Hitman & Murder Mysteries
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Hitman & Murder Mysteries

Hitman 3, the conclusion to IO Interactive’s World of Assassination trilogy of Hitman games, includes a level set in an isolated country house in Dartmoor, England. In addition to plotting the assassination of their targets, the player will be able to solve a classic murder mystery in the style of an Agatha Christie novel or an Arthur Conan Doyle short story. Hitman 3’s Dartmoor level may be an explicit homage to the murder mystery genre, but Hitman’s gameplay has always owed its structure to murder mystery stories old and new. 

In IO Interactive’s Hitman games, the player takes on the role of the highly skilled assassin, Agent 47, and in each level must figure out the best way to assassinate a number of targets. Although the aesthetics of Hitman games evoke the spy thriller subgenre, with exotic locales and high-tech weaponry similar to those of James Bond or Mission: Impossible films, their gameplay structure and how the player navigates their worlds are deeply indebted to the murder mystery subgenre.

In a traditional murder mystery story, the protagonist approaches a crime after it’s been committed, piecing together clues to figure out how the murder happened. Each Hitman level is like a reverse murder mystery, where the player approaches the murder from before it’s committed in order to figure out how best to assassinate their target. Like a detective in a murder mystery, the player needs to explore their environment, discover clues, and interact with different people in order to figure out the different ways that the murders could be committed. 

Murder mysteries often take place in self-contained and isolated locations, insulated from the wider world. Think of the titular train in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express or Baskerville Hall in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. These archetypal locations inspired many more murder mysteries set on trains, boats, or in sprawling English mansions. Similarly, each level in a Hitman game acts as a self-contained location for the player to explore whether that’s a Paris fashion show or a high-security New York City bank. 

Hitman’s murder mystery elements also link to contemporary murder mystery stories. The Dartmoor level is reported to contain specific references to Rian Johnson’s self-aware murder mystery film, Knives Out. On a deeper level, Hitman’s gameplay resonates with Stuart Turton’s recent murder mystery novel, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. In Turton’s novel, an unnamed protagonist finds himself not only embroiled in a murder mystery at a sprawling country house, but also trapped in a time loop. Every time he loses consciousness, he wakes up as a different person in the mansion. He later discovers that he only has eight loops in which to solve the mystery. Through repetition of these loops, the protagonist must learn the rhythms of the day, the movements of the people around him, and how his interventions affect others. 

Video game theorist and YouTuber, Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit, refers to “clockwork games” like Outer Wilds and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask—which use time loops like in Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Netflix’s recent Russian Doll—and Turton’s novel to justify the player reliving the same events over and over again. The Hitman games may not involve a time loop in their narrative, but the gameplay acts as a time loop for the player as they return to the same level again and again to learn the clockwork schedules of each NPC and how they can interfere with them. In Hitman‘s Sapienza level, for example, the player learns that if they disguise Agent 47 as a chef and ring the dinner bell, then one of their targets will come and sit down for dinner. In Hitman 2’s Miami racetrack level, if the player fixes the race so that their target wins, then the target will ascend to the winner’s podium to accept their trophy. The effect for the player is of occupying a time loop like in The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: each time they play a level, they learn a little more about where NPCs will be at any given moment and how targets react if you intervene in their schedules. Each time the player starts again to try a different assassination, they have a little more knowledge of the world than they had before. 

Hitman isn’t the only game to use some form of time loop to explore the murder mystery subgenre. Cavalier Game Studios and Tequila Works’ The Sexy Brutale directly parallels Turton’s novel with a murder mystery puzzle set in a mansion with an explicit time loop. In the game, the player has 12 in-game hours to explore a mansion before time resets. The player must relive these 12 hours over and over to learn the details of how each guest at a party is killed and to intervene to save their lives. 

The gameplay structure of the Hitman games owes a lot to the murder mystery subgenre, resonating with both the traditional murder mysteries of Christie and Doyle and newer works like Turton’s time loop novel, as well as games likeThe Sexy Brutale and films like Knives Out. Hitman shows how useful the structure and tropes of murder mysteries can be to video games.

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