Saturday, February 20, 2016

Obituary: The Character Assassination of Agent 47

Names are for friends, so I don’t need one”.

This mantra calmly spoken by protagonist 47 in the early moments of Hitman: Blood Money is not only a succinct summation of the quintessential silent assassin’s core beliefs, but also a perfect example that less is sometimes more. It’s the videogame equivalent of Roddy Piper’s legendary They Live monologue.

THEY'LL NEVER TAKE OUR FREEDOM!

Hitman: Agent 47, another attempt at making moving pictures into more moving pictures, completely forgets this fundamental principle. Loosely based on the story - wait, did I say story? Because as any self-respecting gamer or pop culturist knows, subtle lore is insignificant against imperative visual subtexts such as spontaneous explosions and gratuitous slow motion scraps. 
 
"Whoever wins.....we lose"

Yes, I know. The old arguments concerning story in videogames are very old indeed, grotesquely wheeled out whenever somebody inevitably questions electronic entertainment’s rightful place in the larger creative pantheon beyond base gimmicks. But for every narrative lauded, there’s a thousand lamented; a poetic truth not simply limited to videogames.

If it ain't broke.....

Hitman is the story of 47. Fleeing an isolated mental asylum, 47 assumes the titular occupation a year later as the International Contract Agency’s newest field agent, finding a staunch ally and only confidante in strait-laced handler Diana. This darkly dynamic duo stumble onto a global conspiracy orchestrated by brilliant yet immoral geneticist Ort-Meyer after several successful - and seemingly unconnected - missions. Lured back to the asylum for one last hit, 47 finally learns his true origins.

"You wanna know how I got this barcode? My father was a drinker and a fiend..."

The product of an illegal cloning program designed to create superhumanly efficient killers cultivated from DNA donated by wealthy criminal investors - the very same recently liquidated - and Ort-Meyer himself, 47’s daring escape was nothing more than a ruse to eliminate the competition as, y’know, a private clone army isn’t necessarily something you might want to part with willingly.

Self-service checkouts aren't known for their accuracy either

Rescuing captive CIA double agent Smith - a humorously incompetent recurring character often requiring 47’s assistance to the latter’s eternal chagrin - yields crucial information on Ort-Meyer’s underground hideout. There, 47 narrowly survives an ambush, killing 48 - a mind-controlled prototype - and a heavily armed squad of inferior clones. In the aftermath, Ort-Meyer briefly mistakes his former masterpiece for 48, a fatal mistake. 47 comforts “his father” before brutally snapping his neck, ending the program.

A rare outtake from the ill-advised "Should've Gone to Specsavers" post-watershed campaign, made seven years before Assassin's Creed, no less

Presumed dead, 47 resurfaces under a new identity, working as a gardener at a secluded church in the Sicilian countryside. Another asylum, except this one is presided over by one benevolent father. Aware of 47’s notorious past, Vittorio allows the repentant uberassassin to live in solitude. That is, until Vittorio is kidnapped. Exchanging hits for ICA intel, 47 discovers he has been manipulated once more into cleaning up someone else's mess. Rescuing Vittorio from mobster Zavorotko and surviving clone 17 - out for good old-fashioned revenge - 47 abandons his burgeoning pacifism, determined to forever disappear into darkness.

"Hello....."

Further Hitman instalments depict 47’s continuing pursuits as a globetrotting assassin-for-hire. ICA traitors, numerous botched attempts to replicate Ort-Meyer’s research, and Diana’s dying wish for 47 to protect Victoria - a 14-year old wunderkind similar to himself - fuel his own legend while sparking compelling intimate stories. A bizarrely satirical slow-burning social commentary exploring the seediest underworlds, 47’s targets are pantomime villain-like, but still frightfully realistic enough to prompt thoughtful questions regarding necessary evils.

He really is behind you

Sounds mad? It is, though wonderfully so. 47’s web expertly combines schlocky pseudo-science with personal themes and international espionage to cultivate a coherent specimen effective at eliciting genuine intrigue. Framed in a curiously European noir atmosphere, not unlike TV dramas The Killing and The Bridge and both Ripley’s Game film adaptations, Hitman has a rich cinematic quality predating that of its fellow Scandinavian contemporaries despite differences in medium. Subtle injections of black humour and irony provide levity, indicating that the often morose circumstances and various opportunities in which 47 can influence them are not to be taken so seriously.

Riddick can kill with a teacup, but 47 can get the job done with a crudely-made balloon animal AND still entertain the kids 

What Hitman is certainly not, is a murder simulator. It has as much to do with actual murder as dairy-free ice cream has to do with pasteurised milk. Each game and individual mission is a set of increasingly tougher puzzles nestled inside a larger conundrum - a digital Matryoshka doll, if you will. The aim is to assassinate the target(s) in any way deemed necessary and get out alive. Notice I didn’t mention keeping your cover intact, because the complex non-linear mechanics mean even a high-profile shootout is a credible option. Remaining undetected however, may as well be a completely separate campaign. Demanding patience, observation, and cunning improvisation in infiltration and setting off the series’ signature accident kills, channeling 47’s professional skillset is only for the most capable and dedicated players. Or you could just seek out an open lift hatch.

