Hitman: A World of Fumbled Assassinations

Hitman feels at its best when you don’t have things under control, when you’ve messed up and been spotted launching a fire axe into a guy’s skull. A large group of guards are chasing you, Instinct (your Hitman-vision that unveils character locations and highlights items) shows nothing but ominous white dots and gold outlines. Then somehow you sprint from a heil of gunfire, you shimmy down a drainpipe, and find a character with a new outfit alone and exposed. You take their outfit, become a waiter or a guard, and now you have a new lease of life. The guards will moronically walk past you, nothing to see here officer just a regular waiter who looks exactly like the guy you were just chasing, and you will laugh and laugh.

It is the artificiality of the guards that makes Hitman so joyful. It is not a hyper-realistic simulator, but a puzzle game consisting of various pieces that can only act in a pre-determined manner. This manner is complex and may occasionally act unexpectedly, but it is observable and one can predict what will happen with relative certainty. The moronic guards do not act like people, but they are given dialogue that has a warmth and humour that stops them from being entirely seen as the game pieces which they are.

Visually the game world and characters are presented with a brilliant clarity, mixing visual splendour and realistic details. The bins in the Paris level even have the Mairie de Paris logo you find on bins in the actual streets of Paris, and the buildings you can see beyond the level are definitively Parisian. It creates a great sense of place, anchoring you in Paris. You are not merely exploring a mansion, but a mansion in Paris. However, there is one way that this sense of place breaks down. In every map, no matter the locale, all the non-playable characters speak English, and do so in the same few American accents. This is particularly disappointing as in Blood Money, for example, in the level set in a French opera house the characters speak French. It is an unfortunate regression and one which is possibly attributable to the tight deadlines that the episodic model requires. Ultimately, it is only an issue due to the immensely high-standards the game sets itself.

One more story. Your target is descending a staircase in an opulent Paris mansion. He is about to show himself to his adoring crowd, to greet their applause with smug satisfaction. A bald technician stands by a control mechanism linked to a chandelier. As the beaming Russian descends he briefly pauses beneath the chandelier. It falls. He is crushed. Party over, a tragic accident. The bald man who was standing by the mechanism and is now making a hasty retreat could not have had anything to do with it, oh no.

Hitman has such a depth and variety of content that I will be playing it for the foreseeable future and I anxiously await where Agent 47’s future will take him.

Life is Strange, Episodic Video Games, and Tension

Delay is an inevitable part of episodic video games. The difficulty of this kind of delay, as opposed to that of TV shows, is that it is irregular, has not yet been standardised. It has now been more than a year since the last episode of ‘Kentucky Route Zero’. ‘Life is Strange’, thankfully, has been relatively punctual with its releases with at most a few months separating each episode, but it still has not been consistent. Even the regular week gap between episodes of ‘True Detective’ is long enough for me to begin to forget what has happened in the last episode, and so with a gap of a month or longer I have forgotten most of the particulars of the story. Every episode then begins with a period of remembering and of re-familiarisation. The difference in this process between a TV show and a game is much like the difference between taking a week off of running and taking two months off; it takes longer to get back to where you were. Delay, of course, is not only utilised inter-episode but is used in the episodes themselves. Episode 4 of ‘Life is Strange’ uses delays to create tension in a rather muddled way.

In ‘Mimesis’, Erich Auerbach contrasts the creation of tension in Homer’s’ The Odyssey’ and the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. In ‘The Odyssey’ there is a lessening of tension through the frequent digressions which take over the reader’s attention. There remains an element of waiting, of suspense, but the reader is directed away from the soon to be announced reveal, the catharsis, to another story, and so this delay no longer feels like a delay, like waiting, but is rather an active moment. In contrast, there is not easing of tension in the story of Abraham and Isaac until the very end, the absolute moment of catharsis. Auerbach suggests that this difference is due to the different effects that each text is hoping to deploy; Homer aiming to comfort the reader with entertainment, while the Old Testament with its ideological aims wishes to convince the reader of its truth, and so tension is used for rhetorical ends.

