Let's talk critically about the Hitman games and their problematic legacy


#1

CW: Nazis, discussion of violence, racism.

With Hitman 2 coming up, and how public perspective about the games seems to shifted from the disdain of Absolution to near-universal adoration of the rebooted Hitman from a year or so ago, I think it’s important to look back at these games and think about them critically.

First off, I have to say that I love the Hitman games. I absolutely love crime fiction, and have enjoyed it ever since I was a teenager. The idea of a game series that allowed me to live out that assassin fantasy, while perhaps disturbing to think about now, was very appealing to me. I have played and beat every Hitman game in the franchise, and I feel like the main focus of the criticism of these games seems to be the recent Absolution. I remember the talk around the overly-violent CGI cutscene where Agent 47 takes apart a elite squad of killer nuns. The discussion of sexism and violence towards women was an appropriate one, and I found it refreshing to see Hitman get some well-needed criticism.

But for me, I have always wondered why the imagery of Agent 47 himself hasn’t given anyone pause. It’s really blatant when you think about it.

Here, this is what he looks like:

Ok, so who is Agent 47? Well, he’s a genetically engineered clone who is completely bald, has blue eyes, has pale white skin tone, wears a color palette of red, black, and white, and travels to exotic (mostly foreign) locales to assassinate people for an organization that is heavily implied at the end of Blood Money to be working within a branch of English intelligence services.

Agent 47 is a Nazi’s wet dream. His color palette is the color of the nazi flag. His physical features are of a ‘perfect aryan specimen.’ He’s genetically engineered (Eugenics?) to be the perfect killer. He works for money, but the organization you take all of your contracts from is in the hands of a famous Imperialistic empire. Diana reports directly to ‘your majesty’ at the end of the game, meaning that the ICA circumvents parliment and reports directly to the Queen. You are basically playing a Nazi skin headed super-spy assassin, and NO ONE has spoken about this in the 18 years since the first game’s release. I find that a bit troubling.

I think part of the reason why this is the case is because modern Hitman is sort of a joke. IO Interactive have wisely taken the route of making the Hitman series more James Bond than Leon: The Professional, and in doing that a more socially aware modern audience hasn’t really thought about the Hitman series in a lens more critical of its visual messaging. You’re encouraged to wear silly costumes, kill targets in goofy/interesting ways, and play around with the environment to see what makes it click. It comes off more like a puzzle game than a Assassin fantasy. Agent 47 can play drums REALLY WELL, he knows a ton of yoga poses, HE KNOWS HOW TO WALK A CATWALK! He’s been supposedly trained in a number needless activities that allows himself to be planted into any environment need be, and that in turn makes him a sort of Buster Keaton stone face joke within the game world.

It’s a stark contrast to how he’s presented in Blood Money. Just watch some of the opening minutes of Blood Money to see this game at it’s most troubling:

A lot of people spoke about how Hitman of 2016 basically gave every character in the game a American accent, even with characters who lived in Morocco and Japan. But what’s the alternative? This? A white supremacist metaphor murdering badly-accented foreigners?

I think it’s important to reflect on the legacy of this series in a way let’s us both acknowledge it’s VERY troubling past, as well as encouraging it to look at the more modern entries with those thoughts on the past games. Hitman 2 looks like it’s going to be a fantastic game, but I am worried with levels set in places like India and Mexico, we’re going to see the weird racial side of this franchise show itself again.

What do you all think about the Hitman series?

Fun side note: There’s a Hitman Novelization that details IN DETAIL a scene about Agent 47 going to Denny’s and ordering a ‘Grand Slam Breakfast.’ I cracked up so hard I had to stop reading.


#2

I uh… I don’t want to be mean about this, but “wears a suit and a red tie and has a shaved head = nazi” is… kind of a reach?


#3

That’s fair if that’s your read, but I stated above that there are a number of elements that make it a package that gives me pause.

Honestly, the tutorial mission I posted feels like a Neo-Nazi game if it wasn’t in context with the series at large.


