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The new game in the Hitman franchise is called simply Hitman. It’s as minimalist as it is appropriate; the game strikes at the bare core of what makes the franchise so engrossing, by rolling back the alterations that made the prior game, Hitman: Absolution, so controversial.
As a whole, the Hitman franchise helped popularize a type of gameplay that was more puzzle and stealth than action and shooting—you don disguises and stalk your targets, gathering the information you’ll need to take them out in a discreet manner. Absolution, released in 2012, was more linear, with checkpoints and mini-objectives.
“Each iteration of Hitman comes with its own unique style,” Hitman Art Director Jonathan Rowe told me. “Each game is driven by the technology that is available, and since the team that creates the Hitman games tends to change with each title, each iteration becomes a reinterpretation.”
With its posse of gun-toting, rocket launching, latex wearing nuns, Absolution was deliberately low art; its cinematic scenes would be right at home in a ‘70s sexploitation film. Agent 47 never traveled beyond the borders of the United States, and every human target, even if he was wearing an expensive, three-piece suit, was a lowlife with no class.
“With Absolution, the style they went with really suited the tone of their story,” says Rowe. “The gloom and the heavy vignetting was very typical of video games from the mid ‘00s. But in Hitman , it wasn’t appropriate; we didn’t want to go down that same route. Agent 47 is moving in more elite circles. He’s not picking off the street scum; the targets have become more expensive.”
Rowe wanted to dial the histrionics all the way down for Hitman. It’s a lot more reserved, and a lot less psychotic. That starts with Agent 47 himself; Rowe’s team designed him as a cosmopolitan, healthy man in his prime who is confident in a variety of settings—no artifice. Everything in the environment is meant to feel similarly natural and blended in, rather than garish and hyper-stylized.
“Every art director brings their own influence and unique touch,” Rowe says. “I personally have a more naturalistic touch. I’m a huge cinematography fan, and I love the soft photographic feel, where the colors are a little bit more natural and a little bit more controlled.”
Square Enix and IO Interactive are releasing Hitman incrementally, and thus far the only major level available for play is a multi-storied, antiquated Paris palace that serves as the backdrop for an elite fashion show. The inspiration for the Paris palace’s exterior was the Palais du Luxembourg in real life Paris, which was designed by architect Salomon de Brosse to be the home of Louis XIII’s mother. Beyond that, it’s a hybrid of several Parisian structures like Versailles—little flourishes and touches here and there that give the building its character.
The palace’s interior, on the other hand, is an homage to Stanley Kubrick. Rowe was inspired by Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon—from the ornate, near obsessive attention to period detail, to the exclusive use of candlelight and sunlight to lend an authentic, “natural” atmosphere. A player can really see this during the secret auction on the top floor of the mansion, when the lights go down and the candles on the banquet table become more prominent.
“It’s all about about having these dim spaces with these warm points of light,” Rowe says.
According to Rowe, the art team also took artistic inspiration from Kubrick’s 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s film was a critique of the wealthy elite’s moral decay and their insular decadence. Hitman’s palace was intended to feel cloistered—like the player was intruding on something exclusive, with “a chill in the air” that they weren’t supposed to see.
The player can see evidence of this Eyes Wide Shut homage in key areas of the level, such as the darkly lit grand staircase upon entering the mansion. The fashion show and cocktail bar even have visual nods to Kubrick’s “shooting into the light” technique—Rowe took inspiration from The Shining and how Kubrick used uplighting to illuminate the characters’ faces.
The smaller details in Hitman are equally impressive. One of Rowe’s main artistic objectives was to give each Hitman level a sense of cohesion; the Paris palace had to feel like a building that somebody had lived in, rather than like a video game level.
Take, for instance, a screwdriver that’s lying on a shelf. Rowe is interested in knowing who left it there, and why. “Just because it’s a game” or “just because it’s a weapon” are both poor excuses. Every room and every object should have a small story.
At times, this led to minimal compromise between the gameplay developers and the art team. Rowe recalls a specific instance when he was looking over the Paris level’s exterior. He noticed a pile of flight cases lying out on the lawn, with little context as to how they got there. From a gameplay perspective, they made perfect sense; they provided some cover to hide from enemies in an otherwise open location. But from a narrative perspective, those boxes had to go. Every placement of every object had to tell a story. Every event needed a reason to take place.
The fashion show, in particular, needed a purpose and reason for existing. The women’s clothes were already designed at the time that Rowe joined the project, whereas the men’s clothes were not. “What was missing was an overall theme for the show,” Rowe says. “Fashion shows need a theme; the designer has a starting point, and a reason for that collection to come into being.”
“So I came up with this metaphor using ice and frost,” Rowe says. “When there’s light frost, it forms these curvy patterns that are quite beautiful. So, whereas the female models were more ‘frost,’ we decided to use ‘ice’ for the guys. The women are more accessible; you could imagine them wearing those dresses to a cocktail party. I wanted to go a little bit more nuts with the guys; there are more jagged shapes and aggressive cuts to what they’re wearing.”
There are also behind-the-scenes touches that were not explicitly noticeable but work on a subliminal level to make the gameplay more enjoyable. Originally, when Rowe joined the project, the Paris level was set at night, after sunset, in complete darkness. Here’s some preliminary art that reflects that original concept:
But Rowe and his team changed the time frame of the level to early evening at sunset. That’s because the palace is sprawling, and for a Hitman beginner, it can be disorienting to navigate through the sheer number of rooms. The sunset provides a modicum of guidance; it casts shadows through the windows of the mansion, and it orients the player by establishing East, West, North, and South.
Other tricks included changing the floor patterning and the colors of the lights themselves so that each room can be distinguished from the next. All of these helped to orient the player, no matter if they were in the attic or outside on the patio.
“I was really blown away when I first joined the company, when I saw how big Paris was,” says Rowe. “It took me weeks to get my head around the scale of the thing. I would get lost in the level constantly. And part of my role as Art Director is to get the artwork to help the gameplay.”
Rowe is looking forward to future episodes of Hitman, which he hopes will allow a form of escapist, virtual tourism. Paris is only the tip of the iceberg; the fictional coastal town of Sapienza, Italy will be released in April, apparently with a lighter, more harmless feel to it than Paris. Here are some exclusive pictures that Rowe shared:
The developers will be releasing Marrakesh, Morocco in May, and this level, by contrast, will be more menacing. Here are some exclusive pictures of that level as well, still under development:
Beyond that there will be levels set in Thailand, the United States, and Japan, all of which will be released by the end of the calendar year, and each of which will be different in tone and mood. Rowe feels a responsibility to maintain the franchise’s visual quality—he thinks of himself as a caretaker, who will one day pass the Hitman legacy into another set of capable hands, and wants to leave that legacy better than he found it. So far, Rowe and his team are pleased with the response that they’ve received, and some of the most flattering responses have come from French gamers.
“They’ve told us that even though they can’t point to the specific location, it feels right,” Rowe says. “It tastes like Paris. And that’s a testament to the team who have built this slice of the game world, using visual motifs that you’d expect to see in Paris. We’ve got French guys in the studio who joined the team after me who said that it feels like home.”
“You can’t get a bigger compliment than that,” he added.
Wing-Man Wong has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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This article was edited once shortly after publication to correct a factual error.