It was John Dalberg-Acton who in the 1860s gave us the best bromide for authority: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In the 21st century, we seem to be taking a crack at the term, with mixed results. Adam Grant has critiqued the quote by writing such recent bestsellers as Give and Take, where those who turn out to be the most successful long term are the ones who give of themselves without expecting a reward.
And yet, there are caveats.
In the recent adaptation of Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century: The Documentary, they bring up the Monopoly experiment. In the test, they gave certain players extra money for landing on Go, while other players were given less. At first, the luckier players felt as just that: they were simply remarking on the profitable state they found themselves in as environmental. But over time, the language of the lucky players internalized, and they began to see the luck they had been endowed with as personal, as though they themselves orchestrated their own success. “I guess I’m just a good player,” they said, rolling the dice again.
So the jury is still out on power corrupting absolutely.
The recent Hitman games, however, take a firm stance on the matter.
In the games, you serve the International Contract Agency as Agent 47, a watcher of the watchmen, so to speak. You receive hits from clients and you are whisked away to elaborate and often beautiful locations in order to kill high value targets.
Lucky for you, the game offers some of the worst profiles ever to walk the Earth. Take for example Zoe and Sophia Washington, high class socialites who parade around the world stealing artifacts and killing whoever stands in their way. They are an evil Indiana Jones pair.
Or take Claus Strandberg, a former bank CEO who stole billions in savings from citizens in Morocco in order to destabilize the fragile government and spearhead a takeover.
And who could forget the Delgado drug cartel? Your orders in Santa Fortuna are to take down the three-headed serpent, whilst the three attempt to hilariously devise a new formula for “super cocaine.”
The most recent Hitman games are, like YouTuber Super Bunnyhop describes, a James Bond simulator. While other games have you taking out clients in a Jason Bourne-style action romp complete with shootouts and hand-to-hand combat, Hitman is all about playing the part and playing it with suavity and grace. You dress up in disguises that bring you ever closer to the target. You hide among crowds and tail these soon-to-be victims until you can slice like a delicate knife through defenses and leave behind little collateral damage. The enjoyment of the game is to be found in the growing professionalism of your craft. And your craft is to woo the enemy into your sights. It’s shaken, after all, not stirred.
To be sure, wild antics also ensue. The true hallmark of the two games Hitman and Hitman 2 are in the clash between dead pan murder and wacky stories in the form of “opportunities.” These opportunities have you dressing up as a painter, giving a portrait of narcissistic Dawood Rangan in between his directorial feature in Mumbai of his next Bollywood film. You can play the drums in Bangkok, getting you closer to your mark, who just so happens to be Jordan Cross, as revenge for him murdering his beautiful girlfriend Hannah Highmore by pushing her off his 24th floor loft. You can stick a tattoo needle into Rico Delgado. Most famously, you can do a photo shoot at the Sanguine fashion show in Paris disguised as Helmet Kruger. It’s a wild ride where the opulence of high class society is turned into farce.
Despite the fact that power corrupts absolutely, Hitman allows us to see into “truth to power” of the global elite. While they may hold a large proportion of the wealth of the world, and while they orchestrate the most terrible of atrocities (parallels to real world events dot the game as you play), they can still thankfully die miserably or otherwise. Nolan Cassidy, a bodyguard for a KGB operative hiding out in Vermont’s Whittleton Creek suburb, can still get hungry, and still wants to eat waffle fries at the open house party just down the street. Coat the fries with emetic rat poison and you’re well on your way to drowning Cassidy in the toilet filled with his own vomit. There is nothing to stop the fact that these upper class snobs still gotta eat, they still gotta shit, and they still gotta die.
The first takeaway from the games, then, is their commitment to leveling the playing field by reminding us that these people still function as people, and are prone to all the maladies that we cannot escape from no matter the wealth.
