What it is: Hotline Miami is a violent, top-down beat-’em-up style game from Swden’s Dennaton games. Cut from the same cloth as films like Drive, Hotline Miami drips with just as much cool as it does blood.
Why I love it: Hotline Miami has been touted as a game with a strong message about violence in media, especially in videogames. Nearly every review that hit after the game was released made hints at some sort of deep, introspective nature of the game’s story. I was expecting to be challenged, and perhaps in even swayed, into changing my thoughts on the non-issue of violence in videogames and its “impact” on people. I thought I’d realize some horrible inner truth and change my ways. But I didn’t. Instead, I found myself pointing my mouse over unsuspecting mobsters, frantically swinging, stabbing, shooting, cutting, crushing, disemboweling, decapitating, lacerating, and brutalizing them without question.
Each level in Hotline Miami begins circa 1980’s in your quiet apartment. Pixelated pizza boxes give evidence of a rather unremarkable lifestyle, and a flashing little arrow above your answering machine beacons to you. The message is brief, cryptic — something about a job or simple errand. You hop in your Delorian, then bam: you’re killing and maiming at high speeds though intricate, puzzle-like maps. The top-down perspective gives you a clear view of your obstacles and objectives — and the gore.
Making your way through each level is a matter of timing and location. Every enemy can go down in one hit, or at the very least be knocked over and stunned, allowing you to finish him off in brutally disgusting ways. However, this single-hit fragility extends to your survivability as well, and you’re at a disadvantage. Enemies move quickly and have neigh-perfect aim; while you move about just as fast, if you’re not careful, you can miss a crucial bat swing or Uzi spray by mere pixels, almost always resulting in instant death. Luckily, once you’ve been downed, you can immediately start the section over again, and the check points are pretty liberal. As you take down your targets, you’ll rack up points, with particularly stealthy or complex take downs being awarded with higher scores. The higher your score, the more likely you are to unlock new weapons or special masks that alter the gameplay.
These scenes of 8-bot violence are scored by strange, trippy music that ranges from coked-out rave beats to fuzz-caked stoner metal jams. There is a distinct 80’s feel to it all, and not just the music. The color palette is vibrant, replete with neon colors and gaudy design, with enemy outfits reminiscent of Al Pacino circa Scarface. There are also heavy psychedelic elements to Hotline Miami. Durring your massacres, the screen subtly sways, the borders flushing with bright colors, and the music thumps. It gives a strange sort of excuse to your actions, framing them as drug-induced hallucinations, as if you have little control over what you’re doing. that is, until you take down the final enemy of a level, the music abruptly ends, the swaying halts, the colors dissipate. You’re left to walk back through each room and face the horrors you’ve committed, your only accompaniment a gnawing ambient track and the blood-spattered remains of your victims.
It was after one of these especially sobering moments that the whole message behind Hotline Miami sudden welled up inside of me. I had just spent the better part of ten minutes causing mayhem in the penthouse suit of a hotel, and for absolutely no reason. I felt like a badass, I was quick, I was precise, I was rutheless. But why? Through my entire first playthrough, even once the game provides a narrative excuse for you actions, I had no real reason to do all this. It was a subtle and effective. Hotline Miami points out that, in games and movies, there often is little context for the atrocities being committed. More often than not, we’re simply doing these things because we’ve been asked to by a character or because the game instructed us to. But that’s as far as it goes; Miami never tries to sway you away from violence or give you some sort of answer. If anything, it’s forcing you to cause violence. Instead, what Hotline Miami does — or, at least what it did for me — was ask a simple question, “why are you doing this?” But instead of recoiling at the thought of mindless violence, I delved in deeper into the game’s addictive and frenetic action.
Despite these poignant moments, Hotline Miami’s narrative ultimately fails. While the game begins to poke and prod the the player’s intentions and motivations, and ask some serious questions that don’t necessarily have an answer, when Hotline Miami tries to offer a more “grounded,” structured narrative, the result becomes ham-fisted, and the subtlety and open-ended nature of the questions being poised early on become trapped in a rather flimsy and nonsensical story that doesn’t do anything to help its overall message.
Still, the message is there. Hotline Miami is a challenging game — in terms of not just skill and patience, but psychologically as well. I believe it’s a game everyone should play; it’s fun, brutal, and ultimately will open up interesting questions you’ll find yourself pondering well after you’ve put the game down.
Pros: Fast, addictively fun gameplay; cool art and graphical design; amazing soundtrack; asks some very interesting questions that go beyond just the narrative.
Cons: Some levels can be very difficult; controls aren’t always on your side; gets repititious at times; the story takes a rather strange and unsatisfying twist towards the end.
You can check out more on Hotline Miami here.