Surveillance Is A Gameplay Mechanic Ripe For Exploration In Games Like Hitman

In 1974, between two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola directed The Conversation, a paranoid thriller in which protagonist Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a private surveillance expert. The movie begins with a long shot tracking the action in a public square, as people mill about on their lunch breaks. We see Caul walking around the square too, but the real action is happening nearby. A man points a microphone, like a sniper rifle, at the square from a window perch. A few guys work in a van on the street nearby, listening to the recordings that Caul and the man in the window are picking up. Soon, we realize that they’re recording the conversation of a young couple as they circle the park.


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While watching it for the first time, I was engrossed. Now, a few weeks later, I’m mostly thinking about how good a video game based on recording conversations would be.

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Video games are often built around obvious and direct violence — shooting, slashing, whipping, punching, bombing. But, as TheGamer’s editor-in-chief Stacey Henley wrote earlier this year when discussing Cities: Skylines 2, violence isn’t always immediately obvious. In fact, Caul’s arc in the movie follows his inability to deny that his spycraft, which doesn’t require him to directly hurt anyone, might result in death.

Fallout 4 Screenshot Of Microphone

I’ve been thinking about this again after watching Shoah, a 9.5 hour documentary about the Holocaust, in which director Claude Lanzmann interviews many people with different knowledge of the genocide, from Jews who survived Auschwitz and Treblinka, to Gentile bystanders who watched on as the Jews in their towns were rounded up by the Nazis. But Lanzmann also manages to get a few Nazis on the record with deceptive tactics. He doesn’t explain how he secured the interviews, but we see his Volkswagen van parked outside of a building, then see men working with equipment behind its closed doors, then see grainy hidden camera footage of a former S.S. officer as he points at a map of the concentration camp, explaining day-to-day life in the camp in great detail.

At one point the Nazi checks that his name won’t be used — though it’s unclear what, exactly, Lanzmann has told him the interview is for. But his name is used. We see it on screen at the during the interview. Lanzmann is undoubtedly justified in deceiving people like this — they’re literal concentration camp-running Nazis. But, in both Shoah and The Conversation, secret recordings are a kind of weapon; one that can be used for good or evil.

Maybe understanding wiretapping as a weapon is the key to cracking it as a game mechanic. Like a wheel of weapons or an attaché case full of grenades and ammunition, there are different kinds of surveillance tech that can be employed in the real world and could be tools in a game, each with different use cases. Like planning out a Hitman level, the fun could be in choosing the right tool for the job and using it skillfully to get it done.

Hitman Agent 47 sneaking in plain sight with a silenced pistol towards the target

You could wear a wire, which would give you the ability to record any audio in your vicinity, but presents the possibility of getting patted down and discovered. You could plant bugs in a certain area, but they wouldn’t be useful if the target didn’t venture near them. You could wield the kind of long-range mic from The Conversation, which would be useful from a distance, but might be more finicky to operate. Devices could get interference, requiring multiple approaches to capture all the crucial information. And, as in any good stealth game, you would have to be able to fight your way out, run, or die.

It’s not like games haven’t played with surveillance before — Cyberpunk 2077’s brain dances are often recordings taken of people who are unaware they’re being recorded — they just haven’t usually managed to make it all that interesting. I want a game where successfully planting a bug is as satisfying as blasting a shotgun. Who knows what IO Interactive is up to on it’s James Bond game? Maybe this kind of game could be closer than I think.

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