A Parisian fashion show, a villa on the Amalfi Coast, the bustling markets of Marrakesh, and a Bangkok resort—Agent 47 certainly gets the posh assignments.
Real-life hitmen aren’t so lucky. They tend to be mafia figures. Apart from extreme cases like Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski—a serial killer who experimented with various weapons and poisons—hitmen largely use guns and work in teams. Most dress poorly. The people they kill are often other mob figures or ordinary folks caught up in petty dramas and insurance schemes. It’s dirty, bloody work.
Hitman, on the other hand, is all about class. The game hops destinations like a Bond film, taking 47 to destinations across the globe. Much like 007’s nemesis Blofeld prefers to upend the world from a Gstaad ski resort, targets in Hitman wield their power from behind wine glasses and embassy gates—which is exactly the point. The Hitman series has long been caught up in War on Terror narratives, but this most recent entry is the first to employ images from the financial crisis and Occupy eras. This is predominantly a game about class war, where the player penetrates the comfortable world of the 1% and brings death to those who are too big to jail.
As the first game in the series to come after the 9/11 attacks, 2002’s Hitman 2: Silent Assassin—to date the best-selling title—set the course for many of the sequels. In Silent Assassin, 47 emerged as essentially a soldier-for-hire in the War on Terror, disrupting a plot to create a nuclear missile that would be undetectable by the US ballistic missile shield. As part of this mission, he traveled to Afghanistan where he hunted targets visually similar to Osama bin Laden, along with other stereotyped “foreign threats” like Eastern cult leaders and Russian generals. The series then entered a thematic limbo, with 2004’s Contracts remaking most of the original Codename 47 levels, Blood Money (2006) shot for a more violent, nihilistic tone, and Absolution (2012) aimed for a grindhouse version of Leon the Professional. All these games mixed high-class targets like opera virtuosos with low-class ones like mobsters, terrorists, and bayou rednecks.
By contrast, the targets in Hitman largely represent the global elite. Your Paris targets are fashion moguls that dabble in selling secrets. The Sapienza pair are unethical bio-engineers working outside the law. In Marrakesh it’s a European white collar-criminal and the general enabling him, while the targets in both Bangkok and Hokkaido include lawyers that allow millionaires to kill without consequence. Hokkaido involves 47 infiltrating a resort hospital that provides illegal life extension procedures for the ultra-wealthy. Only the Colorado mission deals with the underbelly of society—a collection of mercenaries—and this thematic diversion feels solely included to advance the plot. The Opportunity kills in Colorado are less intimate than those found in the rest of the game, and missing the ironic genius present in 47’s other kills. The map feels cluttered and visually flat beside the other missions.
“There is a world beyond yours,” says the flavor text on Hitman’s box, also quoted in its trailer. “A world beyond nations, justice, ethics.”
Though one might assume this refers to 47 himself, this is a clear reference to Hitman’s focus on a very 21st century type of foe—the person everyone knows is guilty, but who avoids punishment due to options not available to the public. The person who cannot be reached. Wall Street executives who crash the economy but escape unscathed, for instance, or Julian Assange, who continues to interfere in world politics for his own ends while hiding out in an Ecuadorian Embassy. Hitman configures 47 as a populist avenger, a man who brings justice to people who can buy or legally weasel their way out of culpability: a rockstar who murdered his girlfriend, a banker who stole millions and hides in a consulate, a man buying an illegally-harvested organ to replace his own rotten heart. Even the Colorado mission, full of international malcontents, portrays the types terrorists, mercenaries and dirty intel professionals the public wish would just go away—mercenaries that get rich off the world’s misery. Every mission portrays a person, enthroned in a comfortable temple of privilege, and challenges the player to dethrone them in the most poetic manner possible.
The maps’ geography emphasizes this theme. At the beginning of every mission, 47 starts outside the target’s inner sanctum, milling around with the powerless general public, who often have no idea what’s going on inside the gates. As he moves inward he’ll catch whispers of conspiracy hinting at what’s really going on in the heart of the complex. Moving closer to the target, he sinks deeper into both the opulence of the surroundings and the corruption it hides. He’s a lone Bolshevik, storming the Czar’s palace.
And of course, he always does so while dressed in the uniforms of employees and subordinates—the servicepeople that these elite targets depend on, but who remain nameless and faceless to their employers. When 47 kills a target by poisoning their sushi or snapping their neck during a massage, there’s a clear note of class politics in the kill. No matter how rich and powerful you are, remember: The people who sustain your privileged life can also choose to end it.
This is especially clear in many of the “Opportunity” eliminations, where 47 takes on the role of servicepeople who have an extremely personal relationship with the target. The common thread between a masseur, a psychologist, a heart surgeon, and a sushi chef who specializes in fugu is that these professions hold your life in their hands. They are intimate, often personal connections based on trust relationships. Though you may not know the name of a hotel masseur, you never feel worried that they’ll snap your neck. You trust your surgeon will save your life rather than end it. Hitman abuses these trust relationships to point out that the world’s ultra-wealthy do not stand alone—their support system can betray them at any time.
To help drive home this class-based argument, the developers have also toned down both the gory moral relativism of Blood Money and the exploitation film feel of Absolution. Despite its subject matter, Hitman is not a particularly grisly game. Most of the signature kills are bloodless. The game favors neck-snapping, smothering, and electrocution over both bullets and blades. Even kills that should, in reality, look fairly violent (like explosions and crushing) don’t deliver much splatter. Drop a chandelier on a person and you’d expect burst skin and oozing viscera, but instead they collapse like mannequins. By far the most violent kill involves remote surgery equipment—and even then there’s not a drop of blood. The whole thing feels very Agatha Christie, and sets up 47 to be less a killer, and more a professional. He is in his own way a class traitor, a man who exists in this world of high-end opulence, but chooses to strike against it in a clean, refined manner befitting his surroundings. The ICA runs on Queensbury rules about completing the job, staying quiet, and being above petty revenge—the very old world idea that violence to settle differences should be ritualized and limited rather than random. Duels, not vendettas. Tidy killings to solve messy problems. Deaths that keep 47’s dignity without staining his tailored suit. He is, in essence, beating the rich at their own game.
It’s a fantastic narrative turn for the series. Hitman games have always been less about their stories—which are always a mess—and more about theme. And theme is what holds Hitman together despite the plot being far too full of shadowy organizations and vague conversations. As a whole, I don’t care whether 47’s being manipulated into his contracts—but give me a chance to smother a public enemy in his own birthday cake, and I’ll take it every time.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Vice, Playboy, Slate, Zam, and The Escapist. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.
If you enjoyed Rob's’ article, you may also like to read the other three articles featured in our month devoted to Hitman by clicking here.