Cool, sharply dressed, and seamless in the execution of his duties, Agent 47 is the hero (make that anti-hero) of the Hitman franchise. He’s a first-class assassin, he’s also gaming’s most effective time traveller—although he may not know it.
The Hitman: World of Assassination trilogy is made for a conversation about time. Specifically, that time means nothing. And without time, there are no consequences, and with no consequences, comes some very messy fun. The dual save-slot mechanism eliminates the concept of time, whether used to gratefully exploit the auto-save or meticulously plan and execute challenges by making tiny changes. This do-over mechanism actively encourages taking risks; why not send our agent in a cute new outfit running through a crowd brandishing a machete, if anyone notices, he can chop up a few NPCs for kicks then restart and opt for that safer rooftop climb. 47 never respawns as such; he just magically appears at an earlier point, very timey-wimey. Not emotive at the best of times, 47 is also possibly ignorant of his time travelling abilities. He never acknowledges nor questions how he comes across additional knowledge and items pilfered from locked rooms he has never been in or from corpses now running around and very much alive.
All the Hitman games seem to be set in our world, although when in time exactly is up for debate. There are laptops, dongles, soda machines, crowbars, and a real emphasis on uniforms—the hallmarks of the late 20th century—but then there are mind-control drugs, complex AI, and heat-seeking weaponry, which mark the games as set in our near future. Interesting.
Agent 47 is also essentially human, albeit an enhanced superhuman, so how is he moving back and forwards? Perhaps his mind is being wiped by his handler Diana Burnwood? Even during practice levels, Burnwood casually states that 47 can murder any number of looping randoms and she barely gives more than an “Oh dear” when a target is offed in an unappetising manner. However, applying current themes to explain 47’s time travel would suggest that this world is all just a simulation, like Ender’s Game. The simulation argument would explain a few things, like we never see 47 travel across the globe. Does he have a passport or does immigration merely scan the back of his head and politely move him along? Maybe, like a true time-traveller (or X-Men’s Nightcrawler), 47 only needs to imagine where he needs to go next before miraculously arriving there. And it would definitely explain that no consequences for murder thing…
Yet something doesn’t quite ring true about this idea. The many locations 47 visits feel lived in and real, full of family melodrama, bake sales, work complaints, and illicit romance. NPCs gossip constantly (an innately human trait, and a bit pointless in a simulation designed to test methods of killing), many of them even pathetically mumbling “I have a family” before they are pacified, as if that would somehow change 47’s mind about thwacking them with a wrench.
Developer IO knows 47 is a time traveller even if he doesn’t, otherwise how can he be made a versatile assassin, which requires targets to be murdered in multiple different ways? That can only happen if 47 is permitted to go back to an earlier point in time when a target is very much alive and use a different method (fire axe, anyone?). 47 applies the same diligence to garrotting, drowning, or pushing a toilet onto a target, as if he’s doing it for the first time, or maybe he just disassociates—just another day at the office. But people do mean something to 47.
I should mention how Agent 47 personally took me on a jaunt across space and time. I came to the World of Assassination trilogy late with Hitman 3 on PS4. The dynamic played out between 47 and Burnwood was as riveting as the missions; Diana’s silky vocals guiding 47 through multiple mazes of murder mayhem. Hitman 3 has everything: brutality, secrets, resolution, and a compelling narrative which pits 47 and Burnwood against one another, when it reveals that our friendly neighbourhood assassin had murdered Diana’s parents. After completion, intrigued by how these two became such a tight unit, I played the games in reverse order, racing through Hitman 2 and then arriving at the beginning—Hitman—at my journey’s end, both on PS5. Each new game had me feeling a little bit more like 47, gleaning information that helped made sense of the world, yet continuing to piece together the who, the what, and the why. I guess a lot of death could have been avoided if 47 had the information I had—oh well.
The only stressful moment of playing backwards was getting into Patient Zero (a Hitman 1 DLC campaign about an infectious pandemic) this year—someone should have shown this to the world’s governments back in 2017! Working backwards cemented the idea that our hitman, just like James Bond, is truly a man out of time. I already had the knowledge of who was behind evil corporations like Providence and the ICA without having to crack any safes, so I could just sit back and enjoy the pointless yet satisfyingly tidy nature of 47’s work.
So, if time means nothing, how are there still consequences for 47? IO anchors the lead with matters that transcend time: a thorny discussion on morality. For example, 47 is never permitted to be a straight shooter—the moral panic that arises when he walks up and headshots a target in a crowd is tangible and theatrical. Who knew point-blank murder was a bad thing?! Ethics are effectively the stakes of the game; 47 is rewarded with more points if he remembers not to kill innocents or draw attention to himself. There’s also a huge emphasis on hiding people in cupboards. This encourages 47 to be quicker and more efficient in his duties. But does Hitman really save lives, or does every death iteration create a new multiverse? Suddenly all those roguelikes feel a lot more honest than these games. Similarly, there’s no need for stealth unless actions matter. But IO encourages rinse and repeat at the click of a controller. Even if 47 gets to forget the terrible things he did to get that keycard, the players know, and time cannot erase that knowledge.
The World of Assassination trilogy provides a non-traditional approach to time travel in games, isolating world events to paradoxes allowing our hitman to work through slaughter snow globes. My own working backwards through the trilogy gave me a tiny insight into what time travel is like. And I liked it. Who knows where Agent 47 will turn up next? Does he even know?