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The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Warning: If you are at all interested in exploring Hotline Miami's theme yourself & haven’t played the game yet, please do so before reading this. Not only does this post contain spoilers – we’re discussing a videogame here. Videogames are meant to be played, not read. My experiences might differ from yours and that's perfectly OK.
Full disclaimer: I’ve been friends with the developer of Hotline Miami since I started Vlambeer, I’m named in the credits twice and one of the ‘animal masks’ in the game is named after me. It’s a camel, because I’m half-Egyptian.
At the surface, Dennaton's debut game Hotline Miami is exactly what a controversial blog post claims it to be – an “unstable game about killing people”. The writer posits that the post is about the critical reception of what he believes to be a game about “amazing bloodstains you leave on the environment”. What the writer misses due to basing his opinion on reviews and a video of the game - for failing to do any real effort to play the game - is its subtleties: the themes, the subtext and the raw ingenuity of how Hotline Miami uses its story, visual style, soundtrack and interaction to convey its deeper meanings.
Now, I could make this a blog post about how important it is to play videogames before judging them. I could also make this a post about why you can’t just go and criticize things you do not try to understand. Instead, let me discuss with you my playthrough of Hotline Miami – because I think it’s something important.
After the tutorial, the player’s first introduction to the game is a conversation with three masked figures in a darkened room. The decay is obvious – garbage lies scattered around, insects are abundant. The masked figures – a chicken, a horse and an owl - seem to know more about our protagonist and both reflect and foreshadow terrible things that have happened. As the scene disappears, I find myself in an apartment – my apartment – and find a note and a chicken mask. I walk down the stairs, enter my car and leave for my first mission.
The gameplay cycle is simple: each level starts with me receiving a cryptic phone call with an address. The player walk to the car, travels to the address and hides their face behind an animal mask of their choice. A pumping, electronic soundtrack amplifies the psychedelic colors as the player rushes through the door and attempts to kill every single soul on that floor of the building. Bright flashes, pumping music, gratuitous blood, large scoring emphasis and a combo mechanic urge me to kill faster, more efficiently and without mistake.
Hotline Miami is an exercise in survival at this level: any mistake I make is my last. A single mistake often results in me mashing the restart-button before the protagonist’s body hits the floor. The run that succeeds is the one that is perfectly choreographed, flawlessly executed and adaptive enough to deal with unexpected problems. I run in, grab the baseball bat the first unexpected guard is holding. I smash his brains in, bash a door into another guard and throw the bat at his fellow guard. As they both slump to the ground, I kick in the first one’s head against the wall, grab the shotgun of the second and shoot the upper half of his torso into pulp.
When I’ve finally succeeded, I’m allowed to use an elevator or staircase to other floors to continue the killing spree. As soon as my last victim’s head is kicked to bits, the music that has been guiding the rush dies to leave an eerie soundscape as I backtrack past the many fallen foes – the carnage I’ve left behind, back towards my car. It’s an uneasy sight, but I've completed the task I was set out to do.
Players will find themselves graded for many things – amongst which style, flexibility and speed. Then, I find myself in a supermarket or bar where I receive free goods – whether it is a pizza or a VHS – from a dubious character that seems to work in every single place the protagonist visits.
This cycle repeats itself, the violence ever gratuitous. Heads are smashed in with baseball bats, dogs are shot with shotguns, throats are cut and people faces are disfigured with a pan of boiling water. One cannot help but feeling a little uneasy at points, the human brain filling in all the little details of the crude yet mercilessly efficient pixels. The game demands you do not question yourself, because hesitation means death.
In fact, the first time I noticed Hotline Miami’s tension between thematic unease and its gameplay was watching a group of students play an early build when it was shown at Gamescom. The students had been running through the first five or so levels, laughing, quipping and pointing at the various executions. At the press of the spacebar, the jacketed hero kneeled on a knocked down mobster and slit the throat of the defenseless man. Pixelated blood gushed out as it took a moment for the man to stop struggling against death.
I had seen the animation countless times and remembered the distinct feeling of unease as I first encountered it, but the effect on these students was remarkable: they –not theorists or designers - had noticed the same tension I noticed. In one fraction of a second, the atmosphere changed from having fun to uneasy faces. For a split second, the violence wasn’t a game – it was real. The conversation changed from discussing the coolest execution animation to whether the game wasn’t too violent to be fun. I was baffled.
As the game progresses, the protagonist’s house – the starting point of every level – changes to reflect changes in his life. Dishes get skipped, the garbage is or isn’t taken out and an empty second bed in the bedroom implies a relation that did not last. Early on, the protagonist saves a cocaine-addicted woman from a dealer. Bringing her to his home she moves from sleeping on the couch to feeling at ease and eventually sleeping in the second bed.
The story evolves through similar details – the dubious character giving me free goods at the end of every level seems to vary between being my best friend to barely knowing my character. Mysterious mailings speak of an initiative named ’50 blessings’. The phone calls instruct me to kill increasing amounts of people. Every now and then, I find the corpses of other masked figures in the buildings I’m rampaging. Newspaper snippets that the protagonist has found between missions may or may not reveal the identities of the targets in the previous mission as I walk around my house in preparation for the next.
