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Hitman and the joy of playing it wrong

Hit and miss.

Hitman is a series of some wonder. It has been since its inception in 2000, and the latest instalment (helpfully differentiated as Hitmanᵀᴹ) is a hugely welcome return to form. Despite its focus on methodical professionalism and minimal exposure, the series has always been surprisingly lenient with allowing you to play it wrong. We've all done it; a Silent Assassin attempt goes awry and instead of rage-quitting, something snaps and we start getting even. Running around with guns blazing, innocents fleeing in panic while security piles in. It becomes a fight against the odds, an endurance challenge where luck is as important as skill. In one glorious fumble you go from elite professional to deranged mass-murderer.

Whenever the game does descend into misanthropic carnage, I always have one place in mind. My Agent 47 invariably runs a trail of destruction all the way to the nearest toilet. Any old hand knows that a loo is often the best place to stick it out if they want to emerge victorious.

You may well have seen a gif or two showing the possibilities of murder in Hitman's lavatories, but it's impossible to underestimate the defensibility of most toilets in the Hitman universe. The AI's inability to cope with the situation helps a lot, but really it's just about camping in a dead end so you only have a single doorway to worry about. It just so happens that video game toilets are really good at providing this kind of space, and Hitman's are second to none. The Paris level that forms the bed of this new episodic Hitman has occupiable wardrobes inside most toilets, which is some kind of stealth gaming nirvana for cheap players, allowing you to hide inside a hiding place inside your hiding place - Hitmanception.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

The Sapienza of the second episode, sadly, bucks the trend with a mansion in which the toilets are deadly. They have vulnerable windows or two entrances, rendering them useless for a post-massacre siege. But Sapienza's mansion does have some nifty bottlenecks here and there, not to mention lots of flats in town where clumsy 47s can live out Leon-esque sieges (from some great toilets, by the way). Nonetheless, in the Hitman world you can commit astonishing crimes against virtual humanity, completely ignore the Hitman code of honour and yet escape alive with the mission complete.

In fact, it can be tactically expedient to kill a security guard and hop into a loo at the earliest opportunity and spend 20 minutes killing baddies so you can take a leisurely wander around the map to poke and prod its machinery. After all, you'll be walking out with plenty of weaponry and a selection of outfits to choose from. Brilliantly, this approach has worked since the very first Hitman, to the point where it's a become pretty standard playstyle if I'm tackling tricky levels. There's also using the toilet defence as part of the game's hardest challenge; run to the target using the most direct route, ignore all security, kill the target brazenly and then see if you can escape. The anti-SAS, if you will. Trust me - it's surprisingly difficult to pull off and will get your heart pumping, but it is possible for most single-map missions in most Hitman games.

In a way, this kind of rampage and AI-cheesing is its own flavour of gaming slapstick. There is a comedy that comes from the expectation of physical pain for the hapless security staff and the collapse of social norms, just as you'd find in non-gaming slapstick. But there's also comedy that comes from contravening the game's pretensions and proving the thinness of its illusion of reality. Intimidating layers of armed guards become Keystone Cops, flapping around a single doorway like idiots. Each one fails to understand the implications of the scores of dead colleagues at their feet, and are doomed to repeat the same tactical mistake over and over again.

After a while, shocked NPC bystanders return to their normal behaviours, as if horrific slaughter is perfectly normal in their everyday lives. It all fits neatly with other emergent comedic aspects - the Benny Hill chases while wielding a fire axe, the social awkwardness of messing with NPCs when you have time to waste, the dressing up in the most ridiculous outfit you can find and completing the hit with utmost professionalism.

There's nothing fishy at all about a priest wielding a crowbar, staring out to sea.

It turns out that in the Hitman universe, lots of things we'd find extremely unusual are perfectly acceptable. You can dress as a priest, crawl around waving a crowbar and no-one really minds as long as you don't bump into them. I do wonder if developer IO is happy to let ridiculousness break through the cracks that games commonly find so difficult to cover up. It works so nicely with Hitman's prescribed avenues of slapstick - the heavy object crashes, the just-desserts kill setups and so on. Maybe IO recognises the fundamental absurdist comedy that all games allow by not being able to account for everything a player might be able to do.

All games dissolve into absurdist comedy if pushed hard enough. Nothing is exempt, because there's always a 'wrong' way to play. In the modern age, games allow so many ways to behave like a weirdo that laughs can be found everywhere. Some games tacitly encourage it - I can often be found misbehaving whenever an NPC is chewing through some expositional monologue. Others have it innately. Bethesda's games manage to contrive glitchy comedy all by themselves, whereas GTA does improv slapstick so well that I wonder why it bothers being anything other than a leisure simulator and comedy arena.

Maybe comedy is an unavoidable quality of partially simulated realities. Certainly, the more pompous the events in play, the funnier it is when someone's head loses its face texture. We might get annoyed at how many doors still don't open, but we will laugh at an NPC repeatedly bumping against one that does. When a disconnect between game and reality happens we shouldn't think of it as a threat to the sacred rite of immersion, but as an opportunity to have a laugh at the game's expense. Hitman, bless its heart, is still doing its best to let the laughs out. So I'm not actually playing Hitman wrong when I kick off a toilet siege. I'm just playing it funny.