The challenge sounds simple enough: assassinate Kalvin Ritter by drowning him in a toilet, for 1000xp. Hitman creator IO Interactive dubs this fate ‘ironic’, since jewel thief Ritter is aboard his own ship, a superyacht covered in lifebelts - but none are to be found in the toilet bowl.
The execution, in both senses of the word, is deceptively complex. Ritter isn’t standing next to a toilet, waiting to be drowned. He’s patrolling his vessel, from bow to stern, accompanied by an armed guard at all times. In order to complete the challenge, I’ll need to disrupt that routine in a way that not only isolates Ritter, but leads him to the lav. In other words, I’ll need to make him sick.
Hitman 3 teaches you that if you want to find poison, you should take the stairs down, not up. It’s in the lower quarters of any high-class environment that you’ll find the maintenance rooms, and the shelves lined with toxic powders and liquids. Specifically, I pick out an emetic poison - one that causes nausea, rather than death.
That done, I waltz over to Ritter’s wine glass with the bad stuff. A guard’s uniform could get me up to the deck undetected, but spiking a drink would alarm the throng at the bar, understandably. Only a crew costume, obtained in the locker room, allows me to pass as a barman and invent new cocktails without raising eyebrows.
No sooner has Ritter sipped his M(urd)erlot than he’s sprinting for the bathroom. Problem is, his bodyguard stands doggedly outside the door. It’s possible I could distract him by throwing a coin; Hitman would have us believe that personal security is a profession filled with oversized magpies. But a better option is to lie in wait - occupying the bathroom cupboard before Ritter runs in and takes his position of supplication before the throne. Here, fella - let’s help you wash away the taste of that rat poison.
It’s a systemic story, entirely improvised, that IO suggests simply by planting a few words in your head. And it’s completely optional: killing Ritter is a tutorial mission that can be finished by sinking a bullet into his head, sending you on to the main game in minutes. But a nagging percentage bar sits at the bottom of the debrief screen, pushing you to dive back in and tackle more challenges, learning more about the map and its characters, killing more creatively.
It’s gaming’s best use of a checklist in years. They used to be commonplace, back when open worlds first took over the mainstream. Log into an old Assassin’s Creed, even one you’ve followed to the end of its story, and you’ll be reminded that you’ve actually only seen 64% of the game. Open eight more chests in Havana, or catch four sea shanties as they drift across the rooftops of Kingston, and you might push that figure to 65%. A solid evening’s work.
Playing the numbers game
Exposing percentages to the player is harmless enough, you might think - helpful, even, if they want to make sure they haven’t missed out on a side quest that might flesh out their understanding of the world or deepen their relationship with a character. But abstract rewards like these have proven to be a dark art of game design - designed to keep you going regardless of whether or not the acts you’re performing are satisfying in and of themselves.
They’re spoofed effectively by the satirical browser game, Progress Wars: “No mafias, no vikings, no pirates - just pure, uninterrupted progress bars”. Frustratingly, Progress Wars is hard to step away from, despite being demonstrably pointless - tapping into some base part of the brain that demands closure.
It’s the same dark art that drove a boom in ‘gamification’ over the past decade. The idea was that the elements of games that kept players engaged for hundreds of hours could be applied to activities that people typically struggled to stick with, like exercise or schoolwork. In particular, the developers of gamification apps latched onto progress mechanics - completion bars, badges, leaderboards and levelling up.
Perhaps the most prominent example today is Duolingo, the language learning service that employs every gaming trick in the book. You get a bright and ear-pleasing ‘ding’ when you get a question right, victory animations for combos, and regular doses of XP. Progress is structured around daily quests, leaderboards, and yes, an ever-present percentage bar. If these tools help users communicate better in a foreign country, or simply feel good about learning something new, then that’s undeniably a good thing. But it’s a mistake to think that points and completion challenges are, in themselves, satisfying.
“Key game mechanics are the operational parts of games that produce an experience of interest, enlightenment, terror, fascination, hope, or any number of other sensations,” writes academic and game designer Ian Bogost. “Points and levels and the like are mere gestures that provide structure and measure progress within such a system.”
In other words: you might be able to keep people engaged by exploiting our shared human weakness for arbitrary goals, but you won’t necessarily leave them fulfilled. After years of Assassin’s Creed-style percentage bars in open worlds, players began to feel as if these games had got the better of them, rather than brought out the best in them. Try an equivalent game today, like Watch Dogs: Legion, and you’ll notice that these measurements have largely faded into the background, in accordance with player sentiment. And yet Hitman 3 gets away with it. Its metrics and leaderboards are prominently displayed, tugging at that primal need for closure. The game puts a number on your ‘mastery’ of a map - a pretty low and unflattering one, if you don’t indulge in repeat playthroughs.
The difference is that IO isn’t sending you after collectibles. Instead, the studio is directing you towards the hidden depths in its levels, encouraging you to poke a stick into the innermost mechanisms of its clockwork maps to see what breaks. It’s prompting you to think around familiar problems in new ways, and come up with more efficient, effective, or daft solutions. Hitman devotees speak lovingly and at length about their return visits to locations - trips they likely wouldn’t have taken if IO hadn’t nudged them back onto the plane while muttering something about unfinished business. Hitman 3, then, has softened player opinions on percentage bars. The same thin line that once heralded drudgework is now a horizon, over which new and surprising possibilities await. It might be the same old carrot, but the reward is very real.
For more, check out the best FPS games to escape into right now, or watch our review of Assassin's Creed Valhalla in the video below.