This week on The Ringer, we’re hosting the Best Video Game Character Bracket—an expansive competition between the greatest heroes, sidekicks, and villains of the gaming world. And along with delving into some of those iconic figures, we’ll also explore and celebrate the gaming industry as a whole. Welcome to Video Game Week.
Right before a plot-accelerating melee in the 2007 Hitman movie, which people generally disliked, there are four bald men, dressed to code, in an abandoned subway car. One of them, the one with the illicit beauty mark and half a train conductor disguise, briefly de-escalates the standoff with a suggestion—“How about dying with a little dignity?” Everyone lowers their standard-issue silenced pistols, nodding in agreement. They then draw their standard-issue short swords, which were tightly concealed beneath European vents.
Because simply shooting everyone would’ve been in poor taste (and alerted too many people, and been impossible), Timothy Olyphant’s Agent 47 makes longer, more complicated work of his soon-to-be-late colleagues, each of them with the same conspicuous bar code on their cleanly shaved heads. He bundles the evidence into a wooden supply box that’s just the right size for three bodies and rivets the makeshift coffin closed with a nail gun. (Both items were right there for some reason.) The cartoon violence is the point, but it’s also funny to be reminded throughout the movie of why it’s happening—there’s been a botched hit on a Russian president that had become too moderate, and in the cover-up, which is actually an attempted coup, Agent 47 is disavowed. He kills a literal score of weapons-trade-rich assholes, politicians, and their poorly trained button men, not because it will clear his name, but because he’s a perfectionist. And maybe because he likes it.
The subway car showdown is a loose variation on “Meet Your Brother,” the final level in 2000’s Hitman: Codename 47, in which you must return to your birthplace, “the Asylum,” to eliminate a host of your own murderous clone-brothers by any available means. But I wouldn’t say the Hitman video game series is defined by violent expediency. There is ample opportunity for clubbing maintenance men with hammers and strangling distracted guards with fiberwire, but much of the franchise, which spans eight major console entries beginning with Codename 47, involves walking, listening, and waiting.
You are Agent 47, a genetically modified super-assassin who fills a waistcoat quite nicely, but not so well that anyone would tell a friend about it. This comes in handy when you need to assume a disguise, stand behind a bar, and “press ‘triangle’ to blend in.” I always thought Olyphant was a good pick for the role—you can see the roots of his swaggery U.S. marshal gait in 47’s disaffected shuffle, which is deliberate but not smooth. He could be anyone because he’s had practice. 47 is an odd case: He kills people, and he’s quietly repulsive, but you wouldn’t say he’s a bad person. He grooms himself to keep his bar code tattoo, the detail that could make him in any lineup, plainly visible. He has five of the same jacket, and he entertains the idea of a romantic relationship with a sex worker (Olga Kurylenko). Such is the stock-ness of his voice and expressions that he can take meetings as clients that his prey have already met in person. He has a kind of un-charisma that simultaneously commands respect and allows him to commit to the bit.
And these are the most rewarding parts of the Hitman games. The quirky parts that reveal themselves only through prodding, repetition, and failure. (The explosions of wanton, narrative-driven violence aren’t terrible or boring, either.) If I were trying to convince an impatient gamer like myself to play the recently released Hitman III, first, I would omit that it’s the third and final installment in the World Assassination Trilogy. It would take too long to explain what that means. The first cinematic introduces Lucas Grey, the Shadow Client, who tells a grave story of betrayal and revenge: He and 47 have diligently carried out a number of hits for an organization called Providence, headed by a shadow kingpin named the Constant, who recently decided Grey and 47 were inconvenient and expendable. Every Hitman game follows a familiar set of beats: There’s a seemingly random string of jobs, the revelation that these jobs were orchestrated by a single agent of chaos, and then the bloody trail to absolution. The stakes in Hitman III are like they were in the 2007 movie—high, and kind of unimportant to the overall experience. Although, fully surrendering to Hitman is the only way to play it.
Take, for instance, a recent, widely circulated video of a speed runner completing “On Top of the World,” the first mission in IO Interactive’s Hitman III, by sniping both targets in nine seconds. There’s no way a novice could—by chance—time the loops of Marcus Stuyvesant and Carl Ingram to when both stood across from each other on opposing balconies, presenting clean looks at their foreheads. You would have to have attempted the level dozens of times, perhaps completing the route to Ingram that involves impersonating an arms dealer and then silencing a journalist, or the one that gets you alone with Stuyvesant and necessitates swiping detail orders to replace a bodyguard (and learning how to throw a scimitar), to know that the paths of the two “Washington kingmakers” can even cross.
While the game’s six levels don’t add up to $60 worth of narrative arc, each is its own pocket universe, providing hours of exploration. Rather than an action game that prefers puzzles, Hitman is a survival sim set in some of the swankiest and most heavily guarded places in the world. You are the most dangerous person in any room, and yet, each room is adapted, with staff-only entrances and restricted access areas, to resist you. My first few runs of “On Top of the World” ended in shoot-outs, or arrests—I found greater satisfaction in getting my hands on a key access card, or finally gaining entrance to the VIP area, than I did in killing anyone, which typically meant things weren’t going my way.
It’s difficult to resist the urge to “save scum,” to save the game just after completing an objective but before you mess up again, when playing Hitman. But that is not how you fully surrender to it—it’s better to think in terms of “runs,” where your failure becomes expertise, than “saves,” which fill you with maddening hesitation and get in the way of appreciating IO Interactive’s intricate level design. The Dubai level takes place at the grand opening of the tallest skyscraper on the planet. The Dartmoor level, wherein you attend a sham funeral for Alexa Carlisle, one of the game’s many hateable warrior-aristocrats “whose great grandfather made a killing in the second opium war,” has been hailed as one of the series’ most innovative. You wander a pristine prewar manor as a private investigator, playing a game of Clue that gets you ever closer to your prey.
My personal favorite is Berlin—by this point in the story, much like Olyphant in the subway car, you have no friends in the world, and your family has been sent to kill you. Club Holle is an abandoned nuclear facility in the woods full of dancing dads, and you must winnow out five of a possible 10 unknown targets at a warehouse party, the old fashioned way. By jamming comms, walking around, and seeing what weapons and potential pratfalls you have at your disposal. As I play, I have my pistol and garrote, but there’s also a food delivery being made to a biker gang, a grow op I can sabotage, a DJ I can mess with, and, on the far wall, a way station with blenders and fruit and men in strange pink uniforms. Eventually, somehow, I’ll kill all my fellow agents and hide the bodies in conveniently sized supply boxes. But first I’d really like to see if I can poison one of them at the juice bar.