IO Interactive's Hitman games are lauded for their gameplay, but if you're not listening closely to the conversations, you're missing out.
Note: This post contains some light spoilers for Hitman 3, so read on at your own risk.
Thanks to early looks at Hitman 3, we knew its second mission included a full-on murder mystery that takes place in an English manor, nestled right in the middle of your own intentions to commit a murder. What we didn't know was just how intricate that mystery would be--or how much detail it would include about the family at the center of it all.
Though the last three Hitman games tell a tale of intrigue of their own, that story is mostly relegated to moments in between missions, providing loose reasoning to venture to each of its massive, dense locations. At Thornbridge Manor in Hitman 3, you're looking to eliminate matriarch Alexa Carlisle because she's a part of the Illuminati-like organization known as Providence. That's enough to get you through the mansion's door, but the story within it is a self-contained glimpse at Alexa and her family, and it mostly exists just to help you learn when you can get a chance to take Alexa out without being seen.
But that summary of what Hitman 3 and its predecessors are like, from a writing standpoint, is largely incomplete. A striking thing about the last three Hitman games that doesn't get discussed much is how much deep, interesting, often hilarious dialogue there is within its missions. Most of it serves a utilitarian function--almost everything you learn about where your assassination targets will be or how you'll be able to take them down comes to you from overhearing conversations. But what's often overlooked is how fun that dialogue can be.
Thornbridge Manor is a great example of Hitman's often stellar writing. Solving the mystery requires you to investigate the various members of the Carlisle family to figure out who killed Zachary, Alexa's brother. Listening in on the members of the family gives you a lot of insight into their personalities and individual stories, though--much more than you actually need to know to accomplish your goals. Spend a little time wandering Thornbridge and you’ll discover all sorts of things about the Carlisle family that helps flesh out a picture of this group of people, even as they exist purely to facilitate clever assassination opportunities.
Alexa has three adult children: Gregory, Edward, and Rebecca. You learn quickly that Alexa has been a fairly awful mother to her children--she's incredibly critical and cold, and each of the kids has reacted in their own way to the lack of a loving parent in their lives. Gregory is sarcastic and rude, always needling everyone around him (and his wife is hated by the staff because she's already trying to take over Thornbridge following the murder). The bookish Edward, a professor, went the opposite way, meek and anxious about how his mother will react to everything he does. Despite being a talented piano player, a published author, and a successful professor, he feels like a failure, and his neediness ruined his marriage--so much so that his ex-wife has a restraining order against him because he just won't leave her alone. Rebecca took over the Carlisle media empire, and she responded to her mother by developing a workaholic drive. In the wake of the murder (and the fact that Alexa faked her death to dodge the assassination you're about to commit), Rebecca is already suspicious of what's going on with her mother and is chasing up leads like a dogged journalist.
You learn almost all of this (and a lot more about Alexa, Zachary, and their family history that I won't spoil) largely from overhearing conversations. The knowledge you gain in Thornbridge and how you share it makes for some pretty drastic changes to the outcome of the mission, providing you opportunities to assassinate your target--or create alternative outcomes that don't require you to pull a metaphorical trigger. What you learn about each family member doesn't really matter outside of the mission, and yet it's enough to paint them all as three-dimensional characters and more than just NPCs walking around on loops so you can get them out of sight and knock them out.
Had this amazing moment in Hitman 3. I was blending in when suddenly this women starts talk to 47 about relationship troubles with a friend and he gives her advice.— Jean-Luc Seipke (@JeanLucSeipke) January 21, 2021
It's just a really nice moment in an otherwise very goofy game about killing people with a banana. pic.twitter.com/9UMLPm6348
Hitman 3, in particular, does a great job with its ambient dialogue and the various conversations you'll overhear, but there are plenty of gems in the last two games, as well. These games are often discussed for their comedy, but that comedy is almost always about the goofy things you can do in the game--how you can ragdoll enemies off the sides of buildings with exploding rubber duckies or trick every guard in a building into running to the same puddle with a lamp cord lying in it, falling in an ever-growing heap of electrocuted henchmen. But there's a huge amount of hilarious stuff in Hitman that comes through purely in the writing, in the way conversations are used to give you information.
In 2016's Hitman, you head to an exclusive hospital and spa in Hokkaido, Japan, to hunt two super-rich targets. One of those targets has booked the on-site yoga instructor for the entire day, and you can impersonate him as a chance to get one-on-one with your prey. Sneak up on the instructor, and you hear him on the phone, talking about an injury he's suffered.
"Terry, it's John," the instructor says as you listen. "I tried that pose we talked about, Destroyer of the Universe? I guess I pulled something back there. So listen, I need you to call the office. Say you're my brother, make up some family emergency that I have to fly home for right now. Listen, I know you're only twelve, but you can do this. No, don't go get Mom, Terry. Terry--Terry!"
Yes, the yoga instructor's conversation is all about letting you know that he's injured and can't head to his appointment, leaving you the opportunity to take his place. But developer IO Interactive finds ways to make sitting and listening to a guy say he pulled a muscle in his butt and can't work today not just interesting, but hilarious. And it does this all the time, coming up with compelling reasons for characters to give away the combinations of safes, to talk about where important keys are stashed, or to explain why they're about to wander into a secluded area with their back turned to the only path along which someone with malicious intent might sneak up on them.
Some of the best dialogue is deployed in fleshing out the characters you ultimately murder. Every Hitman mission has targets wandering around waiting for you to kill them, but even the formula of "extremely rich person walking from place to place with a lot of bodyguards on-hand" changes each time you face it if you stick around to watch or listen in on targets. In Hitman 3, for instance, you can expose one such rich person, a lawyer, to lethal consequences by informing his wife about how he completely tanked her career in order to win a court case. Listening to conversations between the couple, and other people at the party, fill in the gaps about just how devoted the couple is to one another--so when you finally slip the wife some information about how her husband betrayed her, you understand why she would react by shoving him off a balcony in a fit of rage.
There are plenty of other examples, like the father and daughter you can reunite (before you kill the father) in Hitman 3's first mission, or the rival researchers you can put at odds to give you a chance at both of them in its fourth level. Throughout the game and both the 2016 and 2018 games that came before it, there's dialogue that's funny, poignant, and tragic. There are characters that you ultimately assassinate who largely deserve it--and who are also nuanced. A huge part of what makes the Hitman games work is that they're so full of moving parts, carefully crafted intricacies, and smart writing to add realism, heart, and humor to it all. Hitman 3 and its predecessors carry a hundred tiny stories scattered throughout their levels, and they're absolutely worth hearing.
We've got a whole lot more Hitman 3 coverage, so be sure to check out our Hitman 3 review, a rundown of why you should check out Hitman 3's Escalation missions, and our Hitman 3 hub for guides and walkthroughs.