Sunday, September 5, 2010

Thoughts on video game music and Hitman 2: Silent Assassin

Being a fan of video games, I’ll be among the first to stress how important music is in the game, as it is in films. From the catchy analog chip-processed tunes of Game Boy and Sega console games (I think the ant-lion boss sequence from Sonic The Hedgehog 2 of Game Gear featured some truly remarkable scoring) to Bobby Prince’s incredible MIDI scores to DOS games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, and now to full-on orchestral scores to highly advanced games by many well-known film composers like Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer, video game music has shown tremendous evolution, something which never fails to awe me. It’s now a distinct genre in itself with live concerts being performed, and official soundtrack albums being released so that the era of having to resort to crappy game rips to obtain the music is over.

It’s important to mention how many individual composers got their break through the video game music career. A great example would be Michael Giacchino (who won the Oscar this year for Up), whose Medal Of Honor scores are considered to be among the finest game scores ever, which helped him get his break into Hollywood film scoring. James Hannigan surpassed Nicholas Hooper’s Harry Potter film scores with his amazing, full-on orchestral scores to the fifth and sixth games, incorporating John Williams’ Hedwig’s theme brilliantly (sadly omitted from the digital soundtracks due to licensing issues). Martin O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori produced some stunning material for Microsoft’s Halo games. There are so many examples to list, I could go on and on.

But firstly, someone who deserves special mention is composer Jesper Kyd. Most well known today for his award-winning scores to the Assassin’s Creed games, he is also famous for scoring the four Hitman games by Eidos Interactive. The games involve the player as a cloned assassin only named as Mr. 47, with a mysterious past and a connection with a dark Agency, carrying out various hits as stealthily as possible while evading guards and witnesses. The moral fibre of the games is usually cleverly maintained to some extent because the targets are usually high-profile criminals, mafia bosses, smugglers etc. One thing which fascinated me about these games is the many number of ways in which a mission can be accomplished, and having the choice of doing it both stealthily, or just dash in with guns blazing and massacre everyone in the level. Everything is accompanied by Jesper’s threatening, suspenseful music which is usually electronic/orchestral in nature.

The first game is a little too simplistic with some edgy controls, while the games 3 and 4 venture into seriously dark and bloody territory which I’m not really fond of. However, Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is one of my all-time favourite games and, in my opinion, the best of the series so far. Although not as sophisticated with the arsenal, maps and AI as the later games, it’s still a wonderful experience with enough thrills and tough missions that would require ample practice, and very good graphics. The violence is quite kept in control and the bridge between darkness and suitability for most people is well made. Most importantly, it possibly features the best story in the series so far with a very satisfying and powerful ending. The full synopsis of the story can be easily found online, but in this post I’ll mainly be dealing with the salient material and its connection to the music.

NOTE: Spoilers ahead.

The story of Hitman 2 begins with Agent 47 retreating to a church in Sicily to seek peace. During his time in the church, he works as a gardener for the priest, Father Vittorio. 47 views Father Vittorio as his best friend and mentor, attending regular confessions to admit his sins. The priest understands that 47 has killed many but believes the man is decent at heart. Now, it wouldn’t exactly be an action/stealth game with a storyline so simple, would it? Perhaps to signify this, Jesper Kyd’s Main Title theme, instead of the electronica-laden tracks of the other games, begins with a large Gregorian male choir doing a majestic chant, soon joined by full orchestra – staccato strings supporting and brass blaring to play what could easily be a piece for a medieval war film. As a fitting companion to the superior storyline, a lot of the soundtrack features similar grand orchestral pieces, while maintaining the tradition of the Hitman music by incorporating some electronica-driven ambient material too. Jesper Kyd states in an interview –

“After the electronic-driven score for Hitman: Codename 47, the orchestral Hitman 2: Silent Assassin score was a new direction for the sound of Hitman, although there are still a few purely electronic tracks in Hitman 2: Silent Assassin.”

Shortly after meeting the priest and the player learning the controls, 47 enters the church’s confession booth to admit his sins. Here a new three-note motif is introduced for 47, played by trumpet and a restrained flute, gradually incorporating more of the orchestra. The track, titled Waiting For Action, is followed by a full-fledged dramatic track based on the same motif titled Action Begins, as Father Vittorio is kidnapped by the Italian Mafia and 47 discovers the ransom note left by them. The track is simultaneously exciting and tragic – with strings playing emotional counter melodies as horns blare and snare rhythms drive the music forward. This is the same track which plays in the next level (Anathema) as 47 ventures into the Villa of the Don responsible for the abduction and kills him, but is unable to find Vittorio. I didn’t notice this track much in the other levels, so I guess this represents 47 taking revenge on Vittorio’s immediate kidnappers.

