I picked up Hitman (2016) recently, because, as one might expect, it came up as the early unlock in the Humble Bundle, and I’ve been meaning to try it out. And fuck, it’s $12 once a month, right, so it’s not like it’s a huge expense. Anyway, as I installed it I was thinking about a particular episode of Folding Ideas where he talks about the hypothetical case study of Agent 47. It’s about strippers and diegesis. And I was wondering whether the strippers episode was in this game, or one of the previous ones – I think it’s actually Absolution, from memory. Anyway, I wanted to see this stripper scene for myself so I could form my own opinion on it. Let’s chat more below.
Okay so I’ll give you the quick run-down on this Folding Ideas video. The link in the paragraph above is a video where Dan Olson describes the video game variant on the Thermian Argument, which he had just discussed in a previous video published the day before. You can watch the previous video here, but I’m going to summarize it quickly, so it’s just for interest. Basically the Thermian Argument is “diegetic justification for creepy garbage.” That’s how he describes it. It’s basically the idea that when there’s something creepy and gross in a text, some people might defend that grossness by claiming that it’s internally consistent within the world of the text. But frankly, and this should be obvious, being internally consistent doesn’t stop something from being a creepy gross representation.
My default example here is always Quiet in Metal Gear Solid 5. She’s an assassin or something who runs around in a bikini, and it’s basically just an excuse for the game to have a girl in a bikini. There is an in-world justification put forwards – apparently she breathes through her skin, so she needs to have it all uncovered or something. The Thermian Argument would say well, it’s internally consistent, so it’s fine. The Folding Ideas video is pointing out that actually, no, it’s kinda gross, and internal consistency is really irrelevant. It’s fucking fiction, nobody forced you to create a character who had to be in a bikini all the time. That’s just something you chose to do because you’re a creeper.
So that’s all fine. It’s a reasonable thing to say, and fans who defend a text based on internal consistency are kinda missing the point. But then we come to the next video, on the Thermian Argument in video games. It’s a brief thought experiment that proposes a hypothetical game that’s basically just Hitman. The argument all plays through in the same way: in Hitman: Absolution (I think) you’re able to kill strippers and drag their bodies around. Now, we might (quite rightly) criticise the game for contributing to a culture where sex workers are degraded and treated as disposable and unimportant. According to Dan, the Thermian Argument here would say well, that criticism is invalid because the game docks points for killing strippers. Hitman tells you that killing strippers is bad. But Dan suggests that an appeal to game mechanics isn’t really good enough – it’s dodging the basic question of ‘why is this content here in the first place?’
And this is where I want to enter the conversation. There’s a couple quick things to acknowledge, and then we can get to my criticisms. First off, I think the real strength of Dan’s point is when he questions why the stripper-killing content is included. Again: Hitman is fiction. The creators weren’t obliged to put in a strip club level. They could have built literally anything else – but they chose to do a strip club level, and they chose to include the possibility for Agent 47 to go round killing strippers. That’s content that they chose to include in their game when they didn’t have to, and it’s worth asking why they thought it was appropriate or wise to include that content. That’s the really strong part of Dan’s argument. But I think there’s a really complex issue that we’re kinda skating over here. At times, it almost seems like Dan is implying that if you include a bad action in a game, the game is necessarily validating or encouraging that action purely based on the fact that it’s included in the game. Let’s chat quickly about procedural rhetoric.
The basic idea of procedural rhetoric is that the game procedures, or the game mechanics, have a rhetorical function. They essentially make arguments, they suggest things about the way the world really works. So in the Assassin’s Creed games, you lose health for killing civilians. The procedural rhetoric in that instance states that killing civilians is a bad thing to do. The game is framed in such a way that immoral actions are also disadvantageous to you as a player – so the procedures and mechanics of the game actually spill over and make moral claims about what good and bad behaviour is. From that perspective, in Hitman, the loss of points serves a similar function. In terms of procedural rhetoric, Hitman tells players that killing strippers is a bad thing to do. It punishes players on a game level by docking points, and in doing so suggests more broadly that killing strippers is an immoral thing to do.
So I’m not totally convinced that an appeal to game mechanics is necessarily the same as the Thermian Argument as described with our Quiet example above. In fact, you could easily argue that while people are criticising Hitman for letting you kill strippers, they’re actually also ignoring the fact that Hitman itself is trying to level that same criticism.
