Foul Appetites: Crime and Punishment in the Hitman Series

John Brindle explores the concept of morality in the Hitman series.

Crime and Punishment

What went wrong with Hitman: Absolution? Too simple, too linear and too confined is the consensus: IO Interactive abandoned the traditions of the Hitman series and it cost them. That’s not to mention the homophobia, and the misogyny of that infamous ‘leather nuns’ trailer. It’s not right, many have cried; Hitman is supposed to be classy! But for all the ways Absolution diverges from its forbears, sexual politics is not among them. This is a reading of Hitman: Contracts and Hitman: Blood Money as socially conservative treatises on human sin and moral frailty—of which the Saints are just the logical conclusion.

Hitman SidebarHitman is rightly rightly famous for their larger-than-life villains. Once the series hit its stride with Contracts, no other game could match its rogues’ gallery of colourful bastards, and few could approach the sense of heightened reality in its levels. By Blood Money, the apex of the series, playing the game was like stepping into the fevered imagination of its targets; think Psychonauts with razor wire. 

Far from erasing individuals, then, as Cameron Kunzelman has suggested, Hitman is full of character studies. Where most games give you endless tides of faceless goons, each target here has his own quirks and foibles. Some are quietly touching, like the way drug lord Fernando Delgado (‘A Fine Vintage’) retreats periodically to his room to play the cello. Others, like the secret passage and two-way mirror installed by Lord Beldingford to spy on his maids while they shower (‘The Beldingford Manor’), are simply grotesque. Most are funny: if you impersonate a therapist in ‘Flatline’ you can sit down with your marks for a spot of psychoanalysis (the very science of individuality). Either way, to solve a mission involves becoming intimate with the habits and eccentricities of your serial victim. 

These touches are not just window-dressing. Delgado’s jam session can be interrupted, and Beldingford’s secret passage allows covert access to his bedroom. By making each quirk a manipulable game element, Hitman maps personality onto the clockwork of each level, so that vices become vulnerabilities and sins are security breaches. In tragedy, the hero’s downfall is the logical consequence of his personality. Here, if you play well, that is literally true.

Take Campbell Sturrock, the murderous meat balloon who covers a bed like a medieval personification of Gluttony (‘The Meat King’s Party’). Regular deliveries of whole fried chicken provide an easy way to smuggle a weapon into his chamber. Playboy Chad Bingham’s weakness is the same eager penis that made him a liability to his Senator father; slip him an aphrodisiac, wait until he’s done fucking, and choke him as he enjoys a post-coital smoke (‘You Better Watch Out…’). Beldingford’s voyeurism renders his own room insecure, and while Fernando Delgado is best killed while practicing his Bach, his son, Manuel, has the unfortunate but convenient habit of retreating to a basement to sample his own merchandise. These are just examples plucked from a cast of eaters, drinkers and fuckers whose appetites make easy vectors for a poisonous death.

Hitman Sidebar‘Flatline’, a mission from Blood Money literally set in a rehab clinic, is easily the most striking. The situation is explicitly psychological: this is a place where people are imprisoned to protect themselves from their own destructive behaviour. The militarised boundaries and guarded checkpoints which make up the game’s bread and butter exist here as much to keep the inmates sober as to keep intruders out. But the system can’t protect your targets if they insist on subverting it. The mobsters seal their own fates with regular visits to secret booze caches, which, through careful observation, you can find and poison. It’s a clever setup because we already think about addiction in this way—both a crime and a sickness, a moral trespass and a fatal weakness. We are exploiting these men, but they also allow it to happen. 

Others targets are made most vulnerable by their relationships. The two assassins in ‘The Murder of Crows’ betray their positions by flirting with each other over the radio (and incentivise their own destruction with godawful puns). Vaana Ketlyn, in the theologically-themed ‘A Dance With the Devil’, will invite you into a convenient killing space if you first dispatch and disguise yourself as her masked lover. Most telling, however, are the stars of the glorious ‘Curtains Down’ mission. A briefing implies—without saying outright—that your targets are lovers, in language which treats their homosexuality as a scandalous secret (“almost inseparable”; “a sordid fascination bordering on obsession”). In case you miss that, a sneering French cloakroom clerk provides some prurient wink-nudge commentary on the liaison. This knowledge can be exploited: if one target dies on stage, the other, normally surrounded by bodyguards, will run out into the open.