I’ll admit, I had never played a Hitman game nor was very interested until early last year, when I picked up the 2016 reboot based on the praise it received from a YouTuber I watch. I love stealth games, so it’s weird that I never really touched one of the premier series, but boy am I glad I got on the wagon late rather than never. My experience going through Hitman 2016’s levels for the first time was almost magical, and with Hitman 2 I can say it’s only gotten better. There’s something about the level design that especially captivates me, and hopefully I can explain why.
For reference, in this post I’ll be using “Hitman” to refer to the 2016 and 2018 releases.
Hitman’s levels are sort of intricately-woven mazes. Players usually begin in open areas with more civilians and explore the area, getting leads on the targets and mapping out routes. One detail that continuously surprises me is how many small passageways there are. Buildings often aren’t just facades but mapped structures with hiding places and items strewn about. Most doors seem to have something on the other side. Of course, you can’t easily move through somewhere without a proper disguise. One of Hitman’s core gameplay loops is the routine of scoping out an area, knocking someone out to take their clothes, then using them to explore more areas. Knocking out a chef lets you move through the kitchen and into a breakroom, which can get you a janitor’s outfit, which lets you further move into a compound. Oftentimes NPCs in levels will have a chain of command. Targets are often surrounded by elites that can go practically anywhere uncontested, the rank below them can go everywhere but the elite-only areas, and so on, all the way to street level. It makes mapping out levels easier if you do it this way - if you were to draw borders over the level maps based on this chain-of-command, it would probably look like some sort of topographical map - there would be a few circles of the highest level with rings surrounding them for each next step down.
(Artist’s Rendition of the Colorado Level. Original map from hitmanmaps.com)
In this example, the black outlines are either extremely high-rank, and therefore free, or found only in that area, thus requiring other elite disguises to reach. You start in the bottom-right corner and three of the targets hover around the house in the top left, so a typical route will follow the progression from green to yellow to red. As players approach their targets they pass through and into progressively more dangerous zones.
That still does a disservice, though. Each greyed-out rectangle is a building with its own architecture and identity. Moving around the right edge leads to barns filled with hay bales, making for good cover to hide or take out guards. The left side reaches more of a garage which is more open but has plenty of tools to help for later. The large field in the very middle holds a greenhouse which, if it weren’t for the glass walls, would be perfect to kill one of the targets. In a way, Hitman’s levels treat buildings and rooms as miniature levels with encounters of their own. A single room can have as much weight and impact as the whole outdoor field in the colorado map. Take the sushi kitchen in Hokkaido. The head chef knows every chef under him but is only focused on what’s in front of him. The assistant chef’s disguise allows you to poison a target, but he helps the head chef prepare food. The assistant will attend to any other tasks before the head chef moves away from his post, so by making noise in the nearby deep freeze you could take out the assistant in privacy, take his disguise, and hide his body. Of course, you’d still have to avoid getting caught by the head chef.
This example seems simple in practice, but recognizing the opportunity, piecing together the necessary items, then learning the chefs’ movement patterns can take a fair amount of time. Some of the more complex situations took me up to 20 minutes to plan everything, and only in a small square of the entire level. It’s treated with the same care as a battle in an rpg, only it’s a tactical battle instead of a direct one.
Thinking of levels on a room-by-room basis isn’t entirely accurate, however. The game’s most common setpieces and elements, those which appear in every level, often allow players to guide NPCs around the level and out of their comfort zone. Players can try and poison drinks or food to make those who consume them rush to a private area. Players can turn on machines or faucets and someone will come and investigate. Sometimes the only way to get an important NPC away from the public is to use one of these. Of course, other NPCs might investigate instead, so choosing where and when to make distractions has to take into account NPC movement patterns and lines of sight. In this sense, players can map out levels based on key “safe zones” to lure targets to.
These many forms of mental mapping work well for player experience. The levels of Hitman can feel intimidating when first entering and realizing their scope and size. Quickly giving players an understanding of what types of disguises, their zones of influence, and key rooms can give players a strong footing. Often times the starting areas will be pretty restrictive and cramped, giving the player an urgency to find something while limiting the amount of space they can explore. The first disguise then usually uncovers a much larger portion, letting players then hunt for leads on targets. It’s a sense of relief that happens a few times throughout a given level.
Hitman’s levels don’t have an incredibly in-depth storyline, as far as plot is concerned. You enter a location to locate a target who’s done a few too many evil deeds. You learn more about them, kill them, then leave. There are some twists to the formula, but that’s the main plot portion. The meaty part of the story comes in the gameplay narrative.
Gameplay narrative, or at least how I’m using it, is the storyline that the player’s actions tell, or the way game actions follow a narrative structure. When you think of a typical narrative structure you’d probably think about things like rising actions, climaxes, and resolutions. Levels in Hitman begin with the inciting action of entering a level and getting accustomed to it. Rising actions are small stealth challenges to get disguises and leads. Each of these challenges have their own mini-arc of seeing a seemingly impossible task, piecing together every piece, then exploiting the NPCs to achieve your plan. The main climaxes of the level come when you understand an assassination method and perform it or when you reach a previously inaccessible area safely. There’s twists and revelations. It’s all in the context of how a player approaches gameplay.
Considering the “area of influence” concept, it’s easy to see how a level follows this structure. Each tier is like an act of a story. Level designers can help properly pace a level by finding out how many tiers are crossed and give each one proper room to build and settle.
Take, for instance, the Paris level from Hitman 2016. Players start on the ground floor of a mansion, appearing as a guest for a fashion show. The ground floor is covered in guests and guards, which combined with a lack of useful items builds tension. When a player finally finds their chance, they can start to move up to the 2nd floor. The 2nd floor makes it easier to kill the first target but also makes the player realise how tough getting to the third floor can be. Once you get to the third floor you’re faced with your final challenge, and descending back down to leave is easy in comparison.
This example also highlights how levels separate areas physically. Paris is mainly divided into the three floors. The first floor is more about exposition, revealing leads on the targets. The 2nd floor helps you focus on and kill the first target. The 3rd is the main place players will go for the 2nd target. Each target, then, is given an area where players can easily follow them. Each physical area gives players a clear understanding of what disguises are allowed or where to go next. Additionally, the 3rd floor reveals more of the seedy backstory behind the targets, and the 2nd floor acts as a buffer to help emphasize the difference between the public and private areas.
This divide in thematic purposes is used often throughout the games. Sapienza’s targets both reside in a villa on a cliff top overlooking a town. The targets act very aloof compared to the pedestrians. The more aloof of the two doesn’t easily leave the villa. The other, who’s revealed to have a simpler childhood, can be convinced to descend to the chapel in the town below, walking through the square, when reminded of his mother. Underground within a cave sits a prototype virus that threatens the globe. The player has to venture into the cave to destroy it. The cave is a fitting domain for what’s treated as a sleeping monster.
Honestly, the layers of design and the care with which they’ve been crafted make it hard to forget each level. That doesn’t even touch on the number of play styles supported and encouraged. Not to mention that detailing every neat and clever part of the game would take much longer. Maybe another time.