No matter how much we try to deny it, violence is great entertainment. We’ve always known this, from gladiator fights to action movies. Blood is the ultimate crowdpleaser. Of course, participating is usually something most people won’t do, seeing how the threat of bodily harm to oneself is a rather powerful deterrent. Most people prefer to remain spectators, a winning formula that satisfies both our lust for adrenaline and the wish not to deal with the repercussions of violence.
Video games can take this one step further. Virtual worlds allow us to partake in killing, maiming and dismembering unfeeling computer automatons with no fear of the consequences. It is no wonder most popular video games feature violence in one way or another. Most games try to give justification to the carnage, or take refuge in audacity by making it too stylized and unrealistic to take seriously. Some even try to turn the tables and take a moral stand on the issue, as is the case with Spec Ops: The Line. Hotline Miami does none of those things. It simply hands you a kitchen knife, locks you into a room filled with potential victims and opens up the door fifteen minutes later with a knowing smirk on its face.
Dennaton Games’ 2012 release Hotline Miami and its recent sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, welcome their players to an alternate late-80’s Miami, a neon-lit nightmare city filled with sweaty clubs and dirty apartments. The player is sent on a blood-soaked mission to kill everyone in sight, using whatever means necessary. Make no mistake about it, Hotline Miami is a messy, nasty, disturbing game. Guns blast off limbs, lead pipes cave in skulls. Pixelated blood spurts from open wounds as entrails litter the floors. Ugly, nauseating violence is a constant. Looking at screenshots of it is revolting. Playing the game, however, is extremely compelling, because Hotline Miami makes you work for all that gore. It’s a game that requires perfection.
With very few exceptions, everything dies in one hit, including the player character. A single mistake means death, and mistakes are easy to make in a game as fast and hectic as Hotline Miami. You cannot half-ass your way through these levels, you either execute flawlessly or you die trying. The game’s merciless difficulty makes sure you will do a lot more of the latter than the former. Hotline Miami is less of a top-down shooter, and more of a real-time action puzzler, a demented cycle of death and rebirth, a game where you try to choreograph a macabre ballet of destruction through relentless trial and error. There is something incredibly addictive of trying to finish a level just right, to chain your actions into one fluid motion, an unbroken stroke of crimson.
However, Hotline Miami isn’t a game that is going to let its players get off the hook easily. Once you have finished a level, found that perfect combination of moves to clear off all the enemies, the game shifts gears abruptly. In what is one of the most poignant moments in video gaming, the pulsating electronic music fades away to an ambient buzz as you are told to “GO TO CAR!” You backtrack your way through the level, the masterpiece you spent minutes, perhaps hours, perfecting. Heads smashed to pieces, decapitated extremities, blood everywhere. The tone isn’t preachy, for that would be too simple. Instead, the lack of music and the exhausted feeling of coming down from an adrenaline high make the trek back to the car a strangely detached experience. Hotline Miami doesn’t make judgments, it just lets you wander through your handiwork, bewildered and confused.
All of the above apply more or less to both games in the franchise. The first game is more formulaic in its design, relying on tight claustrophobic levels and a limited set of abilities. Every level is essentially the same, the only difference being the room layout and enemy placement. The second game features more open arenas and mixes up the gameplay with new gimmicks such as dual wielding and controlling two characters at once. There are times when the second game feels decidedly unfair compared to the first one, especially when enemies shoot you from offscreen. I didn’t find this too offending, since the tight loop of trial and error that forms the very core of the games is intact in both of them, even if HL2‘s level design tends to cause more unwarranted frustration than HL1‘s.
In my opinion, the biggest difference between the two is in the writing. Hotline Miami 1‘s narrative is hazy, understated and surreal, a feverish tale of a murderer following cryptic messages as reality begins to crack and distort around him. Dialogue is sparse and lot of the story is conveyed through environmental details. The famously fourth-wall breaking ending even hints that the narrative isn’t very important at all. Hotline Miami 1 seems to be much more interested in maintaining a very particular mood and a sense of place than in telling a complete story.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, on the other hand, is insistent on telling a story. The game has a complicated non-linear narrative featuring a dozen playable characters and a plot detailing the events before, during and after the first game. There’s is a lot more dialogue, and plenty of time is spent detailing the motivations of the characters. Sadly, it is a case of ambitions exceeding the execution. HM1 could get away with simplistic dialog and shallow characters by cultivating a sense of mystery and unease. HM2, in its attempts to weave a grand tale of murder and madness, stumbles repeatedly over its meandering writing and constantly shifting perspective. There is surprisingly little of the ambiguity that marked the narrative of the first game, instead there is a plot that is simply difficult to follow. It’s rather disheartening to finish a game with the feeling you’ll have to replay it, only because you can’t remember the plot details revealed in the opening hours that only become relevant much later.
Now, even though HM2 might be the weaker of the two, both are absolutely excellent games. The Hotline Miami games are about violence and our relationship with it. They’re about rough and dirty 8-bit graphics combined with the best goddamn soundtrack ever heard in a video game. They get under your skin, seduce you to commit atrocities in the name of entertainment. They tell you to hurt people and then ask if you enjoyed it.
I did. I bet you will too.