Things get exponentially weirder after I’m instructed to kill a biker that has traced the origins of the mysterious phone calls back to a telephone company. Once again I find myself in the insect-ridden apartment, meeting the three masked figures – their existence doubtful, but their words foreboding – they warn me that I will be all alone soon.
The protagonist starts to see dead bodies around his house, even though his girlfriend doesn’t notice them. Mangled and disfigured, these untouchable corpses shout at the player to move on. A suspicious janitor is cleaning the floor of my house. Once, my killing spree suddenly gets interrupted by a SWAT assault as I make a frantic escape from the too well-equipped officers.
The shopkeeper warns me that the things I’m seeing aren’t quite real. With a flash of static, the decapitated body of the biker disappears from the convenience store where it had somehow appeared. The same static sometimes hides some of the extremely violent behavior of the protagonist. Later on, the shopkeeper himself ends up seemingly dead in every store. An aggressive bald man takes his place, not acknowledging the dead body next to him. He offers me no free food or items, but threatens me into leaving.
I start to wonder whether my protagonist’s sanity allows his perspective to be even trustworthy. I no longer know what’s real, I no longer know whether the people I kill are bad guys, I’m no longer certain of how justified the violence is. Am I nothing but a homicidal maniac?
The next phone call leaves me no choice but to continue murdering. A few days later, the player does not head for a shop or a bar at the end of another bloody assault. Instead, I find myself at my doorstep. With a dreary feeling of acceptance, I walk into my apartment and find the girl shot through the chest several times – the girl I saved from drugs before, the girl that has been in the house for most of the game – is dead. An ominous rat-masked figure is sitting in the living room. Without offering explanation, he shoots me.
I wake up in my house, darkened as if the three masked figures are waiting for me – this time not in their house but in mine. Instead, I only find one of them – the one wearing the mask I’ve subconsciously attached to the ‘ego’ – to myself, the chicken mask. My body is lying on the floor in a puddle of blood, I’m standing in the room and the representation of my ego is sitting on the couch. The masked figure reassures me that this is the last time we’ll meet, but that none of my actions matter anymore. I will never see the full picture. I am disheartened as he orders me to walk to a warm bed.
As I walk through the hallway, my clothes change to a hospital outfit. In my own house, I reach myself lying in a hospital bed. I fall to my knees, tear my own head off and fall to the floor. The last thing I see is my beheaded body, bloodied and defeated lying next to myself in a hospital bed.
I’m not sure what part of me is sane and what part of my character isn’t. I’m thinking of movies that use similar motives and thematic - Jacobs Ladder springs to mind, as do movies about PTSD and movies with themes about insanity.
The screen fades back in, the music now slow and considerate, the colors calm and unchanging. It is weeks later as I wake up in the same hospital bed. As I’m lying in the bed, I overhear a conversation between a doctor and a guard. My girlfriend is confirmed dead and the perpetrator is locked up in the police precinct. My goals are clear to me. I carefully get up from the bed, but the trauma causes everything to spin and moving too fast or too much at a time will make me drop to my knees for a while. Carefully avoiding attention and managing my ability to walk despite the pain, I sneak my way out of the hospital. I return home, betrayed by my own, my mind set on revenge. My car is smashed up, there is a crayon outline of where my girlfriend died and the house is a mess.
No more phone calls. This has to stop.
With surprising clarity and without a single hallucination, I assault the precinct, find the man that shot me and my girlfriend and dispose of him after learning what my next target is. I quickly leave the precinct and head for a distinct looking lobby with a phone and a long hallway with closed doors on either side. I am back in my element - I kill the guards and walk upstairs, murdering everyone standing nearby a parked monster truck. I threaten one unlucky bastard into giving me the location of the man behind all the mayhem. Without saying, I end his life too.
As I finally dispose of the last of the organization behind the mysterious phone calls, I encounter a regretful old man in a wheelchair that speaks a lot like the chicken from my nightmares. He knows and I know what is about to happen. I am surprised as without my intervention, without me pressing the button and without allowing me a choice, the protagonist shoots the old man through the head before he can say much. He walks onto the balcony to smoke.
The credits roll. I am confused. Who was the old man and who were the three masked people? Why did the chicken warn me that none of my actions would matter if they did? What was the static, what were the corpses? What was the goal of the phone calls, who was I working for? No explanation is given and the protagonist doesn’t seem to care.
The credits end with a surprising twist. Instead of kicking me back to the main menu, the game shows the date of the final mission. Suddenly, the date rewinds way back to before I got shot, before my girlfriend was killed and before the hallucinations start.
Even though it takes me a moment to process what this character that I’m controlling is, I quickly realize that it’s the biker that I killed at the phone company. Surprisingly, he is receiving phone calls similar to the ones the protagonist received. The biker, however, isn’t too intent on following orders and instead heads to follow a trail of clues towards the masterminds behind the phone calls. Gameplay as the biker is similar, but different as he uses just a single weapon – a set of meat knives. These levels are surprisingly easy.