But this is where the argument really starts to heat up. Dan does seem aware of the issue of how killing strippers is framed; obviously Hitman doesn’t present it as something that’s great and fun. It’s a behaviour that’s actively discouraged, right – even if it’s only a slap on the wrist, something ultimately meaningless to most players, the game does make some effort to say ‘Hey, killing strippers is bad.’ Dan acknowledges this limp attempt: at 1:26, he says that for Hitman, “a soft penalty is sufficient acknowledgement of impropriety.” But for him, there’s a bigger issue – why the fuck is this content in the game anyway? Why is there a strip club level? In his words, taking the procedural rhetoric at face value means that “the role of the text as part of a larger pattern is considered an irrelevant detail.” Like I say: why is this content in the game anyway?
And we might reply well, because the game wants to criticise that behaviour. How else could it criticise killing strippers if you as the player can’t actually kill strippers? And Dan might respond well, you could represent the action in a different, non-gameplay kinda way. You might have a stripper in a cutscene who gets attacked by one of the baddies, but then she pulls a knife out and FUCKING MURDERS HIM. That would be a cool way to counter the trope and empower the stripper. Or maybe there could be much harsher penalties in the game – maybe it results in an instant game over, or maybe if you try to kill a stripper, she punches you in the dick so hard that you fly into outer space and die in a vacuum. The point is, maybe there are less pornographic ways to criticise the constant depiction of dead sex workers. You don’t have to just lose points for killing them – when you think about it, that kinda is a pretty limp and underwhelming way to criticise an action. There are other, much stronger ways of dealing with the topic.
And really this is one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the Agent 47 video. It’s not clear to me whether Dan thinks that depictions of killing strippers in games are always inherently problematic, or if there are certain depictions of stripper-murder that can actually be appropriate and suitable. I’m thinking about, uh, Spec Ops: The Line here, right. There’s a broad and long-standing criticism of modern military shooters as basically tools of American neo-imperialism. You play an American soldier and you’re so great and America’s so great and those Russians or Muslims or Arabs are all so terrible, and the best thing to do is invade their homelands and kill them all because they’re unreasonable terrorists and there’s no hope for communication – these are all pretty obvious criticisms of Modern Warfare-type games. But then you’ve got Spec Ops, which deconstructs that framework from the inside. You play a bright young American Delta Force operative who believes in all that America-first bullshit, and over the course of the game that gung-ho attitude destroys his friends, devastates refugee communities, murders a metric fuckton of basically good and innocent people, and ultimately leads to a meaningless void where his soul is empty and bleak. And in terms of procedural rhetoric, you spend the whole game running around shooting people, just like you would in any other modern military shooter. The implication is that by doing these actions, the same actions as in Modern Warfare or whatever else, you’re actually just ruining everything. You’re feeding into American imperialism and it will suck the soul out of you. In a sense, every action you take in Spec Ops: The Line is a bad action. But that’s kinda the point. It’s reflected by the story. And if a game is taking so much time to show through its mechanics that a specific problematic thing is problematic, are we really using the Thermian Argument like Dan says? That is, if Spec Ops is allowed to use modern military shooter tropes to show why modern military shooters are bad, why isn’t Hitman allowed to use dead stripper tropes to show that killing strippers is bad?
I’m not sure, but I imagine Dan’s response would come down to the issue of pornography. There’s a classic line in film theory – there’s no such thing as an anti-war war film. Basically, the argument goes, if you’re depicting war scenes, it’s always kinda gonna glorify violence and warfare. Even if it’s not heroic and airbrushed, it will still be spectacle and entertainment, which seems kinda opposed to the anti-war premise. Like if you’re reducing the horrors of war to an aesthetic spectacle, you’re enjoying it too much. You’re enjoying being shocked. You’re enjoying watching people being blown apart and going ‘Eww’ at the special effects and the shot of Tom Hanks dragging half a body up the beach. You’re having fun with something that shouldn’t be fun. The same might be said about Hitman. If killing strippers is fun, or even funny (like when you drag their bodies around), maybe something’s not quite right. Maybe the text as a whole doesn’t have that much integrity to whatever criticism it’s supposed to be levelling at stripper-murder. Maybe the spectacle of the event, the sheer pornographic glee, undermines any pretense of condemnation through procedural rhetoric.