“Long time no see. I was worried about you. What with all the killings and all that, I mean. Don’t worry about paying, you’re my friend.”
I pick up my free VHS rental, jump in my car, and head home.
Several days pass. I am in my apartment, which is surprisingly clean. The twin beds that were once on separate sides of my bedroom are now pushed together into one. Flowers decorate the kitchen table.
After completing each mission of Hotline Miami, the player guides the avatar through some thing like this. You go to a pizza joint or a bar or a convenience store. The store clerk engages you in some friendly chat. You leave and wake up in your apartment some days later.
The rest of the player’s time in the game is spent murdering Russian gangsters. Lots of Russian gangsters. And some police officers, too. Game critics seem to like this aspect of the game:
Kirk Hamilton, of Kotaku, said:
It’s the coolest I’ve felt playing a video game in a long time . . .
Phil Owen, of Gameranx, said:
. . . you’ll think you’re the biggest badass in the history of gaming.
Alec Meer of Rock, Paper Shotgun, said:
Hotline Miami makes me feel like a man, not a pasty half-man hunched over a keyboard.
Having played through Hotline Miami twice, I can affirm having felt all these things. I can also affirm feeling incredibly scared and deeply ashamed.
Each level is simple enough—make your way through each floor and kill every single living being you see. Doing so requires both careful planning and split-second improvisation. There were very few times when my plans actually worked exactly like I intended. Your character is every bit as vulnerable as the many enemies you face. Melee weapons are silent, while firing guns gives away your location. Enemies are strategically spread out and ammo is limited such that completing the later levels with one weapon is almost impossible.
HLM reminds me of playing Super Hexagon in that progress required me to dial out everything but the game. As the difficulty ramped up, I learned to think only about what my enemies might do, and what I might do. With every move I steadied myself to adapt. At times I pounded the keyboard or frantically clicked my mouse in some vain hope of getting them to be more responsive. Without fail, such efforts would result in death. When I restarted, I would determine to be more calculated, more focused, and less ruled by emotion. When I successfully cleared a floor in Hotline, it looked something like this:
Bust through door knocking down guard with shotgun. Sprint at man with golf club and punch to ground before he turns. Sprint back to shotgun guard. Smash head repeatedly into the floor. Grab golf club and crack it over the other man’s head the moment he stands back up. Proceed to next room. Run at man with assault rifle, knock him down. Grab assault rifle and throw it at guard with knife. Kick guard’s face into wall. Other guard now equipped the knife. Grab assault rifle and fire at knife man. Three guards hear gunshots. Move to the corner of room and wait. Two guards run in. Shoot them down with last of ammo. Third guard with double-barreled shotgun enters. Throw assault rifle at him, knock him down. Grab his shotgun and blow off his head as he stands up. Enter the next room to find a man in the corner with a silenced pistol.
Right before he shoots, I step to the side and fire my last shotgun shell. It splits him in half.
All this time, Jasper Byrne’s “Hotline” has been playing, pouring out intense synth beats that seem to tell me to sprint, hit, kick, and shoot—anything but feel. As the man with the silenced pistol lays at my feet, his blood soaking the carpet, the game tells me “Stage clear! Go to car!”
The music dulls to a drone and I do what I do every time I finish a level. I get to my car as fast as possible. I can’t remember which set of stairs leads back to my car. I turn the wrong way and have to walk past the piles of dead guards a second time. I know this is just a game but I don’t want to acknowledge what I’ve done.
My successes in Hotline Miami certainly make me feel empowered but such feelings fade to anxiety and shame. Shame for giving in, for tapping into my most primal instincts and setting my humanity aside.
The game’s shift to my protagonist’s every day life is jarring. One minute I am systematically murdering a dozen men and the next I am picking up pizza.
The mileage between the mundane, human actions and the robotic slaughter manifests in a different portion of the game. My avatar’s apartment, which might be the most important character in Hotline Miami.
Early on it is littered with empty pizza boxes and newspaper clippings. It includes a Nintendo and youthful clothing spread out on the floor. When your character saves a woman in one early missions, the apartment begins to transform and you begin to see evidences of a budding relationship. I am not allowed to talk to this woman; instead I can only check my answering machine while she takes a bath.
As I take stock of the transformation of my character’s apartment, like Alec Meer, I can’t help but think what his life might have been if he never checked his messages.
I am thankful for critics like Meer and Charles Onyett who recognize Hotline Miami’s intentional contrast of brutality and normalcy. But those strange reviews, that reduce HLM to a mere set of rules designed to “make you feel like a king if you can beat it,” are perhaps even more jarring than the narrative of the game itself.
Hotline Miami frightened me—not because of all the blood and violence but because it gave me a taste of that emotional state at which a homicidal maniac arrives the moment he opens fire. When I would complete a stage, I never counted corpses, never lingered. I ran to my car as fast as possible. I wanted to get back to a place where there was still some semblance of humanity and peace, even if it was an illusion. Hotline Miami will stay with me for a long time, not because of how cool it made me feel, but because it gave me a picture, if ever so small, of the brutality we are all capable of.
About the Author:
Drew Dixon is editor-in-chief of Game Church. He also edits for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Paste Magazine and Think Christian.
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