Don’t Shoot The Messenger – or why anger at Hitman: Absolution’s advertising campaigns is misplaced

Over the past day there has been a brief controversy over an advertising campaign put into play (and promptly removed from play) by Square Enix and creative agency Ralph. Much has been made of the campaign – which offered fans the opportunity to craft a virtual hit on their friends via Facebook – for encouraging cyber bullying, and in particular for its disturbing choice of said target’s identifiable features, including “shit hair”, “small tits” and “tiny penis”.*

Similarly, a long while before the game was released, IO Interactive were roundly criticised for a CG trailer released for Hitman: Absolution which showed a variety of women, all dressed up in latex nuns’ outfits, attacking Agent 47 only to be brutally executed by him, with dramatic slowdown and close-up shots of his most vicious attacks.

I’m here to say that the criticism of these two separate campaigns is misplaced. Not because the adverts were inoffensive: they patently were not. No, I say that the criticism was misplaced because these adverts were perfectly representative of the game they sought to advertise. The ever-brilliant Leigh Alexander wrote a piece in response to the more recent campaign about how she wished that marketers would start caring about the video games that they chose to represent. It was an excellent article, and relevant to a very many adverts for games – but not, I feel, this one.
No, the problem with the advertising campaigns for Hitman: Absolution stems from one source, and one source only: the nature of Hitman: Absolution itself.

Absolution, for anyone unaware, is the fifth game in the Hitman series. It has a very many faults, not least of which being its willingness to dump the brilliant, creative, experimental gameplay of the previous Hitman game – Blood Money – and replace it with an altogether more generic linear stealth experience. However, it is in its character design and presentation that the game crosses the line from being a merely disappointing title into being something truly reprehensible.

Taking on the stylings of grindhouse cinema, Absolution spins an ugly tale of selfish people in a cruel world. Which is fine, and is indeed something that other Hitmen have played with, though never putting plot quite as front and centre as Absolution. Nor is the game’s usage of overt sexuality as a signifier for targets anything new – in Blood Money outward signs of sexuality – depraved or otherwise – are frequently used to contrast the game’s villains with Agent 47’s detached, sexless perspective. So it is that you murder paedophiles, couples, newlyweds, playboys, pimps and openly gay men, amongst others. This disconnect – between the cold, emotionless 47 and his passionate, flawed targets – was an interesting one, and has received a far more in-depth and well-written analysis than I could manage by the excellent Tom Francis.

No, the problems come from Absolution’s divergence from the previous games into more cinematic territory. This comes in part from the attempt to humanise 47: suddenly the bald wonder develops an attachment to someone, an attachment that drives him through the game. This new, feeling 47 needs far more of a reason to murder his targets, and so we’re given them in the forms of even more sex and violence. As already mentioned, the previous games were filled with grotesques to kill, and nothing has changed on that front – what has changed is IO’s sudden urge not only to have you indulge in violence, but for them to start taking control of the camera more and present you with it. In an attempt to make a more cinematographic experience, we are ‘treated’ to cut-scene after cut-scene, exposition after exposition, delighting in showing us the depravities and violence that underpins the main antagonists.

Only, in doing so IO reveal a particularly unpleasant, misogynistic streak all of their own.

First, those nuns. Despite claims to the contrary pre-release, the video was highly representative of the game. The nuns (known as The Saints) do make an appearance, making up your targets over a series of missions. And, as such, we get to learn their backstories. It turns out that they are all victims of abuse at the hands of men, and have decided to get their revenge by, er, dressing up in fetish-wear and murdering people. Oh, and by referring to one another as ‘bitches’, as you do. In case you were wondering, this is a particularly ugly example of a particularly popular trope – deriving from the stereotype of the woman scorned, this is the revenge-fuelled female victim common to a very many exploitation films, and seeing it resurrected in all its glory for this game shouldn’t fill anyone with pride.

The Saints, everyone.

The Saints, everyone.

But The Saints are just the tip of a particularly ugly, misogynistic iceberg. You see, the game features a good few female characters in its cut-scenes, and maybe one of them** gets away without being subject to sexualised, fetishising presentation. There are your targets, who are uniformly sexualised by their appearance (The Saints), their subservient position (the angatonistic Agency handler’s assistant, Jade), or both (secondary antagonist Blake Dexter’s assistant Layla, over whom’s chest the game’s camera – and Blake’s gaze – likes to linger, and about whom Blake likes to make suggestive comments and… expressions. Oh, and just in case we didn’t get the message, she is voiced by famous ex-porn star Traci Lords).

The difference between the male and female villains is that the men are put in positions of power from which 47 removes them; the women are uniformly presented as subjugated characters and/or victims from the off. The only way they come off better than the men is in that we’re meant to feel sorry for them – The Saints were abused, Jade and Layla both take obvious offense to their bosses’ actions, but lack the power to stop them), which makes them even weaker as characters.

And just in case you thought it was only the villains, this crosses over to all the characters which make it into cut-scenes. Even Diana, your handler from the earliest games, is presented to you naked in a shower and then shot, because why the hell not?

Meanwhile, with one exception, the four tertiary female characters are presented in kitschy, sexualised roles: a nun, a maid and a dominatrix. Again with one exception they are reduced to victim status, being brutally murdered by antagonists on-screen for no reason beyond marking said antagonists as not-very-nice people. The dominatrix gets particularly short thrift – presented to us over maybe three cut-scenes, she never gets a speaking role, serving only to highlight one particularly antagonist’s sexual depravity, and of all the victims is the most inexplicable in her murder – while the other characters are at least murdered in situ (during a kidnapping, and in an attempt to frame 47), the dominatrix is brought from a completely separate character’s domain, disguised, and then executed for no reason other than to shock.

There is one remaining tertiary character who, as stated, is the exception to the rule, but even she can’t avoid sexualisation: the daughter of a gun store owner whose gun-slinging you’re encouraged to beat, she is of course attired in the smallest halter top imaginable. Still, by Absolution’s standards she is a positively progressive character, as the developers managed to resist the urge to have her senselessly killed. So that’s something.

The closest Absolution comes to a reasonably presented female character.

The closest Absolution comes to a reasonably presented female character.

So, no, I don’t think taking the game’s advertising to task is the answer here. I believe that Hitman: Absolution has managed to get exactly the advertising it deserves, advertising which suitably reflects its ugly, misogynistic perspective. What better for a game which shows us that women only exist to be sexualised and victimised than an advertising campaign which encourages you to have women with “small tits” assassinated? What could be more suitable for a game which so gleefully juxtaposes sex and violence than a sequence showing the protagonist brutally murdering a group of women in latex outfits? Bravo to the advertising campaigns, say I: at least they offer prospective purchasers an accurate insight into the minds of the developers before handing them their money.

*as a brief aside – interesting how the developers were happy to use a common colloquialism for breasts, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to do the same for the male member, no?
**the girl you seek to protect, whose victim status can at least be put down to her age rather than her gender


1 Response to “Don’t Shoot The Messenger – or why anger at Hitman: Absolution’s advertising campaigns is misplaced”

  1. 1 Hitman marketing zet zichzelf weer voor paal - Gamestalker Trackback on 05/12/2012 at 2:01 pm

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