In episode 4 of ‘Life is Strange’, there is confusion between a lessening of tension and increasing it, particularly in the end of the world party event. This moment follows the seemingly revelatory discoveries of the ‘dark room’ and of Rachel Amber’s body, with Nathan Prescott the suggested murderer. Max and Chloe consequently go to the party in search of Nathan, Chloe’s intention, it seems, being to murder him. The end of the world party is then heavily juxtaposed in tone to what has come immediately before and what may be still to come. The party partially offers a sort of Homeric relief of tension. The reoccurring gag of Max saving Alyssa from getting hit returns here, as one can rewind time to stop her getting knocked into the swimming pool. It is a familiar moment that serves to comfort, to offer comedic relief and an escape into a time before Rachel Amber’s body was found, a time of possibility and greater hope. The party itself, moreover, offers humorous aid from the grave tension. As with almost all video game representations of parties, this party is an absurd caricature of flailing limbs, grotesque contortions, solo shufflers and empty spaces. It is a great example of one of my personal grievances with the game; none of the A.I characters seem to be aware of each other. They are either set dressing or simply waiting there for Max to come and address them, but she can only ever talk to one person at a time, anyone else around Max’s conversational partner remain resolutely silent. Perhaps they are just shy.

Yet, throughout this scene the relief that the comedy allows is never able to settle, to last. In near enough every conversation Max is told that she looks serious –there is not enough nuance in her model to convey this and so we must be told – and so we are reminded what has come before, why she is serious. Every conversation offers the option of asking about Nathan Prescott and so the goal, the anticipated confrontation, lingers on the periphery, waiting. Yet, once we overcome the blockade and enter into the VIP area, where it is assumed that Nathan must be, it is quickly apparent that he is not there. Will he come? There are more people to talk to. You can warn Victoria about Nathan, if you wish to. Nathan isn’t there. You must leave, there’s nothing else to do. The game stalls, pauses. Mr Jefferson is announcing the winner of the everyday hero’s competition. Max and Chloe wait, Max wants to see who won. Mr Jefferson asks for a drum roll, the clichéd symbol of anticipation, but as he makes the announcement that Victoria has won he undoes any idea of there every being any tension by commenting that the result is no surprise, everyone knew Victoria was going to win. This appears as a self-reflexive comment on the nature of tension or suspense: it is only worthwhile if the result at the end is unexpected.

From here Max and Chloe return to the junkyard, to Amber’s corpse, to Nathan they believe. You follow Chloe –Max uses her phone as a flashlight, a nice touch—she goes right to the body, they both face it, something moves behind them, Max is injected with something, is dazed, Chloe exclaims something in shock, she is shot, is dead, it is Mr Jefferson, the end, black, next time, Max is in the Dark Room, trapped by Mr Jefferson, the end. It is a breathless last five minutes to the episode. In the junkyard there is no pause, no jokes; only taut tension, and the shock of an unexpected reveal. The tension does not end, however, we are left wondering what is next for Max; Chloe can’t be dead, surely? Now there is only waiting, a month or more. I feel a great sense of excitement as to what will come because I do not know, too many threads are loose, but this will only last a few days more. I will forget, will become hazy of the details, and when the next episode arrives will have to be reminded, reacquainted. This is why I write. To get something solid down, some approximation of my feelings in the immediate wake. This writing eases my own tension, satisfies that which the game has not yet satisfied, controls and lessens the unknown.

Now to forget.

The Witcher 3: Doings Things You Don’t Want To

Sequels are more, they are a continuation, a sign that the previous instalment was not enough, is not finished. More guns, more explosions, more hours, more of everything is something like a mantra for video game sequels, and sequels in general. At what point, however, does more become a surplus, too much?

With The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings CD Projekt Red did not give themselves up entirely to simply adding more. The innovation of the The Witcher 2 was a branching story determined by an early game choice which caused there to be two distinct Witcher 2s. Consequently, each path was shorter than the length of the first game; there were fewer areas to explore, fewer quests. The game was simultaneously less and more. To get more you now had to play through the game twice on each side and so repetition, replaying, was coded into this need for more; you had to surmount the old to get to the new.

Now, in the Witcher 3, this repetition is the more. The huge maps are now littered with a seemingly infinite number of question marks that lead to one of four events: typically a monster’s nest or a bandit’s camp, and rarely a place of power or a person in distress (essentially the same as a bandit’s camp but there is a person in a cage to be freed). These small moments can often spark other quests if you find a letter informing you of some nearby treasure, for example, or an encounter with a rare monster. These are rarely satisfying and involve no effort or thought.

This is not an issue exclusive to the side quests. The main quests often falter with dull dialogue, and mundane go-get-this-item-and-come-back actions. Then suddenly, out of the blue, it will turn on a single moment of actually interesting dialogue, or a piece of genuinely beautiful cinematography. This is the central dilemma and intrigue of The Witcher 3: it’s astoundingly inconsistent and, therefore, the absolute inability to know which quests will be worthwhile and which will not. The game hits an early peak with the culmination of the Bloody Baron quest line and then falls into mundanity for quite a while. It cannot sustain a consistent high quality of writing and quest design and so the peaks, the genuinely worthwhile moments, come entirely by surprise.