#4

So my reading has always been around late '90s discussions of multiculturalism in Europe (my recollection of the time and what has been written about it). It points to Hitman being created in an era where that was a hot topic as it was the point where questions bubbled into the mainstream around multiculturalism (as a White-friendly path to assumed racial harmony) with it being both critically inspected by people of colour (again, to wide audience - the criticism always existed) and attacked by the Right/White supremacists & their allies.

This is a story first written in 1997 by a group of Northern Europeans (with Denmark being one of the places where that conversation has always been closer to the political current than the EU average) in which they posit an Eastern European origin for not an ubermensch but the ultimate hyper-competent everyman. The genetic splicing being argued as making him perfect at assuming any role, the mix being not one for purity (the Nazi ideal) but to be able to be read as within the margins of any average. Someone who is never out of place because he looks like someone you could find anywhere.

Now I think that premise also asks plenty of questions itself. A group of White Europeans come up with this concept of the perfect hidden neutral, a person who cannot be seen as they look like anyone and that’s a tall White dude who absolutely would stand out in a lot of places (places that he goes as the series progresses). Or do we read that itself as commentary on how the White man inserts himself into any space and so is read as “belonging there” wherever he is. That global society does generally follow the game’s logic that if we really wanted to make someone who could walk anywhere drawing the least attention it would be White, male, suited by default, fluent English speaking (or even to the point of retaining the accent when speaking any language), moneyed, and visibly able-bodied (to the point of somewhat toned/fit).


#5

Now I think that premise also asks plenty of questions itself. A group of White Europeans come up with this concept of the perfect hidden neutral, a person who cannot be seen as they look like anyone and that’s a tall White dude who absolutely would stand out in a lot of places (places that he goes as the series progresses).

A lot of people talk about this as a sort of joke, but I don’t think they apply it with the connotations you give it, which they should. A lot of instances, 47 will assume disguises that would be very jarring at a ‘white dude dresses in native American costume for halloween’ vibe, but no one in the game world seems to make the connection. That is excused away by the idea it being a gamified version of the assassin fantasy, but it makes you wonder if the devs are implying that perhaps a white man of 47’s appearance is the ‘base human’ model, and that he can drift between race appropriation because of his ‘normal’ whiteness.

Do you have a link to these articles? I’d love to see more pieces about this when the games came out.


#6

Do you think allowing us to create our own hitman character to play instead of being stuck with 47 would alleviate some of these issues? I think the nazi thing is a bit of a stretch but there definitely is some inherent racism, even if unintended by the developers, in the idea of putting forth 47 as some kind of generic default human and making so much of the gameplay revolve around that. Especially with all the costumes and disguises.


#7

I think part of it regarding his disguises working and whether or not they work because the devs think white guy = “default human” is because later games got waaaay more lenient with how effective the disguises are.

In the older games having a disguise didn’t mean you could carte blanche walk around wherever (not that that’s the case all the time in the most recent games but bear with me). You’d still get busted if you got within a few feet of someone and they were looking right at you, which seemed fitting enough to me, and there’d be characters that would recognize immediately that you were suspicious and should be followed a bit or would know right away you were some guy in a disguise and didn’t belong there. If you look at the way the character’s presented in the early games (and even in the trailer for Blood Money). His ability to blend isn’t presented like he looks like a generic guy, but closer to something like The Terminator in that he’s just human enough that if he’s in a crowded space you’d never see him - but anyone interacting with him would find something off about him pretty fast. Hitman 2 in particular I think played with this a lot, with him being very familiar with the spaces in the Russian missions but him coming off like the “weird foreigner” everywhere else.

Anyway the way some of the later games have disguises that are surefire ways to roll around mostly uninhibited I think kind of hurts the games in that respect.


#8

So, I thought that perhaps with Absolution, they were positioning the new character of Victoria to take over 47’s mantle. If you don’t remember, she’s a little girl who is basically another genetically engineered clone that the corrupt ICA wants to create. She has a usb drive around her neck that somehow keeps her alive? Absolution is dumb, but what I THOUGHT they were going to do is make Victoria a lead character and have 47 take over as a father figure/Leon the mentor role.

And yes, I think creating your assassin would help too. I’d love a Hitman game that gave me a whole squad of different assassins with different special abilities.


