After going into hiding for almost half-a-decade, Agent 47 emerged from the shadows at last year’s E3. We recently sat down with Tore Blystad, game director on Hitman: Absolution at IO Interactive. He explained the game’s cinematic influences, the controversial “Saints” trailer and “Instinct” mode. Buckle up, it’s a long ride.
Game On: This is your return to the Hitman franchise. How has the game progressed and how are you taking it from what people are used to to where we are today?
Tore Blystad: The feeling of accomplishing something by yourself and getting away with it, that’s the perfect feeling in a Hitman game. As we’ve shown on the floor [at E3] in the Chinatown area, it’s kind of a small level in the game. It’s one scene with a goal in the middle of the area and it’s up to you how you want to go about it. We planted a sniper rifle in the level, the target has a car you can blow up if you find the explosives in the level and get him into the car, you can poison his food, dress up as his drug dealer and beat him up and give him some poisoned drugs.
It’s completely up to the player, but it gives a lot of responsibility to the player because they actively have to discover for themselves which tools are available and how to use them. Do they just want to go in and shoot the target in the face and see if they can get away with it or do they want to make an elaborate plan and see how it unfolds? The big, big challenge is it’s not that common in games that you have this freedom of choice. You make a move and the game reacts. In the previous Hitman games, we had this very binary reaction: either the AI knew you or they didn’t. Everybody just comes out [if you botch a job] and you’d be murdered within seconds.
One thing we’ve been focusing on is taking a far more believable progression with the AI, kind of a hive-mind sense. If you’re dressed up in any disguise and someone sees through your disguise, only that guy has the knowledge about you infiltrating them. If he gets away, he’ll tell his friends and then you’ll have a big problem. If you can take him down quickly, then you can contain the situation and not have any hassles in the world. We’re using more of a common sense approach to the AI with how the game reacts to what you are doing as a player.
When you go into action, the AI and the way that the propagation of information to the AI [is handled] to give the best experience is something that we now have to take care of –and cater to– from every kind of level or angle the player could come up with.
The game looks gorgeous from a visual standpoint. Are there any tricks you’ve had to employ to get it to look that good? You’re working with very old hardware; the Xbox 360 and PS3 are six and five years old. Did you find some hidden horsepower?
TB: We’re very lucky and unlucky with this process. We were allowed to start from scratch with new technology that we built specifically for this game. That’s why it’s taken a long time to actually get the tech to behave properly. We’ve gotten to the point where the art direction of the game is dictating how the technology is progressing. We have a very strong focus on making a dramatic game with dramatic scenery and a lot of focus on shadow and light; the whole engine is based on that premise. We can very quickly go into our tools and in real-time set up the mood we need for a certain situation.
This is so much about the characters and how they move about. We see how we can make that feel dramatic even though it’s up to the player and how they want to approach the situation. We have to be able to handle that from an artistic point of view from both the visual side and the audio side to create a tense situation no matter how you play it. We really don’t want to make the game feel forced. The problem we have when showing the game, is when we show a play-through people say it looks really linear. That’s because the AI is reacting as you go through the game, but if you take any other path you could have a different dramatic walkthrough of the game. It would still seem linear because the player is triggering different aspects. The dramatic music will trigger if you take out your guns, everything will change.
So anytime you pull your guns out the audio changes?
TB: Not really, it’s actually listening based on the AI. If you pull out your guns and they see you and the knowledge starts spreading, enemies go into a large-scale panic. Now they’re going for the big guns. If you choose to hang back or hide they’ll back off, but if you murder half of the level of course they’ll never back down. But if you make a mistake you’re given an option to hang back and everything will go back to normal and the music will follow that, so the levels will follow what the player is doing and the AI reactions.
What you’re doing is using the music to create the tension and to amp it up. With the different levels of tension and awareness are there different levels of the music? If you have one guy who knows what you’re up to, is that going to be a less tense score that builds the more and more people realize what you’re up to?
TB: Yeah, in a way. And it’s also local to every place in the level, they’ll have different scores based on different areas. This is where it gets really ambitious because our music department then has to score not just the levels in the game, they also have to score sections of those levels based on all the different things that can happen.
Is it easy to work with the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 to do that with your audio system?
TB: Yeah. Basically, we’re working from PC hardware editors; we have some pretty good tools. We have the AI “brain” with all the pins out saying these are all the things that happen when the AIs are reacting, and for every single AI or NPC in the level [designers] can look up whatever music and stingers they want to use to get a dramatic effect. If you have a level and some choke points at different places, those NPCs will be key to creating interesting experiences at those points. That all comes down to the manpower we have to whip all these things up, it takes a lot of time and a lot of testing. Working with an AI that’s so complex, it can break in so many different ways. It has to be robust to handle whatever they player can come up with.
Based on the videos I’ve seen, it almost looks like the game is running at 60 frames per second. Is it?
TB: No, it’s running at 30. We would love it to run at 60 because it gives such a smooth experience but because of our renderer — we have some very complex light rendering — and the AI taking a lot of performance power. We can’t do much about it; the AI is the heart of the game. We’re still optimizing, though.
How diverse is one mission to the next? Is every mission as different from one another as Chinatown and the police department?
TB: Yes. That’s always been the mission for the Hitman games: to make every level feel unique. For the players, Hitman is about telling your friends about how you played this level. Giving them pointers and references to “okay, now I’m playing the Chinatown level” or “Streets of Hope” that we’re showing here, which has a desert-town feel. It should always feel like you never know what’s coming next, so if you finish one level and the next one will be, in our ambition, as different as we possibly can make it. It’s good for the player; finishing the level and then getting a reward of seeing something completely new, which we want to do of course. There’s a limit of how much content we can cram into an Xbox game.