The most prominent example of this I have discovered is a side quest with Yennefer in which she, with Geralt’s aid, is looking for a djinn. The player must dive into the water three times to look for an item. It is boring and awkward. Geralt, it is revealed, had previously made a wish that he and Yennefer would always be together. The authenticity of their relationship is then doubted by Yennefer. How can she know if it is truly love or simply the djinn’s magic? Intrigue begins to form; there are ideas to play with now. As the item is found they are transported to the djinn’s location: a boat atop a mountain. It is a striking moment so much so that my surprise led me to fall off of the mountain. The djinn is then fought, it is an ephemeral abstract head that looks great, is a new atypical monster. After it is defeated Geralt and Yennefer sit and chat, sitting over the edge of the ship. The camera, for a moment, shows only their feet dangling in the air as if this was an indie film about two teenage lovers. After they announce their love to one and other (if they do, you can choose not to) the camera slowly and lovingly pans over the skyline: we are joined with them in the appreciation of the beauty. Then the quest is over, we are dropped back into the world to find something else to do, something that will hopefully match the quality of that quest, and most likely it won’t.

This leads to periods where nothing provoking is discovered, I begin to skip through the dialogue, sprint to whatever marker is on my map, and return for my reward again skipping the dialogue. I am bored. At these times I wonder if it is really worth going on, if my time would be better served doing anything else at all, but the next quest may be the one with another new conceit, some funny dialogue, or a genuinely touching moment of humanity. The possibility carries me on, helps me to drag myself through the mire of yet another drowner’s nest.

The Witcher 3 is wildly inconsistent, is downright broken in some fundamental cases, and yet I cannot stop, do not want to stop, playing it because the peaks it hits can be dizzyingly high. The pits look particularly low in comparison but I look out of them in the knowledge and trust that it will get better.

The Demands of Dark Souls

Dark Souls is a reaction to modern game design and modernity in general. It’s difficult in an era where games are designed to be finished by anyone. It requires total concentration in a world where we usually have our eyes set on multiple screens at any one time. Dark Souls hardly makes sense as a modern video-game and that’s what makes it so great.

 Much of the difficulty in Dark Souls is born out of the repetition that the game requires. An enemy will kill you numerous times but in doing so you learn the attack patterns and the strategies to eventually defeat it. From each death there is a sense of improvement, as you become better acquainted with the enemies’ move-set and starting doing more damage to their seemingly endless health bar. This stops it from feeling banal and tedious. However, each attempt at a boss fight requires the player to traverse an area over which they have already triumphed.   The urge to get back there quickly will often lead to running past enemies on the path and rushing, which can lead to more deaths. This leads to the player wanting to rush more and so being more likely to die.

 Dark Souls is not hard just from being repetitive, it’s also difficult as it is unflinchingly punishing. A single mistimed roll or a missed attack will almost always result in a large chunk of health being taken from you. Yet, this never feels unfair. Partially, because it is typically due to your own mistakes, but also because, when at full health, the vast majority of attacks are survivable. There are a few exceptions to this, but mostly making a mistake is something that can be recovered from with a swig from an estus flask. Doing so is a tough task as there is the added tension of knowing that a single error will lead to the dreaded ‘You Died’ screen. The timing of when to use the estus flask is then crucial as there is a desire to use it immediately in order to have the comfort of a fuller health bar, but this often leaves the player vulnerable to another attack. Again, this is Dark Souls trying to stop the player from rushing and to slow down.

Furthermore, Dark Souls requires constant attention. The game cannot be paused in the middle of action. There are areas that are designated (the bonfires) as being safe, these are infrequent though. Every corner poses a threat and so the player must constantly be on guard and prepared. It is not only enemies that are a danger as there are numerous environmental dangers, ranging from precarious ledges to the cacophony of pressure plates and swinging axes that inhabit Sen’s Fortress. Giving Dark Souls anything less than your full attention will invariably result in death. Glancing at a phone screen may mean an enemy can get one devastating attack living the player on the precipice of death. The pressure ratchets up, the tension rises and a simply fight has immediately transformed into a near death experience. This absolute, undivided attention that Dark Souls constantly demands is hugely opposed to half-attention that most media requires.

You have to give your all to Dark Souls to even stand a chance.