The central problem in my adult life is that I'm not Nathan Drake. I'm also not a soldier, a warrior or an astronaut. I'm just some hairy, kind of overweight man who, if he ever saw a real explosion, instead of walking away from it nonchalantly would have to call his therapist and talk about how it made him feel. I feel like an imposter when I play video games. Deus Ex: Human Revolution's Adam Jensen is supposed to be the world's greatest super spy, but in my hands he's a bumbling clown – he can barely sneak past a single guard without accidentally jumping when he meant to crouch, and getting shot in the arse.
I have the same problem in IO Interactive's Hitman games. Agent 47 is meant to be the epitome of a cold, calculating killer, able to assassinate anybody, no matter how well protected, without even being noticed. From gala balls to upmarket hotels and the White House itself, 47 routinely infiltrates classy and exotic locations – disguised as an aristocrat during Hitman 2: Silent Assassin's "Invitation to a Party" level, scanning the ballroom for a corrupt Russian general, 47 is the pinnacle of cool. But thanks to the Hitman games' ruthless style of stop/start stealth, where even the slightest mistake can send guards into a frenzy and force a retry, it's not always easy to break into character.
2012's Hitman: Absolution tried to make 47 more accessible. By giving players improved combat abilities, more manoeuvres and dodges when it came to sneaking and an "Instinct Mode", which highlighted items and persons of interest, Absolution wanted to put you behind the eyes of 47. But it was ham-fisted. The new abilities made Absolution feel more like an action game, and the extra on-screen and heads-up elements stripped Hitman of its typically elegant aesthetic. Hitman 2 made you feel clumsy. Those latter stages in Afghanistan and India were impossible to finish without hours of shambolic trial and error. But Absolution was too far the other way. You weren't an assassin, you were an action star.
However, when it comes to getting you into the mindset of 47 – when it comes to how games, generally, can ingratiate players to superhuman characters – the PlayStation 2-era Hitman: Contracts (2004) and Hitman: Blood Money (2006) are graceful examples.
Contracts opens with a fantastic, striking image: 47 shooting another version of himself in the back of the head. The first level then takes place in a laboratory where dozens of dead bodies, all identical to 47, all wearing the same clothes, lie strewn around. It's a great way of showing rather than telling that 47 is not human, not in the strictest sense. He's part of a project to genetically rear the world's greatest assassin, just one in a series of clones and, as of the beginning of Contracts, itself a flashback to the end of the very first Hitman game, he's the last one left standing.
This sets up the central aspect of 47's character. When we see him kill an identical copy of himself we understand immediately that there is something wrong with him, that he is not stringently a person, because people are individually unique. But rather than distance us from 47 – rather than make him seem to us mysterious, inexplicable – both Contracts and Blood Money are styled after 47's world view. Human characters are consistently made to feel "other". Playing as a genetically perfected superhuman, we are made to see people as beneath us, and lesser beings.
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Skip Muldoon, the target in Blood Money's "Death on the Mississippi" level is a standout example. His loading screen image, more than a person, makes him look like an ape. When you encounter Muldoon, he's in his cabin eating and drinking – one of the ways to get to him is to pose as a waiter and bring him a cake, which he'll promptly stick his face into and devour. This is the way Hitman makes humans look subjacent to 47. Regularly, they're shown to indulge in their basest, almost instinctive desires. Muldoon eats like an animal, but he's also sexually predatory. If you watch closely, you can see him eyeing up 47, as well as the other male crew members aboard his boat.
Campbell Sturrock, the target from the Contracts level "The Meat King's Party", is another good example. An enormous fat man who lies on his bed eating entire roast chickens, he's also the organiser of a BDSM party and orgy. The converted abattoir that is hosting the event, as well as literal animals, is filled with people rutting, taking drugs and tying up one another. Streaked with blood and meat leftovers, and populated by people in fetish-wear, the party is conspicuously sordid, grubby. 47 by contrast, with his bald head and immaculate suit, is very clean – he isn't pulled into the filth of the people around him.
It's a theme consistent in dozens of Hitman levels and across almost every aspect of the games' visual design. Even incidental characters are shown to be perverts – an anonymous guard in the Blood Money mission "A New Life" can be caught sniffing the panties of the target's wife. The mark in "You Better Watch Out" accidentally killed a prostitute during an extreme sex game. The opera singer in "Curtains Down" is a paedophile.
If sociopathy can be (narrowly) defined as a diminished sense of empathy, Contracts and Blood Money encourage you to see the world through a sociopath's eyes. It's not just your targets' backgrounds or behaviours; it's the way they look. 47 is sleek and sexless. Comparatively, the people around him are grotesques. Some are fat, some are ugly, some are highly sexualised – the male characters in Hitman are all six packs and pectorals, whereas the women have enormous chests and inflated lips. This is what 47 sees: creatures instead of people, defined not by personality but crude biological urges.
Even Hitman's map system encourages you not to care about these beings. Observing your surroundings from the top down, the people around you are represented by a circle with a small line through it, the universal symbol, especially in the world of consumer electronics, for "on". When they're killed, that line turns to a dispassionate cross – instead of murdered, they are simply "off".
Because they are generally normal people living normal lives, getting players to empathise with and embody the superhumans they play in video games is a difficult task. Some games use streamlined mechanics, allowing players to perform the most amazing feats with the single press of a button. Others strip the character away completely, leaving a mute, empty body for the player to personify themselves. Hitman, at its best, uses visual design and small, written details. It shows that even the most difficult alien character, a merciless killer who is literally non-human, can be ingratiated to his audience.
The new Hitman game (which is pretty good, based on what we've seen so far) is released on March 11th for Xbox One, PC and PlayStation 4. More information on the game's official website.
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