#9

I always wished they capitalized on this from Blood Money. I mean in Blood Money you are and look like 47 all the way through but I liked how if you were seen too much in connection with folks getting killed you could purchase cosmetic surgery to reduce how locked down the next mission would be. Making it so that the player not only could at times have to actually customize their face to be able to get around would be pretty cool.


#10

Some of the disguises in Hitman 2016 let you put on a wig, if I remember correctly. I would LOVE a scene where instead of a sniper rifle, 47 is carrying around wigs and makeup within his black suitcase.


#11

This would rule, I love the ones where the agency/whoever has a disguise planted somewhere on the premises for you ahead of time.


#12

I think that is countered by the idea it’s only the guards and NPCs looking explicitly for intruders that catch you. Civilian NPCs don’t seem to care about what you wear, because mechanically it wouldn’t work for them to have the same disguise breaking abilities of the guards. You get some of the racial conflict there with that approach, than an average dude can’t differentiate 47 from a citizen of their home country.


#13

I think there’s some weird stuff about Hitman and Agent 47 in general, but I honestly chalk it up more to what can cynically be described as creative/marketing laziness more than some poorly coded message.

By and large, your average video game protagonist is going to be a white dude so there’s two check marks right there. Working in a field where men and women wear business formal attire constantly, the overwhelming majority of men wear black suits and white shirts, so that’s two more boxes. Red is a very striking color against black and white, which is why it’s used so often in general.

The only question marks at that point are the bald head and the blue eyes. The eyes I don’t have anything for, but honestly I think the baldness is supposed to be a defining characteristic that makes him stand out and seem alien. Pop some hair on 47 and you’ve got every non-descript NPC in a game. He can’t have a distinctive outfit to set him apart as he’s constantly changing clothes, so his bald head and barcode isolate him as other compared to everyone else in the world.

Being a genetically engineered machine designed for killing was just kind of a generic plot device back when the series debuted and you can certainly find tons of dreck out there with the same jumping off point. Having the ICA be involved with big, rich, imperialistic empires likewise is just kind of par for the course. Who else would tolerate the existence of or be able to afford the extreme prices of a global chameleon extra-judicial assassin? He’s not offing people for gas money, he’s killing the super wealthy on behalf of other people who are also super wealthy.

I think, unfortunately, that a lot of the problematic issues with Hitman just kind of spring naturally from the nature of the game itself and industry trends in general. A lot of games ignore the problems with imperialism, but while games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted are massively problematic for a lot of reasons most people just never bother to think about, Hitman involves killing people for money.


#14

Isn’t that basically every game about killing people?

Uncharted definitely is about killing people for money. They might be “henchmen” but they’re between you and the thing you want to steal. Unlike Hitman, where the higher difficulty actually enforces non-lethal play, Nathan can just mow down security guards who are paid to stop him.

Call of Duty is a series about people who are professionals. Their job it to take money and kill people. The core loop of the game is doing the work of making people dead because you’re paid to.

Hitman just does it in a way that, while the story makes it clear you’re killing bad people, it’s not because they’re bad that motivates the character. It’s because they’re who was paid to be killed (or occasionally revenge, but mainly not). There is no fig leaf of nationalism draped over the whole thing. It’s not a heroic journey. They’re puzzle boxes and the optimal play it to kill exactly the people who you were paid to kill, while making it look like an accident, and leaving no trace (or any security guard bodies).


#15

I’ve always felt this point is disingenuous of 47’s character. 47 is NOT just killing bad people. He’s also killing anyone who gets in his way. Let’s be fair, most people are not getting a silent assassin ranking their first time playing a mission. We, the players, are usually fucking up, making mistakes, and killing witnesses. Also, the narrative in the games itself explicitly show 47 killing innocent people.

He kills both a mailman who delivers his parcel to him in Blood Money, as well as a Catholic priest and journalist who were stupid enough to go to his funeral.


#16

But the ideal is presented that the assassin who is the best would never be seen or kill anyone beyond what he considered necessary. The game mechanically reinforces that, even if most players don’t reach for that perfection (there is no Uncharted perfect run where there is no gunplay; it’s not a child of Thief Expert despite being about a thief).

