There's an old adage that tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. Tragedy falls into more easily definable universal truths. We all grieve more or less the same things: the death of a loved one, abandonment, the deterioration of one's mind and body. Simply show a dog growing old waiting for its master never to return and watch the waterworks flow! But comedy? That's a tricky one as humour is entirely subjective. And even when the content is clever, the delivery of a gag could see the humour fly or flounder. Pause for a half second too long or talk a little too quick and you'll botch the punchline. It's all in the execution.
As such, it makes sense that probably the funniest game I've ever played is about execution, literally. Indeed, Io Interactive's recent Hitman reboot is all about assassinating people. It's not exactly the most lighthearted topic, but the developer delivers this morbid premise in such a comical way that its grim subject matter only enhances its ludicrous follies by contrast.
What's strange about Hitman's tone is that it doesn't outwardly present itself as a comedy. The lavish CGI cutscenes laden with expensive-looking facial animations are delivered with the same sort of straight-laced machismo as a Tom Clancy title, and at a glance Hitman appears to be about a generic brooding monotone badass slaying corrupt corporate boogeymen. On the surface, this stuff is trashy at best and banal at worst.
But that's just the setup. The buildup to the glorious punchline. The po-faced basic cable genre underpinnings are there to lull you into thinking you're a very serious man doing very serious things. And then the game really begins.
It's here that the developer's twisted sense of humour starts to shine through. Roaming each of Hitman's seven maps, you'll come across reams of NPCs talking about patently ridiculous things. There's a plastic surgery patient whose face is wrapped in bandages as he boasts about his resemblance to Darkman, another guy vents his frustrations about constructing an IKEA chair, and a physical trainer gives a ludicrous shoutout to Gone Home creator and Hitman superfan Steve Gaynor. (Who apparently knows how to do a push-up and wears fancy suits. Or sometimes just a bathing suit.)
These silly interludes are entertaining to listen to, but on their own they never emitted anything more than a half-hearted chuckle in me. Just a pleasant smirk that hey, the people making this game were having fun with it by dropping in silly non-sequiturs. It adds a human element that reminds you that games, even big budget games like Hitman, are made by people.
But that's not what makes Hitman particularly funny. Not by a longshot. No, Hitman's biggest laughs don't come from scripted jokes, but from the unscripted chaos that will no doubt ensue as you botch your objective.
The game's AI is just plain screwy. Of course it is, with a scope as grandiose as Hitman's levels. Character patrol down a path, repeat conversations on a loop, and become suspicious at the most mundane of things. Step into a shop you're not welcome at and patrons will panic, but skulk around a public place crouching and no one bats an eye.
These scripturally challenged AIs don't make the game too easy, but rather provide props for your one-man improv show. The way people react (or sometimes don't react) to you is comically absurd. They can watch you kill a person in cold blood, run into the bathroom, and emerge again a few seconds later in a new outfit and think nothing of it. They can repeatedly chase coins you toss towards them. They can become suspicious of you clearly poisoning someone's drink, but then lose interest in the whole affair because you turned a corner and who wants to bother following up with that?
But my favourite reactions, by far, are the ones where you're spotted. Their insane responses to seeing a man drag a body around are delivered with such unnatural overzealousness that it's woefully absurd. "What did these people do to deserve your blunt violence?" one witness excitedly proclaims (yes, proclaims) upon seeing a complete stranger just smack a guy upside the head before dragging his unconscious body off through the crowded street. Other delightfully exaggerated witness barks include "What the? You sick bastard! You killed him!", "That was pure evil! You are the evil incarnate!", and "Hey, you can't do whatever you'd like to a cadaver. There are laws, ya know."
And it's not just the dialogue, either. The weird physical reactions people have to this are outstandingly bonkers. As seen in the video above, a cop drew his gun on me as I dragged a body through the crowded streets of Sapienza, but he somehow lost sight of me, despite the fact that I was moving at a snail's pace and he just had a clear line of sight.
The game also gets some comedic mileage out of its ridiculous definitions for what counts as making it look like an accident. Blow someone up with an explosive device and it's considered murder. But set the device next to a fire extinguisher and suddenly it's a mishap in the eyes of any witnesses (pro-tip: murders witnessed and bodies found from "accident kills" don't count against you). Amazingly, it doesn't matter how many people see you carrying an unconscious body, so long as your victim meets their maker by falling off a ledge it's considered an act of god. Naturally, this leads to very amusing moments of chaos.
And chaos is what Hitman excels at. Its cities and hotels typically run like clockwork, but you're in there, messing up the gears and watching the mayhem spin out of control.
In the world of improv comedy you're always supposed to think "Yes, and?" to anyone's suggestion. Hitman, particularly in its Escalation and Elusive Contracts wherein you can't save, forces you to deal with any improbable circumstance with "Yes, and?" Your disguise has been compromised? Yes, and? Four people saw you murder that guy? Yes, and? You shot the chandelier down over your target, but it missed and took out his henchmen and now they're all on high alert? Yes, and? The humour can't be planned, but rather results organically as one takes on increasingly exasperating legwork in a desperate bid for control.
The slick, bald Agent 47 may be portrayed as a cold and calculating character, but that only adds to his appeal when he frequently fails to live up to his perfectionist reputation. When we think of comedy in games we think witty dialogue and goofy visual gags, but Hitman keeps these quirks on the periphery. It's the wide berth of kooky scenarios where the limited AI scripts, hammy voice acting, knowingly off-kilter dialogue, and canned animations converge that make Hitman such a gut-busting experience. Agent 47 may not be much of a storyteller himself, but he sure knows how to deliver a killer joke.