Mechanics as Storytelling: Hitman 2's Disguises

A Video Game Analysis by Daniel Alexander

            I played Hitman (2016) at around the same time that Hitman 2 came out, mostly just to see if I would like the games – which I very much did. The careful planning, the clockwork characters, the delicate balance of each level that I was invited to disrupt – I’d played stealth games before, but not like this. These were the first titles I’d played that combined puzzle elements and a degree of real world intuition into their design, creating an experience that I returned to again and again.

            The core mechanic of these games (and others in the Hitman series, I’m given to understand) is the disguise system. It’s relatively straightforward – Agent 47 starts each mission in his suit, taking on the role of an ordinary civilian. He must then make his way to his targets, taking out security and finding new outfits that will permit access to restricted areas. The rules are easy to follow because they’re the same as in real life – waiters and cooks are allowed in the kitchen, guards can enter the surveillance room, and musicians can go onstage. The overlap of where these roles are and aren’t allowed forms the basic gameplay of a Hitman level as you do your best to navigate Agent 47 around obstacles and obtain new costumes that grant entry to key sections of the map.

            Now, this mechanic does strain the bounds of reality somewhat in certain areas. Agent 47 is a tall, well-built, white man. As such, he looks out of place as a street vendor in Mumbai or a security officer in Colombia – yet no one gives him a second look. It’s a quirk of the system that is largely there to provide seamless gameplay. If we look at it from a strictly thematic standpoint, however, this aspect of the Hitman world tells us something very specific: people only see uniforms, not the individuals behind them.

            It doesn’t matter whether he’s pretending to be a bellhop in Bangkok or a surgeon in Japan – the first (and often only) thing people see when they look at 47 in this world is the outfit he’s wearing. By extrapolation, that applies to everyone, international assassin or not. Because of this, the Hitman games become an absurd reflection of reality, one that confronts us with our tendency to reduce people to little more than the roles they’re meant to serve. Waiters bring us our food; masseuses give us massages; security guards are allowed pretty much everywhere. This dissociation between the image of the uniform and the actual human being behind it is on full display in the Hitman games – indeed, it’s Agent 47’s preferred approach, hiding in plain sight.

            The ridiculous nature of the disguise system in Hitman and Hitman 2 play into real world invisibility of uniformed work. But one of the most important precepts in these games is that invisibility is power. Agent 47 is not like most other characters from third person shooters (which the Hitman games technically are). He’s not durable enough to take multiple gunshots to the head, he doesn’t have a combat roll, and he often faces more armed enemies than he could ever realistically take on alone. His strength lies not in a massive health pool or overwhelming firepower, but in stealth. To get the best score on a mission, he needs to operate from the shadows, eliminating his targets in accidents and without being detected. His invisibility is his power, a theme that we see cropping up numerous times in the games’ stories.

            Briefly, the plots of the last two Hitman games have been focused around the Shadow Client and an Illuminati-like group known as Providence as they go to war with one another. Each side possesses a degree of invisibility – the Shadow Client manipulates much of the events in the first game from behind the scenes and the second game follows up with Providence retaliating. In both cases, the story concerns people who operate from the shadows, dangerous in large part because they are unknown and invisible. It is only when either party is forced out into the light of day, when knowledge is gained about them, that they become vulnerable. The Shadow Client is put at risk when 47 and Diana learn of his existence. Providence becomes a target once they’re exposed to the world. When they lose their invisibility, they lose their power.

            47 is a perfect protagonist to tell this story, and the disguise mechanic is a perfect gameplay system with which to explore it. While the overarching tale of the games is about the mysterious and anonymous elites who control the world, the experience of the games shows us that this works in reverse. Agent 47 adopts the invisibility of everyone from restaurant workers to racecar mechanics to move unseen and strike unexpectedly. Invisibility is a sword wielded by many different forces in these stories, with those who believe that their facades protect them are inevitably brought down by those who can see the truth.

©2019 by Daniel Alexander