Monthly Archives: July 2017

More Information About Hitman: The Accidental Agatha Christie Game

It was while I was hurling yet another pipe wrench at the back of a security guard’s unsuspecting skull that I had the thought, “Why aren’t there any good detective games?”

IO Interactive’s Hitman (2016) isn’t a detective game, but playing it now reminds me of the classic mystery stories I read years ago. I devoured Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s genre-defining Sherlock Holmes tales, but Agatha Christie’s fussy little Belgian super-detective Hercule Poirot would quickly become my favorite. Poirot was an obsessive through and through, from the points of his waxed mustaches and starched shirt collars to his analysis of each case he took on. It was always exciting to read as Poirot explained, in the denouement of each book, who the murderer was and how they’d done it.

Writing about Shadow of Mordor, Mike Bithell (creator of Thomas Was Alone and Volume) said games are essentially magic tricks. “An incredibly mundane reality exists, a finessed sequence of hand gestures, trap doors and misdirection,” Bithell wrote. “But in the audience’s mind, something incredible, impossible and impossibly real has occurred.”

Classic mystery novels are magic tricks too, in some of the same key ways. Through masterful writing and stage-setting, the reader is drawn into a believable world that feels chock full of potential suspects. Clues are found, and it seems as though these are uncovered naturally through sleuthing—when really what’s happening is that everything we’re shown is relevant to the author’s design.

But one of the magic tricks Agatha Christie used to make her star detective come off as the consummate genius is one that doesn’t really work in videogames. It’s the same trick Conan Doyle used in his Sherlock stories. We’re never placed in the shoes of the master detective; instead, the reader watches the master at work through the eyes of his long-suffering sidekick. For Poirot, there was Captain Hastings, and for Holmes there was Dr. Watson. We could depend on Hastings and Watson to ask the questions that prompted the detectives to reveal their brilliance.

This misdirection doesn’t work in videogames because when we’re playing games we want an active role in unraveling the mystery. But think of the times we’re given the chance to become the detective, and it’s a series of disappointments, even when it’s an element in an otherwise successful game. In Assassin’s Creed Unity, a series of side-quests has Arno investigating murders in Paris. Arkham Asylum has Batman working out where Killer Croc’s hideout is, and in The Witcher 3, Geralt routinely has to analyze scenes of carnage to track down monsters.

These scenes have always felt a bit embarrassing to me, because they invariably give you a button to press that makes your “clues” light up like neon. This of course is to keep the flow of the game moving, and to avoid the tedious random item-combining of adventure games, which is a problem that has plagued most prior Hercule Poirot games. This essentially is the exact same trick mystery novelists pulled in genre classics, but it feels dumb in games because it has to ruin the magic trick Bithell described by making everything important overtly important. The star detectives always appear brilliant in the novels, but that’s because they’re noticing the things the author put in the story specifically for them to notice. Watson and Hastings don’t have “detective vision,” but in an important sense, Holmes and Poirot do. We don’t get to see it because we’re reading from the perspective of the sidekick, and the story is better off because this kind of blatant signposting is concealed. As Bithell puts it, “[J]ust like a magic trick, once you see the edges, once someone points out the false compartment, the magic disappears, and so does a lot of the interest.”

Hitman shifts the perspective of a mystery story not to the continuously baffled dogsbody, but to the object of the investigation: the killer himself. As Agent 47, you’re not following someone around the way Watson or Hastings must, and you’re not looking for obviously-highlighted gameplay nodes, the way you do in Arkham or Assassins Creed games.

Instead, you’re given carte blanche to create a murder as straightforward or bizarre as you see fit. As the guys at Cool Ghosts pointed out, this often works as dark comedy while you’re learning each environment—when things don’t go according to plan, sometimes it’s just funny to throw a marble bust at a man’s head. Even the more deliberate mechanics can be ridiculous: Agent 47’s ability to instantly disguise himself as anyone he has recently, for example, knocked out with a marble bust, is frequently hilarious. 47 also has magical Witcher-vision that lets him see the location of his target, he can instantly identify which guards will see through his disguise, and he knows the exact moment he’s been recorded by a security camera.

