Having looked at the sequel Hax Monster steps back to discuss Hotline Miami.

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , ,

This review contains spoilers of Hotline Miami throughout. If you haven’t played it yet, all you need to know is that it earns a solid recommendation from me. However, I want to be free in pointing out the beauty of the game’s story and the way it transfers it. It’s cheap, runs on any PC and is short, so there are no excuses: play it and then come back. For the used interpretation of the plot of this game I have used something Rami ‘vlambeer’ Ismail’ wrote on the internet on this game. 
One wonderful ability that I share with any creator of any written text, work of art or intellectual work in general is that I know at least one thing about you. I don’t know if your name is Victor or Josh (although it would be funny if that happened to be the case), if you like your eggs soft- or hard-boiled or whether or not you just elected for US president the most unsuitable person for governance since emperor Nero, but I do know that you are reading my text. And since I know this text will most likely only be seen on the Sword and Torch Inn website, I know at the very least that you are using either a PC, tablet device or smartphone to view my work. I know you are using an internet browser as well. This might seem obvious, but the beautiful thing is that I can use that to my advantage. 
I can use the limitations of the medium that is used to transfer what I have created more effectively. Post-modernistic art tended to do something like this quite often: reminding the audience, reader or viewer of a work that they are viewing or reading something to take them out of the experience on purpose. Another example is the last song of Slipknots ‘All Hope Is Gone’ record, which purposefully starts breaking up in a way that sounds as if the CD is scratched to pieces. Video games offer beautiful possibilities in this area, since the person enjoying the work directly interacts with it and is therefore more immersed than Atlantis after a major sewer clogging. Perhaps the most beautiful example of a game using this for its narrative is Hotline Miami, without a colon, since the second one wasn’t called Hotline: Stoke On Trent or something. Although I do notice I keep making typing mistakes, writing it as ‘Hoeline Miami’, which could either be an escort service or a company selling farming equipment over the phone. 

Anyway, Hotline Miami is a high-paced psychedelic over-the-top top-down violent fighting game where your answering machine cryptically instructs you to go to various locations in 1980’s Miami and slaughter armed dudes. Every level starts with you getting out of bed in your messy apartment, walking over to the phone and receiving a message that, in convoluted terms, tells you to go somewhere and take care of business. Then, you proceed to do so and as soon as you leave the building, blood clinging to your shoes, the game cuts to a shop, bar or pizza place and lets you do a mundane, every-day activity, such as buying a drink or ordering pizza. This applies to nearly every chapter, with the only interruptions being dream sequences where a horse, rooster and owl speak to you in respectively a soothing, authorative and resentful tone. 
Describing the gameplay on paper doesn’t really allow me to describe its depth, not surprising for a two-dimensional medium, so don’t judge too early if the mechanics I’m about to walk you through sound extremely standard and boring. You move around the level from a top-down perspective and can punch enemies to knock them on the floor. Once they are down you can perform a finishing move of one brief second. You can also pick up melee weapons which all are instant kills and can be thrown. Some weapons, like knives, are also lethal when flung at the enemy. Others merely knock them down. There are also guns, which have only one clip that can’t be reloaded. Finally, you can knock people down by throwing doors in their face and there are windows that your foes can see through. That’s it, really. One level mixes things up with metal detectors that alert everyone if you walk through them with a gun but, on paper, the gameplay is run of the mill at its finest. But ‘seemingly simple’ doesn’t mean ‘bad’. One can easily mock a Barett Newman painting as something a household painter and decorator could make within three minutes, until you find yourself in the Museum of Modern Art, five centimetres away from it, and find yourself inexplicably drawn in.

The simple gameplay is what allows the game to convey its message. The reason for this is that H:M’s gameplay has something in common with Guitar hero, and not only the fact that you obliterate small, brightly-coloured objects with satisfying sound as a result. Like Guitar Hero, you can only play Warmthread Las Vegas by not thinking about it. If you consciously try to aim your attacks and estimate the size of your ambiguous hitbox, you will end up with more metal in your head than Punished ‘Venom’ Snake. This partially has to do with the behaviour of the AI in that it is impossible to get NPC’s to behave consistently. Because of this, you can’t rely on a plan when it comes to luring enemies or predicting their path. Planning, therefore, is a no-go. The key is to completely trust your intuition and get into a certain flow and, all of a sudden, everything works out. You will manage to somehow throw a club in someone’s face while sprinting through a door, finishing the two enemies you door-slammed in the process, grab the gun of one of them, shoot an incoming attack dog and then shoot the first guy you club-faced before he can get up, all in under four seconds. 

But it is more trance-inducing than visiting a pop-art exhibition while on LSD, also thanks to the game’s superbly hypnotizing 80’s synthesizer soundtrack. Then, however, the moment the last lifeless body thumps to the ground, you immediately come down from your killing spree. Then the game does something that seems arbitrary but is actually very important: it forces you to walk back to your car at the start of the level with all the damage, blood and broken glass still lying around. Meanwhile, the funky synthesizer tunes are replaced with one eerie consistent tone. You are confronted with your wrongdoing and all of it hits extra hard because the game didn’t give you time to think about it during the fight. 

