Agent 47 and his best friend enjoying a neon-drenched night.

I’m currently playing Hitman: Blood Money. The best representative of a series I mostly treat as a guilty pleasure.

See, violence in games is one thing. Violence as the focus of a game, however, is another, and something I shy away from in my Personal Gaming Time. But Hitman’s a sleek, cool, morally ambiguous kind of violence I can get behind.

For those who don't know, the series plays almost closer to puzzle games than action games (if you’re playing intelligently, at least). Charging into a room with your spiffy dual handguns blazing can be effective, but is much more likely to get you killed. So it becomes a matter not just of stealth, or well-implemented action gaming. It’s a matter of effectiveness.

He spends so much time posing like this because he knows he's not using those guns on-mission.

For example, you receive a mission to kill a man and his lover, for reasons that aren't totally clear. There's only one reason, mainly; because you are an assassin, and you are good at it. You begin at the entrance of the building...

Knock a man out. Replace your stand-out suit with his inconspicuous maintenance uniform. Hide your weapon in his tool box. Get frisked, they overlook the toolbox, you’re in an otherwise off-limits area. Climb to the top of a theater during rehearsal, careful not to let anyone see your face. Rig a chandelier to blow. Crouch in the rafters, aiming carefully down a pistol’s sights to make the impossible shot at Target #1. They’re rehearsing Tosca; time your shot with the climax, with the blank they fire, causing confusion. Target #2 rushes down the aisle to investigate, only for the detonation of the chandelier to catch him. Calmly return to where you stashed your suit. Change, sneak out. Mission accomplished, one bullet fired. No one remembers your face.

See, that’s AWESOME to me! It’s the kind of gameplay you don’t see enforced anywhere else, in any other series, and that’s without thematic implications of your assassinations and moral considerations of just how acceptable pulling the trigger is!

It’s a guilty pleasure, but I grow less and less guilty of it the more I think about the series. Especially when you think of the level design as a near-master course in how to embrace gameplay mechanics and give players tools.

Again, example: I was playing when a friend came over. He asked me about an earlier mission in the game, which involves assassinating a former mob boss at his suburban home. He’s in witness protection, so there’s FBI agents everywhere. He’s also about to throw a party, which gives some convenient ins; the caterer, for example, or even the clown that just arrived. Out front, making the mission considerably more difficult, is a pair of FBI goons in the back of a van, monitoring cameras on the home’s exterior.

“Did you ever use the donuts?” my friend asked, using the English language in a way that would baffle most non-gamers.

Does this look like a man that uses donuts?

I hadn’t, I told him. He took the controller and showed me; put sedative in donuts, drop them outside the FBI van, watch as the hungry, bored agents take the box and take an unwanted nap in their truck. Steal one of their suits, get into the party without so much as a frisk.

See, that’s where these games get impressive. From a gameplay standpoint, it’s one thing; I’ve been through that level four times and I never even considered taking that route. But it’s even more interesting from a game design standpoint; the developers so skillfully implement bits and bobs throughout the level that utilize the player character’s skills and given inventory. You've had that sedative since the tutorial at the beginning; you've been able to pick up objects since then; you can see all of these elements at work in the level before you even use any of them. It's distinctly clever, and stands out in a world where realized spaces are either small and linear or massive and too open to reproduce these sorts of moments.

I’ve only done the mission one way, really; knock out the clown, sneak into the party area, become the worst party clown and best assassin on the block. But that says nothing of the donut method, or of the caterer who you could knock out and impersonate, or the garbageman whose uniform you can steal to get easy access in the backyard, or the bells and whistles in all of these strategies. Each level mirrors this. Wonderfully realized, miniature-open worlds full of details you can utilize in your morally ambiguous pursuit of contracts.

I can't remember which game developer said that he'd like to see a game take place in a single, incredibly well-realized space. I think if a game ever embraced that, it'd look a lot like any one level from a Hitman game.