Foul Appetites: Crime and Punishment in the Hitman Series
John Brindle explores the concept of morality in the Hitman series.
There is something purgatorial in the way these people circle and circle their private drains (what Kunzelman calls “serial repetitions"). They’re stuck in a rut, refusing to abandon the patterns and flaws which constitute their character; in the phase space of repeated play their comings and goings have a distinct shape which you can navigate.
But if you think this is all starting to sound a little regressive, then yeah, no shit. In Hitman’s world, everyone is alternately vain, venal, crooked, foul, lecherous, vulgar, vile, wanton, gross, obscene, pathetic, or perverted, and your job is to visit upon them a vengeance for their moral disgrace. I this loaded language advisedly: although Hitman’s Catholic overtones are so arch and silly that it’s tempting not to take them seriously, its model of sin and vice is properly old-school.
Nowhere is this more clear than in its treatment of sex. Chad Bingham, Vaana Ketlyn and Lord Beldingford are joined by Skip Muldoon, the steamboat captain with a weakness for sweet things and subordinates dressed as sailor boys (‘Death on the Mississippi’), and Vinnie Sinistra, the suburban gangster who entrusts the crucial microfilm to a drunken, randy wife who’ll come upstairs with you if you dress as a pool boy (‘A New Life’). Aesthetically, the portrayal of these characters—as a rampant queen and a disloyal bimbo respectively—is of a piece with the fat-shaming caricature of the Meat King or the homophobic conflation of the operagoers’ sexuality with their participation in a pedophile ring. But moreover, on the level of play, this trope of the target lured into vulnerability by the promise of sex crops up again and again; in the world of Hitman, sexual privacy is fatal, and female sexuality in particular is frequently monstrous.
Just look at the points in Blood Money where 47 himself is tested for flaws. In ‘A Dance With the Devil’, two assassins are sent to intercept him. One, the man, is brash enough to reveal himself in conversation and challenge him to a duel in a locked backroom. But other, a woman, will invite 47 coyly off-set for hanky-panky and then stab him to death in an outlandishly sexualised cut-scene. Another scantily-clad hitwoman appears in ‘You Better Watch Out…’, trying to tempt you into a private room. “Men are so easy,” she tuts if she succeeds. “Shame to waste such a nice hunk of meat.” These aren’t just killers who use sex, but sexual killers, women driven by murderous libido. Blood Money inherits from the Christian tradition a fundamental misogyny which says women are either scheming temptresses or obliviously wanton; in either case they are to be punished.
In a canonical playthrough, however, 47 will never be tempted. Unlike his enemies, he has no personality and therefore no vices; designed to be anonymous, distinguishable only by his barcode, he is a blank human being (as long as you pretend that ‘white’ and ‘male’ are blank attributes). Moreover, his violence is simply violence, bought and paid for, existing only in the sexless realm of business. Their violence is obscene, sexual; like the shrieking assassin who cartwheels around like a gymnast and orgasms when she kills, they enjoy their victims. So a killer he may be, says the game, but he knows what he does, confesses his sins, and commits them without self-deception or corruption or abandon. He is not like his targets. Of all hell’s denizens, he, at least, is pure.
Of course we can see through this nonsense. Nothing could be more perverse than to plumb the depths of humanity’s depravity while fetishizing one’s own exemption from it. On the contrary, this sexless saviour needs the sinful world, needs the perverts in order to license his sanctimonious and violent chastity; the erotic frisson of vice and virtue cannot cannot be his without something to reject or someone to rebuff or a wickedness to grimly avenge. We can imagine him getting off on his own purity, big hairless penis that he is, furiously masturbating under his heavy suit as he fantasizes about the futile touch of a whore’s supple hand on that hard, uncaring shoulder. I work alone, he will say, tweaking his nipple through his spotless shirt.
Given all this, what are we to make of Hitman’s overt religiosity? Its angels and devils, its fluttering wings? Mere lampshade-hanging; an aesthetic double bluff which prevents us from assuming that the game’s reactionary moral universe is sincere. The knowing deployment of kitsch is a signature of the postmodern and indicates what tremendous fun the game is having with its pseudo-Catholic schtick—but poses no challenge to the underlying ideas. These games gleefully, shlockily, self-consciously (but ultimately uncritically recycle a medieval morality which includes lust and even homosexuality in the category of sin.
So Absolution’s leather nuns are entirely consistent with the previous games. They’ve always used religion, perversion and sexuality to push players’ buttons. As Keza MacDonald noted way back when the Saints trailer first surfaced:
The typical innocence/sin imagery of a naughty nun is warped here to extreme proportions, providing a kind of obscene justification for the violence; as if, because they look like they do, they probably deserve to get taught a lesson, the slutty whores.
This is precisely the regressive attitude Hitman takes to all its targets. They use religious ideas of perversion and sin as shortcuts to them up with vices which invite and enable their own punishment and use religious ideas of perversion to
What filthy people, the player is supposed to muse—what a vile animal is man—and how pernicious woman! Then coldly deploy poetic ‘justice’. We shouldn’t be surprised that when women enter this classic set-up, things get unpleasant in a very familiar way.
All this might actually make Hitman one of the more interesting treatments of character and morality in games. It has a clear thematic vision which is reflected at all levels of play. But it’s an old, old vision, a reactionary and evil one which takes feverish pleasure in condemning the whole world as a hotbed of sinners and whores. Its inherited bigotry lends itself without much friction to the crude extremes of Absolution. They are nothing new—they’re simply louder.