Hitman: Absolution Isn't Sexy - The last in a three part series that dissects what used to make Hitman great. This week, sex.
In every article I've written on Hitman: Absolution so far, I've talked about its strip club level. 47, now a wrought, muscular badass sneaks inside a slumdog strip bar to whack the manager. The music's blaring, the men are hooting; the dancing girls have got their boobs out. On the surface, it's your standard sleazy gents club; below the surface it's...still just that.
Absolution doesn't have the sand to get really down and dirty with its subject matter; there's some peripheral bumph about the joint's owner killing mouthy strippers, but it barely registers. Compared to the old Hitmans, the bondage party in Contracts or the mansion orgy in Blood Money, it's vanilla.
I've written already about how sound and gameplay mechanics convince Hitman players to think and act like a sociopath. Now, in this third and final part, I want to look at visuals, and how the old Hitman games used sex, fetishism and sodomy to make you hate.
47's not a people person - he's not even a person. The 47th product of a test to clone the perfect assassin, he's not a real human. That gives him this eerily pragmatic outsider perspective of day-to-day life; different, alone and genetically superior, he observes people with a cold, grand-masterly logic.
Hitman encourages players to look at targets as some kind of lesser species, kind of in the way that we might usually look at animals. Take a look at this picture of one of the targets in Blood Money and tell me he doesn't look like a gorilla.
See? Hitman twists its villains to make them easier to kill, to imbue you with the same mercilessness as 47. Sex plays a huge role in that; in keeping with the dehumanisation idea, the people in Hitman games are rutting creatures.
In a lot of the levels, your targets are deviants with the most perverse sexual fantasies - paedophiles, voyeurs, sadomasochists and rapists all feature heavily in Hitman's line-up. The opera level in Blood Money has you bump off a UN ambassador who's been selling children on the black market; the stately English home in Contracts is dotted with one way mirrors so the gaffer can watch his female guests in the shower.
Compared to the slim, calculating 47, his targets are grubbier; more grotesque. In the way that the lack of sound I talked about gives you an aloof distance from the people you kill, so does their predilection for bizarre, twisted sex.
Like some sociopathic high-school kid that can't get any, you perceive the people around you as hyper-sexual beings, as if they're all at it and only you're left out.
The guards in Hitman games are all biceps and six packs. The women are even more exaggerated, jiggling caricatures with deep cleavage, pert bums and puffed up lips. It's an excellent way of emphasising 47's Otherness - sex is a very human urge, and his lack of sexy physical features sets him apart from people.
It also adds to that idea of animalism, as if to suggest that all humans are interested in is copulating. Their bodies in Hitman are geared towards physicality, all taut muscles and wobbling boobs. Just like how we see randy chimps as hopelessly instinctual, 47 sees people as defined by a compulsion to bang each other.
There are so many examples. In Blood Money's Mardi Gras level, you're forced to listen to two rival assassins talk dirty to each other over a walkie-talkie; in Contracts, you come across Chinese brothels and Rotterdam torture dungeons.
Almost every place and character in the old Hitman games has some thumping sexual undertone seeping into it, like the penthouse in Silent Assassin, staffed by bikini-clad women. The constant presence of sex alludes to human beings as their weakest, at their most base - 47's physical appearance, bald, immaculately dressed and sleek reminds you that you're different from these creatures, better. It's no problem to pull the trigger, they're just animals after all.
And that is why the old Hitmans are better than Absolution. They use every inch of visual design, every line of gameplay code and every beat of sound to imbue you with a concrete sense of who and what you are. This newest game has you play as a generic every-hero, who acts and feels like Sam Fisher, Nathan Drake or any of the others.
Absolution marks a disasterous turning point for the whole franchise. The product of market research into what works, as opposed to creative vision into what might, it's a derivative, bland and backwards-looking work without the guts of its predecessors. Where Blood Money sank both hands into the entrails of human psychology, Absolution tiptoes around safe, 12A subject matter, making neutered references to sex and violence but never fully losing itself in either of those things.
The old Hitmans had a spiralling quality to them, like the opening scene of Irreversible, where you're lost in some undulating netherworld. Without much in the way of cutscenes or written exposition, they created a rich thematic discourse, predating BioShock in using architecture to tell a story. And most brilliantly, they did all this in the style of 47 himself - surreptitiously, to the point where you might not even notice.
Gameplay and story needn't be exclusive - the strongest games are the ones where the way you play reflects the creator's narrative ambitions.
Hitman: Silent Assassin, Hitman: Contracts and Hitman: Blood Money are built on that idea; Hitman: Absolution is not.
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