I have a sinking feeling that I know how this is ending, and my fears are confirmed as the final step of the trail ultimately leads to the phone company, where -just as the biker is learning where the source of the calls is located- he is assaulted by the protagonist. The same battle as before takes place, only this time I control the biker. I know the protagonist will reach for the golf clubs in the corner and swing my knife at a point between him and the weapon he’ll use to kill me.
He goes down immediately. The biker notes how the chicken-mask wearing man should’ve backed off before I finish the protagonist. The dead, decapitated body lying on the floor is a strangely familiar sight, until I remember that I’ve seen it before, when the protagonist tore his own head off just before waking up in the hospital. I stare in dumbfounded confusion as I walk the biker out of the building, back to his bike.
The way the two storylines cannot exist together is keeping my mind pre-occupied as I follow the trail. Even more so than before, I do not know what is real and what is not. As the biker reaches the building in which he’ll find resolution, I find myself in a familiar lobby – it is the lobby the protagonist visited after assaulting the precinct. The same long hallway with locked doors, only this time a suspicious janitor runs through one of the doors, prompting me to chase him into the sewers. I do not go upstairs to the people at the monster truck.
Suddenly, I’m horrified – if those people I killed as the protagonist weren’t the people behind the phone calls, then who were they? What trail did I follow? Who was the old man I shot? Does it even matter who they were? Did all those things actually happen? Everything makes less and less sense.
In the sewers, I confront the two janitors amidst dozens of phones, animal masks and schematics. They look vaguely familiar and introduce themselves as an independent duo that sends phone calls because they were bored and they thought you were too. When the biker asks them whether they think it’s a game, they return the question. “Don’t you think so?”
Everything clicks in my mind. These janitors are the developers and they’re addressing me instead of the biker. The phone calls are a metaphor for them telling you what to do throughout the game. There is no big plot, secret goal or any morals – Hotline Miami shows itself for what it truly is: an introspective into violence in games.
My mind races to catch up with everything as I start to consider varying perspectives – I realize how neutral Hotline Miami is in its application of violence: it does not glorify it, nor vilify it. It shows how ugly violence is and does not attach any value to it. It is what it is. One of the most striking moments of Hotline Miami is when the masked chicken asks you the most confrontational line of dialogue I’ve encountered in a game so far: “Do you like hurting other people?”
It’s the only time where Hotline Miami eschews its subtleties to show what it’s really getting at: how accepting of violence are we? Why are we so insistent on justification for violence in a videogame? The Call of Duties of today remind you how justified your application of violence is by showing huge nuclear missiles launching from some distant silo, or by having the antagonist murdering an airfield of people. Without judging, it forces you to reflect upon your actions and to come to your own conclusions.
The janitors taunt me to kill them.
I know that if I do it, the game wins. I do not care. I kill the janitors to make it right for all the people they had me murder and all the other masked people that died trying to execute their missions.
As the credits roll for the second time, I reflect on many things. On one level, I’m wondering about the disparity between the main storyline and the biker’s story. Did anything in the main storyline after the phone company really happen? Wasn’t that exactly when the hallucinations started? Did the girlfriend really die? Was everything before the hospital mission a coma? How could they’ve ended up in the same building if one of the stories wasn’t real?
On another level I’m thinking about killing the janitors. I’m vaguely aware that I’m blaming the developers for the horrible things I’ve done to relieve my boredom. I’m not sure whether that’s justified. I’m not sure I care about it either. I am thinking about it nonetheless.
And finally, I’m thinking about how Hotline Miami is many things in many ways, but how it executes all of them through methods only videogames can employ. Optional little snippets of information piece together an uncertain narrative. Questioning violence through questioning the player’s autonomy can only work if the player controls the violence and the violence is repulsive enough to make you ever so slightly uneasy about it. The main dichotomy in Hotline Miami is how the game deliberately urges the player forward through its music, visuals and scoring – but then lurches them back through uncertainty in the narrative and the sheer horror of the violence on screen.
The trick that Hotline Miami employs perfectly is offering no time for thought during its violent gameplay and then offering abundant need for reflection through pause and uncertainty of narrative. All of that was not achieved by telling me to feel this way, nor by voice-over or dialogue – it was that unique combination of interactivity, visuals, audio, dialogue and atmosphere that only games can offer.
Hotline Miami took a daring step forward into an uncharted territory in which ego, player, avatar, autonomy, trust, action, responsibility, justice, morality, games and gaming all hold relevance, but never are quite clearly defined, never quite take shape and often overlap, exclude eachother or challenge eachother in impossible ways.
Hotline Miami isn’t so much a game about violence as it is a game about walking back to your car, wading through the bodies of those you killed for no other reason than that someone told you to.
Whether you play the game and pick up the phone is up to you. Do you like hurting other people?