YouTube channel NoClip’s multi-part documentary series on Hitman wrapped up this week. Over the course of four videos, series creator Danny O’Dwyer looked into how Hitman returned to its gameplay roots after 2012’s Absolution, how the breakup with Square Enix affected series developer Io Interactive, and the ins and outs of how a Hitman level works.
Since 2016, NoClip has been creating documentaries about the making of big games like Horizon Zero Dawn and The Witcher 3. In the Hitman series, O’Dwyer visits Io Interactive’s studio in Copenhagen to interview employees. The first entry in the documentary series, which premiered on July 29, is also the longest video of the four. It features interviews with staff about bringing Hitman back after players’ chilly response to Absolution, a game that many thought lacked the creativity and freedom that make Hitman games so compelling. In the video, Io CEO and co-owner Hakan Abrak talked about the hard work that went into Absolution, calling it “all-consuming crunch for two years.” He told a story of driving through the tunnel between Copenhagen and Malmo, Sweden and having to pull over when stress affected his vision: “This is when the pinnacle of stress was hitting me, and all of a sudden the lights were swirling… I had to actually stop the car and take a minute because I couldn’t focus anymore. I did drive a lot of people around me extremely hard, and also that was a learning experience.”
Even after all of that hard work, Absolution didn’t sell well. That put a lot of pressure of 2016’s Hitman. Hitman’s episodic structure was seen by Io’s team as a way to get curious players in the door at a lower price point; the designers expected a lot of players to purchase the cheaper episodes as they came out. The studio was surprised to find that, while fewer people bought 2016’s Hitman than they were at first expecting, 80% of those people purchased the entire unfinished season for full retail price instead of buying just the first available Paris level. Io was committed to constantly adding to the game with contracts, targets, and escalations, which created a lot of work for studio staff but succeeded in the goal of keeping players engaged.
In May 2017, while Io was working on new Hitman content such as the Patient Zero mission, publisher Square Enix parted ways with the studio. Because of that, Io had to let go of 40% of its staff in a time internally referred to as “Sqexit.” The documentary details how some employees saw the fallout from that as a surprisingly positive experience. According to level designer Mette Andersen:
All our coworkers had a pretty sweet deal. They just had like four months off, full pay. Square was super cool also in the breakup; I was very surprised at how they handled it… [Coworkers] all got job offers and jobs really fast. That’s the weird part of this ecosystem: when a big company dies, tons of small companies are born that make amazing things, so a part of me couldn’t help being a little bit excited on their behalfs as well—they’re gonna go out there and do really cool stuff too, so it wasn’t all bad.
According to Abrak, throughout the process of parting ways, Square Enix was “absolutely genuine, real, empathetic, reasonable.” Square Enix also took part in talking to other companies about potentially purchasing Io, but the studio eventually went independent, keeping the rights to Hitman and going on to release Hitman 2.
Other parts of the NoClip series delved into the mechanics of the recent Hitman games. One of the videos explores level simulation, laying out the different kinds of spaces a level’s designers imagine when they create a mission and the behaviour of characters who might inhabit it. The following documentary entry went more in depth on level design, including a look at the scripting process that makes a level work. The design tools include a graph that influences characters’ decision-making. Characters can make different decisions when circumstances change, with the designers having to balance what players would logically expect versus what needs to happen for the game to function smoothly.
The last entry into the video series discusses who Agent 47 is as a person, including speculation about why he’s so good at everything. “He might be the guy who takes advanced drumming lessons before he goes to a resort,” says creative director Christian Elverdam. “I think  can master a lot of things, and that’s how he actually passes as a security guard, because he’s seen all the micro-signs and the micro-moves that they do, their mannerisms and stuff, it’s second nature to him...Since he’s not really anyone himself, it’s easy for him to be everyone else.”
The whole documentary series is a great watch for Hitman fans, giving an in-depth look at how Hitman works alongside the real-life stories of the people who made the game. You can watch a playlist of the whole series here.