It was while I was hurling yet another pipe wrench at the back of a security guard’s unsuspecting skull that I had the thought, “Why aren’t there any good detective games?”
IO Interactive’s Hitman (2016) isn’t a detective game, but playing it now reminds me of the classic mystery stories I read years ago. I devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s genre-defining Sherlock Holmes tales, but Agatha Christie’s fussy little Belgian super-detective Hercule Poirot would quickly become my favorite. Poirot was an obsessive through and through, from the points of his waxed mustaches and starched shirt collars to his analysis of each case he took on. It was always exciting to read as Poirot explained, in the denouement of each book, who the murderer was and how they’d done it.
Writing about Shadow of Mordor, Mike Bithell (creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume) said games are essentially magic tricks. “An incredibly mundane reality exists, a finessed sequence of hand gestures, trap doors and misdirection,” Bithell wrote. “But in the audience’s mind, something incredible, impossible and impossibly real has occurred.”
Classic mystery novels are magic tricks too, in some of the same key ways. Through masterful writing and stage-setting, the reader is drawn into a believable world that feels chock full of potential suspects. Clues are found, and it seems as though these are uncovered naturally through sleuthing—when really what’s happening is that everything we’re shown is relevant to the author’s design.
But one of the magic tricks Agatha Christie used to make her star detective come off as the consummate genius is one that doesn’t really work in videogames. It’s the same trick Conan Doyle used in his Sherlock stories. We’re never placed in the shoes of the master detective; instead, the reader watches the master at work through the eyes of his long-suffering sidekick. For Poirot, there was Captain Hastings, and for Holmes there was Dr. Watson. We could depend on Hastings and Watson to ask the questions that prompted the detectives to reveal their brilliance.
This misdirection doesn’t work in videogames because when we’re playing games we want an active role in unraveling the mystery. But think of the times we’re given the chance to become the detective, and it’s a series of disappointments, even when it’s an element in an otherwise successful game. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, a series of side-quests has Arno investigating murders in Paris. Arkham Asylum has Batman working out where Killer Croc’s hideout is, and in The Witcher 3, Geralt routinely has to analyze scenes of carnage to track down monsters.
These scenes have always felt a bit embarrassing to me, because they invariably give you a button to press that makes your “clues” light up like neon. This of course is to keep the flow of the game moving, and to avoid the tedious random item-combining of adventure games, which is a problem that has plagued most prior Hercule Poirot games. This essentially is the exact same trick mystery novelists pulled in genre classics, but it feels dumb in games because it has to ruin the magic trick Bithell described by making everything important overtly important. The star detectives always appear brilliant in the novels, but that’s because they’re noticing the things the author put in the story specifically for them to notice. Watson and Hastings don’t have “detective vision,” but in an important sense, Holmes and Poirot do. We don’t get to see it because we’re reading from the perspective of the sidekick, and the story is better off because this kind of blatant signposting is concealed. As Bithell puts it, “[J]ust like a magic trick, once you see the edges, once someone points out the false compartment, the magic disappears, and so does a lot of the interest.”
How does Hitman fit into this scheme, then? Well, Hitman is a game about specific crimes. There are countless games that make the player into an indiscriminate killer, but precious few that cast us as the murderer, the villain, in a crime story. Over at Game Informer, Javy Gwaltney recently explored the feeling Hitman gives you of becoming the master criminal. “There’s a supreme sense of satisfaction in making a quiet getaway, raising no suspicion, and strolling out the front door as everyone continues about their routines,” Gwaltney writes. “To commit a crime is only part of the occasion. To get the full experience, you have to get away with it, too.”
Hitman shifts the perspective of a mystery story not to the continuously baffled dogsbody, but to the object of the investigation: the killer himself. As Agent 47, you’re not following someone around the way Watson or Hastings must, and you’re not looking for obviously-highlighted gameplay nodes, the way you do in Arkham or Assassins Creed games.
Instead, you’re given carte blanche to create a murder as straightforward or bizarre as you see fit. As the guys at Cool Ghosts pointed out, this often works as dark comedy while you’re learning each environment—when things don’t go according to plan, sometimes it’s just funny to throw a marble bust at a man’s head. Even the more deliberate mechanics can be ridiculous: Agent 47’s ability to instantly disguise himself as anyone he has recently, for example, knocked out with a marble bust, is frequently hilarious. 47 also has magical Witcher-vision that lets him see the location of his target, he can instantly identify which guards will see through his disguise, and he knows the exact moment he’s been recorded by a security camera.
But these videogame-y elements don’t disrupt the narrative or suspension of disbelief the way they do when your perspective is the detective’s. Miss Marple was looking for the slightest item out of place, and Holmes scoured ashtrays for evidence of particular cigar brands, because when you’re solving a crime, these things are important. When you’re committing the crime, you’re focused elsewhere and these points of interaction don’t spoil the illusion. And the settings—Paris, Marrakesh, Sapienza—are all marvelously vibrant stages for these murders to unfold upon.
Whether intentionally or not, Hitman manages to create a terrific mystery game by completely subverting the format and having the action unfold from the perspective of the killer. The only thing that keeps it from being groundbreaking is the fact that it’s already been done, and by Agatha Christie herself, more than 90 years ago. In what is arguably her crowning Poirot novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot returns from retirement to take the titular case of a dead businessman. Where Hastings had usually filled in as narrator for Poirot’s adventures, this time the story is told by Dr. James Sheppard, who also acts as Poirot’s assistant for the case. In one of the best twist endings of all time (and I’ll put a spoiler warning here, despite the fact that the book was first published in 1926), it turns out that Sheppard was the murderer, and had been carefully concealing incriminating information from the reading audience throughout the course of the story.
But where Christie’s readers could only shake their heads and marvel at this subversion of expectations in Ackroyd, now we have as many attempts as we want to create a mystery of our own in Hitman.
Ian Boudreau is a freelance writer from central New York. He spends a lot of time thinking about weird old strategy games.