The Hitman series is famous for its Rube Goldberg-style assassination plots, and is sold as a cold and calculating murder game, but most of my time spent in Hitman 3 has been with my heart in my mouth, which I mean in all the best ways.
Newer readers may not be aware of this, but I am on record as being an enormous coward. I hate adrenaline. Hate horror games especially, but also any kind of jump-scare, or even underwater sequences with sharks. Throw all of that in the bin. The endorphins you’re supposed to be hit with after this kind of fear never arrive for me, leaving only the bad stuff before and during, so no thank you.
Hitman is kind of like this, but also not in the most important ways. It’s designed to elicit excitement but not a scare. It’s a thrill, one seemingly programmed to make me feel actual feelings, not video game feelings, and I love almost every second spent playing it.
Allow me to explain. Video games are a deeply derivative artform, especially at this more expensive end of the market. They’re often content to simply be influenced by other games and walk a well-worn path, which is one of the main reasons your experiences playing games are so similar, and why it’s so easy to compare one to another. A shooter is a shooter is a shooter. Driving is driving. A game about a sad dad is another game about a sad dad.
Usually, when I play a game and “feel” something, it’s like I’m talking to the game over messages, or in a chatroom. I might say “lol” but I am not laughing out loud. I might go, “Huh, that was sad,” but I am not crying, not like I did during that part in Onward, or any time I try and make it through the last episode of Band of Brothers.
I’m usually feeling a video game feeling, which registers as more oh a “huh” as I shrug and keep on doing what I’ve been doing. Snap up the sights, pull the trigger, repeat.
Not Hitman, though. I am feeling this shit. By plugging into memories of childhood games (bear with me) and other important human experiences, it’s using memory and impulse to trigger a response while I’m playing that gets me going like nothing else.
Think about it: what are you spending most of your time doing in Hitman? You’re playing dress-up (after dumping someone’s body in a hamper and stealing their clothes). You’re playing hide-and-seek (as you blend into crowds getting ready to choke someone to death). You’re even playing tag (legging it from guards after being discovered trying to choke someone to death).
These aren’t abstract actions that a game is simply doing its best to simulate, things I’ve never done and will never do, like fly a jet, or jump over spike-filled chasms. We can relate to the sensations and emotions of playing these games, on a primal level, because we all played games on the playground and we can all remember what it was like.
There are other juvenile emotions being stirred here as well. You’re sneaking into places you don’t belong, only now it’s a Chinese lab instead of an R-rated movie, and swiping stolen cards, only instead of buying underage beers you’re getting access to confidential files.
So the things I’m doing in Hitman don’t pull at those ho-hum video game feelings. It tugs harder, and elicits a response that’s based as much on my memories of real-world excitement as what I’m actually doing on the screen.
These aren’t just things some/most of us did as kids or teenagers or might still do now (I’m not judging you), they’re sometimes memories of doing the wrong thing, breaking the rules. Only in Hitman we get to act that stuff out for the fun of it, complete with the rush, with none of the consequences.
I honestly can’t think of another game that is like this.
Loads of games do parts of what Hitman does. Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed come to mind, as does Dishonored. Deus Ex as well. And Among Us, which is built around a very similar premise—being a video game based on an actual real-life game, Mafia—maybe comes closest of all. But nothing else manages to pack all of Hitman’s exhilarations together. Whenever it gets exciting, I’m getting the same nerve-tingling, heart-racing rush I get from playing actual games outside with humans, or doing the wrong thing while knowing it, and it’s wonderful. As though the game has broken through some kind of neural glass ceiling and found a way to make my actions resonate on a whole other level.
Hitman 3, like its immediate predecessors, is just full of these moments. I’ve never been to a rave in Germany, or a fancy gathering in Dubai, or a vineyard! OK, I’ve been to a vineyard, but never disguised myself as someone else so I can crush a woman to death in a grape press. These are places I shouldn’t be, and don’t belong, either as myself or the character—but I am, and nobody notices while I do all kinds of tricky shit, and it’s just so exciting.
Doubly so since the whole point of all this heightened blood pressure is the immense satisfaction of a job well done afterwards. I never get that in horror games because I know there’s always more horror in store. Here, tension will ratchet up, but also at several points blow off in the most exhilarating way (no further questions or metaphors for this, please).
I have no idea if this is intentional—since the series is now so old and has iterated over time, maybe not—but that’s how the game resonates with me, and that’s what has made the last three games so special.