The hitman walked away. The armed security guards let him gently stride out the front gate, no questions asked. They suspected him of nothing else than being a bored guest who left the party early. Inside the mansion, his target, Russian oligarch Viktor Novikov, was lying head down on a desk, face soaked in his own blood, the Etruscan ceremonial dagger he had been trying to sell to the hitman driven through the back of his skull. Novikov had fallen victim to the hitman’s signature trick: find a guest who’s allowed to come close to the target, lure that person away from the crowd to knock him out when no one is watching, lock the unlucky subject up in a closet, and disguise himself as the subject — in this case, a wealthy connoisseur of illegitimately appropriated archeological finds — to make his eventual deadly move himself.
It was a clean kill. No witnesses, no alarms, no ruckus. It could take several more hours before the other party guests found the dead man or even noticed his absence, preoccupied as they were with their passive-aggressive small talk and superficial opulence.
Now where did the hitman go next? Where and how does he spend the rest of the nights, and the days after, until his next murderous assignment? What does his actual life look like?
Measured by the reward size of his contracts (anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000 per kill, with about a dozen of these perpetrated in each of the seven games), he should be pretty well off. He doesn’t come across as someone who indulges in wealth, though. One imagines Agent 47, the bald protagonist of IO Interactive’s Hitman series, living a simple life outside of his job. His is an existence of loneliness, quiet desperation and compulsion. Like Alain Delon’s killer-for-hire character in the French movie Le Samouraï (1967) by director Jean-Pierre Melville, or George Clooney’s reclusive gun maker in Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010).
“Or Rick Deckard from Blade Runner. I always envisioned him as one of those men,” professes David Bateson, the Danish actor who has been voicing the Agent 47 character for almost two decades now. “No life to speak of. Just the job. Always out of place.”
Bateson knows that out-of-placeness very well, he said, because the South African-born Dane’s family moved so frequently when he was a little boy.
“I’ve traveled a little too much in my upbringing,” he said. “Nine schools in 12 years, in two countries. I’m cool with that now, but that’s what I can tap into when I say my lines. I channel that in my voice and motion capture portrayal of Agent 47.”
But also, he admits, he is this way simply by virtue of being a Dane.
Bateson is trained to play such an unsociable character. Any Danish actor — and by extension any Scandinavian one — is. It has everything to do with the unique brand of acting and visual storytelling that the Scandinavians have developed. In Europe, TV channels have come to call it Nordic noir or Scandi noir. Many Danish, Swedish, Norse, Finnish and Icelandic movies or TV series are populated understated characters driven by the darkest of motives, ones they often don’t even have any clue about themselves.
“Agent 47 is absolutely a Nordic noir character,” Bateson elaborated. “He’s very dark, understated. An outsider. Probably seen by others as someone who’s depressed, although he doesn’t think necessarily he’s depressed himself. He’s always a stranger, someone who’s from the outside, looking into other people’s lives, dissociated from every situation he’s walking into.”
It’s not that Agent 47 has no soul, he’s just programmed to hide it very well. He’s genetically engineered, but he’s not a machine. Glimpses of his humanity will surface infrequently but consistently in each Hitman game. Especially in Hitman: Absolution , which is not nearly the best but definitely the most brutally emotional game of the series, and maybe even its most important in a narrative sense. In Absolution, Agent 47 nearly leaves the world of international espionage and assassination behind to grant his handler, Diana Burnwood, her dying wish by protecting a young girl who’s on the verge of turning into the tormented, emotionally constipated killing machine that he himself has become.
This duality of personas is also very much a Nordic noir thing. More than the icy exterior of its characters, Nordic noir is about what’s lurking inside them. They hide dark, painful truths under serene composure. They are godforsaken, in the most Nietzschean way possible. According to Gunhild Agger, professor-emeritus in media research at the Institute for Cultural and Global Studies in the Danish city of Aalborg, Nordic noir derives its “noir” element from the murky nature of the material, which focuses on the darker sides of society and the existential malaise of most of its characters.
