The Elusive Targets of 'Hitman' Transform It into Transient Art

Most games let you load a save when you mess up, but in 'Hitman's Elusive Target mode, you only get one chance. Don't screw up.

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Oct 17 2016, 7:48pm

They call him The Twin. His real name, at this point, has faded from my memory; it doesn't matter. What matters is that it's my job to kill him. He and his brother are tobacco magnates, behemoths of a corrupt industry, and I've received a contract to eliminate one of them. They'll be vacationing in the coastal Italian town of Sapienza, a city I've visited before.

I don't have much time. I have very little to go on, actually: a description, a picture, and a time limit. One more rule: whatever you do, don't hurt his brother.

So I begin. I choose my tools carefully, going for flexibility beyond anything else. A silenced pistol. Lockpicks. A remote-control bomb. When I reach Sapienza, I run a hand over my head, just once, check my tools, and begin.

You have 72 real life hours, Agent 47. I get one shot. There are no save files, no continues. Whatever happens, that's what happens.

In io Interactive's Hitman, you have a simple job. Find your target, kill them, and escape. In the case of the game's Elusive Targets—temporary, event-style contracts that run live from the developer's servers—that job gets a bit more complicated. Each of these contracts, which have been running every week or two for most of the summer, gives you a target and a time limit.

The Elusive Targets are a part of the "live programming" that is forming the backbone of Hitman's unusual distribution model. It's being released piecemeal, as a series of episodes and events over the course of the year. Players can buy it episode by episode, or they can purchase the full game and wait for it to fill itself out. When I spoke to the developers at io during E3, they talked about it in terms of a season of television. This distribution model, they said, gave them the ability to craft a participatory experience, one that draws an entire community into its fold for a special, fleeting experience.

The Elusive Targets are central to that idea, and there's a power in them that I find particularly remarkable. They're transient, which gives them a heightening function that not many video games can boast. Knowing you have only one shot turns play into a performance, a closed-off and intensified space, one that offers the potential for intimate self-knowledge and an intense awareness. Most of Hitman is stuck in a rhythm of rehearsal and repetition. But when the Elusive Target takes the stage, the curtain comes up and you become what you are.

At its core, Hitman is a theatrical game. It calls on the player to really put on the role of Agent 47, to think and move like he does in a world designed around using his very particular talents. Like any good performer, in order to play Hitman well, you have to thoughtfully slip into your character's shoes, try on his way of thinking, his way of seeing. To do this, as Mike Diver wrote near its release, Hitman relies on repetition. You begin each stage of the game with only a little foreknowledge and a limited amount of resources. Then, you try something: the most clearly demarcated path toward assassinating your target, or else a wild flailing toward whatever kind of violence you guess is needed.

In the process of experimenting, you learn more about the level. While haunting Sapienza, the game's second main level, you might stumble upon the hidden paths into the underground laboratory, or find your way to the church where a penitent scientist is doing confession. Even if you don't actively take advantage of these facets of the layered world, you learn them. Then, after completing the mission once, you're encouraged to try again. Use your knowledge, learn a bit more, and over time, you might figure out how to do something cool.

It's a rhythm of rehearsal, performing your task again and again as you move closer to that one excellent kill. Like an actor crafting the performance of a lifetime, each repetition paves the way to something like perfection. You try and fail and keep failing upward.

The Elusive Targets twist that rhythm, pulling Hitman's theatricality in a new direction. In place of the freedom that rehearsal provides, the Elusive Targets introduce transience. It requires a similar discipline, forcing the player to interact with the gamespace as if they are Agent 47, seeing opportunities, threats, and weapons the way he would. But in place of the slow progressive growth of the primary game, the linear curve of progress, the Elusive Targets transform the experience of play into a succession of closed-off moments, moments that can never be repeated. A more real magic circle.

There's unique power in spending time in a space like that. Most of our mainstream entertainment these days is of the digitized, repeatable variety, reproduced and mass marketed. To create and live in pockets of transient art is, in some ways, a transgressive act, one that pushes against the mainstream of how we understand art. They're not objects; they're collapsing spaces, trap rooms filled with treasure, the walls slowly sliding closer and closer.

We see them in a few places, still, and they're experiences we tend to frame as particularly special. Concerts, live theater, art exhibitions. Sites of creative power that come and then go, never to return. Even within the bounds of a major consumer entertainment product like Hitman, transient art experiences create a space that pushes us out of straightforward consumption.

When the performance ends, you will have to live with whatever happens forever.

It's the relationship to live theater that seems particularly illuminating when discussing Hitman. Like live theater, you're a performer living in a role that you'll never be able to access in the same way again. In any particular play, an actor exists as that character for a few short hours, until the run of the play ends. And then, it's done; those exact circumstances, the alchemy of direction and staging and casting that created that expression of that character, will never exist again.

So it is with the Elusive Targets: You will never be that Agent 47, in that version of Sapienza, hunting down that target, ever again.

The transience of the Elusive Targets turns Hitman into a heightened, vivid play space. It's not a place where you learn things you didn't know before, but instead it's a place where you reveal what you already knew. It tests your skills under pressure, showing you precisely what you can and can't accomplish. You don't learn how to be Agent 47. Here, you become the Agent 47 you've always been. Every moment echoes outward, weighted down with meaning. This is what this experience will always be.

Live performance is also a space to conjure and reflect upon the passage of time itself. They mark time, but more than that, they let us see the ghosts of all of our temporary experiences. When the performance ends, you will have to live with whatever happens forever. When I pull the trigger on 47's silenced pistol, or attempt some mad trap to eliminate my targets, any damage done will last. There is no reloading—time only moves forward. This can become a metaphor for aging, the frailty of relationships, anything and everything that has an ending. As theorist Howard Barker put it, theater is a rehearsal for death.

Not that Hitman necessarily intends to tap into the depths of all of that. But when the assassination ends, successful or not, you'll return to the menu screen to find the mission you just completed absent, the button unpressable. That absence can be a space to reflect, to feel. If you sense yourself grieving, that's only because it's working.

My attempt at the Twin's life was far from a success. When I found the brothers, they were wandering up and down the main street of Sapienza, popping in and out of the various shops there, splurging on wine and jewelry. They were inseparable. I watched for my usual mainstays; some distraction I could create, a brief moment where I could creep up on one brother without the other noticing.

They were followed by two security guards, contractors from some local firm. Men in the same outfit lurked all over the villa. I decided, with an impatient desperation, to try to replace one of them. I'd slip in close, in disguise, wait for an opportunity, and remove one. The brothers would never notice, right?

I get as far as procuring the disguise before things start falling apart. I stalk a guard alone on a pier, my arms wrapped tight around his neck until he goes limp. I put on his clothes, and try to drag him away—and I'm spotted. I run. Shots are fired. I get hit, once, then again. I go down running.

The Twin got away, and as I stared at the loading screen, my failure blistering, I realized I was killed by my own impatience. I'll take that lesson with me.