After reading the ransom note, 47 decides to contact his old Agency again and take their help in finding Vittorio. He knows this is a deal which works for both sides – he’ll have to go back to his dark ways from which he had been running so far. But his respect for his friend Vittorio and determination to find him at all costs, striking down every obstacle and leaving a trail of dead enemies in his wake, propels him to finally make this hard decision. The emotion behind this is what is captured in the following track – 47 Makes A Decision, quite possibly the best track of the soundtrack. Beginning with low strings on percussive beats, a French horn plays notes of both tragedy and vigour with determination as eventually the string section joins in – a part which never fails to give me the shivers. The track eventually rises to a grand heroic crescendo with full orchestra, literally shouting “Behold, the hero has returned!”. This portion is particularly fun when it plays alongside 47 causing great massacres in various levels. The usage of this track in the final scene and end credits as 47 leaves Father Vittorio and the Gontranno church behind to go back to his old ways, realizing that’s the life which was always meant for him, is another truly inspired decision.

47’s missions in this game take him to various countries around the globe, and most of them have their own suitable theme music to provide an authentic feel to the locations. The missions in Russia feature well-composed, catchy martial marches in the tracks 47 In St. Petersburg and Trouble In Russia, as 47 disguises himself as a Russian soldier to assassinate enemy military generals. A clever play on these motifs is done in the track The Setup, as 47 returns to St. Petersburg towards the end of the game, only to discover that the mission is a trap set up by the mastermind behind everything, Sergei Zavorotko.

It’s remarkable how Jesper Kyd brings a truly authentic feel to the levels’ musical scores even with these highly Westernized tracks – Japanese Mansion, with its banging ethnic percussion and flutes joined by a huge orchestra, was stuck in my head for weeks after completing the missions to infiltrate Hayamoto’s ninja-infested castle. Japanese Snow Castle, with the Westernized Eastern motifs on brass, brings back memories of the treacherous trek through the snowy valley surrounding the location, infested with highly alert guards and deadly snipers.

The action then moves onto Malaysia, where 47 is supposed to take down an enemy systems hacker named Charlie Sidjan. Curiously, the Malaysian missions do not have any specific theme music of their own, and most of the music is a mixture of the previously mentioned tracks or the ambient material. A new track named The Penthouse does appear during the final of the levels, playing during 47’s encounter with dangerous women in Charlie Sidjan’s penthouse. The track is a highly tense action track, featuring high strings screeching out notes of danger and dread as eerie blasts from the brass highlight it. The level itself is a fairly easy one, but the track reappears during another highly tense moment in the Setup level, as 47 sneaks up from behind to take down his evil clone, Mr. 17, in the embassy building, before making a narrow escape.

The following missions in Nuristan feature appropriate Middle-Eastern influenced orchestral melodies in the track Desert Sun and Arabian Dance. The missions in India are underscored by the tracks Streets Of India and Mission In India. Being an Indian myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the music doesn’t really sound Indian, and feels much more similar to Mideastern material. There’s a tabla on high reverb with strings playing the aforementioned melody over it, but neither the rhythms nor the melody sound close to Indian music to me. I wish some more research had gone into Indian music for this one. Nevertheless, this isn’t a big complaint and the tracks work great both in the gameplay and as standalone music.

Moving past the thrilling Return To St. Petersburg mission, 47 discovers that he’s been betrayed and returns to Gontranno, only to find the place in a much more sinister situation than we remember. The lively animals are gone and underneath the dark and rainy sky, Sergei’s henchmen circle the church like jackals as Sergei himself holds Father Vittorio hostage in the confession booth. In the inevitable final battle that follows, the track End Boss provides an apt musical backdrop – a very un-melodic and wild track with eerie string ostinatos and dissonant brass bursts building the tension in the ugly situation. There’s no heroic resolve – as 47 finally disposes of each of the armed goons and takes down Sergei, the ambient music takes over, followed by a reprise of Waiting For Action as 47 talks to the injured Father Vittorio about leaving Gontranno. Taking the cross Father Vittorio gives him, 47 walks out of the church – now littered with the bodies of slain enemies. Stopping at the broken door, he stops and presents a dramatic monologue –

“Always knew I didn't belong in this world. I wasn't made for this. But I'll never forget- those who betrayed me, and those who never failed my trust. I'll be carrying nothing from Gontranno but this lesson: never trust anyone and rely on your instincts. Forget the past. I'll never find peace here. So, I'll seek justice for myself. I'll choose the truth I like.”

The second decision is made; he hangs the cross on one of the splinters of the door, he pulls out his good ol’ hardballers and walks out into the fog to seek his destiny. And, apt to the situation, 47 Makes A Decision plays for a final time as the credits roll over the still gently swinging cross.

The score to Hitman 2: Silent Assassin is one of my favourite modern video game scores and goes on to show how much the genre has evolved lately. The majestic orchestral cues work extremely well within the game and are also great as a standalone listening experience. I personally feel this is both the best game and the best music score of the series so far, and truly worth checking out. The soundtrack was originally released on iTunes after the game’s release, and later released by La-La Land Records as a 2 CD set along with the soundtrack of the first Hitman game. The soundtrack also features the electronic ambient tracks which play throughout suspenseful situations in the game. I really recommend this one to fans of scores and orchestral music alike.


  1. Wow Ravi. Just like you said that you don't have knowledge about Fashion, I have absolutely no knowledge about Music. But looks like your really obsessed with music. Really kool blog. And I think you should post more often :)

  2. Thank you so much, Zerry! I'm really glad you liked it. I definitely try to post whenever I get time! :-)