David Bateson is The Mister 47. His voice, and eventually his likeness, are one with the genetically modified master hitman. The Hitman series began with Hitman Codename 47 in 2000 exclusively on PC. However, it was the sequel in 2002 that brought Mister 47 into prominence with gamers.
Now, over 16 years later, Bateson is still with the iconic character in its newest installment. However, it is now an episodic series that will also be grouped into seasons. I spoke with Bateson over Skype about his history with the series, this new episodic format, and how he thinks the future of the series – and gaming – might go.
How were you originally approached for the role of 47?
I was in a studio doing a voiceover for something else, and the technicians in the studio had contact. They were doing a lot of work on the first game as well, I think on some graphical work. They asked me on behalf of the developers who’d asked them [if they know anyone who can do voice acting] if I would be interested, and I went “yeah, listen when I finish this voiceover, let’s go have a look at some of the graphics.” So they showed me what it looked like, or what it was going to look like, and I was blown away – I just thought this game, it was very dark, very film-noir, kind of Blade Runner in feel, and that’s my favorite film of all time. So, I just said “yes!” straight away, “I want a piece of this.” And that’s how I did the first one for nearly the bus fare home.
Is it surreal to not only see yourself on screen and hear yourself, but can move yourself in the game, as the character?
[Laughs] Yeah, that got weirder as the game got better. The better the graphics got and the more – and it is a bit of an urban myth, [47 was not physically modeled after me at the start] I don’t know where it came from – the more it began to look like me, I believe they used a still of me to make the character look a bit more like me. [It’s] not because I’m known or anything, I just think it developed naturally. I mean he was always bald and I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember.
How much of 47’s character is you, your mannerisms or style?
I wouldn’t say that I’m a murderer or I kill people for money [laughs], but I would say over the years, because of my long relationship with the writers who’ve now got to know me, and me know them, I see more of myself in the person which is a bit weird. But first and foremost, it’s just kind of funky to sort of see this guy crawling and climbing and jumping and shooting people, taking out people, and sounding like me [laughs].
Did you play through the game when it was originally released?
Yeah, big time. Especially in the early games before I got settled in and had a wife and children [laughs], yeah, I played it big time.
Did other people that you know play it such as family or friends?
Not at that time (of the original release). As I recall, the first game was appreciated by the media but it was only for PC, it wasn’t out on the PlayStation or Xbox. The second game blew people away. [It] really began to take hold of a real kind of dedicated clique audience. And, from then on… it spread. And so, I began to notice that people I knew now had not only heard of the game, who had nothing to do with the industry, but they were playing it or they knew someone who was playing it. Or their kids now were playing.
And then the next phase of that was being recognized, which is a couple of times, it hasn’t happened much. What did happen was I started to get recognized – my voice started to get recognized when I was in a studio doing a voiceover. I could suddenly see the sound technicians who got kind of an extra… or more aware to the way people sound and they hear all kind of voices and stuff – and I suddenly seen them sit up. I remember once in a studio in London, I was flown over to do some Lego commercials, and the guy said [to give him a sound check] and I’m looking through the glass window and as I started speaking I saw him bolt upright in his chair and look really spooked, and it was so funny because I knew, I knew what it was. And the clients were in the studio, so he couldn’t really talk [with me] but in a break he said “you are…you’re the guy, aren’t you? Yeah, you’re Agent 47!”
The voice more than the face, but a couple of times by the face which is spooky.
On a personal note, I think your voice is very iconic along with the character, it wouldn’t be the same without your voice.
I’m wondering after you finished the first one, you thought it would be done and that would be it for portraying this character. Were you surprised that there was a sequel?
The answer to this is actually yes and no. I wasn’t surprised because the graphics, for me, were really different, they were in a different class to what I had seen. And as I had discovered, the near fanaticism of the developers, they were like sort of Steve Jobs “we’re going to create this perfect phone!” “Yeah, okay put the gun down, Steve.” You know, they were really, really dedicated. Although, you know here’s the thing, I heard that – and I don’t know if this is true or not – but I heard that they were also mainly interested in getting this first game out so that they could raise funds through the profits to develop other games. So, I’m not sure just how clear they were at just how big it was going to get. So that’s where the “no” answer comes, maybe they weren’t thinking that this would really take off.
