Hitman: Simulation as Aesthetic

One of the cool things about Hitman is that it spends a lot of time on social behaviour. You’ve got all the different disguises, and you’re only allowed into certain areas based on what you’re wearing – so mechanics run around the garage but they’re not allowed in the VIP area, and chefs can do stuff in the kitchen without raising eyebrows, and – it all revolves around what you’re wearing and this basic concept of whether or not your class is allowed to be in that particular area. But obviously there are still some gaps. 

I’ll give you a couple examples first off, just to show you what I’m talking about. In one level, you’re in Morocco, and you’ve got to kill a guy in an embassy. I decided to knock out a masseuse and steal his clothes. The masseuse walks into the bathroom – and there’s security guards watching this whole exchange, right – he walks into the bathroom, and I follow him in wearing my security guard outfit. I knock him out, steal his clothes, and leave again – and nobody seems to notice that the masseuse suddenly has a shaved head. That’s the kind of gap that I’m talking about. I then made my way up to the top floor, to kill my target on the massage table. But another security guard stops me, and tells me I have to get patted down before I’m allowed in. Shit, I think, I’m still carrying a gun. He’ll arrest me if he finds it. So I turn around, walk back down the stairs, hide the gun, and then come back for my pat-down. If that had happened in real life, the guard would be super fucking suspicious. ‘You ready for your pat-down?’ ‘Uhh wait just one second.’ But nope, nobody notices. The third example is even more egregious – I’m in Sapienza, and I’ve got to kill a scientist lady. I knock out her lover and put his clothes on. I then sit down in the bedroom and wait for her to arrive. She arrives, has a big monologue, drinks from the champagne I poisoned (aha!) and goes to throw up in the toilet (which I drown her in). But how the fucking fuck did she not notice that the guy sitting right in front of her wasn’t actually her lover?

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Now none of these points are necessarily criticisms of the game. We might say that the game seems a little unrealistic, and arguably that might jar with the stunning realistic graphics that are going on, but personally I’m not too fussed about that. I don’t think it’s dissonant in the same way as something like Endless Legend. Rather, we might say that Hitman is deliberately only trying to simulate certain parts of the human experience – or the spy/assassin experience, or whatever. The game wants its NPCs to recognise and react to certain outfits, but not necessarily have functionality outside of that immediate clothing recognition process. For instance, they don’t have memories – so they don’t remember that the masseuse had hair when he entered the bathroom. The point, as always, is that the specific game mechanics included in the game have a thematic or aesthetic dimension. Hitman is simulating only certain aspects of human life, and the things that it chooses to include and exclude can be read together on an aesthetic level.

So for example, I read Hitman as a game about loneliness. 47 is always on the move – once you finish his training in the prologue, Diana tells him to just travel round the world, and never stop, never stay in one place for too long. He exists in hotels and rentals – he has no rootedness, no sense of place. Similarly, you can move through different areas just by wearing the right costume. The interpersonal relationships must be really fucking shallow, right – people are so disconnected from each other that they just see the outfit and assume you belong. They don’t recognise faces, they don’t know you as a human being – you’re just a cog in the machine.

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Along those lines, I found the fashion show and the hotel level to be some of the most compelling – at least in terms of that theme of loneliness. Both fashion and hoteliering have this doubled nature – there’s the stage, the presented product, the actual thing that’s being sold to you, all shiny and glistening and wonderful – and then there’s the backstage, which is poorly lit and cramped and everyone’s sweaty and they hate each other and they’re all hustling real fucking hard to get anywhere – it’s about the external and internal environments, right. And Agent 47 fits right into that structure. He’s pure exterior. He has no personal life, no hobbies – he’s just here for the work. He moves between disguises and costumes, and none of them are real, but people are so isolated and lonely that they don’t see through to the actual person underneath. They see the costume, the exterior, and they take it at face value.

Probably the saddest thing about Hitman is that even coworkers don’t really recognise each other. If you’re in a hotel staff outfit, you can walk around past 90% of the other hotel staff, and they won’t even look at you. They can’t tell if you’re actually someone who works for the company or not. And that’s the other thing about the hotel and the fashion show – they’re both heavily commercial ventures. We can integrate capitalism into the broader criticism – basically, for Hitman, if people are isolated and disconnected from their fellow human beings, the engine fuelling this disconnect is capital. It dehumanizes people, reduces them to their labour value.

Obviously in the final analysis this reading isn’t very strong. All the same mechanics apply to quite intimate environments, even when it doesn’t really make sense. You can infiltrate a militia camp in one level, and wander round in militia gear, and nobody ever really looks at you and thinks that you might not belong. That doesn’t make a fuck of a lot of sense in terms of portraying loneliness, right – if these fuckers are all shacked up in a camp, why would they not know each other? The theme just disintegrates. And frankly, probably the broader point is that IO Interactive never really thought that far into their mechanics. It’s much more something I’m imposing on the game rather than something the designers wrote into it. Nevertheless, I think it’s an unintentional resonance that exists within the game. It’s a hint of the potential to take the themes further.

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