You may be going to someone else’s home but you’re not there to kill your way to whatever you want to steal (Uncharted) or just kill anyone defending their own home (CoD).


#17

I don’t disagree, but other games at least pretend to go through the motions of self-defense or some other, greater direct threat.

Yes, Lara Croft and Nathan Drake have an impressive body count. However, in all of their games they are rarely if ever the initial instigator of direct violence. They want treasure, some other shadowy group wants it too for some evil purpose, and they get attacked and have to make it out alive. This justification is paper thin and dripping with problems, but I can’t recall an Uncharted or a Tomb Raider where you go into a neutral location full of people who pose zero threat and straight up kill them. Call of Duty involves soldiers involved in greater, easier to digest stakes. Again, it’s a gross oversimplification of global politics and such, but you are always up against some incredibly dangerous, incredibly real threat. The soldiers in CoD aren’t doing it for the money, but a bunch of other Michael Bay flag waving in slow motion reasons.

These justifications are paper thin and gloss over a metric ton of context and greater information, however Hitman doesn’t even bother with that. 47 inserts himself into situations he has no involvement in which pose him no threat whatsoever, murders people purely for cash, and then bounces.

That said, I don’t necessarily lay the corpses of random NPC’s at 47’s feet as narratively you’re to assume the “canon” version of events is always the perfect silent assassin, otherwise no one would hire the chucklefuck doofus who monkey wrench bludgeons an entire villa.


#18

I feel Hitman is better for not using lame reasoning to justify itself the same way MGS5 would be an objectively better game if it didn’t involve a seminar on photosynthetic respiration.


#19

We often talk about Hitman levels as a ‘clockwork puzzle box’ when referring to the immersive sim-y elements but personally that is the lens in which I choose to view the rest of the game as well, that positions Agent 47 less as a character and more as a tool to interact & poke at the simulation with. On some level I think the games acknowledge this, in particular Hitman 2016 features a map that is literally a stage designed to train your understanding of the simulation and the various agents/props that exist within it. It’s a power fantasy in its own right but one I find to be quite different from other game narratives that frame you as an actual person with motivations/desires that inevitably lead to you murdering a bunch of people (because that’s how most of these games go). I almost wish the narrative would lean harder into the artifice because at best their spy-thriller stories don’t terribly interest me and at worst (as mentioned in this thread) they come with some troubling connotations. I never played as much Hitman Go as I should have but I think the board game aesthetic that it utilised was far closer to the kind of world building I’d like to see in this series.

Though Agent 47’s design as a ‘true neutral’ or ‘default’ human isn’t the kind of characterisation I would normally enjoy, I find him weirdly endearing. In part because of how the more recent games have really leaned into the juxtaposition of slapstick humour with his dead-eyed self seriousness, but also because as Carta Monir illustrates terrifically in her comic, there’s a certain fantasy to being able to move through spaces unrestricted/stealthily that is deeply desirable as someone who has a lot of fear wrapped up in being seen as someone I’m not.


(cw: transphobia)


#21

I think that’s just reality though, especially when so many of the missions that have many not-guard/security people NPCs and are set in dense urban spaces or at huge parties/events, why would anyone not explicitly looking to catch intruders notice him at all.

Not as related, but regarding the convo on 47’s targets, 47 only killing very bad people was something they intentionally steered the franchise towards (and even then there’s some exceptions), especially after the second one where a few of the targets were just “some person who’s a doctor who once helped a bad guy” and stuff. In Contracts they had targets that were much more cut and dry “this guy runs a massive human trafficking ring here’s his child dismemberment/sex party meat packing factory” or “this guy is literally in the process of blowing up an entire city” and stuff. I always found their attempt to balance that interesting, but I would say that while Hitman 2 and Contracts were both controversial in their own way, they most certainly found the balance at least on a popular level with the 2016 game.

I always find this regarding the topics interesting because of how offensive people found the “Beautifully Executed” ads to be for Hitman: Bloodmoney and how they were considered very misogynistic because some of them had a female victim. But like this was the same world where people would still buy the game for their teenager with no hesitation because it’s just game and like, that disconnect between the actions games portray and how they’re advertised and how people perceive the games or not from the marketing fascinates me.