By Geoffrey Bunting
On the face of things, Hotline Miami is just another glorification of violence, akin to Call of Duty in its gratuitous deployment of mindless killing. Worse still, whereas ordinary violent games present a thin layer of justification – look at those nuclear missiles in the distance, look at our Robin Hood existence – Hotline Miami has no such justification. Instead it provides a thin veil of a plot, but otherwise is a full-blown bloodbath. Yet, how often have you accepted the ostensible motivation of something, only to have that illusion disproved? Hotline Miami is no different; it is not what it appears to be.
The game, at its heart, is a kind of survival story. Without the influence of items, one shot will kill – one wrong move is the end of your progress, sending you back to the beginning of a section. At the beginning of these sections, this is not so bad, but when you’ve waded through a horde of enemies to be taken down at the last, it comes across as real punishment. It is not a case of simple violence, rather you have to weave a carefully choreographed path through each level, almost dancing your way from kill to kill in order to make sure everyone goes down without leaving anyone behind.
Hotline Miami follows a similar formula to most violent games: you are given a mission to complete, a mission that requires you to kill x number of people, and you go do that. Pick up new weapons and obtain items along the way to help you progress more effectively. As the resulting violence – and the corpses that go with it – pile up, the game’s level of brutality verges on the parodic rather than gratuitous. The eighties action film setting, the pixelated violence and gore, it all feels somewhat silly rather than genuinely grotesque.
This is perhaps the intention, as Hotline Miami isn’t really much of a violent game at all, rather it’s a kind of surreal game – more interested in the effect of violence than affecting it. In between missions the player is confronted by bizarre and grotesque visions ranging from talking dead bodies to mysterious masked figures that seem to know a lot more about the protagonist than he does himself – one of which is ostensibly the protagonist behind his own chicken mask. Many of these visions seem to question what is real, question the player’s motives, or predict what is to come. Characters recur in bizarre places and there appear to be elements in the environment that no one else can see but us. Hotline Miami exists in this kind of fever dream where we’re not sure whether the game is addressing the character or the player.
This surreal feeling is only exacerbated when the gameplay begins to become erratic and we end up playing through a kind of stealth level in a hospital. We see our own bedroom change into a hospital room after we rip our own head off; a room we must escape in order to continue our spree. While all other surreal elements hitherto have an element of suspended disbelief, this is when we really start to question what is going on, what is real, and whether there are other forces at play.
The game ends with a boss battle, after which we find an old man who is full of regret and sounds an awful lot like the Chicken from our visions – the one that looks a lot like us in the same mask. It raises time-bending questions that would normally not belong in this kind of 80s action narrative.
This feeling of time being out of sync is confirmed as the game fades to black and we watch the credits stream by. We are left at the end of the game with so many unanswered questions about what the hell was actually happening, who was the old man? What was real? What wasn’t? Yet, as the credits wind down, we see the date and time of that last mission flash on screen again and watch it count back to before we started the game.
Time reverts itself to an earlier state and we play through a new set of levels as a mysterious biker who doesn’t follow the same mechanisms as the previous protagonist. He does not use masks or weapons to progress; instead, he is hidden by a bike helmet and uses a set of knives throughout his own game. What’s more, the game is much easier, the biker apparently more proficient than our previous avatar. As the missions progress, what we thought might answer our questions only raises more.
About halfway through the first chapter, we play a level located in a phone company. At the end of which we face a boss battle that sees us running for some golf clubs to fend off a knife-wielding biker. It is not until we reach the same level again, this time as the biker, that we realise that these two characters are one in the same. We have to play through the same level again and confront the former protagonist, yet this time the biker prevails. He knocks the Chicken Mask down and then proceeds to finish him off via decapitation.
It raises questions of how these two timelines can exist together, especially when we realise that this decapitation image has appeared before when we removed our own head in the hospital. Now, rather, the question is which timeline is the true one and what of the things we have seen are real and what were fabrications. These questions don’t really get answered. Rather, Hotline Miami is intentionally sparse in exposition, employing this atypical narrative that bends time to allow us to draw our own conclusions on plot – not unlike more mainstream games like Dark Souls.
However, we are given no illusions as to what the game is about. Throughout the game, the rules of morality, autonomy, time, and justice are never quite set. They are presented rather as a transient setting for the violence we must carry out in order to progress. Just like an action film. Yet, despite this clear setting, there’s the feeling that something more is at play. As we end the Biker’s narrative we see him chase a janitor into a sewer chamber full of monitors and phones where we meet him and his friend.
These same janitors have popped up throughout Hotline Miami. For the first time in the game, we are given time to consider those questions of morality and justice as they question our motives and what we’ve done. It is abundantly clear that these characters represent the developers of the game and have an almost deific presence in the actual play through. It is clear also that they are speaking directly to us as players rather than the biker – somewhat answering questions as to whom the game is directing its previous speech – and that they are questioning both what we have done in Hotline Miami and our past discretions in similarly – yet less parodic – violent games.
In what has been a slick and mind-bending game, this final “twist” feels slightly ham-fisted and is gratefully ended when – despite their godlike omnipresence – we direct our biker to kill them and thus end the game for real. Yet this last killing is what gives credence to the message they have delivered. Hotline Miami, from a surreal blood fest, becomes an indictment of the genre it transiently inhabits. The message is really hidden in slick gameplay and psychedelic graphics, but it’s there throughout for those that want to see it. Most won’t because we don’t play games for the sake of their agendas, so it is laid on thick when we finally reach the end of the game so that no one can be left unsure what we’re supposed to be feeling. That we kill those that deliver this message is, in fact, a final acknowledgement of it.
Hotline Miami isn’t a game about violence, but rather autonomy and questioning just simply doing what you’re told. We drop into these violent games and follow our objective markers and feel damn good about all the killing we do. By making you ask questions of why the surreal aspects of the game are occurring, we thus ask why we’re killing everyone. Not for moralistic reasons, but for plot reasons. This game isn’t veiled in the pretence of military or government action, it’s just killing, seemingly by contract. And by questioning these plot elements we are almost being tricked into questioning the moralistic themes of the genre too.