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Lost Masters is a series of articles that endeavours to take a fresh look at brilliant games that flew under the radar at the time of their release. This month Gaming Editor Andrew Carroll looks at Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami was a success by all accounts. Released to universal acclaim in 2012 the ultra-violent top-down fuck-’em-up went on to sell 700,000 copies, securing the future of its small Swedish developer and the reputation of indie publisher Devolver Digital. So, why is it here? Why didn’t I wait two years and just write an anniversary piece on it? For as much of a success as Hotline Miami and its sequel Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number were their cultural impact has dulled significantly in the last few years. Violence is no longer the only mainstream method of storytelling but maybe Hotline Miami knew that all along.
It’s 1989 and a man who will be named Jacket by fans is slaughtering members of Miami’s Russian mafia wholesale. Urged on by vague, enigmatic phone calls and hallucinatory conversations with men in animal masks Jacket goes on the warpath exacting carnage on bald men in white suits and teal shirts for seemingly no reason. As reality and fantasy blur Jacket realises that there is method to the madness forced upon him and in his hunt for Russia blood uncovers a conspiracy deeply rooted in America’s culture of violence.
For decades the American media, government and other groups have attempted to place the blame for disturbing acts of violence at the feet of anything that looked like an easy scapegoat. Rap was the music of gangsters. Heavy metal was known as the influence behind disaffected teenagers who shot up their schools. Comics, movies and games were blamed for encouraging people to kill and maim one another. The debate went round and round never landing on something definitive despite all of the evidence pointing to America’s ugly culture of violence that has persisted throughout the nation’s entire existence.
Hotline Miami may have been published by the Texan studio Devolver Digital but it was created and developed by the Swedish duo Dennaton Games. Sweden, despite their reputation as the home of death metal, are generally regarded as a peaceful country with a low crime rate. It stands to reason then that developers Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin would look to outside influences for their ultra-violent, highly stylised video game. Who better to use as that influence than the nation with the most gun violence, the most serial killers and a history soaked in innocent blood?
Hotline Miami is for the most part a garishly ugly game. All of its colours are too bright and tend to look like vomit seen through an LSD fugue. When characters are seen in close-up they tend to be horrible to look at with too-wide mouths, bug eyes and crazed expressions. Sure, it’s how Jacket sees the world but it’s also how the game presents its world to the player. It’s a sick twisted place where violence is never discussed outside of dreams and the most mundane tasks involve beating mobsters heads in with bats until pink goo spurts out.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number would later reveal that Jacket is a mentally ill veteran of the Soviet invasion of Hawaii and that American nationalist organisation 50 Blessings is working to destabilize U.S. – Soviet relations even further. Before any of that though the pointless violence of Hotline Miami was the point in terms of both plot and gameplay. The character of Jacket is ordered by phone to “give VIPs at a hotel a great stay” or “take care of a pest infestation”. What follows is brutal slaughter.
Jacket separates flesh from bone, heads from bodies and limbs from torsos in lurid displays of violence. The effect of a point blank shotgun blast on a human body has never been better demonstrated than in Hotline Miami. For as many enemies as he kills Jacket – depending on player skill – will meet his maker just as often. This one-hit-kill system should be annoying but the instant restarts and repulsively propulsive soundtrack featuring the likes of M|O|O|N, Perturbator and Scattle keep things moving. Despite this constant sense of forward motion the massacres of Hotline Miami soon begin to feel as bland as they are described. There really are only so many ways you can gut a man with a katana or pop his head like a melon before it all begins to feel inane rather than insane. Within that pointlessness lies the point.
It’s become harder to justify violence in video games. Some like God of War or Call of Duty or Dead Cells have it built into their DNA. With others like The Last of Us Part II or BioShock Infinite it becomes a question of “Why?”. I’m not saying that there are other ways to tell stories set in the worlds of The Last of Us or BioShock but the violence within these worlds feels pointless. If you’re aiming to shock players over the course of a 20 hour game you’re going to have to try really hard by hour ten or so. Hotline Miami makes this desensitisation the point.
By the last few levels reducing a man to a pile of raw, steaming meat is no longer the avert-your-eyes moment it was fifteen levels ago rather it’s just another button press. The victories offered by Hotline Miami, whether it’s playing as Jacket or the bonus levels as the Biker, are Pyrrhic in nature. The rooster mask wearing character Richard asks the much-memed question “Do you enjoy hurting other people?” At the start the game’s fast-paced and unforgiving combat lead me to answer “Yes” but by the end of Jacket’s blood-crazed story it was a firm “No”.
Violence is not Hotline Miami’s legacy instead it was how the violence was used that became its legacy. Few games tried to one up Dennaton Games’ stylish magnum opus. Even the unwieldy and overblown Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number never came close although perhaps that was the point as Dennaton Games seemed particularly intent on disproving the statement of bigger means better. Just one year after Hotline Miami’s release The Fullbright Company would release Gone Home proving once and for all that it was possible to tell a compelling story without even throwing a punch. Nowadays critiquing violence in video games seems necessary and it makes Hotline Miami’s skull-shattering, eye-popping, throat-ripping mayhem seem less like a question mark and more like a full stop.