But, it’s no surprise to me that it did suddenly go onto the other platforms… and take off from there.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin was multi-platform and really took off. Were you surprised when that game became so successful?
No, by that stage, the moment I heard it was coming – and that it was coming to all platforms – even before I’d seen the script, even before they’d even called me, I thought “okay, stand well-back, this is going to get big.” And so, if I had money to invest, or money to gamble, I would have gone “this is an absolute, sure winner.”
Hitman would go on for two more games, including Hitman: Blood Money in 2006. Fans would need to wait six years for the next installment, Hitman: Absolution, released in 2012. Absolution was not well received by fans due to taking away open maps and creating a far more linear gameplay structure. However, Bateson enjoyed the larger role this game afforded him as a voice actor.
However, Bateson almost never made it back to the series.
I remember in 2011 they contacted me and [they were] getting ready for the next one and I went “wow guys, I thought you were dead. I was getting worried, there.”
And then I got a bit of a shock some months later when I’ve been dropped. So then, I kind of, I was very sad to see it go somewhere else and really felt a kind of a personal responsibility to the game. “Hey guys, you can’t do this without me! I know this guy!” So, it was a tricky time. I didn’t hold it against them or anything, it was a business decision. I was just traumatized to not be a part of it anymore.
How did it feel to learn that you would come back?
Coming back and doing Absolution was very special. I liked the script because as an actor, it had a lot more meat on the bone, but that’s just me wanting to act all these emotions and sub-plots and stuff. As a game, I think it’s been accepted, or rather at least by the fans, that they kind of wanted this bigger sandbox that Blood Money had to offer [rather] than getting so massively involved in this complex storyline of Absolution. But, I loved it as an actor because I really got to get my teeth stuck into a fantastic script.
The new Hitman returns to its old tried and true formula, but it also takes a big risk with the new episodic release format. But, we are also now dealing with seasons and hopefully guaranteed continuation of the series for a while. How do you think it’s working out?
There was a lot of nervousness in the business about how this was going to go, but also, a lot of curiosity to see how a triple-A game was going to be appreciated if it was going to be released in such a way. So, it was a tremendous gamble for IO Interactive and Square Enix.
Instead of getting that real peak of insane sales and attention for maybe six weeks, 12 weeks max, they got this slightly… cooler response to just the opening episode, Paris, which was stunning. Then that interest was built and built every second month and that became interesting because now, for the first time ever, the developers had an ongoing dialogue with the fans. So [then] they could actually tweak and adjust the next level before it came out according to what the fans’ response had been [to] the previous level. That, I think, really tipped the scale in maintaining interest in the game.
I’ve come to think that the episodic format is fitting for the Hitman series because each mission is very contained as far as gameplay goes, but I just prefer to buy physical copies of media rather than digital. What do you think of this new digital system?
I’m like you, I’m a real hoarder, I like the physical copy. I collect everything, I got every version. But… the digital release, I found also initially frustrating. I want to have something in my hand, but I got used to it. But I’m looking forward to the 31st of January because then I’m going to get my disc. [With the disc release] I think they are going to get an extra hit [in sales]. [The reviews of season one] have all been exceptional, which has helped, I believe, in the pre-orders for the disc.
As a fan, I do hope that there are many more seasons. How long do it anticipate it to go for? Where do you hope the game ultimately goes?
Well, this is the big question. The level of the game for me in this last season has just completely left me breathless. I didn’t know it could be as good as it got… of course, the developers have been planning this for years. Tech is moving on, the graphics have moved along, and the story-line, the writers, there’s more people involved. They’re really pushing the limits with their storylines. I was at the BAFTAs last year in April [and they were taking about] virtual reality. And that’s kind of the next gold-rush that people are trying to tap into as fast as possible.
I’ll be meeting with IO soon and I have some questions for them, and they mainly have to do with the fans’ reactions, this interactive feel that each level has had. Or the ability, it seems, of IO Interactive being able to tweak the game on the fly… How much more of that can they do? Can they really continue to listen to the fans and – boom – two months later, the next level is there?
Do you think it’s difficult to imagine where the series might go?
As far as expectations for the future, I truly believe they are virtually endless. Every time I go to something – either a game conference or ceremony – I’m confronted with the same kind of manic enthusiasm for the future of the gaming industry, and that just intrigues me… It’s like a bi gold-rush, and let’s just go and dig!
Hitman The Complete First Season was released for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One on January 31.