But these videogame-y elements don’t disrupt the narrative or suspension of disbelief the way they do when your perspective is the detective’s. Miss Marple was looking for the slightest item out of place, and Holmes scoured ashtrays for evidence of particular cigar brands, because when you’re solving a crime, these things are important. When you’re committing the crime, you’re focused elsewhere and these points of interaction don’t spoil the illusion. And the settings—Paris, Marrakesh, Sapienza—are all marvelously vibrant stages for these murders to unfold upon.

Whether intentionally or not, Hitman manages to create a terrific mystery game by completely subverting the format and having the action unfold from the perspective of the killer. The only thing that keeps it from being groundbreaking is the fact that it’s already been done, and by Agatha Christie herself, more than 90 years ago. In what is arguably her crowning Poirot novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot returns from retirement to take the titular case of a dead businessman. Where Hastings had usually filled in as narrator for Poirot’s adventures, this time the story is told by Dr. James Sheppard, who also acts as Poirot’s assistant for the case. In one of the best twist endings of all time (and I’ll put a spoiler warning here, despite the fact that the book was first published in 1926), it turns out that Sheppard was the murderer, and had been carefully concealing incriminating information from the reading audience throughout the course of the story.

But where Christie’s readers could only shake their heads and marvel at this subversion of expectations in Ackroyd, now we have as many attempts as we want to create a mystery of our own in Hitman.

Know The Best Boardgames of 2017

Saturday marks the annual International Tabletop Day, a celebration of the extended boardgame community. To mark the occasion, we’ve put together a list of the best boardgames to come out this year so far, giving you a solid batch of new games to look into during this festive event. Grab your dice, pick your local get-together, and dive into these wonderful titles.

5. Yamatai

Days of Wonder, now under the Asmodee umbrella, has one of the best track records of any boardgame imprint, and their latest title Yamatai seems likely to extend their streak, especially thanks to the brand’s consistently excellent artwork. Players compete to place ships and build palaces on a brightly colored board, while using resources to acquire specialist cards that grant the player a special power for future turns. The key is building routes that enable you to place a tower or palace of the same color on the space where you want to build. Yamatai will be officially released in the U.S. in May.

4. The Blood of an Englishman

Pure two-player games are becoming more popular, but I still find most entries lack the elegance and simplicity that many people (myself included) want in such a title. The Blood of an Englishman is an asymmetrical title, with one player playing Jack and the other the Giant, competing to manipulate a tableau of 50 cards. Jack has to remove cards in numerical order to create three beanstalks, each topped with one of three treasures – gold, goose eggs, and a harp – while the Giant tries to line up the Fee, Fi, Fo, and Fum cards on the table, or simply to prevent Jack from building his third column.

3. The Colonists

The Colonists is the game for you if you thought Le Havre was too easy to set up, that Android: Netrunner’s rulebook was too short, or that Agricola didn’t focus enough on storage. It’s long, it weighs nearly seven pounds, and it presents you with more decisions than any modern boardgame I can think of. But despite – or perhaps because – of all of that, it’s a very clever, playable game, one that wisely gives players a choice of game length. The Colonists combines engine building, resource management, and worker placement in a surprisingly balanced way, and if you can deal with the long setup, the number of choices you get over the course of a game becomes a challenging puzzle.

2. Mole Rats in Space

Matt Leacock, the superstar designer behind Pandemic and Forbidden Desert, has taken his signature cooperative-game mechanic to a new level in a game that is appropriate for younger players. Two to four players are mole-rats trying to collect four artifacts and get to the central escape pod while avoiding the snakes infesting their spaceship. Moves are dictated by random card draws, but the players get to choose how to move their own tokens and the snakes, so a little planning can set up a move that shoots a snake out into deep space (and off the board entirely).

1. Forged in Steel

This brilliant, complex strategy game, released late last year, pits players against each other in a Colorado boomtown, developing lots, building houses, factories, offices, mines, and more to collect points and potentially block opponents. The real meat of the game comes in the cards, which players can use for their point value to build new buildings or to seize buildings from opponents. Some cards are Headline cards, styled as newspaper stories that alter aspects of gameplay as long as they’re still active, so players can build a strategy around such a card and then milk it for everything it’s worth until it’s pushed off the board.