As I mentioned earlier, after each of these fights you go to a normal place and do a normal thing and this offers a frame of reference against which the massacres still stay extreme and horrifying. If Call of Duty or modern day television taught us anything it’s that horrifying violence can easily be the norm if it is all you show (Listen to Tool’s song ‘Vicarious’ or Meshuggah’s ‘Obzen’ if you want to know what I mean), so cleverly Hotline Miami gives us something to contrast that. But these scenes also serve to show how your character becomes more and more nutty as time goes on. First, subtle clues interrupt the mundanity of these little slices of daily life, but before you realize it you’ll be talking to walking corpses that may or may not have been killed by you a few levels ago and that is the point after which there is no return from Bonkersburg. 
As the insanity piles up and the pixel blood keeps flowing, you are confronted by the three animals in the dream sequences with your wrongdoing. But nothing changes. It’s still: another day, another answer machine, another massacre, another news story that the NRA can spin to promote gun usage. Finally, you reach the boss of all the dudes that you bested thusfar. As you walk in, he says he expected you. Then you shoot him, smoke a cigarette, end of story. Anticlimactic, isn’t it?

But wait! There’s more!

As a short first credit roll finishes, time is reversed and we find ourselves around the time of the earlier levels we played. Now, however, the player character is a tough-looking biker, his head obscured by a helmet. Then some more missions follow as we play as this unknown character who, maybe because of his sound-isolating helmet, is no blind slave to the answering machine. He commits his massacres on his own accord to find the source behind the murder-messages. After all, this was the 1980’s, where internet trolling did not exist yet and someone sending you homicidal messages on a regular basis was actually a thing people took seriously!

The biker levels are a bit more annoying than the previous ones, since the biker can’t pick up weapons or guns or throw things. All he uses is one meat cleaver and three throwing knives that you can pick up after use. My beef with this is that this goes against the spirit of the game’s supersonic intuitive gameplay that was the strength of the previous half. You can’t improvise much and now have to plan every knife throw because some situations can only be resolved with a ranged weapon. 
But as soon as you overcome all that you can come to the haunting conclusion of the messages and that is where the tricks of using your art form artfully I mentioned earlier. Because the mind-boggling thing is that the person sending you those answer messages and telling you to kill is the same person that tells you to kill in Call of Duty or Battlefield. Is he a boring, stern military commander? Not at all: the person telling you to kill is, as in any game, the game’s developer. The biker’s quest leads us to a shabby basement where we find two figures, looking like the developers of the game. The biker then asks them if they think this is some kind of sick game, sending out massacre-encouragements across the city. And the brilliant reply is: Don’t you think this is a game? You ARE playing a game right now, aren’t you? Are you having fun? With this subtle but groundshaking bit of fourth-wall-breaking everything falls into place and the banality of a game’s developer essentially making you kill on command becomes painfully clear. With this, Hennes Maurits brings beautiful criticism towards violence in video games and, considering the trance it brings you in it its most violent moments, the manner in which people perceive or deal with violence.

The game has three big gaping flaws. The first is the mask system. Throughout all of your genocide runs you wear an animal mask and all of them, except for the starting one, give you gameplay bonuses that vary from silenced guns to lethal door smashes. However, there is one that rules them all, which is the one that makes your fists kill enemies instantaneously and makes finishing moves instant as well. The latter might seem pointless, since finishing someone only takes one second, but the pace is higher than that of a Dragonforce song on fast-forward and that means that finishers can be the difference between life and death, and not only the life or death of the downed NPC. 

The second big gaping flaw is the hospital level. At one point as we still play as the first character, we are arrested and end up in hospital. There, we have to sneak out without being spotted by doctors or the police holding us there. I normally wouldn’t mind an attempt to mix gameplay styles up and it is better to have us leave the hospital without resorting to cutscene, but the problem is that Heisslinien Hamburg has controls and visuals only really suitable for over-the-top violent massacring gameplay and not for sneaky stealth sections. It would have been better if this sequence had been nothing more than the player walking through a corridor without there being a chance of getting caught. One little detail I liked was that, during this chapter, moving too fast or too much causes your character to get a headache which is conveyed through visuals and audio in a way that brings across the feeling of a suddenly rising headache quite well. I like that we feel some vulnerability for the first time in the game because that raises the steaks and reminds us of the slight bit of humanity left in our mute, faceless, nameless protagonist. 

Then there is the final flaw and never has such a minor flaw had such horrible implications as in this case. The problem is that the beautiful conversation with the ‘developers’ I mentioned earlier has dialogue trees, which is for the very first time in the entire game. There seems to be no reason for it and there is no real choice involved beyond what the characters are going to say next. The horrible thing is that the grand, revolutionary twist in which the developers draw the attention of the player to the fact that he is merely playing a game doesn’t come up if you pick the wrong dialogue choice. And that is how a dialogue tree can uproot your entire game in under two seconds. 

Videogames are a beautiful art form and, with their interactivity, can do things that no other medium can pull off. The problem is that the greatest works of gaming art created, such as Killer7, Hotline Miami or Spec Ops: The Line are buried under the endless pile of Call of Duty’s Battlefields and League of Legends’s. Funnily enough, Hotline: Miami was itself buried by its sequel. For more information on that, read my review of that game. It suffices to say that there was no need for a sequel and that the sequel only goes through the same motions as the predecessor to ring a few more pennies. It introduced nothing except poor gameplay design, bugs and a bloated, inefficiently designed story. And thus the story was concluded of probably the best indie game I ever played. Let’s enjoy it now before they release a movie, book, tea towel and maybe also a constipation aid bearing its name to earn even more money!


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