Once again, fervent What a Maneuver supporter Lee Spriggs drops some knowledge on you about a horrific indie game. We also like this game a lot, so read what Lee says, then go buy it if you somehow haven’t already.
Here’s a list of adjectives to describe Hotline Miami that I came up with while I was brainstorming for this article:
Hotline Miami is a perfectly constructed game. It’s a game where the experience is what matters most – you don’t play it just for the story, or just for the gameplay, or just for the soundtrack. You play it because it’s compelling. But when you immerse yourself in the game, you allow its grotesqueries to go to work on you, from the disorienting narrative, to the sound design and lighting, to the vicious acts that you’re performing.
In this game, you can take a drill to someone’s head, and watch as he thrashes on the ground, twitching and dying. You can hit a guard with a door, and then leap out and beat his prone body with a bat, or slice him open with a broken pool cue. When you take an enemy down, they will sometimes crawl slowly away, leaving a blood trail, until they expire or you press the issue by bending down to snap their necks.
All of this is horrifying, but the part that really stayed with me beyond the game is how righteous it all felt. Hotline Miami is a game where you die A LOT. Even once I got the controls down there were always enemies that would pose a challenge, and because of the pathfinding routines, playthroughs are rarely identical. But the game is brilliant because it makes respawn times nonexistent. You hit a button and you’re right back at the checkpoint, ready to tear through another try. And there’s no quicksaving so you can’t save after clearing out a room, meaning that you have to take down that poor first guard in a level over and over and over and over again until you finish the whole thing. And after a few playthroughs you start getting in a groove, and before you know it you’ve been playing for two hours, and it’s late at night, but you just want to finish the level that you’re on and try to get that higher score so you can get the next set of weapons and the next mask and find the hidden letters and….
I played this game late at night, usually with a drink next to me, because it’s a perfect late-night game. You don’t want to be interrupted while you’re playing, because you have to get into a groove in order to make substantial progress and keep that progress going. But the longer you play, the more disoriented you get. There are visits from three mysterious masked figures who ask you cryptic questions about who you are and what you are doing (lit and set in a viciously decrepit way). In the beginning of the game, you’re given videos and meals for free from a friendly clerk, only to have that removed as the game progresses. You’re confronted by mutilated people and animals for unknown reasons, as your apartment gets cluttered and uncluttered. Characters appear and disappear. I’ve read the Wikipedia plot summary several times now and I still don’t know how that description relates to the experience of the game that I had, since the immersion into this surreal realm is one of the most potent characteristics of the overall experience.
As a masked protagonist, you never see the main character’s face in the game. And that’s fine, because the idea of being masked to do this kind of killing makes perfect sense – there’s a fine tradition in horror movies of masked killers. But in this case you are the masked killer in question, and as stated before, the game gives you so many ways to kill your enemies, from gunshots to boiling pans of water. And the killing is so kinetic and fluid, requiring fast reflexes and creative thinking in order to get through a level, that the full impact of what you’re doing never truly sinks in until after the level, when you’re expected to exit the building by traversing back over the corpses of the guards you’ve left behind. You traipse over these corpses in order to get back to your car and go to the next short scene, picking up a pizza, for example, before waking up in your apartment to get the next assignment, the next potential abattoir. And this cycle keeps going until you start to discover the truth of what you’re doing, but only after the game steals away all of the heroism that you thought you were doing. At this point the only thing left to do is keep on piling up the corpses until the endgame, where nothing is left clear but our major protagonist is left behind. There’s more after that, which attempts to give an explanation for the events of the game, but by that point I’m not sure that there’s more to say in the game itself – the experience has stood for itself, and the experience is ultimately what has stuck with me and what’s going to make me keep returning to this game.
One of the most potent sources of horror is the idea that everything can be taken away from us – the people we love, the things we care about, and finally our sanity – and that’s what the experience of Hotline Miami provided for me. Many games have asked me to do violent, obscene acts to other people (Saints Row III, anyone?) but made it light-hearted. Hotline Miami propels you through the violence, but the frame for the game never lets you forget what you’re ultimately doing. Your victims in the game are people, even if they’re (apparently) Russian mobsters and other assorted villains. But they die like actual people, and the game makes you want to keep killing them. In the end, every time I put down the game, I recall the late nights, and the violence, and the visceral nature of the experience. And even though it’s horrible, I’ll want to go back and be that character again, so that I can experience the horror of a well-executed mass slaughter, regardless of its effects on the character and myself.
- Released: October 23th, 2012
- System: PC/Mac/Linux/PS3/PS Vita
- Developer/Publisher: Dennaton Games/Devolver Digital