At first blush, Hitman 2, much like its 2016 predecessor, looks like a brutal, dark, serious game of international assassins, a game in which a coldly-calculating murderer executes his targets with violent precision, a la John Wick. Once you begin playing the game, this falls away for a truer picture, one in which Hitman 2 is a black comedy, a game in which a stern-faced man in a flamingo costume hurls a screwdriver into a target’s face before running away like a child. Beneath all of this, though, Hitman 2 is a machine, a coldly complex piece of mechanical clockwork which is imposing and constrictive to the new player, and a familiar toy to the veteran.
Hitman 2 is perhaps more accurately considered Season 2 of 2016’s Hitman, with mechanical improvements being good, but relatively minor. Basically everything I’m about to say about it can also be said of its predecessor, but 2 is worthy of ultimate praise because, for one, it contains all of Hitman as an easily-imported expansion, and on top of that, the cleverness shown in Hitman 2‘s additional levels shows further mastery of the formula.
The Hitman formula is a three step procedure, mapping pretty cleanly to the classically considered experience levels of novice, learning, and mastery. What you’re doing in Hitman 2 is fundamentally the same in hour 1 as it is in hour 100: there are some folks, on a map, that you need to kill and get away. Generally, it’s always the same folks, and it’s always the same maps.
We can specifically divide this process into two fundamental steps, which for ultra-cool Hitman-style minimalism I’m going to call cause and effect. Cause is the procedure the player takes, the positioning and preparation of the game elements across the map, including the player themselves, in precisely the state desired by the player. Get your target to this room, make this guard throw up, be standing right here in this outfit. This is all for the intended effect, the crowning moment of action, the kill. All murders are not equal in the eyes of the ICA, so specific kills will grant specific rewards based on the game’s Challenges and scoring system. Explosives, while bombastic and effective, are generally worth less than more subtle kills.
When you enter a given level of Hitman 2 for the first time, as a novice, the game heavily nudges you to follow what it calls Mission Stories: guided, waypoint-laden paths to victory. In this way, Mission Stories give new players cause and effect. The waypoints helpfully lead the player from key step to key step, from obtaining outfits to getting key items to laying traps, and generally, once concluding, leave players in an ideal position for an effect: this leaves the target alone leaning over a rooftop railing, or in front of an inconspicuous explosive, and it’s just up to you to push the final domino. The player is given some wiggle room, but generally speaking the entire plan is laid bare.
Once the player has grown beyond Mission Stories, they enter the learning step of Hitman 2. This is when they begin directly interacting with the game’s Challenge system, and in this phase, the game lays out effect, but not cause. Players know that they should kill a target by, say, dropping an elaborate light fixture on their head, incentivized by a pile of experience points as a reward, but the game doesn’t tell them how. It’s up to the player to go into the level and study, and learn the cause. When does the target walk under a chandelier? Do they do so in their unaffected loop, or does the player need to do something to reroute them. Where can the player drop the chandelier without being seen?
The player is forced to analyze the same target from multiple perspectives to complete different challenges, constantly trying to parse the same fundamental machine for moments where it can be forced into a desired state, and thus, increasing player understanding of the machine as a whole.
The final stage of Hitman 2‘s progression, the level of mastery, comes in the form of the game’s toughest Challenges. These Challenges singularly specify cause. To claim the most difficult bounties, the game suddenly becomes extremely focused on a player’s ability to plan: don’t be seen, don’t cause any collateral damage, never change costume. The game’s Escalations do this as well, and the result is some of the game’s most satisfying challenges.
Forced into a challenging playstyle, master players must figure out how to make the kill work. Where in the map can I get into without the security clearance of different costumes? How can I avoid security cameras, and if I can’t, how can I wipe the footage? Previously, the player had some flexibility in how they could get the proverbial machine to work, even if it required some shoving or well timed hits, or in this case, a few witnesses, a few dead bystanders. No more with this sort of play: the player has to follow the rules of the machine to a T.
To imagine this complexity mapped to a more universal activity, imagine this progression in the context of cooking. The Mission Stories are, in effect, following a recipe. You’re given an ingredient list, told what to do with them, and told what they’re gonna be in the end. The main Challenge loop represents freestyling a recipe: you know what you wanna make, and you’ve done this enough that you generally know what goes in it and how to prepare it, but you maybe are making informed guesses to the specifics. You’ll probably need to experiment a few times, try different spice blends, let things cook for longer or shorter, add things in a different sequence. Mastery is just looking in a pantry, maybe one that isn’t even yours, and throwing something together out of what you have, with little control on your ingredients, just how you use them. This is, after all, the premise of most competitive cooking shows, a la Iron Chef. Restaurant chefs face similar challenges: we need to get rid of these ingredients before they go bad, we need to have something that cooks this fast, we need something to fit this gap on the menu.
Even more fundamentally, imagine it like this: first, give the player a hammer and a nail. Then, give the player a nail, and force them to find a hammer, or something suitably close. Finally, give the player a hammer, and force them to consider how the challenge in front of them is like a nail.
I think this fundamental progression pattern can, and should, be pulled out and utilized in other games, even games with more traditional level- or mission- based progression, because the satisfaction for the player of learning and mastering systems is so much greater when the player is neither just handed all of the solutions, or given absolute freedom without guidance, but is instead gently led down the path of progressing from one to the other.
Consider that some of the best games use this design pattern for micro-systems within their games. For example, consider the individual Sheikah Slate powers in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When they’re introduced, they’re given to the player in relatively constrained settings with obvious solutions (cause and effect provided). As the player goes out and explores the world, they learn how to use the abilities in concert to achieve new desired effects (for example, using Magnesis to complete electric circuits). The best of the best players use these abilities in speedruns, using their understanding of them to beat the game under constrained conditions (specifically, under a certain time).
When designing any system for a game, from an individual item to the entire main gameplay loop, consider implementing this hammer and nail -> nail -> hammer arc, which can be as simple as tuning incentive structures to encourage this progression. It’s a fantastic way to balance a player’s desire to know what’s going on, and the rewarding feeling of discovery.