When Hotline Miami first debuted, almost no one seemed to know what to do with it. Some critics remarked that it was the coolest they had ever felt while playing a videogame, while others called it a “murder sim.” Eventually, it became clear that while Hotline Miami is a tremendously well designed game, what makes the game memorable is its unique treatment of violence.
There is a scene in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive, where Ryan Gossling’s character, “The Driver” finds himself in an elevator with Irene, the woman he has fallen for, and a hitman who has likely come to kill them both. The Driver turns to kiss Irene while ethereal music plays in the background. When the two pull away from their kiss, the music stops and the hitman reaches for his gun. The Driver slams him into the wall before he can shoot and proceeds to brutally stomp him to death while Irene watches. The scene ends with Irene exiting the elevator and starring horrified at The Driver as he lets the door close between them. Though brutal, it is one of my very favorite scenes because it tells the truth about violence: it is brutal, cold, and destructive. Despite the fact that The Driver was trying to protect Irene, their relationship can never be the same.
This moment in Drive is the sort of thing mainstream videogames rarely even attempt to pull off. Yet Hotline Miami, an indie game that came out for PC last year and was only recently released on the Playstation Network, managed to provide players with several moments that were just as telling and meaningful. Here’s five.
1. The Walk
I understand why many claim that playing Hotline Miami makes them feel cool. Finishing each level requires a tremendous amount of precision, and the incredible early 90′s/late 80′s themed sound track fuels the player with adrenaline pumping synth beats. That is, until you’ve killed every person in the residence. At that point, Hotline Miami‘s brilliant soundtrack dulls to a drone. At that point, you’re forced to lead your character through the many dead bodies you produced, as the drone continues. It’s as if the lights are flipped on in the dark room where murderer’s plan was carried out perfectly. Each time I finished a level, I went from feeling empowered to to feeling terrified as was forced to acknowledge what I had done.
2. Newspaper Clippings
Early in the game, it is implied that your character is being brain washed to commit these crimes. After each of the early levels you wake in your apartment and and find more and more newspaper clippings about mass murders on your coffee table. Your character has lingering memories of the atrocities he has been forced to commit and is fighting to make sense of those lingering memories in light of these real life atrocities he reads about in the newspaper. For the player, however, these moments reiterate the reality of what your ‘success’ in the prior level represents: “… six bodies found on East 7th Street ….”
3. The Alley Scene
Toward the beginning of the game, after killing 10 guys in a metro station, I went to an alley to leave the stolen briefcase in a dumpster. Immediately after dropping off the briefcase, a homeless man attacks me with a baseball bat, seemingly in terrified self-defense. I punch him to the ground and then beat his head into the asphalt until blood oozes. I then get up and head to my car, only to stop and throw up in the alley.
It’s a small thing, but watching my character barf up indistinguishable green ooze reminds me that pixelated though he is, he represents a real human being who couldn’t possibly do what he just did and feel empowered.
4. The Apartment
After each level, the player returns to Jacket’s (the name many have given to HM’s protagonist) apartment. Initially, his apartment is a mess. There is laundry and trash strewn all about, cheeto crumbs on the couch, and a TV and videogame console sloppily placed at the foot of the bed. Every time you return to Jacket’s apartment it is different: different trash and t-shirts litter the halls and different news paper clippings are laid out on the coffee table. These small details remind us that Jacket isn’t all that different from us. In one level, Jacket saves a woman from a group of gangsters, and allows her to live in his apartment. The longer she lives there, the more the space transforms. There are suggestions that Jacket has begun a romantic relationship with her. Eventually the place is orderly and clean–the television moves from the bedroom to the living room and pizza boxes no longer litter the hallways. These are signs that the two are sharing life together.
These retreats into Jacket’s apartment provide an important contrast to the murder that the player spends most of the game committing. The brief time spent in Jacket’s evolving apartment gives us a glimpse into what his life could be if he never checked his answering machine.
5. The Epilogue (spoiler alert)
Finishing the main story allows player to play an epilogue as a rival assassin that you previously killed, allowing you to confront the people who were leaving the messages on your machine. These men question you for for all the horrible things you have done and also justify their own actions by insisting that “it’s just a game.”