2016’s Hitman emerged as an unlikely contender for that year’s best game, and when I finally started playing it late last year I thought I’d heard so much about the expansive sandboxes, witty writing and intricate systems, that there would be no surprises in store. I was delighted and taken aback with how wrong I was, and what’s most wowed me has been the empathetic, grounded portrayals of locales that are rarely visited in most media, let alone most games.
So far in Hitman I’ve visited fictional towns in France, Italy, Morocco and Thailand, and in every map there’s been insightful observation about mainstream Western portrayals of places we might consider off the beaten path, or foreign in some way; part of the joy of Hitman is finding the relatable human stories and conversations that any wanderer will find in their travels. What opened my eyes to this aspect of the game was a conversation in the Marrakesh level, where in front of a large statue of four camels, I observed two young men griping about cultural stereotypes, clearly feeling bogged down by history. One of them pointed out that he has a car AND a motorcycle. I was able to take so much from this small interaction; an honest and sympathetic view of dissatisfied young men, railing against that which defined the old world; an amusing (affectionate) gag about the inherent arrogance and self-obsession of the same young men ; a cutting take on the way so many Western expectations are set by outdated media.
This well-rounded approach to characterisation is Hitman’s greatest strength, and indeed the same nuance can be seen in almost every aspect of the game’s construction: from the many preset opportunity paths offered, to the open ended freeform madness engendered by the player created contracts, Hitman never forces one direction or opinion on the player. With this in mind, it’s easy to call Hitman a firmly egalitarian game in its systems and attitudes. This cohesion between player action and character action is one of the things that makes Hitman feel so confident and fun.
It is also a decidedly modern game politically; the majority of players will spend most of their time in Hitman pretending to be The Help, whether that’s kitchen staff, waiters, janitors or security guards. It is absolutely no accident that in an time of demagogues and oligarchy, we are asked to share in joyous violence against the enormously rich and powerful, and it’s almost always delivered whilst you’re wearing the uniform for the worst job you ever had. I do not need to go into why this is so satisfying, nor how clearly it reflects the broad interests and concerns of the precariat. Agent 47 is a phenomenal stand in for the little guy; competent and dignified, he is the epitome of the ideal working class professional, who does the job he’s paid to do as well as it could possibly be done.
The level of care and attention to detail found in every other aspect of the game doesn’t extend to the voice acting. It’s not bad; a lot of dialogue is very, very funny, but it’s limited to what feels like fifteen Americans and four British actors. The negatives of this approach are obvious, but in some odd way it works. Given that, by all accounts, the team was working with a limited budget, it was perhaps wise to avoid having their limited number of performers polish up their Japanese accents, and instead opt for the Studio Ghibli dubbing approach of having the actors perform in the manner that’s most relatable for the audience. For me, it works; I only occasionally tittered at broadly American voices proclaiming “Here in my hometown of Sapienza”. For the most part, I felt absorbed and convinced in these artificial towns and complexes, engaged with the small, human stories and cognizant of the larger plots and schemes taking place. I’m also fully aware of how much more vivid, dazzling and evocative this game could be with a broader, better casting mandate and budget. I would love to see a focus on better voice acting in the second year of Hitman’s rolling release.
Adding to the refreshing effect of Hitman’s settings is how they surprise you in their design. Hitman includes a myriad of references to films, music and other games, but these are affectionate asides. The designers have been truly inventive in their decisions about the settings; they never go where you expect. When it’s announced that the final map will be set in the snowy, misty peaks of Japan, there are certain images that you can’t help but call to mind; ninjas, mysticism, a brutal struggle against the environment. And then they go and set it up so you’ll be staying in a pampering private hospital, mixing with the very sick, the very powerful, and the very eccentric. The subversion of expectations, broadening the scope of what we can imagine when we think of a Japan setting, is broadly indicative of Hitman’s approach to other cultures and people, recognising that they contain multitudes.