Hotline Miami is a violent game. It is also an incredibly original game, bearing the mark of Jonatan Söderström’s (AKA “Cactus”) fascinatingly hideous punk sensibilities. This distinction sets Hotline Miami apart enough that people are willing to ask if it justifies the incredible violence it portrays, or if it manages to sidestep the cultural problems that plague more mainstream projects with similar body counts. The answer? “Why do you ask?”
To begin, I think it’s worth looking at a recent film which Hotline Miami has almost certainly taken a few stylistic cues (not least of all a love of the colour pink): Drive, starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan. That movie is essentially two different genres mashed together: the 80s teen romance and a more contemporary action film. Essentially, Ryan Gosling plays a nameless character (the driver), who is once a John Hughes heartthrob but also, ambiguously, a psycho. There’s a scene in the movie that signals irrevocable shift from the former register to the latter; while in an elevator, he and his love interest (Mulligan) are cornered by a thug who is there to kill them. Gosling’s character leans in for a kiss, the music swells, the lights grow warm signalling that this is the culmination of a movie fantasy… and then he stomps the thug’s face into oblivion in a stunningly grotesque scene, signalling the end of any possible romance plot. Cary Mulligan’s character backs out of the elevator, recognizing the driver for the first time, and it becomes clear that the romance movie is over; all that is left is for the action/revenge plot to sort itself out.
The logic of that scene is related in the fable of the scorpion and the frog, to which the movie refers. Long story short, the scorpion kills the frog and in doing so dooms himself. The frog asks the scorpion “why did you kill me when you know you would die too?” and the scorpion replies “I’m a scorpion – it’s in my nature.” In this allusion, it’s pretty clear that the movie’s title, “Drive,” is referring to Freud’s concept of trieb, which has been translated as instinct, but also, more correctly, as “drive” – specifically “the death drive.” Trieb refers to those behaviours that people endlessly repeat, even though they are destructive, even though they seem to oppose what a person believes s/he really wants. In the movie, the driver cannot escape the cycle of violence, falling from the romance movie into the action movie, or (in this movie’s somewhat simplified terms) from “fantasy” into “reality,” showing his “true nature.”
Hotline Miami sets up a similar tension between fantasy and reality; while your character murders hundreds of people there are just enough cues to suggest “maybe this isn’t really happening”: corpses rising from the dead and fixing themselves dinner, mangled bodies suddenly appear where there weren’t before. The narrative suggests that the letterman’s jacket clad “hero” may simply be imagining what is happening. Except, you know, it keeps happening.
All of this is just enough to provoke a sense of narrative desire, to suggest the player that all of this means something somehow, and this hook helps to provide the carrot that leads someone through the game. Of course, this wouldn’t be enough if the game wasn’t fun – and it is. The design is visceral, brutal, and smart, turning the act of murdering a room full of armed guards into remarkably organic and lively puzzle game. It also confers a sense of quicksilver violence and malice aforethought: the player avatar waits behind doors until someone looks away, bursts through and kills with a single swing/mouse click. It’s intense, brutal, and as you settle into groove of both the gameplay and the soundtrack, completely engrossing.
It’s worth examining the “character” of this animal mask clad hoodlum. On the one hand, the level of the game itself, he is violence incarnate. He’s asked by a character later in the game, who is shocked by his obvious bloodlust, where does this all come from? Of course, that character dies shortly thereafter, and we don’t get any obvious answers. On the other hand, this letterman jacket wearing cypher is the high school hero, the guy who gets/saves the girl, and gives every indication of some mysterious/troubled past. This is the part of the character that works with the narrative, giving the player the sense that at some point, they will discover that past, or justify those actions.
That moment of discovery never comes. In fact (spoilers), in the ending that concerns this character (there are three endings, this is the first), Mr. Animal Mask kills an old man who may be the voice on the other end of the phone giving him his instructions, walks to the balcony and lights a smoke. This scene plays out in the same top-down perspective as the rest of the game, so animation of this action is subtle, just enough to let you know that that is what is happening. Then, he pulls a Polaroid photo out of his coat, looks at it, and tosses it into the wind. It tumbles through the air suggestively, suggesting some hidden secret… except the camera never shifts, and the image is never revealed.
This scene is important in two ways: one, it is the culmination of the action hero character arc, the perfect ending to an action movie, completing that aspect of his characterization (such as it is); secondly, it is absolutely empty. We don’t see the photo because there is nothing there worth seeing, because the pose of the action hero is itself the secret that justifies the violence. In other words, the fantasy slips away, and we are left with the reality: we were playing an incredibly violent game – grotesquely, spectacularly violent – not because it was smart, or artsy, but because it was fun to play it. We weren’t in it for the narrative – we were in it to repeat, over and over, the destructive action of planting a lead pipe in someone’s skull.
The next possible endings operate on the level of the easter egg, and provoke more metaficational readings (you kill the developers), but they do more to taunt anyone looking for “meaning” then they do to provide it; the hidden ending unlocked by finding the game’s secret collectibles resembles a Hideo Kojima plot at his most in(s)ane. It’s a joke on those people who try to read critically in order to justify their own enjoyment, because Cactus et al. know what really “drives” the player; repetition, violence, winning.
So: does Hotline Miami do anything to justify its violent content? Actively no – and it would be disingenuous to say that just because it provokes a revelation about game violence, it makes it okay. But it does pose the question of why that matters – that is, if it only matters because people are afraid to admit what they really want out of a game. In other words, it asks the player to justify herself, and what is really required in demanding a justification.
I enjoyed the shit out of Hotline Miami. I do feel a little bit guilty about it, and I admit that I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much if it didn’t have such a sense of Cactus-brand weird. I guess that’s because ultimately, its narrative play was like telling a child to count to three before you pull their tooth, and pulling on one or two – because they’re distracted, they have no chance to feel uncomfortable. It’s a simple trick, but an effective one – and Hotline Miami may be just a game, but it is a tricky one.
So the question stands: why do you play games?
Further Reading: Sadistic Design in Spec Ops: The Line (Medium Difficulty)