On the face of it, opening and closing doors sound a lot less fun than creeping around mansions and cruise liners, assassinating sleazy power-brokers. After all, you and I will likely open a bunch of doors today and not give any of them a second thought. Fantasies are rarely built on the mundane.
But doors hold a special place in fiction, and in Hitman, they hold the entire game together.
Developer Io recently gave a demonstration of Hitman at a media event in San Francisco. I played the tutorial levels (see video) that will be part of the beta, which comes out later this week. I also played the Parisian mansion level that makes up the core of the game's first episode, due to be released on March 11.
In the opening scene, the assassin Agent 47 approaches the vast doors of a Parisian mansion, treading softly on a red carpet. Inside, the house is filled with desirable people. It is a place of fashion models, moneyed elites, criminal masterminds and politicians.
Agent 47 is an outsider who must disguise himself as part of this world, in order to gain entry to the places where he can undertake his mission. He enters the doorway as a killer, but he also becomes part of the elite gathering.
It's interesting that Agent 47 encounters a small group of people just outside the mansion. a camera team and a reporter, also outsiders who represent the yearning of their viewers to gain access to the secret places of the rich and the famous. In Hitman, we go to the places we are normally not allowed to go.
Pleasure and Privacy
The house is large. There are many rooms. Right from the start, it's clear that key areas are blocked off. Security guards are very rude when Agent 47 tries to stroll past them. To them, the idea that this man can go through that door is downright hilarious.
This is the way life works. Do Not Enter is displayed somewhere in every pub, supermarket and gas station you have ever been. There may be rooms in your own house, where you are not allowed.
I gained enormous satisfaction from bypassing these goons, either by sneaking in through a window or, more often, disabling some lowly functionary (a waiter or a repairman) and using his uniform as a disguise.
Passing through these doors into the forbidden places is Hitman's core emotional pull. This is what makes the game fun. It's like breaking into the long, silent corridors of school, after the teachers and the janitors have gone home. We all enjoy being in places where we are not supposed to be.
Much of the pre-release ballyhoo about this game has been about the number of AI characters at work in each scene and how the player must negotiate these clockwork marionettes in order to effect one of many potential outcomes.
It makes each game an intricate mechanical toy, which works automatically when left alone, but which works to the player's advantage when altered. Of course, if the player's meddling is clumsy, the whole world falls apart. The assassination attempt is discovered. The player must go back and try again. This happens a lot, as you might expect. When it does, the player's illusion of power falls apart. Going back to a save spot is not a part of the fantasy. It is a state of failure.
So, the ideal strategy is to creep around the house, trying door handles and hiding behind curtains, in order to observe as much as possible, before making a move. It's important to know, for example, that the door at the end of the corridor is a cupboard where bodies can be quietly stashed away.
Doors and Floors
Hitman is about sliding into as many rooms as possible, about being in the forbidden places in order to execute, most efficiently and gracefully, the mission at hand. There are a lot of doors in Hitman and each one tells its own story.
Doors are powerful symbols in fiction. The final scene in The Godfather, when Michael shuts himself away from Kay. Dorothy stepping out of the house in The Wizard of Oz. Neo and Morpheus, outside a door in The Matrix. "I can only show you the door. You are the one who has to walk through it." They are transitions between ignorance and knowledge, the difference between access and egress.
Their use in games is predicated upon the way games work from a narrative and technological point of view. Games are about progress. More of the story is beyond the locked door. Fulfill required tasks and the opened door will load the next level. It's little wonder that the game many people cite as their all time favorite, is called Portal.
In Hitman, the player can make use of vast arsenal of weapons, including guns, knives, rope, poison, bombs and environmental stuff, such as a loosened chandelier. But opening doors makes up the game's central activity. It's a game of hide and seek., in which the forbidden places must be discovered and understood, before the finger tightens on the trigger.
As the players becomes more familiar with the environment, the game opens up, allowing the player to make use of ever-more sophisticated methods of assassination. In the end, the player is driven by a desire to connect all the game's spaces together in order to pull off the perfect hit.