At this point I'm about six or seven hours into Hotline Miami. I've got nearly half the masks, and I'm two or three levels from the end. Since the end of the prologue though, I've known this game was something special. From my first encounter with the masked trio in a trashed apartment, I knew this game had bite. It begins with you, the everyman suddenly turned contract killer, taking not-so-subtle phone messages letting you know where to hit. You go in, you kill everyone, you go out. Simple. Oh, and you wear a rubber mask.
On the gameplay side, these masks can give you special boosts depending on which one you choose, ranging from the gruesome "start with a drill" (3600 points for a drill takedown-- this game is brutal), to the life-saving "survive one bullet", to the tactical "silent gunshots". Though the art style is a simple, pixelly top-down throwback, this game doesn't hesitate to slap on the gore. I am in awe of whoever did all the pixel art because it is fabulous. The occasional effect combined with a camera that rotates slightly when the action heats up and a background that flashes neon colours whenever you score a kill cement this sense of speed and panicked aggression. Simply through the art style, we know from the get-go that even if the protagonist is only killing Russian Mafia members, he's definitely not one of the good guys.
After every job, you head to some sort of business, where the same man in a different uniform will be behind the desk and welcome you and quietly direct you to an object containing what the player is left to assume to be payment. It's not explained how you know to go to these places. In the fourth or fifth mission, you rescue a woman who then begins to live in your apartment with you. You start to root for your character a little because he now seems a little more human. But then Part 1 ends and 2 begins with another visit/kidnapping in the dingy apartment. The masked trio give you a series of questions to ask yourself, the first being "Do you like hurting people?" Without responding, your character leaves and continues his work. You're left to wonder what sort of man your character is becoming.
This mysterious approach to telling the story is brilliant in a video game. The silent protagonist trope always encourages the player to project themselves onto the character. However, giving the player such a narrow view of the character's life also establishes a persona that the player him/herself then adopts. That's the best way I can describe it, anyway. There are countless little things that encourage this sort of immersion, these are just a few examples. This is the first time since Beyond Good & Evil that I've truly been interested by a video game world or story, and it's because it's told so well.
I have yet to see how it ends, and I've heard there are multiple endings, so expect another post soon on how that goes. I've tried to keep this one mostly spoiler-free, giving only minor hints to actual story content, but the next one's definitely going to tell some of the stuff that comes beyond level 4. Stay tuned.
Oh, and by the way it's only ten bucks on Steam. Do yourself a favour and buy it and play a few levels before my next post.