“We may seem as a lighthearted society, but there’s also a melancholic side to us, deriving from the fact that — for some time of the year at least — it’s very dark in the Nordic countries,” she said. “It’s very prevalent in Scandinavian culture: you can also see it, for instance, in the paintings of Edvard Munch. This existential depth that these Nordic noir characters possess translates into a sort of decidedly male attribute of dedication. In our popular culture, we often show men who don’t think about anything else than the job. But there’s also a gender element there. There are many strong women in leading roles of Nordic Noir TV series. This turning from a male-dominated society to one in which women start to take over, that’s also an underlying element.”
So could the Hitman series have been created anywhere else than in Copenhagen, where IO Interactive occupies three floors of a stately office building furnished with the trappings of hip Danish design in the commercial center of the city.? Of course, the company downplays its Danish heritance when it talks about their hit video game series. The influences behind the Hitman games aren’t particularly overt or measurable, and also include — by admission of its creators — James Bond movies and Luc Besson’s 1994 hitman thriller Léon: The Professional . And the company naturally employs developers, artists and designers from multiple nationalities who have moved to Copenhagen to work on the game, having been recruited simply because of their skills. At the same time, there are some connections to Danish/Scandinavian popular culture that can’t be ignored.
Some of them are purely aesthetic, like the visual dichotomy of a background with shades of gray, black and white, occasionally pierced by an object of a single bright color. In the Hitman games and their marketing materials Agent 47’s bright red tie contrasts with the black and white of his suit; in a Nordic Noir TV series, it could be a red sports car driving through a snowy forest lane. Another connection between Nordic Noir and the Hitman games rests in the bombastic, orchestral music that plays in the background of both these Scandinavian TV productions and the Hitman games.
But the similarities between Hitman and audiovisual productions that originate from Denmark run deepest in their characters, their narrative and their themes.
“The atmosphere and the world Agent 47 walks in are very dark and foreboding, regardless of the actual brightness of some of his surroundings,” Bateson said. “There’s a certain irony in the fact that you’ll often find him in locations with lots of light, such as Sapienza or Marrakech, because the activities he pursues all happen in the shadows of these sunny places. The world he moves around in is closely linked with noir, with darkness, with shadows. That’s his universe. That darkness of the soul is very much a Nordic noir tradition.”
Dusky Scandinavian crime series have become an integral part of evening TV programming in many European countries outside of the Nordics and, to a slightly lesser extent, outside of Europe as well. American viewers can find many of them — including classics The Bridge and The Killing (both of which have been remade as American productions) — on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video. The thing that unifies these series is the fact that they are relentlessly, brutally dark. That’s why they’re both revered by TV viewers all over Europe (any type of TV fiction that brings Eros and Thanatos in close proximity to each other tends to score well), and widely regarded as something of an oddity. These shows often take place in winter or at nighttime, show grisly crime scenes, and have their characters entertain dialogues reflecting a severe ennui.
In stark contrast to the tenebrous nature of these TV shows and movies, the societies they originated in are notably happy ones. According to this year’s edition of the annual World Happiness Report of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Denmark is the third happiest country in the world in a social-economic sense, preceded only by Finland and Norway. How can nations that are so “happy” produce fiction so dark?
First off, part of that perceived happiness is contradicted by personal malaise on the bottom of the societal food chain that doesn’t seem to find its way into the statistics. As The Bridge star Sofia Helin, said in a Reuters interview, “There is no paradise on earth. The Swedish system is becoming less and less secure, and more and more people are living harder lives.”
But some media scholars argue that there’s a cathartic quality in the dark themes that reign in Nordic noir: Scandinavians can handle all this darkness because of the institutionalized happiness of their society. Murky Scandinavian fiction may even represent a deep-rooted societal fear that this hardship-free society is more brittle than everyone suspects, and that it can be taken down by the cruel forces of neo-capitalist power.
According to Agger, Nordic noir fiction is actually grounded in an idea of social conscience. “There’s an inherent societal critique in these stories: the idea that something is wrong with the picture we show the world,” she said. “These stories show the back side of the mirror. Where darkness, loneliness and individualism prevail. There are these men of power and their criminal actions, that challenge the idea and the accomplishments of the welfare state.”
