Everywhere in Hitman is a workplace. Even in the homes and manors that make up many of the games’ levels, there is an army of professionals, servants and maids and cooks and chefs, as well as Agent 47, a drop of red ink in the water. Many writers have written about thisbefore, but the new Hitman trilogy relies on class relationships to structure its world. The targets are almost always the center of a vast network of power. Below and around them are the teeming masses who hold them up and who can break them down.
In this set up, Hitman runs head on into that old Marxist standby, worker alienation. It’s a complex idea with many permutations, but for our purposes, it comes down to the fact that workers are separate from the product they make. The creation of a shoe or a shirt is split between thousands of hands, but because only a few people actually own all the parts, they are the ones who see the rewards. Consider in the Paris level, how the work of models, technicians, waiters, and servants is channeled through Victor Novikov, the owner of the Sanguine fashion brand. Consider in the real world, how the employees of the massive development studio Rockstar worked weekends with nothing to do; only the founding members, the Housers, would see them at work. The act of appearing to work, only for that work to be owned by someone else, is an example of alienation.
Therefore, it is the facelessness, the anonymity of the worker, that lets Agent 47 blend in anywhere. Very rarely do the targets actually know the people who cook their food or shine or shoes. They, as individuals, are not important parts of the equation. Furthermore, it is the act of work that only serves appearances. If the player disguises themselves as a servant or chef, there is no actual work that needs to be done. There are however stations where the player can press a button to appear to be working. Agent 47 keeps busy as a waiter or a guard, so he can stab the boss in the back when no one else is around. The subdued, regular violence of class relationships enables the assassin to complete his far more colorful and stark killing. Agent 47 can be anyone who is beneath the notice of power.
This, of course, gets quite silly. Although Agent 47 is quite tall and toned, any man’s outfit will fit him as if tailored. His bar code tattoo never brings questions or ire. His race never quite seems to matter, allowing him anonymity from Morocco to Thailand. This is, of course, part of the games’ straight faced absurdity. It is a joke that the world bends to Agent 47’s will, that it lets him be invisible. The devs winking at you, an acknowledgement that this is, in fact, a world of assassination.
But it also has to do with Agent 47’s identity. He was literally constructed to be an assassin, and his white masculinity is a feature of that. For the most part, the systems and places Agent 47 operates in are ones that privilege white men, and that is, in part, what allows him to slip between layers of society and class. Whether a businessman, cameraman, waiter, or guard, a white cis man is no remarkable sight. They are free of skepticism and the visibility that would be offered to nearly anyone else. In turn, while violence against the powerful might be a claim to a better world for the marginalized, for Agent 47 it is simply a job. He cannot be a person; he is a professional. Though it is alienation of labor that lets him do his work, it also alienates him. While his identity allows him anonymity, it also obscures any real, chosen sense of self. He is everyone and no one. He is not just a cog in the machine, but one of its gears.
Fittingly, throughout Hitman, Agent 47 represents the interests of capital and protects them. All of these targets, though hideous monsters of wealth and excess, represent some kind of threat to the “neutrality” of his employers. Agent 47 moves to protect his profession. By the end of the game, he ensures capitalism will continue to need him. However, All of his targets are jockeying for power among the elite. The aforementioned Victor Novikov is burying his dark past in an attempt to stay at the top of the fashion world. Reza Zayden attempts to take Morocco in a military coup. All of them seek to remain a vital part of a violent system and to claim as much power as they can before death or financial ruin take them. Cameron Kunzelman observes in his article for Waypoint that Agent 47 is the catastrophe of capitalism coming now, rather than later. While the global elite seeks to escape earth’s gravity or the heat of the sun or the rising waters, all of them are reflected in the barrel of Agent 47’s gun.
That emphasis on the ultimate death of the wealthy and powerful showcases the game’s strengths. It is not a cathartic pantomime of revolutionary violence. Nor it is simply a fantasy of extreme job competence, though that is a part. Rather, it is a surprisingly cogent and grimly funny diorama of the world as it is. What Hitman offers then is the ability to hold that world in our hands, to understand how it works, to contain and control it. Perhaps most importantly, it lets us see through it, to see how thin and artificial power really is.
The game still does suggest alternatives. Even just a failed assassination suggests a different world. The clockwork settings of these games might be designed for disruption, but they feel real enough to tick on without Agent 47. Pointedly, those imagined futures are different, but they are not free. The anonymized worker, white supremacist hegemony, and the global network of violence remains. Despite whatever changes Agent 47’s violence can make, it cannot make a kinder world. Whatever distant connections or suggested alternatives cannot become something more without a fundamental change in tools or approach. As long as Agent 47 is who he is and does what he does, it will remain only a possibility, a flicker.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.