Early in the production of Hitman 3, the developers of the game found themselves in a bind — a conundrum of their own making. For the first two entries in the trilogy, 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2, series protagonist Agent 47 didn’t have top billing. The real stars of the show were the locations: massive levels that felt like living, breathing environments. These sandbox playgrounds afforded players all the freedom in the world to figure out assassination strategies, and to ignore the threadbare story that linked the levels together.
In concluding the trilogy, though, Hitman developer IO Interactive not only wanted to lean more into the story — it wanted to delve into the character of Agent 47, the bald man with a barcode who had mostly been a cipher just following commands.
“For the previous two games, we made it really easy for some players to not care about what was happening in the overarching story,” said Forest Swartout Large, executive producer of Hitman 3, in a video interview with Polygon last month. “And we realized when we were developing this story — the conclusion of the trilogy, closure — that we cared a lot about this story, and we wanted players to care.”
If you’ve trained players over the course of two games that they don’t need to pay attention to the story, it’s difficult to convince them that they shouldn’t also skip over it this time around. After lengthy deliberations, IO’s designers held firm: They cared too much about their ending for Agent 47’s story to allow that to happen. That major decision had ripple effects throughout the development of Hitman 3, including the linear design of the game’s final mission, which has proved controversial. But it’s clear from talking to IO that the studio believes that putting some limitations on player freedom was the right call.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Hitman 3.]
Hitman has been around for more than two decades now, and the nadir of the franchise was arguably the interim between the recent World of Assassination trilogy and its immediate predecessor, Hitman: Absolution, which launched in late 2012. Absolution introduced some key elements that became bedrock features of the later trilogy, such as 47’s Instinct vision. But the game received criticism for taking the franchise in a more linear direction: Each level played out as a series of smaller sandboxes rather than the large environments of previous Hitman titles. Players also felt that the focus on a cinematic presentation for the game’s dull, fairly rote plot was misguided; as Eurogamer’s review noted, the story was “for the first time in the series […] pretty much impossible to ignore.” (It didn’t help that Absolution was the first entry in the franchise since 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money, which many people still consider to be the best Hitman game.)
Sales were strong but fell short of the expectations from Square Enix, which was then the parent company of IO Interactive. Less than seven months after Absolution’s release, Square Enix laid off nearly half of the studio’s staff and canceled all its non-Hitman projects. By then, IO had begun preproduction on a new Hitman title, which ended up being a hard course correction from Absolution. The team went back to the series’ free-form roots for Hitman, delivering six sprawling locations packed with all kinds of paths to explore, challenges to discover, and hits to pull off. The game was released episodically over the course of 2016, with as much as two and a half months between chapters, which had the side effect of increasing the chances that players would lose the plot of the overarching story.
“I think there was an intention to have a story that could sort of frame each mission, but [it was] not getting in the way of the missions, [each of] which was a Hitman sandbox,” said Hitman 3 game director Mattias Engström, in the same video interview, speaking about the first two games of the trilogy.
Each of the levels was bookended by cutscenes sketching out a globe-trotting conspiracy tale that was particularly convoluted in the first game. But by the middle of Hitman 2, the writers had established the story’s primary cast well enough to allow those characters to have their own arcs through the rest of the trilogy. When it came to Hitman 3, that setup let IO “do a game that is more about character rather than the plot,” said Engström. In doing so, the studio wanted to integrate the characters more closely into the gameplay. The thinking, according to Engström, was that “they need to be part of the game in a way we didn’t do before.”
This is Agent 47’s story, not yours
Level designers and mission designers never work in a vacuum. But with Hitman 3, more so than Hitman or Hitman 2, design decisions flowed from the story that IO wanted to tell — and in particular, from the directions in which the studio wanted to take its characters.
Agent 47 was trained to be the perfect contract killer, engineered in a laboratory to be an emotionless, obedient assassin. His story over the course of this trilogy is one of discovery: learning about his past, learning about his relationships, and learning that he can exercise his own free will.
Getting to the endpoint of that story requires traveling a difficult road with lots of ups and downs, and according to Engström, IO wanted the player’s path through Hitman 3 to mirror 47’s journey. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Berlin mission, “Apex Predator,” which brilliantly inverts the series’ conventions, leaving 47 on his own and the player without the usual signposts: no idea who the targets are, no information on what kind of situation he’s walking into, no safety net. It’s up to 47 and his (considerable) skills to figure out how to handle things on his own. The mission comes at a point in the story where 47 is a man on an island; its thrilling, unique design arose directly out of that situation.
When 47 is able to get in touch with an ally, she explains that they’re being hunted by a group of assassins and urges him to get out while he still can. But he refuses, and that decision is an important character moment in Hitman 3.
“In that moment, there is a hint of 47 making a choice,” said Engström. “He’s going, ‘Nope, I’m going to take care of this. And I’m going to brief myself,’ basically in-game, and saying, ‘I am going to deal with this now.’ And that happens in-game as […] part of the journey to get where we land in the end.”
Two missions later, IO goes even further in prioritizing the story it wants to tell above the Hitman series’ traditional level of player agency. In “The Farewell,” which takes place in Mendoza, Argentina, Agent 47’s handler Diana Burnwood exists as a person in the world for the first time, rather than just a voice in the player’s ear or a character in a cutscene. It’s a wow moment, and IO makes her presence inescapable at both ends of the level.
Regardless of the order or methods with which you kill the two targets, the mission ends the same way: 47 meets Diana on the dance floor for a tango. It’s a beautiful sequence, with undertones of romance even though they’re both there to talk business, and it leads right into the shocking cutscene that plays afterward. Putting this constraint on the player is a minor imposition in the grand scheme of things — especially since the requirement is only there on the initial playthrough — but it makes for another crucial character beat as Hitman 3 hurtles toward its conclusion.
