Hotline Miami is the most important game of 2012

Posted by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

Hey you! There are some spoilers near the end of this bit. You've been warned.

Murder simulator. Power fantasy. Violence porn. Hotline Miami is all of these things, but unlike nearly every other violent shooter in the medium, it’s perfectly aware of this. In fact, it’s rubbing your nose in it. It’s an extremely confrontational discussion of violence in videogames that happens to be wrapped up in a mechanically brilliant game. At the core of Hotline Miami’s impact is its central question, posed to the player in an early cutscene: “Do you like hurting other people?” It’s enough to make you think very, very carefully about what you’re doing when you play Hotline Miami, or any of the extremely popular and commercially successful modern military shooters that occupy the market.

Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter, where death comes extremely easily for both the player and the characters in the game. Your objective is to move through each floor of a building and kill every single occupant in the fastest, most efficient manner possible. The combat is extremely fast, and one hit from an enemy will bring your game to an end. It’s extremely easy to die, and you will often start a level dozens of times over until you manage to complete it. Restarting is instantaneous, however, so there’s no delay in getting back into the action. In this way, HLM is quite similar to Super Meatboy or Trials. You’re presented with increasingly difficult objectives that have zero margin for error, but you are not penalized for restarting. Eventually you’ll find the best “line” through a level and complete it, and the mental reward for doing so is considerable. Hotline Miami just feels really, really good to play - working from the razor focus of each individual level to the huge endorphin rush of completing them is exhilarating. There's just enough random behavior from the AI to add an element of panicky improvisation to the gameplay as well.

You kill enemies quickly in HLM, with many different tools. You start killing with your bare hands, strangling your enemies or knocking them over and smashing their heads into the ground until they split open. Enemies will drop baseball bats, crowbars, and knives, which can be wielded or thrown. You might burst into a room, knocking over the enemy standing behind the door and rushing the other one with your knife before he has a chance to shoot you with his gun. Then, you go back to the enemy you knocked over and slit his throat with your knife. Then, you can pick up one of their guns and shoot another enemy in a hallway. The loud gunshot attracts attention, and all of the enemies within earshot will then rush towards the sound. You can then hide behind a corner and kill them all as they walk into your line of fire. One mistake in this entire sequence, one botched shot or delayed reaction and you’ll be killed instead, instantly starting over to try it again.

The 16-bit graphical style is overlaid with filters that look like you’re watching through a busted VCR with poor tracking, and the entire screen lists to the right and left as you move around. The backgrounds outside of the playable levels transition between solid neon colors and flash red when you kill an enemy. The effect can be disconcerting, and would be much more so if the mechanics of the game didn’t require so much of your attention. The soundtrack is full of excellent chiptune songs that fit perfectly with the Drive-as-a-videogame aesthetic. The enemies are seen top-down at first as only heads, shoulders and weapons, all end up sprawled on the floor after you kill them, in pools of blood, occasionally missing limbs or heads (depending on how they died). The game looks exactly like what worried mothers and Jack Thompson imagined we were playing back in the Doom era. At the end of every level, the moment you kill the last enemy the music cuts abruptly, replaced with a sort of atonal humming. Every single time, my stomach lurched and I got a giddy, nervous feeling. I realized that my hands had gone clammy and my heartbeat felt a little too fast. Of course, the level doesn’t just end there. You have to walk back to the beginning of the level, which means you have to tour the rooms filled with bodies. This is the biggest “innovation” in Hotline Miami. Not only do you see what you’re doing while you’re doing it, but you’re forced to go back and look at what you did after you did it.

Look at any big-budget action title where the main activity is killing enemy characters. Any of the Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, or Battlefield titles first spring to mind. In those games, you’re always given some sort of heroic goal or shadowy organization to topple as an excuse for ending the virtual lives of hundreds, sometimes thousands of virtual humans (sometimes even virtual civilians!). Some games even include torture sequences. Notably, Call of Duty: Black Ops features a scene where you take a piece of glass from a broken window frame, place it in the mouth of another character, and then punch him in the face (presumably so he’ll bite down on the glass and cut his mouth to shreds). The cutscene is “interactive,” in that you press the button to punch the character. At an E3 demo for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, a player is given the moral choice to kill someone, absurdly after they’ve already played an interactive torture sequence where they spin the control stick around to twist a knife in someone’s clavicle. Tom Bissel, after playing the demo, “spent a couple days feeling ashamed of being a gamer, of playing or liking military games, of being interested in any of this disgusting bullshit at all” (1).

During the final sequence of Hotline Miami, the second player character encounters the figures who have been leaving cryptic voice mails and orchestrating the action of the game. It’s vague and disappointing until you realize that the conversation is between you, the player, and Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, the developers. “Why all the killing? You think this is a game?” you ask, indignant. “Well of course it is. Didn’t you enjoy it?” Any sort of window dressing about the Russian mafia or a shadowy conspiracy is besides the point. Hotline Miami is a game about player mentality. You can leave the final level without killing the last two enemies, and in one mission you can go through an entire building full of people without killing a single one, but most of us will kill them all anyways. It’s because we enjoy hurting other people.

#1 Posted by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

Hey you! There are some spoilers near the end of this bit. You've been warned.

