The question posed in Hotline Miami is rhetorical.
“Do you like hurting other people?”
Of course you don’t. Or you shouldn’t. But this is a game, and so you do.
Killing is often the language of games. It lubricates plots, and, in capable hands, can create something of emotional and physical heft to participate in. It passes time.
In Hotline Miami, killing is parallel to breathing, twitching, and clicking. With a deceptively simple aesthetic and trial-and-error gameplay, the game’s use of death — both yours and others — may seem trivial. When you die, you’re instantly ready to restart and hit the ground running; when you kill, it’s only an iota of progress in the face of the next, inevitable death. The game fits you into a system of hurried action and scattershot decisions, leaving you to rely on your reactions to indiscriminately cut down everyone in your way and make an exit, at which point you receive a wave of point tallies and bonuses for aggressive or wily improvisations. It’s an absolute bull-in-a-china-shop experience, except the bull can use weapons, and sometimes opts to look like some other animal.
The game’s question lingers every time you receive another mysterious assignment and put on another beast’s face. If you manage to make it a few stages in, the implicit answer is probably an emphatic yes; you’ve likely found pleasure in the deeds you do, and come to enjoy the disarming appeal of the gameplay, or the striking goriness of its sprites.
By making the act of taking another life deeply satisfying on a visual and primal level, the game subjects you to a certain indirect scrutiny. Games that strive to make subtle point about the player’s actions aren’t rare, but few tackle the simple subject of hurting and killing with the confidence and narrowness of Hotline Miami. The game’s sole contemporary in this regard may be Manhunt, the grisly, cynical stealth game from Rockstar.
Both games portray brutal, reprehensible violence in stylized ways that compensate the player’s actions. Manhunt populates its grimy, dystopian world with gangs of hardened sadists and psychos, each deplorable in their own way, giving you a moral free pass to execute with excess and impunity, without the need for messy regret or remorse. Look, it says. Look at this filth: beasts that deserve to be put down. Kill them, enjoy it, and don’t feel bad.
That Manhunt is a stealth game somewhat directs how it approaches your involvement in killing. If you do it right and play by its rules, you’re little more than a creeping shadow, a grim, plodding thing sneaking through hellish playgrounds and slaughtering pigs. Manhunt also has a structured cleanliness in killing Hotline Miami lacks; its kills are choreographed and brutal, snuff films as an incentive for tolerating its stealth gameplay.
“Brutal!” you say, no longer tightly gripping the controller because film grain has taken over the screen and you see “you,” The protagonist/murderer, tighten a small, plastic bag around another man’s head and wrestle the gasping frame to the ground. You do nothing in these situations, aside from steering this character through the shadows, away from fields of view, and up to a victim. It wasn’t easy – here’s the payoff!
Manhunt’s removal of player control at the peak of an encounter represents an idea recently re-presented by Hotline Miami (even though the latter is all about having full agency in your actions at every turn). Each takes an act that has become numb and ubiquitous in games — taking a life — and makes it objective. Other games will make abstract this action as numerical value, a check box, or some other abstraction; Hotline Miami and Manhunt give you the thing you can expect to see, but undiluted, for as long as you’re willing to involve yourself and persevere.
Manhunt gets there by stripping you of interactive power in each sick crescendo; Hotline Miami does it through repetition, and by giving you intimate control. In each, you’re led to seize the opportunity to be a terrible, opportunistic thing. In the former, you prey on other slime from the shadows, only truly succeeding when your victims-to-be don’t see it coming. The latter has you hiding behind the name and identity of different kinds of animals—repeatedly reborn entities that roar back after death again and again.
Hotline Miami and Manhunt starkly exhibiting these explicit actions adds some largely unspoken commentary to each. Each treats ultra violence in a way that presumes and rewards an aggressiveness on your part, but also amplifies it into an ostentatious and unavoidable production. Manhunt does so with sober clarity, giving you the privilege of calmly viewing of each life you snuff out. In the flighty, surreal experience of Hotline Miami, successful murder comes in a haze, and the spoils of your victory are paraded back to you in the muted trek as you walk through the now uninhabited level, back over your handiwork and towards the hollow tallying of points. Your character only stops at the moment when you’ve cut down every other living thing in your way, when the instinct fades and the weapon in your hand becomes nothing more than an awkward, bloodied prop. The music dulls, your once-manic perception slows, and reality catches up.
We respond to this kind of morbid emphasis—as many have already done in the wake of Hotline Miami, and many did in Manhunt’s time when a spotlight is given to behaviors we take for granted, when our actions through an avatar are the objects of both exploitation and repulsion, and our own desensitized obsession is shown in stark relief. Both games ask the question, but don’t bother wasting time waiting for our “yes.”
Further Reading: Why Are You Doing This? Hotline Miami and Drive (Medium Difficulty)