I was wondering if you could help me with something. You see, there's this problem I've been having. This thing that's been bothering me, and I feel like if I just write it down it might help me figure it out. Do you have a pen? Oh great, that's wonderful, thank you very much.
Why, when I watch Columbo, can I not stop thinking about Hitman?
Columbo is an American TV show enjoyed peak popularity in the 70s. It follows the bedraggled Lt. Columbo, a man who is seemingly forgetful, out of sorts and not altogether capable of solving anything, as a detective investigating various murders of the week. Columbo is the very definition of a formulaic TV show; each episode you watch will follow the same standard structure and will stand alone as its own story. You will see a murder unfold, yourself a witness to the characters involved and their motivations for the terrible act they commit. At which point Lt. Columbo, a true blue collar detective, enters to investigate. From there the question isn't 'Who did it?', it's 'How will Columbo catch them?'.
Hitman (2016) is a soft reboot of the Hitman video game franchise made by IO Interactive and originally coming to popularity throughout the 00's. It follows a somewhat nondescript Agent 47, a man with a bald head, barcode tattoo and piercing blue eyes. Hitman was an outlier amongst traditional video games releases as it followed an episodic output throughout the year of its release. Every couple of months a new level of Hitman would drop. This allowed players to really sit with a level and explore it in many ways for a long time until the next level was released and the player moved on to the new one. Each episode followed the same standard structure, a target is profiled, detailing the characters involved and their motivations for the terrible acts they've committed. At which point Agent 47, the world's greatest assassin, enters to eliminate them. From there the question isn't 'Who do I kill?' it's 'How will I kill them?'.
On the surface, Columbo and Hitman could not seem more diametrically opposed to one another. But scratch that surface just a little and you'll see that those differences are, in many ways, the only differences. In fact, Columbo and Hitman are very, very much alike and it all stems from one simple choice in how these products have chosen to tell their stories, for theirs is a tale of comeuppance.
The social politics of Columbo and Hitman heavily inform the stories they are telling and how those stories are told, directly providing the reason why they can be so entertaining and, more importantly, satisfying. The targets of each episode and level are almost uniformly the wealthy, privileged and elite. People of power, status and vast resources, who use their position to inoculate themselves from the consequences of their actions. They are arrogant, prideful, believing that their position in life makes them stand above the societal norms that everyone else must abide by.
For Columbo, it's a murderer who thinks they are the smartest, most capable person in the room, initially amused by the Lieutenant before dismissing him as irrelevant, completely unaware of the danger that Columbo poses to them. Columbo will even prod the killer in to believing this himself, playing up his addled state of mind and discombobulation. Whilst discussing the murder he will often throw off his suspect by launching into asides and tangents before circling back and hitting the suspect with a question that puts them on the back foot. Off guard, the suspect will attempt to take back the power in the situation, either believing in their own ability to spin a tale or using their privilege and position to brute force their way out. But Columbo will now have them where he wants, nervous, unsure of themselves. Trap sprung.
In Agent 47's case, his target's dastardly deeds have long since been committed which is why 47 is coming for them. But they are generally oblivious to this fact. Like in Columbo, they are unaware of the danger posed to them. 47's nondescript nature allows him to infiltrate and peek behind the curtain of his target's operation, as he slips through the layers of security in a variety of disguises. This is Hitman's way of showing you your target's power, their privilege and status. A literal show of strength. High-tech security, heavily armed guards, massive complexes they entomb themselves in to conduct their business free from the strictures of normal societal influence, police, government and so on.
But their fate has been sealed, a contract signed and a kill to be made. The way 47 navigates his way through the level, is not entirely unlike Columbo. He tests the limits of his targets operation, pushing and pulling until he finds that weak spot. Distract a guard here, allowing you to slip in to an area there, alerting you to crucial clues that will help you push the target and their operation to act against their own interests. The best (read: funniest) example of this comes in Sapienza. Pay close attention to the environmental storytelling and you can lead a target, who is currently developing a deadly biological weapon in his underground lair, down a path in which he believes he is being haunted by his dead mother's ghost culminating with him fainting in her secluded bedroom, providing 47 with his moment to strike.
The reason these stories, their structure and gameplay, are so satisfying is because of that idea of comeuppance. The way Columbo and 47 interact with their targets and their world is, basically, by trolling them. Columbo returning again and again with irritating persistence and questions, 47 literally returns again and again to a level to mess with the NPCs. They troll their target for a reaction, a slip up or just because, well, it's funny to see someone deserving be toyed with. If the targets were not deserving of their comeuppance, the whole enterprise collapses, you or your protagonist would be the antagonist, The Bad Guy. You would now be the one deserving of comeuppance.
Oh, just one more thing…
The stories we choose to tell, and how we tell them are always a consideration of the time in which they are made and told.
Columbo came about in the 70s, as an Angel of Justice, a time of societal change, political discord, after numerous wars and the Watergate scandal. It was a story told in an established medium and to provide succour for the viewer.
Hitman comes to us after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the financial crash of 2008 and great upending of political norms in America and Europe, intended to provide catharsis for the player.
Told via a medium that is still relatively young, this makes me wonder. Does Hitman's nature as a video game demand a greater price be paid in the exacting of comeuppance? For 47 to act as an Angel of Death? Is the interactive component of video games so much harder to bend to more satisfying ends than the more base desire of vengeance over justice? 47 has an entire arsenal of weapons to choose from, and Columbo doesn't even carry a gun. Is the tactile experience of the pull of the trigger always going to be more satisfying than the slapping on of cuffs thanks to the literal trigger we can pull?
With technology evolving at such pace, and the push into new realms of interactivity like VR, it makes me think about how these stories will be told in the future. Columbo and Hitman were made almost 50 years apart. What will it look like in 50 years' time to play these stories? Going forward into that future, I hope that in video games a little more often, just like Columbo, instead of a gun, I'll get that pen.