‘Hitman’ Director Christian Elverdam Explains How To Make Game Worlds You Get Lost In

Senior Contributor
01.31.17

Square Enix

In Hitman, the episodic stealth game arriving in a boxed edition tomorrow, part of the fun is trotting the globe, exploring the glamorous and beautiful places most of us can only dream about. And, of course, killing your various contracts, all of whom tend to have it coming. We sat down with the game’s creative director, Christian Elverdam, to talk about virtual tourism and balancing the real with the believable.

You take players to some fairly glamorous locales, here. How did the team choose where 47 would go?

It’s obviously a process for us here at IO. The journey for levels started some years ago, when you’re discussing what the game will feel like. We decided to go back to the apex predator feeling, of 47 in his prime. Globetrotting had always been a promise of the Hitman games, and we wanted to come back to that. One parameter from the get-go was to travel to different continents. We also talked what an “exotic” location is. The literal example would be a level like Sapienza, a North African location that you’re not used to seeing in a normal civilian state. It felt like an interesting contrast to the events of the game.

Traveling is one thing, but also the events that take place in the level are also a big parameter. Take the fashion show, that could happen many places, but it felt like Paris was the best match. So not only do you get to visit a Napoleonic palace, but you get to feel what it’s like to be backstage in a big fashion show.

Most of these are real places. How realistic are your depictions? How did you decide what to keep accurate and what to alter?

I think there’s this constant thing we’re discussing where we don’t want to be real, we want to be believable. There’s so much stuff that’s not real but will feel like it’s real. At any point, we want the game to come first and the realism come second. When we did the palace, it’s a made up palace, but we made it of several different palaces. It’s much more about capturing the essence than rendering a real location.

In reality, if we find two people in a basement in some venue, that venue shuts down immediately as the police investigate. If we did that in a Hitman level, it’d be boring, so we have a lot of dark humor, so the fashion show doesn’t end. We wouldn’t want to sacrifice the fun in favor of realism.

Do you get to visit these locations at all?

Sadly we don’t get to visit all the places. [Laughs.] We spent a lot of time researching on the internet. We checked out all the things we could. Literally we read guidebooks, and in some cases, some of the artists will go to a location. Hours and hours of research and concept development, and some of it is us inventing stuff. It’s something we make for the fantasy of the level we want to portray.

What other research do you draw on when creating a location?

There are so many things! It depends on what we want to do. I think an example, we can approach the genesis of a location or mission from so many angles. One could be target centric, what’s his character? In Sapienza, we made it a troubled scientist, we figured out his backstory with his mother and plague, he got his own observatory. So that’s one example of creating a space out of that. Even before we were thinking of season one, we were looking for an opportunity to do a hospital. And then it turned out really nicely we could marry it to a key plot point, we could then play with making the target a patient. And there’s all the hilarious stuff, like what happens if your target is resuscitated? It can come from many different angles. Tourism is one example, but the events that unfold are another. This feeling of infiltrating a biohazard lab is something that felt like a cool experience, it could have been many places, but it fit nicely with the scientist.

Was there any thought on “virtual tourism,” people using the game just to wander a district of Paris or Hokkaido?

There’s a fine balance between feeling lost in a level and not knowing what to do, and feeling lost with a sense of purpose. I would love that you feel a bit lost, and “Wow, I’m not sure what goes where, but I want to go this way.” One of the examples is the Sapienza level, even at the greyscale levels, it was a level with no dead end, no matter where you go you can find another exit. I think backtracking without knowing why is a bad way of being lost. Not knowing where you go can be super exciting.

The game has a lot of incidental conversations players can overhear. How much of that was meant to reflect where you are?

We literally have thousands of lines of voice acting for each location. We labeled it a living breathing world, that world exists around you, not just for you. We also added tons and tons of lines about life in that. If we get the right amount in, you give yourself over to the game. I love that poetry that you follow a conversation because it’s hilarious. We spend tons of time on that element of the game.

How do you plan out some of the more elaborate hits? How much license do you take with reality?

We do research stuff. Specifically for the hospital, that was I think, any doctor will tell you it feels real, but it’s not exactly realistic. We have a lot of brainstorming sessions about what accidents can happen, what would you expect to be a thing. If you’re in a cave, are there stalactites you can shoot to kill your target? Does the target see a psychiatrist? That becomes a cool opportunity.

Is there any place you’d like to see 47 head next?

I have many dream levels, I have to be careful. We have a lot of cool levels still to travel. A hospital was something a lot of us wanted to do for a while, and I think people really enjoyed. If you combine this idea of “Where would you like to go?” and “What would you like to experience?” But I have to keep them to myself, because they might come to fruition later!

Hitman: The Complete First Season is available in boxed form today.

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