Of Polygons and Clay

Nearly every NPC in Hitman has a name. Given the population density of some of its levels, this is astounding. Every patrolling guard, strolling pedestrian, and lounging socialite has been christened by a level designer, and placed within the game’s clockwork diorama. When setting up a Contract, one of the game’s extra-value modes, the player can tag NPCs as targets, and in doing so discovers a whole layer to Hitman’s simulation that’s not immediately obvious. While not a new feature to many RPGs, this is rare and welcome attention to detail for an action game.

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Hitman isn’t about committing murder, but about planning murder, and a majority of the game takes place in the calm before the storm, as Agent 47 stalks his prey and plans his moves. The world around 47 needs to be one in which the player can loiter, an activity that quickly exposes the seams in most game worlds. Cut-and-pasted character models with cut-and-pasted animation loops quickly fall into the uncanny valley, and with graphic cards rendering people’s appearance with ever finer resolution, their  behaviour needs verisimiltude to match

Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs tried a similar trick in 2014. The pedestrians who wandered the sidewalks of the day-after-tomorrow open-world Chicago were randomly assigned names and foibles that could be gleaned by hacking their smart phones. Unfortunately these characters never persisted for more than a few moments. The player might bump into Sarah with a gambling addiction on a street corner, but driving a block away would cause the game to dump her from its memory. Sarah ceased to exist. Drive by  the same corner later and a newly-rolled character would be occupying Sarah’s spot. In a game world the size of Chicago, it didn’t make sense to maintain a stable cast of characters beyond those required by the story, and the mobs of pedestrians quickly became bits of scenery, SpeedTrees for an urban environment.

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Hitman’s slower pace requires a different tact, one that stands up to closer scrutiny. Its more constrained locales allow the game designers to craft and maintain a persistent and lively population. Mrs Uschi Neubrandt soaks up the sun on Sapienza’s sandy shore. If the player fails a mission, a visit to the same beach on the next try finds Neubrandt in her favourite spot. A maid berates Rocco for being late to his first day of work, and breaking into his apartment confirms Rocco’s name and position of employ.

Like a shem inscribed upon a golem, bestowing names upon NPCs breathes life into their texture-mapped polygonal husks. Argelia Degrandi sneaks a smoke in the middle of her shift, the overflowing ashtray propped on a nearby windowsill hinting at the stresses of housekeeping for a mafioso. But why is Louisa Doria crouched alone at night outside of a floral shop? What message is so important to model Jessika Truesdale, that she would sneak away in the middle of a fashion show to check her phone?

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Over repeated play-throughs, as the game’s various modes encourage frequent use of the same environments, the player grows to recognize these characters, furthering the illusion that they are unique, sentient people, and deepens the impact of playing as Hitman’s Agent 47. Acquiring a disguise to proceed through a mission doesn’t require you to solve a puzzle to unlock a power-up, it requires you to choke Claudio into unconsciousness, and stuff his body into a dumpster. This may motivate the player to change their plan, adding additional challenge for the sake of sparing an innocent bystander, or attacking Claudio may be considered a necessary sacrifice. The player feels a greater weight to their decisions, and more fully immerses themselves in the persona of a sociopathic gun-for-hire.

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Technology has advanced to the point that it can render photo-realistic worlds, but these require the work of storytellers and artists to populate, a costly process. Having reached a plateau in terms of how far prettier graphics can draw the player into a game, designers are experimenting with new tricks to convincingly sell their simulations, and something as seemingly simple as giving NPCs names can have a tremendous pay-off.