Less "Ho Ho Ho now I have a machine gun" and more "Ha Ha Ha now I'm using piano wire to exploit the environment while wearing Hans Gruber's estranged second cousins' stolen hand-me-downs" 

Begging to be a faithful live-action character-driven thriller, screen or serialised, Hitman was first adapted as a big-budget movie in 2007. As is seemingly customary in these transitions, 47's revised backstory flaunted a few odd circumstantial changes. The ICA’s self-explanatory acronym became the vague all-encompassing Organisation and Ort-Meyer’s clone program a casually distasteful orphanage. It all felt like a flagrant attempt to reach a wider audience by a cautious and confused studio ultimately frightened of missing economical targets.

Because hitting them always works

Regardless, both Hitman films are adequate action-adventure fare. Confined to unfulfilling scripts, Justified’s Timothy Olyphant and Homeland's Rupert Friend (there’s the irony I was talking about earlier) fill 47’s expensive Italian leather shoes as best they can, comfortably treading the creaky stereotypical sociopathic anti-hero boards. Underneath, Hitman’s true form lay hidden and motionless, mould sprouting from amnesiac corpse suffocated face-down in an ironic existential twist. But let’s ditch the pompous rhetoric and instead investigate the ludicrous fact that Hitman already has a established actor tailor-made to fit 47's finery. 

If you see this man, RUN. After asking for a photo and/or autograph, naturally. Though in hindsight, possessing irrefutable evidence of 47's existence is probably a bad idea

Also responsible for 47’s surreptitiously soothing tones, David Bateson portrays 47 in every main Hitman game, including the eponymous episodic reboot due next month. An incident notorious among Hitman aficionados wrought furious die-hard ire when Bateson was replaced in favour of William Mapother (Lost’s Ethan) for Hitman: Absolution. Rehiring Bateson late into production, publisher Square Enix released Mapother’s performance as complementary DLC, and rescinded charges for its much-touted Contracts mode as a grovelling apology.

To be fair, they did offer a "deluxe collectable" vinyl statue as a pre-order bonus  

All's well that end's well. Except that, Contracts mode has always been free-to-play. A popular unofficial metagame invented for kicks by bored and passionate Hitman forumites alike looking to kill time between releases, the basic idea is to set challenges based around random NPCs not considered main targets. Macabre supplement of dares and Guess Who descriptions, the imaginary briefings read as some of the most outstanding and terrifying fan fiction examples ever committed to type.

I don't remember this classic pantomime

David Bateson is not the only actor to be stung by strange casting decisions. Look at the recent Metal Gear Solid V debacle. The David Hayter one, to be precise. Synonymous with Hideo Kojima's revered stealth saga, Hayter has voiced hero and Snake Pliskin double Solid Snake and extended family in virtually every single outing. According to an unverified source (ahem*Wikipedia*ahem) Hayter apparently sacrificed half of his expected salary for Twin Snakes, a GameCube remaster of the first Metal Gear Solid, to guarantee the reinstatement of the original cast. What a guy.

Konami still didn't ask him back for MGS V. 

Technically Konami didn't ask Kojima back either, yet here he is in MGS V,  masterfully utilising the 4th wall to slyly mock their increasingly bad decisions   

Behind this unprovoked joke on voice actors named David, is a serious issue concerning the exclusion of loyal fans and employees who devote a large slice of precious time to a world holding a special place in their hearts and minds, and who don't give two damns about petty real-life contract feuds, marketing spreadsheets, and budget restrictions. They just care about the continuation of that world in a high-quality manner. Recasting of roles and reinterpretation of a series can work, but the fans, actors and series itself must be respected.

 Fans can afford to be vocal, and they can't be silenced

Keifer Sutherland is a tolerable Big Boss. Jason Statham is an hypothetically entertaining 47. But as much as I enjoyed The Transporter, it's just not quite right. Something feels off. It's almost akin to.....I don’t know, giving Mad Max a strong American accent when he’s clearly a grizzled iconic Australian export. Oh, that almost happened by the way. Just Cause developers Avalanche Studios partnered with WB Games on a fantastic, if slightly repetitive, Fury Road prequel. Only loyal road warriors stopped Max's forced localisation.

Witnessed: How fans feel

Adrian Askarieh, enterprising producer of the upcoming Just Cause film, owns the rights to several Square Enix properties including - you guessed it - Hitman. He's previously suggested that a shared universe incorporating Deus ExThief, and Tomb Raider could be on the cards if the former achieve substantial box office success. That's a fair amount of genre juggling, even by comic-book standards.

As opposed to comic-book juggling, a fair amount by genre standards

The (long-winded) point is that Hitman: Agent 47 - and all adaptations, live-action or otherwise - deserve better. What should be an enjoyable, unique experience is often a bland exploitative genre exercise in crushing reality. Cynically engineered to steal a quick buck out increasingly worn pockets, the end product is the encroaching demise of a brooding industry with the massive potential to elevate storytelling as an interactive medium. Getting the right balance of authenticity, artistic license, fanservice, and experimentation is essential. Mimicking 47’s intrinsically intertwined DNA, these tiny multiple strands must pull together to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

This isn’t an overzealous rant. It's a grievance of bad business.

And 47's is great

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