How much are you using color and visual cues like a film grain filter to communicate information and to sell a mood?
TB: That’s a very big part for us: creating diversity and making every level feel like it has its own filter and its own camera, that it’s been post –processed by a different company. The “Streets of Hope” level has more of a ‘60s feeling to it with a sepia tone filter, whereas “Chinatown” has more of a serious spy movie feel to it. It’s also to play around with the style of the game because Hitman is about replayability of the levels. You can replay it in any number of ways and always get a different experience. It also puts a lot of pressure on the assets of the levels. If you get tired of the style, you might not want to come back to it; every level has to feel quite special, because if you’re replaying those levels individually then you’ll still have something new to look forward to.
The nuns trailer from before E3 felt like a ‘70s exploitation movie.
TB: That’s exactly what we were going for. That looks out of place compared to what we had on the show floor. That’s one power of the game: the [levels] have very distinct styles and directions within every level. They were shooting to do this one for the trailer because it’s more of an outrageous style and unique [for the game].
Did you see the movie Machete? It reminded me a lot of that.
TB: [Laughs] That’s the great part about this! It was planned before Machete even came out. We were looking into these styles because it’s always been a passion at IO to use movies as references. We have this huge library of movies and we like to do all these different things that pay respect to the different styles and directors, people like [Quentin] Tarantino or David Lynch — someone who has an interesting character to their movies.
What were some of the specific movies you wanted to channel with each mission?
TB: It’s difficult to pin it down. Something like Wild at Heart or some of the David Lynch movies they have been interesting looking at more of kind of “on the road” movies. Telling a story where you’re always changing location, changing style and pacing and having some characters that are really, really strong and unique. David Lynch is very in to that, but he’s also very extreme at times.
How are you using color to tell the story and sell the mood of each mission?
TB: We actually have two main styles, a noir-inspired style which is like these old Tim Burton movies to a point where something is kind of stylized but still feeling realistic. Then we have this Western style with the sand and it’s more dusty. We have these two very distinct main styles of the game, but within that there’s a number of different permutations that allows us to mix it up for the player. I always feel disappointed with games where you have one style throughout the entire game, it comes to a point where you say enough of this, give me something new.
Right, it’s like seeing brown level after brown level over and over. It builds into the psychology that if each level looks different, you’re going to want to keep pushing on to see what’s next. Were there any genres of movies that were off limits where you said it wouldn’t work in the game?
TB: Nothing is off limits! [Laughs]
What was the genre you were most proud of getting into the game?
TB: Because of the subject matter, you’re a professional assassin; it’s pretty grim from the get-go. There’s a serious layer on top of everything. Right below that layer there’s all this craziness and dark and tongue-in-cheek humor like you said with the nuns in the “Saints” trailer. I think with getting more into these exploitation [movies] but not really going as far as Machete or something similar that’s like a paper cut-out kind of movie, we’re trying to take the best parts of that and pairing them with something where there’s a little more human drama within the characters and the levels.
It feels like somehow you can care about this character and there is some hidden depth as such. There are so many characters in the game and our mission is that every character stands out. We have a story to tell, so of course as you go through the game unless you really replay everything you won’t see these details. We really hope players can still feel like this universe. If you care a little bit more about the characters, they all have a place in the world.
What does “absolution” mean in terms of the game?
TB: It means you’re having your sins forgiven. 47 has done a lot of bad things throughout his life; there’s a particular one at the start of the game where he’s killing off his only friend from the old games, Diana Burnwood. Absolution is how he can repay her for what he did. That’s as far as I can go into the story.
What always struck me is how complex of a character 47 is. He’s a clone so he doesn’t have a soul yet he found redemption and solace at a monastery. He’d go back in the toolshed and there weren’t garden tools but his tools: walls filled with weapons. It was a neat contrast; he’s a professional killer but he finds solace gardening in the monastery.
I talked about the “Saints” trailer with someone who hadn’t played any of the games, and he was talking about the nuns. I told him there had always been religious themes to the games.
TB: This is exactly what we were going for; it is a big theme within the games, the religious undertones. It ties into 47’s character. He’s the Grim Reaper, someone you call when you want something bad done that you don’t want to do yourself. It’s not in his job description to judge, it’s up to the player to decide how he’s performing his job. In a way, you could say he’s a very simple character. But because the player can read so much into him, he also hopefully becomes a more interesting character to play because he’s a little bit more of what you are when you play the game.
How did “Instinct” mode come in, where you can see from a different point of view and see what’s going on around you?
TB: That was controversial for the hardcore fans when they saw it. From the team’s perspective, the reason it came about was we’re building this AI that’s far more complex and has so many more ways to react to the player. But [the game] also becomes a lot more difficult then. We added some tools that the player can use to get a slight advantage on the AI. Using “Instinct” is a light version of the map from the old games. The map was the entire level with everything laid out and all the guards where you could sit and see and plot your way through. We wanted to take that feeling and put it into the game itself, into the 3D world so you don’t have the two distinct games you’re playing. Now you have the “Instinct” mode, you can see [the map] within the game world itself.
It eliminates the time spent staring at a map; it’s not taking you out of the game and there’s no disconnect between the two modes then. I’m all for staying within the game universe, you don’t have to keep reminding me I’m playing a video game.
TB: That’s how [the map] was always intended for us; it wasn’t supposed to be a sort of wooden mechanic that you could use to understand everything. It’s far more complex than that. We can only give you some tools, and then the player has to figure out how to use them; that’s the most interesting part for us. You need to have some information about the world before you can have a reaction.