This is how you’re supposed to be doing it.
It’s 3 A.M., I’ve got my headphones on and the 47” LED is searing my retinas in hot pink and turquoise neon, the title in scan-lined Russian letters like it’s bootleg contraband, hardcore violence porn from a world where only outlaws play outlawed violent video games. The music is turned up almost painfully loud, throbbing synth pulses from a 1989 that never existed except as a fantasy of unremembered nostalgia in the minds of musicians likely too young to have listened to music back then. I’m trying for either the 20th or the 100th time to complete a level of Hotline Miami, and I’m feeling totally wired, paranoid, cranked up really high and headed for a 19th nervous breakdown as I get gunned down again.
In another life, I split skulls and splatter gore everywhere, mind flashing back to the white suited apocalypse at the end of A Better Tomorrow II, thinking about how many times I’ve killed that dog and wondering if that Call of Duty dog will die this ruthlessly, cruelly, and without pity. I die again. Stupid mistake. Get up and go again. Is it just me or is the screen changing colors? Why does it all look crooked? I’ve never taken cocaine before, is this what it’s like? It’s how I imagine it. I don’t feel any pain when I die over and over again. I don’t really feel anything but DRIVE.
It hits me. I’m not working out a puzzle. I’m not watching guard patterns and learning the level. It’s not about learning a sequence or perfecting a series of moves. It’s not all in the wrist, reflexes are not being refined. The repetition starts to grate, and I realize the horror behind this video game.
I’m being programmed to get it right. I’m being programmed to lose all feeling and become a desentized 8-bit killing machine. I put on my mask, pick up a shotgun, and become a fucking monster.
And then a man in a cock mask asks at point-blank range, “do you like to hurt people?”. I pause. He’s not asking the top-down 8-bit Ryan Gosling on the screen. He’s asking ME. Music is hurting my ears at this point, it’s so loud. I’m staring at the screen, those fucking scanlines slicing up eyeballs. Well, do you, punk?
This is Hotline Miami’s Grand Statement About Video Game Violence, about all the Little Computer People we’ve murdered over and over again over all of these years. This is, or should be, Video Gaming’s Message to the World 2013 (or 2012 if you played it on PC, before it hit PSN). This is your argument, right here Roger Ebert (Kurosawa rest his soul), that games can be art, carry meaning, and comment on humanity. But this isn’t another bro-op AAA game disguising fucking MURDER FANTASY with Hollywood production values. There is no anti-hero bullshit obscuring the fact that the character you control is a psychopath. This is raw. It’s not “awesome” to kill people in this game. It’s pretty sick- by design.
I don’t know that there has ever been a more wretched, honest moment in a video game than when the character stops after the first massacre and vomits.
Yet it all remains remote, at arms length. The video game medium keeps us safe from the truths Hotline Miami is exposing us to, as we play. The deconstructed retro graphics and Lynchian narrative cryptograms give us safe distance from what this game is screaming at our faces. Many will play this game and think that its “bad ass”. Many will relish in its merciless, brutal bloodshed. But they’ll miss what this game wants to say to us.
As the highest paid developers in the video games industry continue to fail to find anything for us to do other than to kill things, Hotline Miami is like a blazing neon indictment of what we are psychically, digitally doing far too often when we play. Maybe the developers didn’t intend this, maybe they thought they were making nothing more than a bloody, violent, surreal old school indie action game with an incredible aesthetic sense. But even if they didn’t, the underpinnings remain.
Did I have fun playing Hotline Miami? Of course I did, the gameplay is awesome. But is it because I’ve been programmed to enjoy it? Or do I just enjoy hurting people?
Bass rumbles, my 2013 TV flickers like a 1983 set. It’s really too fucking loud. I should turn it down but I won’t. I should turn off the PS3 and go to bed but I won’t. Next level, new mask, weapon unlocked. I descend.