“Splitting Sides,” by Ed Smith

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It’s often counterintuitive and jarring, trying to extrapolate precisely why comedy—in a film, a game, or even a single joke—works. Once you begin dissecting why something is funny, you not only strip it of its power, turn it from something that’s emotive and sensorial into something practical and banal, but start sounding like you’re the wrong kind of person to appreciate humour in the first place. As a general rule, things aren’t funny owing to some schematic or design; things are funny just because they are. Why I think the humour in Hitman 2 is worth disassembling is because the entire Hitman series has often been described as “funny,” without that funniness ever truly being defined, and the nature of the game itself, whereby you observe, investigate, and forensically discern how best to assassinate your target engenders and rewards an analytical mindset. Hitman takes something primal and dramatic—murder—and asks that you regard it as a logic puzzle. It feels right, or at least not as incongruous as if you were discussing a stand-up routine or a cartoon or a doctor, doctor joke, or something, to try and work out exactly the ways that this game generates laughter.

Throughout Hitman, and Hitman 2 specifically, there are two major running gags. The first is Agent 47 himself. From its elaborate and demanding mechanics (enter an off-limits area disguised as a cop, but carrying a machine-gun rather than a government-issue pistol and you’re likely to be discovered) to its cold, orchestral score almost everything about Hitman 2 connotes precision, and 47 is precision’s embodiment. Hairless, tautly-muscled, immaculately-dressed, and bearing a permanent, stoic facial expression that doesn’t alter even when he’s in the middle of strangling or drowning or poisoning somebody, 47 is an incredibly serious character. He doesn’t quip. He doesn’t boast. He doesn’t improvise, or signal to the audience, like a Nathan Drake or a Max Payne, that he’s laughably, charmingly out of his depth. He’s genetically-engineered to be the most efficient killer in the world, and regarded in international criminal circles as an invincible, implacable kind of spectre, executing inhuman feats of cunning and violence before returning to the shadows. But he’s also, almost literally at times, a clown. From disguising himself as a giant, neon pink motor-racing mascot to infiltrating a cosy Vermont suburb (or, an even stronger example, from Hitman: Contracts, a BDSM-themed orgy) in order to reach and kill his targets 47 is constantly being required to do things that are contrary to his stolid persona. He’s a perpetual fish out of water, or rather, the ultimate straight man. Like when Jim Halpert glances at the camera with a surprised, shocked or despondent look on his face, every time we see 47’s stern visage, the absurdity of the world around him— screaming crowds, vulgar mansions and hotels, arch villains—is heightened by comparison. Like Hardy to his environments’ Laurel, he looks like he’s trying to be serious, and remain calm and in control, but the stupidity of people surrounding him, who throw luxurious parties and berate their subordinates without realising what idiots it makes them look, before going and standing alone on a balcony, ten floors up, with their backs to the only door,  forces him to lose his temper. The violence in Hitman 2 becomes frustrated, slapstick retribution, complete with frying pans, bunches of flowers, and wet fish as weapons; as 47 grimly observes the hedonistic world around him, and the imbeciles which occupy it, you can almost see him thinking “here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Which helps explain, kind of tee up, Hitman 2’s second big joke. Millionaires, diplomats, socialites: throughout the game, 47’s list of targets is a retinue of financially, even legally impervious power figures, people who through either good fortune or Machiavellian triple-dealings have insulated themselves from reality’s harshness. They’re respected and feared, the kind of people who—in one instance Sierra Knox, the wealthy owner of the racing team—hire thugs to beat and disfigure their ex-boyfriend’s new beau, in order to enjoy revenge and maintain their power and intimidation. And then they get killed by an exploding rubber duck, or a giant fan that blows them off a roof during a photoshoot, or pushed down a hole by a man dressed as the aforementioned neon pink bird mascot. In 2002, the British and American press both got significant traction out of a story that then-President George Bush Jr. had accidentally choked on a pretzel; similarly, we all of us had a good laugh when he struggled to open a door exiting a news conference, and when—not unlike a moment from Hitman 2, which allows you to knock people out by hurling at them day-to-day objects—someone threw a shoe at him. Bush is the obvious, superlative example, but pretty much regardless of when it happens, there is something intrinsically funny, gratifying, about seeing the ostensibly domineering glitter- and illuminati being made to look like chumps; like imagining everyone in the audience is in their underwear when you’re giving a speech, when someone looks foolish it strips them of their power, and their attempts to disguise, using money and influence, the fact they’re really just clumsy, fallible humans become laughable.

Viewed through that lens, Hitman 2 is a satire of power and the powerful, taking characters who act like they’re above and can dictate everything and showing them defeated by contrivances they could never expect. It turns their implied God complex against them; the more omnipotent they believe themselves to be, the more undermined and ridiculous they look when the world conspires against them, when a loosed fitting in a plug strip, used to power the outdoor heaters at their ostentatious fashion show, electrifies a puddle, which they step in on their way to humiliate a waiter, and fries them in front of the photographers they hired. Like the classic prop gag, the guy kneeling, with both knees, on the plank of wood that he’s sawing through, it’s funny because the closer the targets think they’re getting to what they want—the more convinced they are they’re doing things right—the closer they get to their own doom. It’s funny because they don’t see it coming.

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Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.