I kinda want to spend some time over the next while just analysing little individual moments from games – taking a scene and ‘reading’ it, and running some of the implicit themes out into the broader game as a whole. I really want to go back and do a scene-by-scene breakdown of Wolfenstein 2 – I’ve written a little about it before, but I’m kinda fascinated by many of the individual moments in that game, and it would be cool to spend more time looking into those. As maybe something of a warm-up, then, let’s talk about one little scene in the 2016 Hitman.
It’s a moment in Sapienza, where you have to kill Silvio Caruso, who’s a mega-genius scientist, and Francesca de Santis, his number two. Silvio has a whole bunch of phobias, and a shrink has come in to work with him. You can knock the shrink out, pinch his clothes, and impersonate him – the guards will let you in, you can set up your session, and then when you’re alone with Silvio, you can smother him or pop him in the head or whatever else.
So here’s the moment that we want to focus on: when Silvio’s on the couch, telling you about his childhood and his mother. It’s a little bit hokey – I don’t know if you can read the subtitle, but it says ‘Then Mother decided that Amelia wasn’t a good influence on me.’ Basically his mum didn’t like his girlfriend in high school and he ended up with a mummy fixation and a phobia of other women. Like I say, a little hokey, but kinda cool that it’s even bothering to give him this psychological background.
Now what’s interesting about this moment is that from a strict gameplay perspective, there’s no advantage to letting him talk. You’re on the clock, so if you just pop him immediately you can move on and maximise your speed bonus. At the same time, when I played through it, I found it kinda weirdly fascinating. There’s a voyeuristic quality to the whole exercise – listening to this random guy tell you about his mummy issues. Obviously on a replay you might pop him immediately because you’ve got other shit to do, and you’ve heard it all before – basically you put the fiction on hold because there’s gameplay objectives to focus on. But this first time, at least for me, the monologue was kinda striking. I wanted to hear more. I steepled my own hands and sat back in my chair and – holy shit I’m imitating 47.
Just as 47 pretends to be a psychiatrist, we as audience are also operating in a similar way. Silvio is telling us all this stuff and we’re listening and analysing him and thinking about his psychology and his identity – all with the knowledge that we’re about to pop him in the head. The pure voyeuristic pleasure, both for 47 and for the player, serves as a counterbalance to the main objective – it introduces a human element into an otherwise largely mechanical process. Impersonate doctor, find man, kill man. In a way, you could argue that the voyeuristic principle is a major motivating factor in Hitman‘s design.
I know I argued in an earlier piece that Hitman had implicit themes of loneliness and disconnect from other human beings, but you’ll note I also said that those were probably unintentional resonances within the wider game. They’re there as meanings to be drawn out of the text, but the designers didn’t necessarily put them there intentionally. They’re not cohesive enough to be treated as stable themes – and part of that comes down to this other issue that we’re dealing with now. The voyeuristic qualities of Hitman actually do emphasise individual humans and their unique and odd little lives. You snoop around as the anonymous Agent 47, and you watch and you observe and you listen. You also murder and leave quickly, but before all that, you get to know an area and the people who live and work there. You learn that the chef is tearing his hair out because he can’t make pasta sauce like Silvio’s dead mum. You also learn that Silvio’s mum got her pasta sauce out of a can. You also learn that Francesca de Silva is fucking Silvio’s golf coach, and that she’s hired a private detective to investigate Silvio, and that this one random bodyguard has seen two of his clients die under his protection – man, that guy’s fucking useless. There’s a whole bunch of people in Sapienza, and on every other level, and as you circulate you get to know them in a really intimate way. That’s the other advantage of the replay value, by the by – you get to explore areas and (more importantly) characters from different perspectives.
Actually, an earlier draft of this article started with the replay value. I was thinking about this other article I wrote on replay value and what I called the totality of the text. Hitman hits some of the same notes, but in a very different way – in Dark Crusade you play as any given race, but you don’t get to kill off that race – so you don’t experience the final battle against their HQ. You have to play a second campaign, as another race, and fight your first lot to actually experience the totality of the game’s content. Alternately in Hitman, there’s a bunch of different ways to assassinate someone, and they all lead you into different aspects of an individual’s personality.
Ultimately, then, Hitman is about tourism. That shot of Agent 47 playing the therapist really sums it up – you’re touristing through different flashy locations and events, and you’re also a sort of emotional tourist, wandering through the detritus of an individual’s life before inevitably popping them in the head. There’s actually probably a broader point about comparing Agent 47 to, say, James Bond, who’s been similarly analyzed as basically an extended imperialist tourism brochure. I don’t think Hitman is as focused on imperialism in the same way, although I’ve not formally sat down and looked at the game’s politics in any meaningful sense. Plus, in the game’s favour, it’s definitely waaaaay more interested in characters and characterisation than the Bond stories. I mean, Pussy Galore? Fuck off with that shit.