Mapping out the subtle social cues throughout Hitman's level design
The hide-in-plain-sight gameplay of the Hitman series means its level designers are faced with a unique challenge whenever creating one of the game’s sprawling sandboxes: How do you design believable everyday life?
It’s a topic IO Interactive’s Mette Podenphant Andersen took some time to explore at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and one that benefits from some concepts and language that got their start in social anthropology.
The two most recent games in the Hitman franchise were a light gameplay reboot for the series and aimed to capture the freeform sandbox gameplay that had powered the 2006 release Hitman: Blood Money. While taking that approach gave players more freedom than 2012’s semi-linear Hitman: Absolution, leaning into that freedom tasked IO Interactive’s level design team with taking different design approaches altogether.
“It starts and ends with level design,” Andersen offers as a motto picked up from a producer.
Because of the nature of the game, Andersen says that Hitman’s level designers are involved with so many other aspects of development. “We touch everything at some point,” she says, and this sees her and other designers working closely on everything from environmental art to final “janitorial” passes through the finished level to make sure everything goes to plan.
“Apart from mocking everything up one of the most important things that we do in a game like Hitman is making life, making drama situations as we call them,” she says. “We borrow a little bit from the world of theater.”
It’s a task that was in near perfect form in the episodic Hitman (2016)’s Sapienza level, so much so that she says the reviews for that highly praised level spent more time talking about the city’s characters, scenery, and small background moments rather than the actual assassination mission itself.
“When I looked at the reviews, everything they seemed to talk about didn’t have anything to do with the mission. They were all describing how it felt to just be there,” she says. “So my question became instead of how do you make an awesome level, jumped into something different like how do you design everyday life and how do you design believable everyday life.”
This is where some light social anthropology comes into play. Andersen points to the teachings of two sociologists in particular: Pierre Bourdieu and Erving Goffman. Bourdieu, she explains, coined the idea of social spaces and a social marketplace where different behaviors serve as the capital being exchanged. In the case of Hitman, protagonist Agent 47 can don the uniforms, costumes, and outfits of incapacitated NPCs to assume their role and access new areas based on the role he’s assumed.
She says Goffman, meanwhile, offers up the idea of a social front stage and backstage, where different behaviors and different social states and performances apply depending on the setting.
Andersen herself was an intern around the time Hitman (2016) launched and used these techniques to make the level design of Hitman’s massive social spaces more readable and ascribe new, helpful language to techniques the team had already established.
On the highest level, Hitman offers up public and private spaces. Public spaces are those players can explore right from the start of a level without assuming a disguise or sneaking about while private spaces are bound by strict rules on behavior and access. Using some of her social anthropology knowhow, she breaks each of those down into three more categories each, all of which level designers use to subtly teach players permissible behaviors and general things about the world.
Basic ‘public' spaces, like Sapienza’s town square have very few social rules, no ‘social enforcers’ that a player would have to be wary of, and offer a good place for players to breathe and get the lay of the land. ‘Public purpose’ spaces like alleyways also have no social enforcers and few behavior rules, but subtly encourage certain behaviors or gameplay actions. They’re spaces with a subtle purpose, but no inherent danger.
‘Public rule’ spaces come with implied social rules, simply by using common social settings players already know from their own lives. Sapienza’s church is an example she offers of this, where the feeling of strong social rules is implied and social enforcers exist to “discourage” behavior those boundaries. But, she points out, these provide a safe environment to communicate trespassing rules and elements of social stealth to players.
The basic ‘private’ spaces are trespassing spaces like private alleyways, but those that encourage stealth and don’t pummel players with dangers. They can act as a “breather space” for players between higher intensity private areas as well. ‘Private professional’ spaces like kitchens are areas that strictly have a purpose, and where blending in as a staff member to adhere to those social rules is clearly communicated through the space itself.
‘Private personal’ spaces are, and should be, rare in Hitman. “We don’t have a lot of these and we shouldn’t, but these are where […] we tell you who the target is through the level,” Andersen explains. “You shouldn’t have too many of these, it should feel special.”
With these in mind, she shares a mapped out overview of Sapienza made to highlight how these spaces are represented throughout the level. She does the same for the other five levels in Hitman (2016), but points out that “someone did all of this without having all these social spaces being formalized,” but without the labels she’s now applied to each zone “it just wasn’t accessible to me as a new designer.”
“It just got us talking,” she says. “We started reflecting on what we actually do, and I think that was really really valuable.”
The language and sort of knowledge created by breaking down these spaces into different categories informed the design of Hitman 2, a game that features even larger levels and diverse social spaces than its predecessor. The map of Hitman 2’s first level, Miami, just below highlight both the size of the level itself, and the large public areas where players are more or less free to explore. “What we learned was that you can keep the player engaged without introducing trespassing,” she explains.
This time around, having the established methods and language encouraged the team to design levels that focused more on encouraging exploration through freedom and the cues subtly offered up by believable social spaces.