by Adi Stein
We live in an age where we can enjoy our entertainment whenever and wherever we want. Entire seasons of TV shows are designed to be watched in a weekend, movies can be downloaded and enjoyed anywhere, dozens of books can be stored and carried around in a device that is as thick as a single chapter, and games can be enjoyed on 60 inch televisions or 6 inch phone screens. As consumers and purveyors of media, we are living in a golden yet spoiled age of consumption. We’re both lucky and cursed by how easy enjoying stories is, yet every once in a while we are reminded of the immediacy and power of temporary art.
Take, for example, the run of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton. While the show has a long run ahead of it, there were only so many performances of it featuring the creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Tony winning performances of Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. This created a need to see the show within a short period of time. That’s not to say that the cast currently performing the show is inadequate or something less, but seeing those performers originate and master those roles was something that was only possible for a short amount of time. It made those performances all the more unique, and made them all the more urgent as well. There was no waiting to see them. If you were going to enjoy watching Lin-Manuel play Alexander Hamilton in the musical he wrote, then you were going to have to act fast.
Theatre has always been a unique art form in that way. It’s what makes it so strong and is what has allowed theatre to have such staying power. But only recently have we begun to see other art forms take advantage of that urgency, none more so than video games. A great example of this can be found in the release of the latest Hitman game, simply entitled Hitman. Now before you stop reading, know that I can feel your eyes rolling in your head. “Adi,” you might be saying, “you’re not really going to equate the power of a musical like Hamilton with the mind numbing violence of a video game like Hitman, are you?” To that I say, “Yes. Yes I am. And here is why:”
While Hitman is not trying to make some bold statement about the birth of contemporary democracy, it is borrowing heavily from the emotional power of fleeting life experiences. It’s a notion that millennials are obsessed with, so much so that we’ve coined the term “FOMO” or “Fear of Missing Out.” We are so worried about missing out on life’s great joys that we go to great lengths to take in all that we can. To capitalize on this feeling, Hitman’s creators chose to include side missions in the game that are only available for a short window of time.
Appropriately called “Elusive Targets,” these missions appear rarely, last for only a few days, and can only be attempted once; no saving, no restarting. If you fail the mission, you fail it forever. If your character dies while attempting it, you can’t restart from an earlier checkpoint. You have one shot at completing the “Elusive Target” and one shot only.
This adds a sense of urgency that is rarely seen in games. Every action taken to complete an “Elusive Target” has to be carefully thought out and executed. Even the simple act of initiating the mission is nerve wracking; do I actually have the time it might take to complete this mission? Am I properly equipped to handle the situation before me? All of this has to be carefully considered before even beginning the mission. Once it’s all started, though, the tension is ratcheted up as you try to find your target and swiftly eliminate them in the most silent way possible.
In the last “Elusive Target” I attempted I was told to take out the target and collect a USB drive that he was carrying on his person. The plan I developed was to prick him with a syringe that would make him sick. He’d then go to the bathroom where I would take him out silently and collect the USB drive. After hunting for the target, I find and subsequently began to follow him. I learn his route and collect information necessary to aid my assassination. Finally I choose a moment to act. I equip the syringe and walk by him attempting to stick him. But I make a mistake. I press the wrong button. As a result I don’t poke him; I punch him in the face. A nearby waiter sees the violence unfold and immediately calls for security. I run away, knowing that the target is not dead but that I need to escape the area before I am shot down. I run two floors down and hide in a storage crate, waiting for security to sweep the area so that I can find a new disguise and rethink my plans. Sadly for me, things weren’t that simple. I poke my head out of the storage crate, trying to get a better view of the events unfolding around me, when a guard sees me and calls out my location. Three guards converge on my position. One yells, “Fire!” I hastily exit the crate, punch one guard in the face, and get shot dead by the other two. I failed the mission. But more importantly, I failed the mission and it was thrilling.
All of that excitement, that tension and urgency, would not have been possible if I could have reloaded the scenario from the beginning. The stakes were as high as they were because I knew that I failed I couldn’t give it another go. It creates a palpable sense of excitement that is reserved, largely, for real life actions and not virtual ones. But we I got it here because I knew that the chance is momentary; that if I didn’t act swiftly I would miss it entirely.
That temporary opportunity is something that parts of the gaming community have lamented about Hitman. Giant Bomb’s main podcast, “The Giant Bombcast,” has often said how they hope that the developers release past “Elusive Targets” again so that newcomers can try them out. But to do that would completely destroy what is so exciting about these missions in the first place. When you take the temporary and make it permanent, you fight the very nature of the creator’s intentions and, as a result, remove the urgency of what was created in the first place.
Urgency is now at the center of our lives. No matter where you come down politically, it cannot be argued that we are living in passive times. The next four years will be filled with debates, protests, executive actions, and visceral disagreements. Every step taken by either side will shape lives for decades to come making every choice more urgent than ever. And much like an “Elusive Target” or tickets to Hamilton, our chances to act are fleeting and momentary, which is exactly why they are as profound and important as they are. If we don’t act swiftly and purposefully, we will miss our shot.