History is filled with untimely and suspicious deaths; moments when its course has pivoted on the fate of a single person. From kings and presidents to businessmen and activists, certain lives have long been considered precious in part because of the social power they wield. In the wake of these deaths, whole movements have collapsed and splintered, returning political threats into a group of disorganized individuals. For those who have means, there is a vested interest in destabilizing the competition through often less than legal means. It is this high stakes realm of death and corporate espionage which provides the backdrop for IO Interactive’s Hitman 3 which wraps up the World of Assassination trilogy that began half a decade ago.
The game follows the player as they control Agent 47, the bald and barcoded mascot of the franchise, as he and his handler take down the Illuminati-like Providence group once and for all. While many games provide the fantasy of taking down these types of organizations, Hitman is far more precise in it’s execution. If franchises like Far Cry or Just Cause give the player a hammer, then Hitman gives them a scalpel. Rather than seizing control of strongholds with force and changing the colour of a map, the power fantasy crafted by IOI is about precision. If one knows exactly when and where to strike, a single well-placed bullet can topple empires. The reason why this is possible is because of a concept known as Chaos Theory.
In its most basic form, Chaos Theory is the study of how complex systems fall apart as a result of accumulating imperfections, and emphasises the importance of ideal conditions. After all, the difference between 1 and 0.999 may not seem like much, but if left unaccounted for and repeated long enough, the gap will widen. This principle is best known in gaming through the trope of the Butterfly Effect, and can be seen in games like Life is Strange or Until Dawn. While the Telltale model uses Chaos Theory to explore how individual choices affect relationships, Hitman uses Chaos Theory to illustrate the fragility of the systems the rich and powerful create to maintain control.
From left wing terrorists to corrupt businessmen to old money heiresses, targets in Hitman come from a vast swath of political affiliations. However, all share a commonality: they are all societal elites who hide their misdeeds behind money and influence. By contrast, Agent 47 is functionally an everyman. While World of Assassination may have dropped the cloning plotline from earlier games, he still remains a blank slate for the player to project onto. More importantly is how he uses disguises. While every level has unique costumes, the bread and butter of wardrobe choices are waiters, technicians, and security guards. All of the roles are ones that work to ensure that their respective system runs smoothly and without interruption.
The game presents each level as an enclosed loop with it’s own set of storylines, character interactions, and events. NPC behaviour is tightly locked and regulated around a limited number of rules. Put simply, their behaviour is easily observed and remembered. The only free will that exists comes through how 47 interacts with the level. The player is given the freedom to mess with the initial conditions of a complex system. The objective in each mission (spoken directly or otherwise) is to break that enclosed system to the point where it is unable to restore itself to a state of solid equilibrium. Even if the player manages to complete a mission with the coveted Silent Assassin, Suit Only award and the level is left untouched, the death of that mission’s target is enough to break the equilibrium outside of the player’s field of view both by causing harm to Providence, and because of how most levels are build around their target. Without a core, the system no longer has a function. The guards have no one to protect. The waiters have no one to serve. It only takes one pawn to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, one cog slightly out of sync with the rest, and the entire system runs the risk of collapsing in on itself through 47’s meddling.
There is a particularly populist fantasy at the heart of Hitman’s infiltration mechanics. Not only are the spaces chosen for levels often hidden to common man, access to them is outright denied through being geographically isolated (Dartmoor, The Isle of Sgail, Hokkaido) or physically separated from public accessibility (Paris, Dubai, Bangkok) through fences, walls or being at the the top of a skyscraper. Even in locations where there are public spaces (Mumbai, Sapienza, Chongqing), each map is made up of a vast array of public and private areas which escalate in exclusivity. While the masses stand outside without a ticket to the racetrack or protesting in front of the Swedish consulate, 47 is able to slip by security. He is less a man as much as he is a personification of entropy. The elites go about their business like they are guests at prince Prospero’s castellated abbey, safe from the wrath of the plague-ridden commoners kept outside the walls.
However, despite their best efforts, a man wearing a red mask still manages to get in, and a path of destruction follows in his wake. As the tagline for Hitman III puts it quite simply, “Death awaits.” It is an inevitable outcome of any system which relies on human labour. An inch miscalculated and a skyscraper starts leaning to the side. A driver makes the wrong turn at a street in Sarajevo and Europe is plunged into war. Living in a period where instability is rampant can be just as personally destabilizing. In a world where many feel like the nameless and replaceable parts in an inhuman process, Hitman provides a unique power fantasy because it allows players to take control of that chaos and choose the means by which a corrupt elitist system falls. The spark could come from anyone be they a fashion designer or a food vendor. All that matters is that they find themselves in the right place at the right time. The rest is history.
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