Interview: Roberto Marchesi, Hitman Absolution Art Director

We sat down with Roberto Marchesi, Art Director of the latest Hitman installation, Absolution, for his thoughts on the game, and how things have changed since Blood Money.

RGB: It’s taken a while for the new Hitman game to be released since Blood Money. Why the gap in between Absolution and the last?

Roberto: The gap came from the fact that the studio had other games to work on after Blood Money. We created the Mini Ninja game and the Kane & Lynch franchise so those alone were three major titles that took up a large part of our time.

The other reason is the fact that Absolution was not created on our old Glacier engine. We wanted to create a new engine (the Glacier 2) to cater to such an ambitious title, so the game would be able to live up to all the expectations we have of it.

RGB: Hitman games have never traditionally been tagged to numbers, like Hitman 1, Hitman 2. How will new gamers understand that the Hitman games are related?

Roberto: You don’t need to have played the previous games to enjoy Absolution. Absolution takes place chronologically after the events of Blood Money and it’s a standalone story that goes a little deeper into Agent 47’s personal side. But we didn’t want to create too many strong ties with a specific storyline from the Hitman games. We wanted to focus on the universe they are set in.

I think the character himself is actually pretty well known even among non-players, so we didn’t feel the need to promote the sequel aspect. We know that people are aware of him as an icon. That’s why we chose to concentrate on making a game that could stand on its own.

RGB: The impression I got after watching the Absolution trailer at E3 last year was that the game seems darker than its predecessors. As a developer, where do you draw the line before excessive violence?

Roberto: It’s not easy. It’s always a fine balance. The fact that you find Absolution a darker game is interesting, because the theme hasn’t changed. You’re still a professional assassin, but maybe in some of the other games, there was more seriousness to them, which to me, implies they are darker, because it’s more realistic.

The world we present in Absolution, on the other hand, might be very violent, but is also very funny. It has a strong dark humour, and is also a very stylised universe. Even though you want it to be hyperrealistics, you also want it to have a very strong identity on its own so it stands out, and hopefully feels more like a universe on its own, and not some kind of unpleasant place to be.

RGB: You’ve worked on Blood Money, and now you’re working on Absolution. What would you say is the biggest evolution from Blood Money to Absolution, in terms of game development?

Roberto: I think it’s the disguise and introduction of Instinct mode. We wanted to be true to what made the whole game work: the entire social stealth aspect, the way you could take targets out in different ways. We very much wanted to build on that; at the same time, we wanted to make a game that communicated its intentions to the player better, that could make itself so well understood it would be the player’s creativity that would take control and make the game a much more fun experience.

Instinct is one of the ways we came up with to create this better communication flow. Tied to Instinct is the Blending mode, which is pretty much a disguise feature. How disguises work in Absolution is that if you’re wearing a police outfit, everyone but the police will assume you’re legitimate. Other police officers: they will be distracted by your disguise, but will also get suspicious of you when time runs out.

If they become too suspicious, you can try to blend in. This is a relatively advanced feature that buys you a couple of seconds to get away, or to fool your enemies into thinking you’re still one of them. It can create a very strong sense of tension, especially when you’re trying to traverse an area full of people wearing the same outfit. You have to try to just pretend to be one of them, and to mingle with your enemies. To me, this is a very strong feature that pretty much plays out what every game should be.

RGB: Instinct Mode in Absolution basically offers a form of aid to less hardcore players. Is that because you felt the need to lower the difficulty of the Hitman game? Could that alienate hardcore fans of the game?

Roberto: No. We want to be really true to the franchise, and we wanted to respect the roots and the type of fans that the game has built up over the years. But we also wanted to make the game accessible, and by accessible I mean easy to play, but easy to understand; and there’s a very strong difference in that. Because the game can be very challenging, and if you’re looking for a challenge, like getting the Silent Assassin grade, you have to bring your A game. You have to really have the skills and to concentrate hard, and that will appeal to the hardcore gamers.

RGB: So what does Absolution mean? How does that tie this game back to the Hitman series?

Roberto: The title itself is actually self explanatory to anyone who plays the very first level.

