The hilarious, brilliant fakery of Hitman's tutorial

Tutorials are tricky to pull off. You need a space where the player is relatively safe from harm so they can practice complex controls without fear of failing (at least too badly), but you also want to keep them engaged so you usually infuse some introductory story elements to get things moving forward. This can be done in a number of ways: either by setting them on a linear path through an explosive, cinematic production (like MGS5 or GTA5), putting them in a bootcamp-like setting (like Modern Warfare), or giving them a virtual reality training space (a la Titanfall or Black Ops 3). Or you can do what the new Hitman does, and turn the tutorial into one big superspy stage production. It might be my favorite tutorial ever.

Some context: 2016's Hitman (not to be confused with the first Hitman game, subtitled Agent 47) is a reboot of sorts, rewinding to twenty years before Hitman: Absolution to Agent 47's days studying at a clandestine ICA training facility before fast-forwarding to present day for the game's actual missions. It's back in 1992 where Agent 47 shows off his penchant for, ahem, creativity in the art of the assassination. Here, he aims to prove himself to an organization that will eventually send him across the globe to take down the world's most important/despicable people.

It's a perfect set-up to teach brand new players the tricks of the trade, especially as this brand new Hitman: No Subtitle Required wants to bring on new players who may not be familiar with Agent 47's sordid backstory. But instead of sending him on a fairly routine field mission, the Agency puts our cueball-headed anti-hero through a series of increasingly difficult exams handcrafted by ICA itself. And I do mean handcrafted, as the whole tutorial section looks like a high school production of Secret Murder Time: A One Act Play starring Agent 47.

The mission: Agent 47 is on a pier, looking to take out master thief Kalvin Ritter while he enjoys the yacht party he's hosting. Except, he's really at ICA headquarters somewhere in Europe, staring at a facsimile of an Australian harbor. Everything about this mission is a recreation of an actual mission that took place years prior. The crowd (and your target) are actors, likely pulled off the desk of whatever they were working on at ICA to pretend to enjoy themselves on this yacht. Also, it's not a yacht - it's a bunch of cardboard and plywood constructed to look like a yacht. The 'ocean' is a bunch of blue tarp laid out on the concrete floor. Your getaway vehicles are 'activated' by pressing a game show buzzer. It's all incredibly silly, especially when you pick up a nearby assault rifle and try to lay waste to everyone pretending to drink alcohol on the deck of a makeshift boat (maybe you're firing paintballs and everyone just knows to fall over when they get hit). But by leaning into this concept for its tutorial as hard as it does, Hitman ultimately distills everything that makes the series fascinating in two, hilariously tongue-in-cheek missions.

The whole idea of Hitman is that its missions are freeform playgrounds of opportunity; Rube Goldberg machines of disguises and cause-and-effect events that lead you, as Agent 47, into the lion's den, allow you to take out your target, and leave without raising anyone's suspicion. Hitman's missions have always been clockwork affairs, wearing their video gamey-ness like a badge of honor, and it's up to you to figure out how to put all of the conveniently placed garbage bins, jars of rat poison, or other makeshift implements of death to good use. So you don't bat an eye when you see the same kind of mission laid out before you as a fictionalized training exercise. Of course these things are placed where they are - it's all part of a structured test.

This set-up gets taken to its logical conclusion when the very next mission has you working with your fellow trainee and handler Diana Burnwood. Together, you take on an exercise the ICA's training director has effectively Kobayashi Maru'd, increasing guard detail and ultimately hoping you'll fail out of the program. It makes your victory all the sweeter, and the means to completing it all the more surprising, as you find a way to launch your target - probably the ICA's IT guy dressed as a Soviet spy - out of the fully functioning ejector seat of a Russian fighter jet and off into the atmosphere. He's… probably dead now. But hey, at least you passed. That's something.

It makes for a hilarious and memorable way to interact with the most mundane part of games: learning how the controls and mechanics interact with each other. Contrast this with the intro to the last game in the series, Hitman Absolution, which is so by-the-numbers that I had to watch a video of it on YouTube just to remember anything about it. It does its job, teaching you to sneak past enemy guards or how to hide them properly, and it certainly looks nice, but in striving for realism, all of the personality is sucked right out of it. There's nothing special about its string of meticulously crafted zen gardens and tennis courts, and it becomes a far too self-serious game of Simon Says in the process. When held up against Hitman's tutorial, in which random civilians anxiously mutter "It's only a computer game" to themselves while scrambling across a yacht built out of supplies picked up at the Home Depot, the shortcomings of the traditional tutorial approach become even more obvious.

Hitman's two tutorial missions are emblematic of the thread of dark humor and bespoke ingenuity that runs throughout the entire series, of the kind of comic mischief it can get itself into when it doesn't take itself too seriously. By literally and figuratively stripping the series down to its foundations, Hitman can immediately get to the core of what makes this series' gameplay so fascinating while packaging it in an inventive and surprising way.

David Roberts
David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.