The S+V Interview: Hitman: Absolution Director Tore Blystad

Sabotaging a gas pump and watching from inside a dumpster as a criminal walks up to it, takes a phone call, lights a cigarette and then explodes is one of Hitman: Absolution's (out today for PC, PS3, Xbox 360) simplest pleasures. Last week I talked to the game's director,18-year industry veteran Tore Blystad, about his latest project.

The constant in this conversation was technology, whether it was how the team at IO Interactive pushed the limits of both storage and power of the current round of console hardware or how it enabled and limited his vision for the game.

Blystad's inspired by movies, which is evident everywhere you look in Absolution. The work of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and the late Tony Scott made the biggest impressions on the game design, but also reminded Blystad of his medium's limits when compared to film.

"Scott could take five different cameras with five different film stocks out on a shoot and we'd have to emulate that in post processing, it was a lot of work," he said. "The things he did in post-production were amazing and very inspiring."

But the biggest challenge for Blystad and his team at IO wasn't the technology, it was the main character himself: Agent 47, the ultimate professional killer. He's a blank slate, so IO uses the environments to reflect the emotions and moods the players couldn't otherwise place on the protagonist.

"The more we controlled him, the less the players would invest themselves," he said. "We tried to push him as far as what was possible [in terms of scripting]."

What was the biggest goal with Hitman: Absolution's art style?

We wanted to make a unique style that was strong and recognizable. The challenge was we always knew we needed to make a very diverse game with a lot of different scenarios. Since this is a game you can walk through very slowly and replay a lot, we tried to find some matching values with the way we used props to make a dense and detailed world.

What brought about the decision to use visual filters to convey information to the player? When you take a human shield there's a very shallow depth of field and when you start taking damage there's a film grain filter and the screen starts going red.

The mechanics where you as a player have total control and your enemy is very close to you - like close combat or the fake surrender - we wanted to go for a more cinematic look using depth of field to focus on you and your opponent rather than having everything else in the picture because there's so much detail. It's a game that's pretty inspired by movies in general, with some of the effects like the damage filters we decided to go for a grainy look to enhance the film-feel. You can't use the grain that much when you're walking around levels because you want the experience to be clean; the grain - especially on consoles - tends to muddle the picture.

Was relaying the proper information to the player in Purist difficulty mode (the hardest of five) more important to do with post-processing effects because there isn't a heads up display in the higher difficulty levels?

No, if you're playing on Purist we deliberately don't want to tell you much about the game because it's up to you as the player to know what's happening. You should be that good at that point. If I could have taken it all (post-processing effects) away, I would have done so because it was more work to include! (Laughs) Purist mode is for the guys complaining about all the other games other than Hitman 1 that weren't tough enough, so we wanted to make a game that was ultra-tough.

What was the biggest challenge in developing the art style for the game?

We had to build a whole new renderer to support it. We had the opportunity when we started to build everything from scratch, so we started with concept art had visual tests. The renderer had to be built to support that, that's why we went for the renderer where we can dynamically light everything. When we work with the game it's a very fast process; lighting is one of the most important things for us in the engine. The ease of use with the lighting is very central to the engine but it also took a long time to develop and tweak it to where it is now.

Was optimizing for the PC version from the console versions a pain?

We built this for PS3 first, then Xbox 360, then PC; the limitations were already there from the beginning. The biggest challenge was in the lighting because you can only have a small amount of it overlapping with shadows at the same time. The game is very much a noir-inspired universe, light and shadow are very important. Optimizing in the way that you don't get too many shadows onscreen was probably the biggest challenge on the art direction side because it was a very central part of designing the locations.

The alley at the beginning of the "Terminus Hotel" level was the first thing we made for the game, that was the benchmark for the style of Absolution. We redid that scene like ten times! (laughs) It still could have come out better than what's in the game at the moment, but I had to live with it in the end. (laughs)

The game looks fantastic. While playing, I was always floored by how well it looked and the consistent, unified style.

It's been a challenge to make it as diverse as possible while still trying to keep it in a universe that still seems coherent so if you saw a screenshot of the game you'd be able to identify it as Hitman. It is pretty difficult these days because stylistically it's still relatively naturalistic and there are so many games competing. It's a challenge in general these days to stand out and at any given time.

What was the decision to make the light reflect off 47's beautifully bald head?

It wasn't something we did on purpose. Because of the way our post-effects work, there's only one guy who knew how it worked in the end so it's not always intentional. (laughs) When you film a movie and something unexpected happens with the lighting on the set, you get some effects you didn't plan for sometimes and it sort of happens. We always turn up everything to 11 to maximize the effects and sometimes it goes a little bit too far and it falls a little flat. It's quite difficult [to reign in effects] when you can walk almost everywhere and you have to be prepared for the player to do anything in the game and see from any given angle, all while trying to make the game look as cinematic as possible.

What art style techniques did you use to convey different emotions or moods to the player as they progress through the campaign?

Colors, lighting and architecture or space –the size of spaces-are something we tried to consciously use to both try to vary the game and at certain points, deliberately change it to make the player feel more pressured or relieved. Because the game takes place in a large variety of locations from very small rooms to very large expanses. This is something we deliberately used to break up the pacing and get some diversity.

