So. HITMAN: ABSOLUTION, a game where you play a bald man in a suit for hire who finds creative and preferably discreet ways of murdering people. I admit it, it’s kind of fun, this sociopathy simulator, scouring an environment to find ways to bump off a specific target rather than run in guns blazing. Poisoning, accidents involving architecture, garroting, stabbings, blunt objects to the head… I even choose to choke into unconsciousness guards who aren’t targets because hey, I discriminate. In fact, between playing DISHONORED and HITMAN: ABSOLUTION, I’ve probably (virtually) choked out more people in the last few weeks than most people have in their entire lives, to the point where a friend offered to introduce me to some real-life women who like being choked out.
“How do you know women who like to be choked out?”
“I’d rather not say.”
I turned down his offer. I prefer women who don’t equate Sex with Death, but anyway, this actually segues into the creepy subtext in HITMAN: ABSOLUTION.
In spite of the gameplay mechanics, HITMAN: ABSOLUTION’s plot is incredibly sleazy, and, I suspect, not in ways the developers intended. The subtext seems to be sexual repression.
You could argue that the plot is pulp fiction, so a certain amount of sleaze is to be expected, but the way it uses and portrays women is deeply problematic. The plot has Agent 47 assigned to kill his former handler, whom he might love, but he agrees to her last request to protect a teenage girl she rescued from the experiments that made him a perfect assassin. He goes rogue to rescue the girl from both his own agency and an arms dealer, who both send killers after him, including a gang of former prostitutes now working as hired killers dressed in latex nun outfits. Read that plot summary again.
The fear of women and female sexuality is all over the dialogue and visual imagery all over the game. Now actual sex takes place in the game but the plot is dripping with it, and it’s practically all deviant and unpleasant sex being brought up. Overheard dialogue by background characters is full of references to sex. Evil men are heard talking about wanting sex. One character’s corruption is signposted by his love of getting tied up and whipped by a dominatrix. Agent 47 shoots his former handler while she’s taking a shower and the story keeps flashing back to her dying naked body (with the naughty bits conveniently covered up by the shower curtain). The teenage girl is a McGuffin and basically a prize being fought over by the hero and the bad guys. No pulp thriller would be complete without strippers, of course. Let’s not forget the gun and the knife are phallic symbols, used to penetrate fragile bodies to kill them rather than give life. Then of course there’s the latex nun assassins.
We’ve already seen the outcry against the trailer that was released over the summer where Agent 47 bloodily and violently killed the nuns when they attack him at a motel, making it the most misogynist trailer for anything to come along lately. The argument was split between those people who pointed out this kind of attitude was not socially acceptable and those who cried “Political Correctness police” and that it was only fun and games and nothing more. The latter tended to be unanimously men. A few weeks ago, Forbes magazine even showed the trailer to a former stripper for her thoughts, and she immediately pointed out that it felt misogynist.
I don’t want to knock the developers, since a game as big as this one requires literally years, thousands of hours of manpower to get right. Technically they knew what they were doing and it feels like they didn’t quite know what they were saying. It feels like we’re watching the writers’ own hang-ups more than they planned. It’s very obvious that the game was made by a male-dominated team, since there’s no sense of any woman’s input in the story or the imagery. It feels like the story and images were made in a kind of gender politics vacuum, especially when you read recent interviews where the developers reacted to the backlash against that trailer. They seemed genuinely surprised that punters would actually find any of those details offensive or socially unacceptable, and swore they weren’t out to get publicity by deliberately being provocative or offensive. They probably thought the latex nun assassins were an edgy, cool image without considering the connotations of sexual fear and religious guilt that the costume signifies. I think it was Charlie Brooker, himself outraged and disgusted by the misogyny of the trailer, who mused that the result felt like a bunch of kids caught masturbating to horrible imagery and finally being told this stuff was just not on. The devs went back and tried to revise the script, having someone remark that the latex nun assassins were former prostitutes who were victims of abuse and who decided to go become killers-for-hire. This revision actually makes things even worse, showing a complete lack of understanding of gender and politics. It feels tacked on, like they just put in something they overheard from an awareness workshop. It expresses even more male guilt, shame and fear of women. I find this all amazingly revealing.
And it’s kind of a shame, since it is a very good game with fantastic level design, graphics, innovation in AI programming and mechanics, full of surreal in-jokes and absurd comedy. However, the creepy sexist feels completely different and separate from all that. This subtext of sexual repression feels like an expression of the creators’ own sexual repression rather than an insight or statement on the subject matter. Even the hero might be a symbol of sexual repression gone horribly wrong: the never-smiling Agent 47 never has sex and it’s almost like his suppressed libido has been sublimated and channeled into acts of meticulously-planned and executed murders. A scowling psychopath whose best way of expressing himself is through shooting, stabbing and garroting. He obeys an order to murder the woman he might love (but is so repressed he never admits it), which turns out ot be unnecessary since deciding to protect her and the teenage girl would have had him hunted by his bosses anyway. Instead, the story needed him to feel guilty about killing her. She and her killer are no more than plot devices to give the hero feelings he wouldn’t have expressed while she was alive. There no positive representations of sexuality in the story, but it could be argued that this is the point, that the world of the Hitman is an ugly one that’s rubbed in our faces, yet it still wants us to laugh and revel in the comedy and satirical bits. Both the game story and its hero check off way too many boxes in a Freudian psychiatric checklist. I’m sure the developers never intended for any of this
This lack of awareness is what gets people into trouble but I think really ends up performing a valuable public service. 2012 seems to be the year where sexism has been called out in the general culture. Republican candidates made crass apologies and justifications for rape as part of their campaigns and ended up losing their seats in government, proof once and for all that the rapist demographic is not one that can keep politicians in office. The developers of the new TOMB RAIDER game are still trying to put out the fire from saying that they wanted the player to want to protect Lara Croft from rape, now trotting out the game’s writer Rihanna Pratchett, a woman, to assure people that they’re really trying to be feminist. I wonder why they didn’t just have her be the one to be interviewed to promote the game in the first place rather than a clueless male dev. Then there was the developer from Gearbox calling a more user-friendly character “girlfriend mode”. I find it comical that games developers can still put their feet in their mouths and say sexist things that get them and the companies in trouble. There’s the outpouring of misogyny in comics and games fandom with the “fake nerd girl” debate exposing how many male fans still fear women as more and more women are publicly declaring themselves fans as well. And of course there’s the trailer for HITMAN: ABSOLUTION. It’s like the sexism that was always brewing away in the culture has finally erupted onto the surface for everyone to see. It might be surprising that these types of attitudes are still so prevalent in the 21st Century, where the Future is supposed to be taking place. I think it’s actually good that these people are saying these things in public so that everyone can declare it is not okay. That is how we learn and that is how things change.
If there’s anything writers, artists and creators might learn from all this, it’s that it’s best to be aware of the politics of story and symbols, and be aware of one’s own feelings in the social context. I’ve come to believe that when you declare your work has no politics but flirts with political subjects and imagery, you’ll end up inadvertently pushing the most reactionary and unacceptable views by default, and no creator ever wants the real meaning of their work to run away from them to end up in uncharted and unpleasant waters.
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