Genre reinvention and digital nostalgia for the tangible in Hitman Go

Hitman Go

Steven Poole is an author and regular Edge columnist. Illustration by Marsh Davies.

TWEET: Steven Poole admires the craftsmanship of Hitman Go

One of the most satisfyingly surprising things that can happen in modern industrial art is when a cultural property reinvents itself in a different genre. The classic example is Alien, a horror film, becoming Aliens, a war film. (Prometheus is arguably the first true science-fiction film in the series.) The surprise – and potential satisfaction – of such genre-switching can be all the greater in videogames, because not only do videogame genres obey different narrative conventions (like genres in cinema and fiction), but they also work, and make us work, in mechanically incommensurable ways.

What’s exciting about genre-switching is that there’s really no way to tell in advance whether it will be successful. I doubt whether Advance Wars would work as a Battlefield-type FPS, but then when I first heard that Metal Gear was coming out as a turn-based PSP card game, I thought that sounded bonkers, too. As it turned out, the Acid games were brilliantly atmospheric, imbuing a genre in which I had less than zero interest with all the glamour of tactical espionage action, and none of the panicked controller fumbling with which I had so often led previous undeserving Snakes to their untimely dooms.

It seems possible Square Enix Montreal remembered how the Acid games had mastered the form of turn-based stealth when dreaming up the iOS puzzler Hitman Go. It’s delightful to see Agent 47 reimagined as a gleaming figurine, ungesturing yet still darkly charismatic, gliding around to the accompaniment of mystery-jazz music through delectable levels reminiscent of cardboard architectural models of gardens and offices, mounted lovingly on wooden plinths.

Aesthetically, Hitman Go is arguably most interesting because of the nostalgia it represents. No longer a murder simulator like its predecessors, it’s really a boardgame simulator. Indeed, the developers have said it began life as a physical boardgame. Even the stages are presented as boardgame boxes, with lovingly created fictional packaging.

Curious, since once upon a time videogames could be thought of as an evolutionarily superior ludic stage to the boardgame: one where the board itself could change dynamically, and the computer took over all the mathematical drudgery. But Hitman Go is in many ways militantly, even comically, undynamic. The characters are deliberately unanimated, which does lend a lovely sculptural quality to the security guard posed in mid-run or the rich man in shorts forever frozen in the act of serving a tennis ball. And the way the usual graphic ultraviolence that Agent 47 sardonically practices on his targets is sublimed into the satisfying thonk of a piece simply being knocked over is a surprising and satisfying generic translation.

But this very amorous dedication to simulating a kind of assassin’s Subbuteo is arguably what harms Hitman Go as a game. You can move only along predefined rails, and most levels end up being about pedantic counting, figuring out how you can lose a move by ambling back and forth.

Nonetheless, Hitman Go is still a very charming little diversion, and notable as an exquisite symptom of the digital’s nostalgia for the weighty, fingerable real. On the one hand, computer interfaces since Windows Phone and iOS7 are fleeing skeuomorphism for minimalist flatness. On the other hand, videogames yearn for texture and solidity, as evinced in the proscenium-velvet mise-en-scène of Puppeteer, the arts-and-crafts aesthetic of LittleBigPlanet, or the beautiful experiment of Tearaway, which turns the screen itself into rippable paper. The difference is that we want frictionless efficiency from something like a calendar app – yes, delight too, but not the feeling that we are struggling with a machine. Contrarily, The Room 2 is entirely predicated on the pleasure of struggling with a machine.

Games such as The Room 2 or Hitman Go, you might say, are almost apologising for the lack of haptic purchase on a smooth touchscreen, and trying desperately to make us feel as though we are fingering solid objects all the same. It will be interesting to see whether this phenomenon – Meccano envy? Doll’s-house envy? – persists in the form, to be perfected by some combination of force-feedback gloves and Facebook-sponsored VR helmet. After all, in the wake of a future eco-geddon where wood has become an enormously expensive luxury material, that will be the only way most of us will be able to experience it at all.