Thursday 7 March 2013

The circles of hell: valence as character and Hitman's obscene moral calculus

I wrote this post AGES ago and promptly forgot about it. I've just unearthed it in the guts of the blog system, and so decided to let it light, regardless of timing. Hope you enjoy it.


If you think your family reunions are bad – and believe me, mine are Shakespearian – spare a thought for Agent 47. Every few years he has to push his way to the buffet table through crowds of identical bald men distinguishable only by their barcodes, all disguised as each other and holding syringes behind their backs. Still, 47 is used to feeling anonymous because he was designed to be that way. He is deliberately without personality, a blank human long as you pretend that ‘white’ and ‘male’ are blank attributes.

But what of his enemies?

This week [actually, months ago - ed] I wrote an article over at Gameranx about how the Hitman series handles character and morality. It's a reading of Contracts and Blood Money as "socially conservative treatises on sin and moral frailty" - which, by the by, an explains the origin of Absolution's infamous leather nuns. Here's a bit about BM's rehab clinic mission:
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.
Read on for a supplementary post.

This was an idea that had been kicking around in my head ever since I read Cameron Kunzelman's analysis of Blood Money via the German writer Ernst J√ľnger. I agreed with some of it, disagreed with a lot of it, and shelved my notes until the controversy of Absolution's release and the renewed attention on its 'Saints' made it a viable freelance pitch. So while I ended up approaching the game from a different angle, I made sure to link to Kunzelman's piece in the opening paragraphs, because I felt I was somewhat indebted to it. I'd like to offer some extra notes here that make more of a direct response to his reading.

So Kunzelman reads Hitman as a game where "all humans are infinitely replaceable." This represents the destruction of the individuals by modernity, where a test tube baby with the bar code on his neck can take the place of the therapist and nobody notices. Kunzelman sees the infinitely repeatable levels as indicating an infinitely repeatable humanity, people as objects trapped in a clockwork dance. I think this reading of Agent 47 is on the money, but doesn't convince me with reference to the other people in the game. Indeed, to me, Blood Money - which I'm focusing on because it was by far the best and most coherent expression of the series - was totally about individuals in all their sinful particularity.

It does this in a pretty complex way: you've got textual briefings, bought informants, strong character visuals, environmental design, and suggestive habits/routines, all criss-crossing each other. I'm reminded of Robert Yang's post about environmental storytelling in Thief, although the transmedia reading process here is more sprawling and not as subtle as the example he outlines.

Where Kunzelman sees repeatable clockwork, I see the repeated inscription of personality. What I mean by this is that Hitman combines two models of the self. On the one hand you've got an old model based not on psychological complexity but on appetites, vices and social standing. The best kills - as defined by rankings, sheer coolness, and what the level design valences (makes attractive) - are those which exploit the expressions of their appetites and characters. On the other hand you have the quasi-Freudian model where it is our flaws, weaknesses, and traumas which constitute our character. Personality is pathology; we are the sum of our wounds.

In this reading the characters move repeatedly like clockwork around their domains because they are trapped by their personalities, perpetually inscribing a rut. Note how frequently family, past and personal attachment create the situations you enter (I count 8 of 13 missions). 47, on the other hand, is a clone and therefore has no past, no family - or rather he does, but he has already razed it to the ground at the climax of the first game. In my article I mock his erotic complicity with the villains he hunts, but in this one respect he genuinely stands apart from them. They are trapped; he can move.

(Yes, I'm aware his story beats, especially in Hitman 2 and Absolution, all involve questioning or undermining his lack of attachments. But those only work because he's emotionless by default.)

This is one of the things which I think makes Blood Money beautiful as well as repugnant. So many of your targets are found in situations that are both of their creation and out of their control:

  • The tutorial, 'Death of a Showman', takes place in a run-down theme park. Its architect is depicted in cut-scenes and in-game conversations as having a lying, flattering, charlatan but essentially innocent nature, of which the amusement park is a natural extension. But now both he and it have become shabby, stricken by dept and occupied by thugs.
  • The fourth mission, 'Flatline', takes place in a rehab clinic where three mafiosos have retreated for protection and then become trapped. They've all managed to subvert its system and are protected by secret agents, but are also imprisoned.
  • The fifth, 'A New Life' (check out that mocking title!), depicts a hardened gangster transplanted awkwardly to suburbia. He's turned witness protection and is bearing the consequences of that compromise: paranoid and restless, hunted by rivals, his house given over to the invasive patrolling FBI. This is a level I'd absolutely love to do a close reading of, with its wide open spaces amenable to surveillance and its militant subversion of domestic tropes.

These people are all thinking "how did I get here? I know I chose this, but when, and at what point, and is there no way to go back?" The ultimate effect of their characters is that their own spaces and lives are made unfamiliar to them or occupied by others; they have retreated into themselves. 

Maybe there's a tension between that psychological sympathy and the sheer glee with which the game otherwise indicts and punishes its villains. But it's worth noting that getting trapped in your own sinful patterns is not an unprecedented trope in Christian literature. As he sights down his pistol at another victim, 47 could viably quote Mephistopheles in Marlowe's Faust: "Why, this is hell - nor are we out of it." They, in turn, could echo Satan in Paradise Lost: "Which why I fly is hell; myself am hell." I haven't actually read Dante's Inferno, but it all sounds a bit like that too (so there).

Hitman is very much a 'tragic' game - just not for you. Yes, missions are repeatable, but the aim of repeating is to establish a definite and perfect playthrough. Once you've saved and restarted your way through the mission your 'actual' behaviour is recorded, given a rating, and retrospectively storified by the newspaper coverage which reports on each death. In this way, death becomes part of character too, each kill the inevitable end to the story of each victim's life. Their habits are plump with fatal opportunities; they were born to die.

Part of the problem with Blood Money is that it is both incredibly interesting and rather lazy. It has an ideology which it articulates more thoroughly and coherently than most games even try to, which is impressive; on the other hand its "whores, strippers and victims" approach to female characters is a very cheap way of suggesting a 'grubby world' by riding the coat-tails of patriarchy. 

But the game's treatment of character remains one of the most interesting that I've seen. Far from erasing individuals, it's a study in selfhood: not only of different personalities but of what it means to have a personality Dissecting this properly also entails exposing the game's reactionary politics and its regressive conception of vice and temptation. 

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