How 'Hitman' Uses Thoughtful Level Design to Tell Stories

We interviewed Hitman’s art director to learn all about level design and visual motifs.

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Dec 2 2016, 12:30pm

Image: Square Enix

There are six principal locations in Hitman (2016): Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado, and Hokkaido. Each level follows an open world, sandbox format, with multiple ways to kill the target and achieve the objectives. Each level was released individually, at the rate of approximately one per month.

When Jonathan Rowe joined the Square Enix team in October 2014. And although Rowe was instrumental in bringing Paris, Sapienza, and Marrakesh to completion, he had very little to do with the actual layouts and scene compositions; those were already set in stone.

Starting with Bangkok, however, Rowe became directly involved in the conceptualizing and theming of each level. The Bangkok level is a luxury waterfront hotel comprised of two buildings—old architecture that was originally researched for the Paris level. Rowe's team altered the architectural motifs and ornamentation on the roofs and windows to be more in line with Thai sensibilities.

Image: Square Enix

For the interior, Rowe had a broader, thematic vision.

Image: Square Enix

"I wanted the whole hotel to feel like it was emerging from the swamp," said Rowe in an interview with Motherboard. "And so the dressing of the level is kind of dirty and dark in the basement, and it becomes progressively lighter and cleaner as you progress up through the floors."

Image: Square Enix

This culminates in a beautiful garden on the topmost level—a peaceful, contemplative oasis. It comes as a surprise to the player, to find something so contemporary and singular in such an old-fashioned, busy environment.

Image: Square Enix

"I was keen to have some modern elements," said Rowe. "The building may have been there for quite a long time, but it's undergone some major renovation."

In the middle of the hotel is a Victorian style glass atrium. This, according to Rowe, is a deliberate break in thematic tone.

"We're always striving to make our environments feel rich and lush," said Rowe. "The prior [level] environments were urban. Trying to bring a sense of nature into this level was key for me."

Image: Square Enix

"Having the glass atrium in the middle was an opportunity to let the player walk through some tropical foliage," continued Rowe. "And quite early on, we thought it would be a nice idea if it was a butterfly house, with exotic butterflies flying around."

One can see various species fluttering about the atrium. But it does not end there; the butterfly motif is omnipresent and gives the entire level a sense of thematic unity. The player first sees it in the logo for the hotel itself.

Image: Square Enix

And even the various lounges are named after specific butterfly species. Like this one, after the Red Admiral butterfly.

Image: Square Enix

And this one, after the Meadow Brown butterfly.

Image: Square Enix

Rowe's team's approach was to tell stories through layers—first through the mission objective and physical setting, and then through the manner in which NPCs (non-player characters) interact with that setting. Rowe refers to these narrative elements as "set dressing"—every object, placed or misplaced, had to tell a tale, or imply a prior action.

It creates the illusion that this is a living breathing world. And it adds to a mood of invasiveness. In most games, the player's character is the center of attention; every game element serves to reinforce the protagonist as the center of his or her story. But in Hitrman, Agent 47 is the unwelcome interloper, intruding on other people's lives and seeing things he isn't supposed to see.

Image: Square Enix

"Our artists came up with a story for each hotel room," said Rowe. "Who was staying there? What type of person was it? Was the person tidy or messy? When they left their hotel room for the day, did they help the maids by putting the bedsheets back, or did they just leave everywhere a mess? The artists told that story through the set dressing."

Image: Square Enix

This storytelling often takes place in the minor, subliminal ways. One detail that Rowe takes specific pride in is the stacks of paper in Colorado. They are never neat, uniform stacks; they are always spilling over one another organically, as though they had toppled once, and someone had propped them against each other in a hurry.

Image: Square Enix

And sometimes, the lack of set dressing can be just as notable as its presence. The final level, Hokkaido, takes place in a luxurious hospital, where everything is clean, stark, and austere. Ironically, this presents its own set of problems in the design phase.

Image: Square Enix

"There's a general consensus that game artists need to add more and more details to make something look realistic," said Rowe. "A lot of video game settings are very noisy and overly busy. It's challenging to depict a clean environment without it looking unfinished. It becomes about the micro details and surface details that are hard to pick up on screen."

Image: Square Enix

The entire Hokkaido level is a labyrinth of technology. And while most of it is sterile and non-threatening, a notable exception is the surgery "spider robot," which is responsible for one of the most graphic assassinations in the game.

"The spider robot takes its influence from car manufacturing robots," says Rowe. "I wanted something that looked industrial and clunky but moved with an unnatural fluidity. There's something very disturbing about that."

IO Interactive has confirmed that it is developing a Season 2 of Hitman, using the same game engine as the first season. Rowe declined to provide any additional details, but the narrative use of visuals—to show rather than tell—will undoubtedly continue, no matter where Agent 47 jets to next.

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