously in the introduction.
The incongruities between the gameplay manifest set up by the tutorial and the cutscenes surrounding it exhibit a disregard for creating a cohesive game design. After instilling the player with a laundry list of tips about how to exist in and interact with the game world, the game betrays itself. The moment where the player loses control to a cutscene is the same moment where the stealth sandbox of Hitman Absolution, which usually focuses on player agency toward mission objective completion, is undermined. For me, the game doesn’t seem worth it anymore. The trust has been broken, and I haven’t even been playing for more than an hour.
I didn’t actually consciously notice this during my first time playing but on my second play through after losing my save file to a game crash. It was another moment that came not too much later that first raised an eyebrow. After playing for a couple or so missions and having a genuinely good time, despite the insistence on relying on the rote cutscene-gameplay-cutscene style, I hit a point that had me scratching my head at its inclusion.
It began outside of the door of my target, and it was locked. I looked around for a viable entrance and predictably there was the now overused replacement for a door, a vent, just waiting for me to press A to leap into so that I could proceed. While crawling forward the game goes black. A cutscene begins to play and my character is suddenly out of the vent, trying to garrote a rather large character. I had made it through the level leading up to this using the tools that I had in the game – from stealing disguises, distracting the guards and feeling anxiety as I made my way ultimately to my current fate. But I am now treated to watching the game being played for me.
This leads to another cliché where the player is knocked out in the scuffle, essentially losing a fight the player was never able to participate in. It’s from here that I get to watch a guy in a suit dance around, shout “Yee haw”, kill a maid, offer his stereotypically dressed female assistant, low cut shirt and all, a drink, and light the room on fire using off the shelf alcohol which somehow causes a massively explosive fire. And then the next stage starts.
Seven years into this console generation and six years since the last Hitman have seen the AAA game industry go from being dominant to gasping for air at retail. The continued push for spending far too many resources creates inadequately shot, directed and edited faux cinema content. That faux cinema is the inspiration for and constantly interrupts increasingly homogeneous gameplay design. Reliance on faux cinema hs been hurting games for years and Hitman Absolution took the plunge right into the fire.
Within the walls of Hitman Absolution is a perfectly fine game that I had a lot of fun with, but the points where the player is yanked out of the game by a decided reliance on AAA tropes also make it a game that is perhaps not worth giving a second look. Trapped in between wanting to play with the big boys and also wanting to maintain that spark of originality Hitman is known for, Hitman Absolution seems like a good game that was driven off course by the story designers and never did recover.
Shawn Alexander Allen, formerly at Rockstar, is a game designer who lives on the Lower East Side of New York City.