In Hitman, Death is Hilarious
Reid McCarter
Agent 47, a highly skilled assassin who carries out missions of world-changing importance, is an exceptional comedian. In every one of Hitman’s levels, the goal is always to find two key individuals—high-powered lawyers, coup-plotting generals, powerful bankers, etc.—and kill them, ideally without being noticed. This is simple and straightforward. But 47 plays his career for the laughs of an unseen audience. It’s not good enough to post up in a bell tower and snap off an opportune bullet from a silenced rifle. Instead, each death is the crescendo of a bizarre comic opera. Here are a few ways Hitman’s assassinations can be carried out: 1) Posing as a famous model at a Paris fashion show, walking the runway to blend in, then meeting with the target in a private room and drowning her in a toilet. 2) Dressing as a masseuse, providing deep tissue work to a man’s shoulders, then snapping his neck and leaving him face down on the table. 3) Sneaking into the storage areas of a high-tech hospital dressed as a surgeon, manipulating a man’s dopamine levels through a remote controlled implant so he opens the path to a heart to be used in a transplant, then throwing said heart in a garbage can. Each of these murders is meant to be the work of a master assassin—the brilliant end points of plans hatched and enacted by an almost supernaturally gifted professional. But, in practice, they’re more like slow motion slapstick. As 47, the player chooses from a menu of possible ways to kill her target. Wandering around the levels, a selection of postcard-perfect locales ranging from a snowy Japanese mountain resort to picturesque Italian coastal town and lavishly appointed Thai hotel, she eavesdrops on idle conversations and observes her surroundings, picking up clues for creative assassination opportunities. The boring player can always find her target’s route through the level, wait for the right moment, and have 47 garrote or shoot his way to a messy but quick solution. The game disincentives this approach, though. After completing each mission a score is tallied that accounts for all kinds of criteria, most important of which being the exact way the targets met their end. Special checkboxes are marked for the player who pretends to be a woman’s boyfriend, poisoning her champagne and murdering her while she vomits. A higher score is awarded to those who dress 47 up in the “Vampire Magician” costume before he kills instead of just getting it over with free of weird pageantry. All of this is to say that Hitman, from its design fundamentals on up to the veneer of its equipment unlocks and scoring system, is meant to be played with 47 acting like a complete fucking monster—the sort of guy who watches LiveLeak videos of accidental shootings for fun. That sounds accusatory, and it is, but it’s not necessarily a value judgment on Hitman itself. There’s no shortage of videogames that model death as something to laugh at, not in the cosmic gallows humour sense, but in the way that a smartphone compilation of old people falling over is funny. In something like the original Mortal Kombat or, more recently, 2016’s DOOM, the actual act of killing is meant to be funny. Sub-Zero rips his opponent’s head off with such force that the entire spine follows. He holds it up, palming a dripping flesh and bone basketball in triumphant glee. The player yanks a Mancubus’ explosive heart out of its chest and kills the demon by stuffing the organ into its mouth and backing away. A beat later, the whole creature explodes. These are acts of unbelievable brutality. There’s no way around it. They’re also hilarious. In real life, seeing either of these would be gut-wrenching, likely traumatizing. But real life is, of course, different from art and entertainment. In games (as in splatterfest action and horror film), there’s a simple, perverse joy that comes from watching simulations of some of the nastiest things we can imagine. Not every instance of make-believe violence is funny, though. In David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, our stomachs are meant to toss at the raw visciousness of a naked man, punching his knife-wielding attackers to death in a Russian banya. The scene—which stands out as one of the most disturbing fights in cinema—literally strips its main character of anything but his body and steps back, making the viewer watch a man revert to a desperate animal, the sound of breaking bones, bare feet slapping on tile, and knives cutting into flesh presented without the ornamentation of backing music or flashy, physically impressive choreography. Described in the most basic terms, this could be a scene out of Hitman, Agent 47 wrapped in a towel and waiting to catch his target off-guard. The difference, though, is that the game is uninterested in upsetting its player in the actual machinations of violence. It doesn’t want us to reflect on the horror of inventively murdering someone. Instead, Hitman follows in the tradition of The Three Stooges, The Evil Dead, or any number of slasher movies. It knows that escalating the joys of slapstick to full-on death can amplify physical comedy to something that, in its darkness, becomes almost illicitly funny. Hitman is fascinating as an evolution of this approach to violence by both lengthening the grim process of planning the funniest possible murder and, because it’s a game, making the player complicit in its creator’s morbid humour. Playing the game, stalking through the levels and stocking up on possible ways to kill the targets, is a delirious form of choose your own adventure. What’s funnier to you? Instructing a woman in a yoga lesson before pushing her off a cliff or dressing up as a chef and feeding her a piece of poisonous fish? Whether it means to or not, Hitman asks some worrying questions of its audience, allowing them to dig around in the murk of their subconscious. There’s probably an argument that the game’s cinematic sequences are meant to cast both player and 47 as hapless monsters, eager to kill without understanding why. In the epilogue that follows each successful mission, the larger purpose of 47’s assassinations is slowly unraveled, unmasking a conspiracy through humourless, clandestine conversations between high-powered agents in fine suits and dresses. They feel incongruous, the player clearly more interested in getting back to her next well-orchestrated murder than understanding why she’s killing these people in the first place. But Hitman is clearly uninterested in lingering too long on this subtext. It wants its player to be laughing, not thinking too hard about violence itself. In a different version of the same game—one that carried the self-serious, “realistic” approach presented in its cinematics into its level design—Hitman’s killing would become clinical, disturbing. (Think of Rockstar North’s Manhunt, which purposefully wallows in the incredible discomfort of guiding a character who stalks his enemies before brutally taking their lives.) Instead, it capably dodges any greater implications by refusing to grant any significance to the murders carried out by both 47 and player. Rather than directly engage with videogames’ bloodthirsty tendencies, it makes a joke out of them. Whether we care to look deeper into why we find any of this funny is up to us.


Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.