The best part of Hitman is playing each new level until you’ve completed every challenge, killed your targets in dozens of different ways, and memorized the movements of every character and the contours of every hallway, ballroom and plaza. You can spend hours and hours replaying the same mission until everything is perfect—killing your targets without getting spotted, hiding their bodies, preventing any other casualties, and doing it all without wearing a disguise is the ultimate victory. And if I hadn’t achieved all that, I would have had a much tougher time killing Hitman’s first elusive target—especially inebriated as I was.
The elusive target is an anomaly. Available for only 48 hours, the mission lacks all the normal objective cues, so you’re left with little guidance. And the target must be assassinated skillfully, because if you get killed in the process, it’s game over—and you won’t get another chance. If you fail the mission you can’t retry, and the target will never, ever appear again, Torben Ellert, Hitman’s lead online designer at developer IO Interactive, promised me.
“This is a unique character. This is a unique set-up. This is unique voicing,” Ellert said. “Sergei Larin is gone. He’s never coming back.”
There’s been one new Hitman level released each month since the game came out in March, the newest, set in Marrakesh, Morocco, due May 31. Ellert is in charge of everything that happens in the game in between those releases, from crafting fresh challenges for players to building the elusive targets. We chatted during an event hosted by Hitman publisher Square Enix meant to give journalists a sneak peek at the games that will be shown at next month’s E3 conference, a big gaming event in Los Angeles.
I’m not sure what we were supposed to talk about, but we wound up chatting mostly about the elusive targets. The second arrives today and disappears tomorrow, and my friends and I are excited. “This is a party game! It’s crazy!” Ellert said when I described to him how I’d killed the last one.
We’d had other plans that night, but when I remembered that the elusive target would be gone by the following morning I turned on the PS4 instead. By the time Larin, a notorious art forger, was dead we’d collectively done 15 tequila shots (one when we found him, one when we got him alone, when the deed was done, etc.). We lost our minds laughing, especially when I shimmied back into the room where it had happened and turned on the vacuum cleaner so someone would find the body and “everyone would know what I’d done.” You can watch a recap in the video below:
“We were really, really looking forward to seeing how people played that,” Ellert said. “It’s funny sometimes just how much you laugh at this grim, dark humor that just happens.”
There are an infinite number of ways to enjoy Hitman. You can do as I do and map everything out in your head so you get the perfect kill, or you can attempt to go in guns blazing (although unlike in most games the titular hitman Agent 47 goes down after just a few hits, making that way harder). There are endless shades in between. But the elusive target—the weight of it, the challenge of going in blind without any of the usual help from the game, the possibility of fucking it up—that’s been cooking for a long time.
“We built the first [elusive target] a year and a half ago, and you could kind of see the contours of what it wanted to be. We didn’t have the narrative in place or custom characters or anything like that, but it was just the fundamentals of it: a target that you must identify based on what he looks like and what you know about him,” Ellert said. “And as we moved forward and we got the forger built more or less in the state that was played this past weekend, we got ten guys in from the different teams at IO, got them into our game cafe, sat them down and got them to play it. And the experience even of the people who failed was broadly what you’re describing. It was a very tense, very real experience.”
You can put your face in it now, but please don’t be surprised when your cake is messed up.
The FOMO (fear of missing out) may turn some players off, but for others it’s that exact thrill—the possibility of actual, irreversible failure—that makes the elusive target absolutely essential playing.
“Consequence…that’s the promise of these game modes,” Ellert said. “We’ve seen people do it in minutes, but there’s something interesting in that right? Because each of these is a custom character. There’s story, there’s narrative…and some guy who just rolls in, puts two in the guy’s chest and books for the exit is like, ‘oh my god worst content ever.’ It’s like well, here is a lovely cake. You can put your face in it now, but please don’t be surprised when your cake is messed up.”
That’s kind of a great metaphor for Hitman as a whole. Basically everyone was skeptical about the game’s episodic structure—one level released each month instead of all at once like most games—especially after the last Hitman game, the not-too-well-received Hitman: Absolution, left a sour taste for many fans. The developers expected as much, as they told Edge Magazine (via videogamer.com):
“We were expecting people to be skeptical up front,” [Hitman Creative Director Christian] Elverdam said. “There’s this old quote: ‘Everyone loves progress, but no one really likes change’. We can’t really persuade anything that this is a good idea, I think. We’ll have to let the game speak for itself.”
If every mission in Hitman had come out all at once, I would have brute forced through each one in turn and probably put the game down. With just one meaty level to chew on each month, I’ve gone back in and really savored every single one, especially when something as cool as an elusive target appears.
“It was the creative objective that we would make it a service game, it would be episodic, we would build this content and we would put it into the game, and we would respond to what was happening, and we would make the game better over time,” Ellert said. As the lead online designer, that is his job, after all.
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