When we've spoken before, you told me David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino influenced the story and visual style of the game, can you elaborate a little more on that?

The game is very inspired by movies and it's always been that way with Hitman games. In Absolution, you could say every level is has its own genre it's paying homage to. You can see inspiration from road movies and Tim Burton movies, especially the Chicago levels which are very noir-styled using stylized lighting and fog to bring that out.

For the story, it's been reworked a million times. What's typical of Hitman games is they usually revolve around locations and characters, since the main character - Agent 47 - is difficult to get an emotion from, the emotions are usually coming from the environment and from the characters around him; they can convey a lot more emotions than the character himself. We literally use that to reflect which state he's in. In the beginning of the game, he's going through all these low-light settings and as you progress, he's going through these high-end locations like Blackwood Park, one of the last levels. That was deliberately done to build up and support the character change throughout the game.

What were the biggest changes from concept art to actual production? How much of the tone and feeling made it through to the final product?

Surprisingly, much of it did actually. Looking back at the very first concepts we did, almost everything is there. It's very close, which I'm very happy about. Normally through production, the norm is things tend to change a lot and the fact  for us is that things changed quite little in the process. If you have the "Professional edition" of the game with the art book, you'll be able to see there'a a lot of the concepts that are very similar to the game.

Is that more a result of being better disciplined as a developer or the technology?

I think a core persists (laughs). We didn't believe our ideas were good enough to keep and to hold on to. It's human nature to change things when you can, so we tried to resist the urge as much as we could. There are some places where we changed quite a lot, but most of the time it stayed very true [to our original intent].

What were some of the things you changed quite a bit?

There were some places you could say where the gameplay was made to enhance it, it was either too small or too big. We had to modify the levels to fit the gameplay that was designed. The gameplay was iterated on quite a lot and sometimes we had to expand locations quite a bit or actually contract them to make them work properly.

Speaking of smaller locations, the first thing that comes to mind is the train station scene and the bar.

With the crowds, we wanted to make it feel claustrophobic or agoraphobic. You're trying to make your way through the crowded train station and if you set off an alarm, things can go very bad. It was one of the most difficult passages in the game that was remade five times or something, it was really challenging to make the gameplay work but it's one of those locations where we had a good idea what the feeling should be. To make the gameplay follow that, it was very challenging; the way the technology and the game design and the visual stuff had to meet up and support each other. It's one of the scenes where the consoles are really struggling to keep up because of the renderer.

Do you see that changing as the new round of consoles moves forward?

No, not really. Every time you get a new piece of hardware, within an hour you max it out as a developer; that's just how it is. You keep pushing it right to the max, every time a new system comes out you have to make a bucket for who is getting what from the memory and performance. Is the audio getting a lot? The animation? The A.I.? They're fighting for resources and this fight is very healthy because it will make people optimize the different elements of the game. Of course, it's great to get more power, but it's very quickly going to be sucked up by any kind of part of development. That's always the problem, right?

The AAA game releases this fall all look amazing, it's hard to imagine these are the same consoles Call of Duty 2 or Perfect Dark Zero were running on.

Now people have come to the point where they can perfect the usage of the [current] hardware and there's a lot of new techniques in development and renderer features people can take advantage of. It takes a long time to optimize new technology for new hardware as well because there's so many new features that come along along the way. [Our engine] will serve as a very good platform for the next generation, because when we get more power you can throw a lot more flair at things [more easily than you can now]. Our lives are going to be a little bit easier for a couple of years now. One of the biggest challenges for our tech team was making it fit on a disc because every level is different. There's no reuse of assets throughout and it is a rather large game, so the engineers had to find some new techniques for optimizing the storage. That's something that will change in the future.

Is this a matter of finding new compression rates? So many games now, especially on the Xbox 360, are shipping on two discs.

That's very expensive, so you'd rather avoid it if you can. We wanted it as a dev team, but we were told no, so that's why the tech team had to go back to the drawing board and come up with some new compression techniques. We really didn't need that form a development point of view, but from the economical point of view, we had to do it. Now we have the tech in place, that means we can deliver more content on all our games.

How does the compression affect the art at that point?

It's a fine balance where we were having negotiations and discussing bitrates for textures or pre-rendered cutscenes, animation compressions and decided what we could live with. When things started being noticeable, we'd say that's as far as we'd go because we couldn't let it compromise quality. We had to work more on the technology. With the movie compression, we found the sweet spot for what we found acceptable for compression rates. It's always going to be a challenge when you want to cram a lot of content into a game.

With the PC version - because you have unlimited power and space - does that mean you can cut loose and go wild?

No, not really. Every asset is built for the high-end PC version from the get-go so it was easy for us to sit with it and turn knobs and see what looked best, but there are still limits. The problem with the PC version is we have to support so many different permutations of PCs and support lower and higher end specs. I think if you turn everything to the max, I don't think there's many PCs in the world that can run the game like that, but maybe in a couple of years that would be nice! (laughs)