I’m not sure if you’ve seen it floating around, but there’s a viral story about the way jigsaw puzzles are manufactured. Turns out, a lot of manufacturers use the same die to cut their puzzles, meaning that four different 500-piece puzzles will have functionally interchangeable images on them. This is hilarious, and has opened up an entirely new world of puzzle-hacking. My favorite of the images in the story is this one, of a train with horse legs, leaping through the air.
I’m not the type of person who can finish a puzzle twice. Once it’s made, it’s made. I’ve seen the solution, and that’s all I need. I’m done now. This holds true for the realm of games. Even more physics-heavy titles, like Portal 2, don’t pull me back in for multiple visits. I’m just not good enough at them to perform wild sequence-breaking, and so I doom myself to sequence; while I do enjoy spiraling down a funnel, pulled ever-closer to its bottleneck, there are really only so many routes of ingress.
Hitman is an entirely different beast. In spite of the implications of its namesake, Hitman is really not about killing—it’s about solving a puzzle (albeit a puzzle that lets you kill, womp womp). Unlike games like Portal or The Witness, however, puzzle-solving is not about discovering routes but about stacking layers.
Okay, I can’t wear the guard outfit in the atrium – they saw me kill that chef. But I can still wear it on the second floor, and—if need be—I can go back for that chef’s outfit. Maybe I won’t have to though. But I can’t wear the chef’s outfit in the kitchen, because it’s full of people who’ll become suspicious. But the only way for me to get to the poison is through the kitchen, which is only accessible through the atrium, where I can’t be seen… because I’m wearing a guard’s outfit.
This isn’t linear. The plates spin, with new ones laid for each interaction—botched or not. Other puzzle games struggle with failstates, either forgoing them entirely or, more frustratingly, making them a hard reset. In Hitman, you’re still punished for trying to lay down a piece incorrectly, but it allows you the privilege of righting course. It’s a game equally defined just as much by the number of ways you can fail as the number of ways you can succeed. This is the benefit of marrying puzzle and stealth—stealth games live and die by letting players feel the thrill of temporary failure through soft failstates of complication, rather than the hard ones of death. They’re about giving you enough rope to hang you, or your target, with.
Each piece of the puzzle still fits, even when you look down and know that what you’ve made falls outside of what’s intended. Hitman is a game about absurd creations and bizarre disasters that are equal parts inspired creativity and inspired mistake. It is a puzzle that allows for unorthodox completion, differing nearly every time. It’s a cube of water floating above a pastoral landscape. Actually, it’s a T-Rex at the Sydney Opera House. Wait, no, it’s my grandma’s face, custom-printed on a good-ol’ 1000-piecer, floating above the Manhattan skyline.
It’s a horse train, and everything else at once.