Some Massively Late Thoughts on Hotline Miami

Posted May 9, 2013 by Paul Walker in Editorial
hotline miami - Citizen Game

Yeah, I’m talking about Hotline Miami months too late. That’s not because I got halfway through writing this and got distracted, it’s because this has got spoilers in it and I didn’t want to ruin it for you. So there. Just read it. Unless you don’t want to see the spoilers.

Take a cursory glance at Hotline Miami and the impression you will be left with is of a game which celebrates violence. Playing as an anonymous masked man — who may or may not be a professional hitman, a psychologically disturbed serial killer, or a bit of both — you must fulfil a very basic set of criteria:

  1. Go to a place
  2. Kill everyone in that place.

Crowbars, knives, shotguns and a host of other weapons allow you to do this in a variety of brutal ways, while points are awarded for the style and efficiency with which the player clears out each level.

This is a game which encapsulates everything that gets perennial videogame haters like MP Keith Vaz in a flap. For these anti-videogame moralists, Hotline Miami would appear to be another Manhunt, or the next GTA — an exercise in sadism which actively encourages the player to find a sick pleasure in virtual mutilation.

As we point to games in the ilk of the beautiful Journey to prove Vaz and his friends wrong, pontificating wildly about the artistic merit of videogames in an attempt to assert the cultural value of the medium, we might be tempted to hide Hotline Miami at the bottom of the pile. After all, it’s difficult to lambast the derision with which the mainstream tends to treat videogames while you’re simulating the experience of repeatedly smashing a person’s head into the ground with your bare hands.

Treating Hotline Miami in that way would be a mistake.

hotline miami 1 - Citizen Game

Tarantino Style

Beneath its somewhat crude exterior, Hotline Miami is a game which is surprisingly sophisticated. Is it excessively violent? In a sense, yes. But it is a brand of self-consciously ostentatious aesthethsized violence comparable to the works of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino. I don’t make this comparison in order to suggest that this automatically makes Hotline Miami’s violence ‘valuable’. Rather, I aim to suggest Hotline Miami is not a work of cynicism; while Hotline Miami never apologises for its excesses, nor tries to justify them, it does consistently reflect on them, and it asks you to do the same.

But before we end up focusing too heavily on violence, it’s worth remembering that there is more to Hotline Miami than that, and here the comparison to Tarantino is worth further consideration. As a filmmaker, Tarantino consistently mines genre film and pop-culture in his work, playing with their conventions and tropes as he melds these borrowed elements together in innovative ways. Hotline Miami is equally a work of pastiche.

Aesthetically, Hotline Miami nods heavily to games of yore in its adoption of a retro style, while also taking cues from the original GTA game. The picture of 1980s Miami that this art style is used to paint is one which heavily references pop-culture — this is the Miami of Scarface, one in which gangs and violence are the defining characteristics of a derelict and morally corrupt society.  The white suits which the popular consciousness associates with the era is the dress code, the period’s neon glow the colour palette. Hotline Miami presents this blend of 80′s Miami tropes alongside a soundtrack which, like many of Tarantino’s films, manages to feel both retro and contemporary at the same time.

Hotline Miami also takes a page from Tarantino’s book it its adoption of non-chronological narrative elements which at turns reveal, erase and revise the players understanding of events. But here the comparisons end; Hotline Miami wraps its medley of borrowed 80’s Americana in a distinctly surreal narrative which points to other influences.

hotline miami 2 - Citizen Game

Fragile Realities

“Lynchian” is a term I’m loathe to use, deployed as it often is a catch all for anything that’s a little bit surreal. I’m going to do it anyway, because although Hotline Miami lacks the constant sense of dread that accompanies Lynch’s films, it nevertheless has a comparable steak of madness that permeates the game throughout (also because I’m too much of a philistine to offer a better comparison).

The game’s ‘reality’ feels increasingly unstable and mutable, the game completely unwilling to let the player orient themselves as to what is ‘really’ happening. This feeling of radical uncertainty will be a familiar feeling to any reader of Philip K. Dick.  I struggle to think of another videogame which strikes those kinds of notes and that alone makes Hotline Miami one of the most interesting games I have played in recent years. Aside from the fact that it’s a novelty to find a videogame which draws its influence from the likes of Dick and Lynch, rather than the likes of Michael Bay, the fact that the game does so is significant because what you are left with is a game which refuses to offer meaning to the player, but instead asks them to think.

As I suggested earlier, one thing the player is asked to think about is violence. The unstable mental state of the player’s avatar, amplified by Hotline Miami’s hallucinatory surrealism, functions as much as a means to reflect upon our fascination with brutality as it does a way of adding a layer of complexity to the game’s narrative. Indeed, in foregrounding the player’s attraction to violence, Hotline Miami goes as far as to directly ask the player “Do you like hurting people?” The act of playing Hotline Miami would suggest that the answer is “yes”. After clearing each level of enemies, intense music will drop to a mild hum, a ringing in the ears after the chaos of battle, if you will. You will then be made to walk back across the blood splattered floors and mutilated corpses you have created on the way to your car — this is just one example of the ways in which Hotline Miami consistently forces the player to ruminate on what they are doing and why they are doing it.

It’s all postmodern and that, you get me?

It creating a game which constantly questions the very conditions on which its appeal is predicated, while simultaneously foregrounding the player’s role in its instancing, Dennaton Games have created a characteristically postmodern piece. For me, the flair with which they have done so is underlined in the game’s conclusion. Here, Hotline Miami eschews any temptation to undercut its preceding narrative ambiguity and provide closure. Instead, Hotline Miami reaches the apex of its postmodern reflexivity by opting for meaninglessness as the most meaningful of endings.

What you will find is two individuals. These individuals call people up and tell them to go somewhere and kill. Those that receive the phone calls do so. Why? For little more reason than the fact that they are told to. The appeal of the violence was enough for those they called and by extension the player. There is no need to uphold any pretence that this choice requires some kind of reason to retroactively validate that decision. These two individuals clearly represent Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, Hotline Miami’s creators. The point here is to underline the fact that they have simply created the conditions within which the player can enact violence — you’re the one that did it.

Then there is the ‘proper’ ending — the ending you get if you collect the puzzle pieces on each level — that gives you some ropey story about a nationalist patriot conspiracy. My initial impression was that this ending was vacuous and derivative, utterly failing to resonate with everything that precedes it. Why did Söderström and Wedin do this? One might suggest that this alterative ending shows that Hotline Miami’s creators got a little bit lucky and failed to understand the brilliance of what they have created. However, it can be read in a different way.

I think that Hotline Miami’s second ending is actually intended as a satire in its banality, a comment on the shoddy pretexts on which videogame violence is so often based. Read in this way, the second ending is entirely congruent with its alternative, a second disappointment to those wanting closure. Superficially, it provides some kind of explanation, but ultimately it’s as devoid of meaning as the first ending.

Whether this is what Hotline Miami’s creators actually intended matters little in evaluating the merits of the game. Hotline Miami stands on its own as an innovative, interesting and thoroughly enjoyable videogame.

About the Author

Paul Walker

PKD aficionado, Slavoj Žižek enthusiast, Arsenal Fan and gamer. The last racing game I enjoyed was Carmageddon, because you didn't have to race.