For a born-and-bred assassin, Agent 47 is a pretty lousy killer.
In my hands, he spends far more time mopping floors and reading newspapers than doing any of the murdery stuff he’s been hired for.
Whenever a new episode is released, I spend a good hour or two just wandering around 47’s latest exotic destination, not so much scoping the place out as absorbing its culture. In fact, it’d be more accurate to call my Hitman experience People-Watching Simulator 2016.
As I stroll through Parisian mansions and Italian villas, my goal isn’t to embody the silent assassin, but rather the fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the nameless denizens going about their clockwork routines.
I slip on a gardener’s uniform and start raking an already pristine lawn, my attention fixed on the hotel guests complaining about the arrogance of rock stars. I don an apron and get to work scrubbing countertops, listening to the kitchen staff hurl orders back and forth with the waiters. I kit myself out in a lab coat and hunch over electron microscopes, my ears trained on the scientific technobabble whizzing by around me.
For any professional hitman, these conversations are utterly useless. For a perennial outsider, however, they offer a sense of social acceptance and normality difficult to find in crowds of the non-virtual variety.
As an involuntary member of the Anxiety and Depression club, I often feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar social situations, pestered by thoughts of inadequacy and Imposter Syndrome. At its worst, I can feel eyes boring into me from all around, penetrating the façade of humanity I put on whenever I step out the door. One of these days, I know, someone is going to call me out for the fake I am.
That’s why I find Hitman: People-Watching Simulator 2016 so compelling. Agent 47 is the master of disguise; when I’m karate-chopping laundry or cradling an empty beer bottle, nobody suspects that I’m not who I appear to be.
Hidden in plain sight, I feel this strange sense of belonging, shielded by invisibility yet still connected with the goings-on around me. In contrast to the tension of playing Hitman ‘properly’ – infiltrating high-security areas and performing stealth assassinations – blending in is quite relaxing, a moment of mundane normalcy amidst a maelstrom of deception.
In addition to mindless banter, some NPCs divulge valuable hints for unique assassination opportunities. Rather than tickling my trigger finger, though, hearing that my target will be attending a private therapy session or that they have a weakness for cocktails makes me less interested in popping them off.
These moments of characterisation weave themselves together into a spider-webbed story, each opportunity connecting one person to another like a more macabre version of Five Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
First I learn that the shoe-shop owner in the back streets of Marrakesh has been evicted, then that the military has taken the shop over, then that the shop hides a secret entrance to a network of tunnels beneath the city – and suddenly, my perspective on the whole level shifts.
Piece by piece, the formerly hostile environment becomes safe, familiar. Once again, I start to feel like I belong.
It’s an odd way to play, I’ll admit. Then again, it’s also a testament to the liveliness of the spaces IO Interactive has built that, in a game called Hitman, I find killing my targets the worst part.