The second takeaway is that money makes shitty all the bad aspects of our personality. Why is it that Sylvio Caruso, a troubled bioengineer, also has a militant desire for the exact right dish of spaghetti and can slowly be convinced that his mother haunts him in his mansion? Why does Vanya Shah, head of the laundromat in Mumbai, chastise her employees for “drinking too much water?” And Fabian Mann at the Milton-Fitzpatrick bank is one of the most draconian accountants corporate investment banking has ever seen. While it lubricates the targets for us, giving us less desire to see these people left alive, it doesn’t make it easier realizing that the world may actually be full of people who rose to power without also developing at the very least a sophisticated sense of taste. The gaudy desires and tackiness of the wealthy is typically hidden in Bond films, but it remains in Hitman. Every target lives an untucked life.
But hidden among the game lies a deeper meaning, one that grows the more you play. When you start out in Hitman, a mansion is a mansion, and visiting Paris has you astounded by the wealth on display as you cavort with the crowds at the Sanguine fashion show. But over time, as an assassin of opportunity, you begin to absorb the lessons in the level design. Knocking out a waiter and taking their costume allows you to get into the ground floor and second floor undisturbed. Taking out a bodyguard allows you to wander the second floor, third floor, and attic. Or, if one is willing to get some prehensile training in, one can climb the pipes and shingles of the mansion and sneak in quietly. Over time, the locations begin to seem less like a venue, and more like an opportunity for murder. Your destination in Miami is no longer a formula one race, it’s a chance to blow up a driver on “accident.” Your time vacationing in the Maldives at the Haven Island resort is no longer a chance to take in the clear blue water, but rather the chance to destabilize relationships between Tyson Williams, Ljudmilla Vetrova, and Stephen Bradley, by retrieving a USB drive filled with compromising material.
In order to destroy the power of the elite, one must be willing to see as they do, and that means reducing each element to its essential function, rather than their form. Dalia Margolis may deal in fashion, but the consumerist bent is only a leveraging tool for her real job as a brilliant overseer of IAGO, a multinational spy syndicate. The wealth on display is simply a larger wrench.
Suddenly, the human beings at each of these destinations are no longer people. They are either holding onto the tools necessary to kill targets in the form of disguises, or they are simply window dressing to hide you as you move from place to place. “Blending in” with the crowd turns out to be a highly dehumanizing affair.
IO Interactive, the makers of the Hitman games, even play around with the theme. In one such storyline in the previously mentioned suburb of Whittleton Creek, Agent 47 can take the disguise of a real estate agent, and as you give a tour of the empty house, it becomes incredibly clear that the assassin has no idea what people are supposed to do with houses. Instead, his descriptions euphemistically cater to how the agent would murder people in the house. “There is dark flooring in this living room,” he tells the prospective buyers. “It is particularly good at hiding stains.”
In order to eliminate the elite, one must be willing to make the terrible moral sacrifices in order to become the elite, and that means disposing with notions of conventional value that come at a high cost.
When you visit these lavish destinations, you are not only partaking in the sophistication of space, you are also getting a chance to vicariously live in the world of the vicious.
This is what makes the games some of the best in the medium. Because after all, what are you really killing? It’s just a video game. And these targets are simply codes in the program. These locations are digits in the simulation. Playing the video game is how the elite play the world: some rules can be bent and others broken. Only through the medium of a video game can one truly experience the dehumanizing effects of assassination and power on a global scale.
If one has a desire to play Hitman as “ethically” as possible, one must be willing to go all the way and achieve the “Silent Assassin” challenge on each map, which means that you must kill only the target, leave no trace, and not be caught on camera. The true challenge of the game means killing the elite while not playing by their rules.
It still remains to be seen in the Hitman series whether Agent 47 is an actor of freedom and justice, or is simply another functional arm of this new techno-global constabulary hell bent on absorbing as much wealth as possible. He has recovered his memories (in a hilariously bad retcon), and now, working with Lucas Grey, he has elected to “take them all down.”
Is Agent 47 becoming the corrupted absolute power he once sought to destroy? Or is he still the sharp knife, cutting away the bad branches of the tree in order to safeguard its health?
The bigger question to ask: is there a difference?