“The way we approached it was: The first time you play this game, it is a campaign mode, almost, where you can’t skip; you can’t choose another starting [location],” said Engström. “But we can also control, the first time you play, how you exit the mission. And we just said, ‘Yeah, no […] we feel that the story and these moments are important for us and for the player, and we’re going to do something bespoke that sets up not only the next mission, but the the end of the trilogy as well, and people will have to do that the first time.’”
The exit route isn’t the only limitation that IO implemented in “The Farewell.” One of the hallmarks of the Hitman series is its humor, which is suffused throughout its incidental dialogue, its scenario writing, and its open-ended design. It’s a necessary counterweight to keep the grim nature of the proceedings from becoming off-putting. IO builds a sandbox and hands players the tools to create situations ranging from the morbid to the absurd, like strutting around in the flamingo suit from Hitman 2’s Miami level. But in “The Farewell,” IO limited the player’s outfit choices so they wouldn’t ruin the atmosphere and undermine the studio’s storytelling.
“For this specific moment, we narrow down the allowed suits to the ones that we feel just comfortable with,” Engström said. “Like, we have Diana in-game; they’re going to do a tango on the dance floor. We’re going to treat it with respect all the way through.”
But perhaps the ultimate expression of IO’s authorial intent — and its accompanying constraints — comes in “Untouchable,” Hitman 3’s epilogue. It’s unlike any other level in the trilogy: The entire mission takes place on a train in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. The setting severely limits the amount of freedom that players have, since there’s only one direction to go in, and there are few opportunities to come up with creative solutions to the level’s navigation, stealth, and combat challenges.
Taken at face value, IO’s decision to conclude three games’ worth of inventive open-world design with an out-of-left-field level like the Carpathian Mountains seems baffling. In a ranking of all 21 locations in the World of Assassination trilogy, Rock Paper Shotgun put it dead last, writing, “To end this celebration of sandbox ingenuity with a linear trudge feels like the last gasp of Hitman Absolution.”
While this kind of experience is unprecedented in the trilogy, IO designed the train level to serve a specific storytelling goal. “The purpose of this last mission was to have a narratively driven set-piece that is setting up closure for the trilogy,” said Engström. He added that a train was “a perfect metaphor” for what 47 has spent his life doing: following a path determined by others. Finishing the job and stepping off the train is similarly symbolic for 47’s story, according to Engström — a representation of the contract killer using his newfound free will to leave his past behind.
IO was well aware that it was taking a risk with the epilogue. Large, the executive producer, told Polygon the story of the first time that a prototype of the train level was shown to the entire company, saying, “We got some — some emails after!” But according to Large, the project leads and the key stakeholders at IO had already considered the points that some members of the team were raising, and they’d also thought about the response they expected from players.
“I can’t speak for anyone else on the team, but I’m really proud of the last level,” Large said. “I read and hear and, like, I can understand the criticism and the feedback. But, you know, it did what I think we wanted and needed it to do.”
Engström echoed that. “We did what we wanted to do, basically,” he said. “Like, yeah […] we were scrutinizing it and talking about it. But at the end of the day, we were very confident that this is the right thing.”
Regardless of whether players agree with IO on that front, the debate surrounding the epilogue goes beyond its narrative merits. Hitman and Hitman 2 each offered six traditional sandbox locations upfront. So when IO announced — just nine days before launch — that Hitman 3 would also contain six levels, most fans understandably assumed that they’d be getting six sandboxes yet again. And the studio didn’t exactly go out of its way to provide clarity on the situation, describing the Carpathian Mountains mission as a “dramatic epilogue that concludes the trilogy in style with a narrative-focused finale.” That left some players disappointed when they found that the sixth location in Hitman 3 was a smaller-scale experience than a “full” level, especially since the limited scope also limits the level’s replayability.
COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on creative endeavors such as making video games, causing delays and cutbacks for projects big and small. While IO wouldn’t comment on the record to Polygon about any effects the pandemic may have had on Hitman 3’s development, the studio indirectly refuted the idea that the game had been scaled back because of the pandemic. According to Large, the scope of the final product had been the plan all along.
“That is actually what we set out to do: We set out to make five sandboxes and an epilogue mission,” said Large. “And I’m proud of what we released.”
Free will: controlling your own destiny
In a way, Agent 47’s evolution from Hitman through Hitman 3 feels akin to the tumultuous journey that IO Interactive experienced over the past decade or so.
After Hitman: Absolution’s mixed reception and commercial shortcomings, the studio was confined to a narrow path, told by its financially struggling parent company to concentrate entirely on the Hitman franchise. So it did. With Hitman, IO focused on what makes Hitman, Hitman: sprawling sandbox environments and open-ended assassination gameplay.
The critical acclaim for Hitman wasn’t enough for Square Enix, which announced in May 2017, less than seven months after the game’s final episode was released, that it had decided to divest itself from IO. This left the studio with an uncertain future, until it announced the following month that its management had been able to buy back the company from Square Enix and become an independent studio — while retaining ownership of the rights to Hitman.
By the time IO announced Hitman 3 in mid-2020, it was able to self-publish the game (with the help of an Epic Games Store exclusivity agreement for its Windows PC version). The ability to maintain full control over the entirety of a project is the ultimate measure of creative freedom. And just like 47 getting off that train in the mountains of Eastern Europe, that’s what IO was able to do with Hitman 3: to tell the story it wanted to tell, exactly how the team wanted to tell it.