header is screenshot from Hitman 2
Small Violent Worlds
Yussef Cole

Hitman 2’s Agent 47, is, irrefutably, a destructive force of nature. He can enter the smoothly functioning sandbox of a Latin American village, a Miami race track, or secret society gala and leave smoldering wreckage behind. He can also infiltrate the most heavily fortified compounds, wait in the target’s closet as they perform their nightly routine, and strike them at their most comfortable and seemingly secure.

To accomplish this, he has at his disposal all the obfuscatory wetwork tools and refined physical prowess of a consummate professional; but what this repertoire seems to be missing is a way to supply him with a bold identity, or a confident sense of purpose. He doesn’t have the debonair, effete confidence of Bond, nor the swaggering anger of an action hero. Instead, Hitman 2’s narrative casts 47 as a damaged, orphaned child, struggling to find safe harbor, happily led through the events of the game by whoever makes the most convincing parental figure. In many cases, this role is filled by his handler, Diana Burnwood, a character who has appeared in previous Hitman games, but takes a more foregrounded position in the most recent two, and forms a visibly close bond with our favorite homicidal, po-faced hero.

Hitman 2, if it has any coalescing theme, is about the trauma of losing your parents (or the chance at having any to begin with), and the efforts spent attempting to fill that hole with highly structured violence. Burnwood is driven largely by the murder of her parents by car bomb when she was a child; 47 is driven by his lab-rat past, his only remotely parental figures, dead scientists once intent on shaping him into a super soldier. In place of this spectral family, Burnwood picks up the mantle and becomes a surrogate mother figure for 47, caring for him and guiding his actions, creating the semblance of a warm family unity within the cold structure of their assassination organization, the International Contract Agency (ICA). As the secretary of Providence, known as The Constant, points out to Burnwood: “In his own special way, he cares about you. And vice versa.” In the previous Hitman, a flashback shows her as the primary person responsible for bringing 47 into the ICA and protecting him from the director’s jealous plotting. Likewise, she follows him as he makes the momentous decision to break from the ICA in Hitman 2 and follow the prerogative of his rogue clone sibling, Lucas Grey.

Together, they work to overcome their mutual traumas by taking their vengeance out on the world. Missions in Hitman 2 are primarily about exerting control over an environment. You must know, in advance, every guard’s planned footpath, every target’s location and likely decision, the most useful items to acquire, the correct doors to unlock, and the proper security panels to access and disable. Unlike 47’s origins or the particulars of Burnwood’s parents’ deaths, these missions and maps can be knowable, can be understood back to front.

But in the bond between 47 and Burnwood can also be glimpsed the oedipal seeds of their mutual destruction. Burnwood has taken not only the role of parent, but of surrogate lover. The apparently asexual 47 displaces whatever feelings of affection a normal person would have for another onto his steadfast loyalty to Burnwood. In Hitman: Absolution, 47 betrays the ICA rather than kill Burnwood, who has turned traitor. He spends the entire game murdering everyone who had only just recently employed him, all at the request of Burnwood. Allegiances can be casually swapped in the world of Hitman, but not a child’s love for his mother, certainly not his vengeance for having the prospect of that love stripped away in his youth, nor his present actions to prevent a similar split between him and his maternal surrogate. In The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Carl Jung describes children as “… small primitive people and … therefore quickly ready to kill. But as a child is, in general, harmless, so his apparently dangerous wishes are, as a rule, also harmless.” 47 exists as a child, trapped in an infantilized state born from his childhood trauma. But his capacity for violence is limitless, and this unnatural combination shapes every outcome of the game’s narrative.

After all, what are Hitman 2’s sandboxes but elaborate toy sets, action figures, and trucks and blocks to slam up against each other and break? Nothing is real because nothing was ever real. Jung points out: “The more intensely the family has stamped the child, the more will it be inclined, as an adult, instinctively to see again in the great world its former small world.” As far as 47’s childhood can be conceived of as a family, we can witness the ways it has limited and shaped his life. He was irrevocably stamped by his cloned birth and his years of training, just as he was prevented from having a mother by the antagonistic, paternal fathers who “raised” him. In the present, we see a man unable to parse the world beyond mazes and mother-figures. Nothing exists outside of the empty airport terminals and train carriages where Burnwood waits to lend 47 guidance, to soothe his wounds.

But, as we learn following the final mission in Hitman 2, a discord threatens the precarious bond between 47 and his handler. The Constant reveals that 47 is the one responsible for the car bomb that killed Burnwood’s parents, information that will surely threaten a relationship which has withstood so many other betrayals and double-crosses. Yet, to continue the logic of the Oedipus complex, a child must eventually extricate themselves from their mother in order to form their own distinct identity. Part of what keeps 47 stuck in an infantilized blank state, a featureless embryo with a silenced pistol and some razor wire, is the emotional shelter Burnwood provides. As long as he tears down everything around him just to keep Burnwood close, as long as she engineers their fates to remain intertwined, they doom each other.


Yussef Cole is a writer and motion designer hailing from the Bronx, NY. Much of his time is spent animating for the screen but he spends the rest of it thinking and writing about games. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.