With Hitman back in the spotlight (albeit in experimental episodic format- review coming in the near future for my impressions on the intro pack), I’m reminded of much how I love disguises as a game mechanic. I’ve written before on how I adore that sort of brazen stealth that not only offers the thrill of the kill, but the added glee of audaciously walking amongst your would-be witnesses.
While thinking about how this might be expanded upon, I immediately thought of the character Deadman from DC Comics. He’s towards the lesser-known end of the spectrum of comic book heroes, although he has enjoyed the occasional moment in the spotlight like in the Justice League Unlimited episode “Dead Reckoning” and parts in well known series like Kingdom Come, Blackest Night, and Brightest Day.
If you don’t know Deadman and aren’t of the wikipedia inclination right now, I’ll sum him up for you: Boston Brand was a circus performer until he hit that well-known career roadblock: being murdered. His spirit is kept on the Earthly plane by the Hindu deity Rama Kushna, giving him the usual benefits of being dead- invisibility, intangibility and blatant disregard for gravity. Deadman can possess any living being, controlling their actions and sometimes accessing their memories as well as superpowers if they’re a metahuman. That’s a power set that could really push forward disguises as a gameplay mechanic through the method of body swapping as well as adding the voyeuristic element of undetectably flying around the area to plan your move.
Another game that played with ghostly possession was Ghost Trick for the Nintendo DS, in which you could possess corpses and rewind to up to 4 minutes before their death, rearranging objects in the environment in order to change events and save their life.
What I envision looks more like a Hitman game, though, with open-ended levels packed with NPCs that you can assume control of. Since Deadman can physically go anywhere, invisibly passing through walls with ease, the challenge should some from engineering events and possessing the right people to achieve whatever goals that level calls for- extract a vital object or person, learn some important information, save innocents in danger. All things that Deadman needs to use a proxy body to interact with the world to achieve.
In traditional storylines, Deadman is either trying to solve a mystery like the identity of his murderer, or aiding spirits that have unfinished business on the Earthly plane in order to serve Rama Kushna’s goal of maintaining the balance of justice. Either setup would accommodate a series of open-ended levels rife with multiple paths of progression as well as side objectives for an opportunistic do-gooder like Deadman to help people out. I’m imagining a series of events that keep tying back to a central antagonistic individual or organisation, like the Daredevil or Jessica Jones Netflix TV series where events consistently tie in with the respective shenanigans of the Kingpin or Killgrave.
While possessing an NPC, your physical abilities should be limited by the capabilities of their body. Maybe you want to use someone to infiltrate a building to retrieve some vital object (perhaps evidence to prove someone’s innocence) and spot an open window a few floors up. There might be an NPC amongst a group of people practicing parkour. You can use their skill for manoeuvring urban environments to clamber up to that window and get in. The advantage of getting that person into the building rather than, say, just possessing a guard, would be that if things go south you’re in the body of a person that’s physically capable of escaping more smoothly. If you manage to grab the mission-critical object you’re not easily able to chuck it between NPCs and hop-scotch between possessing people on you way out of there; the player should be forced to find a clean way out, or else the challenge disappears. Not to mention the ramifications of leaving a poor innocent person in a heavily guarded building.
I’d also like there to be an element of roleplaying to the possession-disguise system. Like in Hitman and the original gameplay concept for Splinter Cell: Conviction, you should only act in ways that don’t draw attention to your character and don’t draw heat from suspicious NPCs. So long as there’s no hint of the stupid hat-tugging “act cool” system from Hitman: Absolution. Because that was a design decision that betrayed a misunderstanding of the whole allure of disguise in Hitman games.
There should be some limitations on Deadman’s possession powers to preserve the sense of challenge and difficulty. There should be NPCs (for instance, guards) that can’t be possessed, since the antagonists may know that Deadman is on their trail and might take magical or technological precautions against his powers. Another stipulation might be that you can’t possess people that are within sight of others. This could be explained away due to the sudden and obvious change in body language as well as having that person suddenly walk away mid-conversation potentially arousing suspicion. These limitations could be used to force you to find creative ways of infiltrating an area rather than simply possessing whoever’s closest to your objective.
There might even be a section of the game that locks Deadman into mortal bodies, only able to jump from body to body through touch and unable to fly around freely in spirit form and inhibiting your ability invisibly to scout out areas. This shouldn’t be for the whole game, though, for fear of gameplay becoming too similar to Hitman.
I can envision a number of potential mission scenarios and tasks for you to carry out. You might have to break an innocent person out of jail by setting up an escape through a number of people in the prison grounds. You might unlock a few crucial doors with one prison officer, shut down surveillance cameras or otherwise distract the officer in charge of surveillance, or cause a riot by possessing an inmate and drawing the bulk of the prison workforce to the ruckus. There are lots of potential objectives ranging from extracting a person or item to learning key snippets of information and stepping in to save innocents from harm for side objectives. The key here is diversity of settings, objectives, and progression opportunities.
The more I think on it, the more I’m convinced that ghostly possession could be both a gripping central game mechanic and an intriguing advancement of disguise and social stealth gameplay. Deadman is a really interesting character with not only a cool power set, but also a supporting cast, motivations and established themes that could translate to an absorbing narrative and an engrossing world to play in. What if you need to possess someone to achieve a noble goal, but forcing that person away from their day for a while leads to personal disaster? And what about the morality of taking control of a person’s body at all? I’d love a Deadman game to tackle those questions, and maybe introduce a slightly lesser-known and read character to some people.
Image credits: dccomics.com