For Hitman players, that might sound familiar. As Agent 47, you’ll infiltrate the strongholds of enemies that are very powerful and murderous on their own, but there’s also a larger, hidden force lurking behind the scenes, not to be discovered until the very end of the story. You’ll often end up in places where champagne flows freely — fashion shows or the VIP section of a race track paddock — where the vilest men and women hide in plain sight. Where the villains of many Nordic noir series might pose a fictional and subconscious threat to the social fabric, your targets in the Hitman games are a clear menace to the existing world order. Many of your marks are in businesses like arms dealing, sponsored terrorism, the drug trade, money laundering, or unsupervised genetic experimentation. Some of them, like a pair of British aristocrats in Hitman: Contracts, organize hunting parties in which the prey is a human being.
As IO Interactive’s former CEO Hannes Seifert told me in 2016, near the release date of the episodic reboot Hitman, “These targets you’re pursuing, they don’t even have the slightest regard for human life. The scary thing about them is that most of them are inspired by real-life people and events. We’ve found their most menacing traits in accounts we found in newspapers and magazines. Dangerous, powerful people do exist.”
The Hitman games, especially the two most recent entries, also bear a stark resemblance to other works of art and fiction that managed to capture the Danish (or Scandinavian) psyche, like the 1998 Danish movie Festen/The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg, or the early works of provocateur Lars von Trier. These, too, find their origins in the melancholic, no-nonsense nature of Scandinavian culture, just as much as Nordic noir stories. The setup of the levels in each Hitman game bears some resemblance to the pure principles that the two above-mentioned movie directors held dear at the beginning of their careers, and wrote down in their famous Dogme 95 manifesto, a pamphlet with a series of 10 creeds the directors started to live by in the late 1990s which raged against unrealistic plotlines and overwrought visuals. Some of the similarities between Dogme 95 movies and Hitman games are superficial, of course, like the veracity of the locations, the absence of visual finery, and the lack of temporal or geographical alienation. Aside from some close-ups during an actual successful assassination, what you see in the third-person view of the Hitman games is what you get.
But it’s mostly in their grandiose sense of place that the Hitman games and the Dogme 95 movies find common ground. Just like the sumptuous black-tie birthday party in The Celebration, the entire world of the games is defined by a social simulation that runs through several open-ended levels in a confined space. In these “crime scenes in reverse,” as IO Interactive calls them, you find clues throughout the intricate social milieus concocted by the level designers. Clues — like eavesdropped conversations — that bring you closer to the central circle of this visibly constructed miniature society, until you’re close enough to the target to take them down.
“Each level of the game is conceived as a theater piece,” saids Markus Friedl, Hitman 2‘s executive producer. “It’s like an intricate constellation. You are right in the middle of it, but as an outsider. Then, you slowly start to orchestrate it, and make this theater piece play out your way.”
The rigorous sense of place that defines the Hitman scenes is also enhanced by the criminally dark personality of the people that seem to run the show of these AI-driven stage plays you’ll find yourself in as Agent 47.
“Each level has its own personality,” said Jacob Mikkelsen, Hitman 2‘s game director. “That’s what the targets do. The whole trick of what we do is to present them in a place that also tells the story of what they’re doing. For us, that’s the interesting bit about playing Hitman: you get to know people by listening in on their conversations. We want each target to bring something new to the table. When we create these locations, we figure out: what is everyone doing here? And then, how can we turn that into something that players can use to their advantage?”
The noir nature of the Hitman games is intimately entwined with the characters you’ll meet and murder, and the places in which these encounters and assassinations take place. And just like in other works of Danish and Scandinavian fiction, the dusky universe of the games seems to be one that perfectly reflects its protagonist. The tacit nature of Agent 47 is an extension of the world of international espionage and assassination that “created” him.
“I try not to act too much, because he’s so monosyllabic” Bateson said. “Sometimes, at the recording studio, they’ll tell me to even take it further down a bit. That’s just the nature of the character: always unfazed by anything that happens.”
But, at the same time, there’s also a dark sense of humor in the character. In an early scene in Hitman 2, for instance, Agent 47 kills Sierra Knox — a race car driver and industrialist who uses her family business to sell advanced weapon technology to war criminals — by disguising as a doctor and injecting her after her race with a poisoned energy serum. When she complains about feeling woozy, he lulls her with a soft-spoken line. “Relax. It will be over soon.”
“Well, the humor might actually be one of the differences,” Bateson said. “There are not a lot of laughs to be found in Nordic noir.”