The subversive potential of videogames for exploring the darkest, most disquieting human drives is rarely more evident than it is in the Hitman franchise. Perhaps it’s makers didn’t set out to make more than a deftly original power fantasy, with an amoral cipher of a protagonist, but that doesn’t stop the many faces of Agent 47 from oozing underneath the skin to break bread with the player’s more colourful inner demons.
47 is a nameless, dead-eyed avenging angel in a high-end suit, complete with strangler’s hands wrapped in black leather gloves, pale skin, a perpetual expression of stern determination and, most outrageously of all, a barcode tattooed to the back of his head, as if to sardonically taunt the authorities’ inability to identify him. He looks like a cliché representation of what the average person might imagine when they think of a professional assassin, yet he slides through the game’s demented universe like an impossibly discrete shark through an especially colourful undersea wonderland.
In the most recent game, Blood Money, target locations are typically snapshots of humanity’s underbelly, scenes of exuberant celebration concealing fundamental depravity; colourful parties presided over by arch-criminals and wealthy degenerates, wistful holiday spots where gangsters and killers lurk. 47 weaves through the sweating, blundering masses with chilly purity, pockets stuffed with sterile instruments of death. Depending on the player’s whim, he might act with total professionalism, killing with almost dainty precision and leaving a single concealed body behind. Or he might just scythe a path through bystander and security alike in a nihilistic frenzy, fighting his way to the mark in a storm of blood-mist and shell casings.
47 stands out amongst the edgy posturing of other morally compromised videogame protagonists through a sense of black comedy and an icy, calculating focus in which the most heinous acts, from poisoning food to throwing pensioners of tall buildings to throttling children’s entertainers in order to steal their costumes, can make a perverse kind of sense in its own bleak, nasty little context.