This time around, we wanted to make a more personal story, and the premise of the entire story arc is that Agent 47 is tasked to take out his former handler. For people who know the series, she was the handler from the previous games. She was the one who took 47 from mission to mission via his earpiece; she told him what to do. She was guiding him. By taking her out, we’re eliminating the only tie to the world that Agent 47 has. And we’re putting him out on a very personal journey because for the first time, he’s going to have to make his own decisions. And that is where the Absolution title comes from.

RGB: We noticed you mentioned playing Hitman on a competitive level during the preview. Could you share with us if there are any competitive elements in the game?

Roberto: We wanted to introduce an online feature to the Hitman franchise for the first time ever and we were heavily inspired by the community. They’ve been making custom contracts with the old Blood Money game for years. The basic premise is that anyone on any level can be a target, and the entire Contract feature that we introduced is based on this idea – that you can create contracts, play them, and compete with your friends on who can get the best score in taking out a certain person.

We also have leaderboards that reflect your performance, and there will be separate leaderboards for just your friends, national leaderboards, and worldwide leaderboards.

RGB: Do you have any plans on adding multiplayer functions, such as two players competing against each other on the same map?

Roberto: No, because multiplayer is not really a good fit to the franchise for two reasons. One: the fantasy of being a professional assassin doesn’t lend itself to a co-op experience. Secondly, Agent 47 works alone, and that is one aspect of gameplay that just isn’t fitting for this type of experience. So unfortunately no, there won’t be any sort of co-op function.

RGB: You mentioned competitive elements in Hitman. Will there be a way for players to upload their scores and performances onto social media platforms?

Roberto: We’re looking into that.

RGB: Speaking of social media, there weren’t any iPhones, Twitter or Facebook back in 2006 when the last Hitman game was made. Could you share with us if there is any new equipment 47 will be using? Has he caught up with the times?

Roberto: Yes. He’s not old fashioned in that way (laughs); he will adapt. But he’s not stuck with Windows from god knows when, he’s pretty modern.

In this game, he’s not using any tablets or iPhones, he’s very much on his own. Since the premise of the game is him taking out his former handler, and being on the run from the ICA, the agency he was working for, the feel of all the tools and weapons he’s using are more ad hoc, and have a more ‘on the move’ feel.

RGB: Was there ever any consideration to make Hitman: Absolution an open world game?

Roberto: No, there wasn’t. We really wanted to create a hyperrealistic world with a strong, stylised feel to it, and the level design just didn’t allow it to be an open world type of game. The open world concept just wouldn’t lend itself well to the type of experience we wanted to provide.

We tried to concentrate on a smaller world that can scale: we introduced the term ‘kill sandbox’, and a good example of that is the King of Chinatown level, where you have one target that is in a pagoda in the middle of Chinatown. You can take him out in many different ways. We’ve thought of up to seven ways, but once the game is released and people start playing with it, the number of ways you can take him out will actually increase. That is the type of open game we wanted to introduce, as opposed to a physically open one.

RGB: The movie adaptation of Hitman was pretty good. We can’t say the same for a lot of other video game movies, though. How do you think video game movies can stay true to the spirit of their respective games, yet be a box office success?

Roberto: I think the Hitman movie was a success because the source material was strong. To me, it was a testament to the fact that 47 is interesting and appealing as a character.

It’s actually pretty difficult to make the transition from video game to the big screen, but I think it’s a narrative challenge as well: you’re going from a medium where you’re in control and are often playing as the main character, to something that is much more passive in its delivery. I think that’s the challenge.

And that’s also why it’s difficult to make the transition: because it’s not taking the interaction into account. But that goes both ways, because video games are often very much inspired by movies, and maybe they really want to tell a story and focus on that, and that is very good, but at the same time, you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re making a game, and that what they need to do is different from a movie.

RGB: Any last words to share with our readers?

Roberto: On a personal note, I’m extremely proud of Absolution, and I honestly cannot wait for the game to be out in stores, because I honestly believe it’s a very unique game in today’s videogame panorama, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to blow most people’s minds. It’s a really good ride, and I’m looking forward to people experiencing it.