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Hotline Miami (PSN) in Review


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.


Hotline Miami Review


The first time you fire up Hotline Miami, you’ll swear your PC has gone wrong. It’ll likely hang for what seems like an age, and then take you to a title screen burnished with blocky text in Russian against an eye-straining dayglow backdrop. It’s the 80’s. It’s Acid House all over again.

What happens next most assuredly isn’t. An ugly, bearded man will swear at you repeatedly as he teaches you the basic concepts of the game. Sneak up on people by using the building topology to keep out of sight, then eviscerate them or shoot them, or just punch them to the floor and then brain them by smashing their heads repeatedly against a door frame.

And that, essentially is Hotline Miami. Twenty-one levels of appalling top-down violence rendered in cheerful fluorescent tones and backed by a thumping techno soundtrack. Except that it’s very hard to describe quite how something so brutally primal can be one of the most intelligent and knowing games I’ve played in years.

The whole thing is a beguilingly circular, self-referential piece of design. The extreme gore passes silent judgement on the acceptance of violence in games. The unreliability of the narrator is a window into into the virtual worlds that games construct. Even the plot bends back in on itself, but to delve too far therein would being giving too much away.

It’s a hard game, but it never feels unfair, and any gamer could beat it with patience and practice. A single hit will end your murderous rampages, so you need to be careful, using stealth and silence where appropriate and making calls on the right time to go in, all guns blazing.

As a game, just like as a piece of social commentary, what’s really impressive about Hotline Miami is how such a small thing manages to fill so many different shoes. A beat ‘em up. A stealth game. A tactical shooter. A puzzler. It’s all these things and more.

But ultimately the game gets hijacked by its compact and bijou nature. For most of your first playthroughs new guns, new powers, different enemies and novel scenery to interact with will keep you going. Toward the end you’ll notice that all the guns are pretty much the same. So are all the enemies. Many of the powers aren’t really useful, or even fun.

Completists will enjoy finding the considerable quantity of hidden things, and theorists will enjoy replaying the plot for the intriguing ambiguity it provides. Otherwise you’ve got perhaps one or two play-throughs of a two to four hour game.

But who cares. It’s cheap. Play it for its glorious inventiveness. Play it for the violence. Play it for an abject lesson in how much one clever designer can cram, Chinese-doll like, into one small package and then consider how little huge corporations manage to fit into vast, spacious AAA games, echoing like howling ruins in the desert. Just play it.