Murder simulator. Power fantasy. Violence porn. Hotline Miami is all of these things, but unlike nearly every other violent shooter in the medium, it’s perfectly aware of this. In fact, it’s rubbing your nose in it. It’s an extremely confrontational discussion of violence in videogames that happens to be wrapped up in a mechanically brilliant game. At the core of Hotline Miami’s impact is its central question, posed to the player in an early cutscene: “Do you like hurting other people?” It’s enough to make you think very, very carefully about what you’re doing when you play Hotline Miami, or any of the extremely popular and commercially successful modern military shooters that occupy the market.

Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter, where death comes extremely easily for both the player and the characters in the game. Your objective is to move through each floor of a building and kill every single occupant in the fastest, most efficient manner possible. The combat is extremely fast, and one hit from an enemy will bring your game to an end. It’s extremely easy to die, and you will often start a level dozens of times over until you manage to complete it. Restarting is instantaneous, however, so there’s no delay in getting back into the action. In this way, HLM is quite similar to Super Meatboy or Trials. You’re presented with increasingly difficult objectives that have zero margin for error, but you are not penalized for restarting. Eventually you’ll find the best “line” through a level and complete it, and the mental reward for doing so is considerable. Hotline Miami just feels really, really good to play - working from the razor focus of each individual level to the huge endorphin rush of completing them is exhilarating. There's just enough random behavior from the AI to add an element of panicky improvisation to the gameplay as well.

You kill enemies quickly in HLM, with many different tools. You start killing with your bare hands, strangling your enemies or knocking them over and smashing their heads into the ground until they split open. Enemies will drop baseball bats, crowbars, and knives, which can be wielded or thrown. You might burst into a room, knocking over the enemy standing behind the door and rushing the other one with your knife before he has a chance to shoot you with his gun. Then, you go back to the enemy you knocked over and slit his throat with your knife. Then, you can pick up one of their guns and shoot another enemy in a hallway. The loud gunshot attracts attention, and all of the enemies within earshot will then rush towards the sound. You can then hide behind a corner and kill them all as they walk into your line of fire. One mistake in this entire sequence, one botched shot or delayed reaction and you’ll be killed instead, instantly starting over to try it again.

The 16-bit graphical style is overlaid with filters that look like you’re watching through a busted VCR with poor tracking, and the entire screen lists to the right and left as you move around. The backgrounds outside of the playable levels transition between solid neon colors and flash red when you kill an enemy. The effect can be disconcerting, and would be much more so if the mechanics of the game didn’t require so much of your attention. The soundtrack is full of excellent chiptune songs that fit perfectly with the Drive-as-a-videogame aesthetic. The enemies are seen top-down at first as only heads, shoulders and weapons, all end up sprawled on the floor after you kill them, in pools of blood, occasionally missing limbs or heads (depending on how they died). The game looks exactly like what worried mothers and Jack Thompson imagined we were playing back in the Doom era. At the end of every level, the moment you kill the last enemy the music cuts abruptly, replaced with a sort of atonal humming. Every single time, my stomach lurched and I got a giddy, nervous feeling. I realized that my hands had gone clammy and my heartbeat felt a little too fast. Of course, the level doesn’t just end there. You have to walk back to the beginning of the level, which means you have to tour the rooms filled with bodies. This is the biggest “innovation” in Hotline Miami. Not only do you see what you’re doing while you’re doing it, but you’re forced to go back and look at what you did after you did it.

Look at any big-budget action title where the main activity is killing enemy characters. Any of the Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, or Battlefield titles first spring to mind. In those games, you’re always given some sort of heroic goal or shadowy organization to topple as an excuse for ending the virtual lives of hundreds, sometimes thousands of virtual humans (sometimes even virtual civilians!). Some games even include torture sequences. Notably, Call of Duty: Black Ops features a scene where you take a piece of glass from a broken window frame, place it in the mouth of another character, and then punch him in the face (presumably so he’ll bite down on the glass and cut his mouth to shreds). The cutscene is “interactive,” in that you press the button to punch the character. At an E3 demo for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, a player is given the moral choice to kill someone, absurdly after they’ve already played an interactive torture sequence where they spin the control stick around to twist a knife in someone’s clavicle. Tom Bissel, after playing the demo, “spent a couple days feeling ashamed of being a gamer, of playing or liking military games, of being interested in any of this disgusting bullshit at all” (1).

During the final sequence of Hotline Miami, the second player character encounters the figures who have been leaving cryptic voice mails and orchestrating the action of the game. It’s vague and disappointing until you realize that the conversation is between you, the player, and Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, the developers. “Why all the killing? You think this is a game?” you ask, indignant. “Well of course it is. Didn’t you enjoy it?” Any sort of window dressing about the Russian mafia or a shadowy conspiracy is besides the point. Hotline Miami is a game about player mentality. You can leave the final level without killing the last two enemies, and in one mission you can go through an entire building full of people without killing a single one, but most of us will kill them all anyways. It’s because we enjoy hurting other people.

#2 Posted by Animasta (14726 posts) -

I totally agree, good write up.

#3 Posted by GERALTITUDE (3507 posts) -

Most important is a little hyperbolic but, yeah, it's important. Good write up, nice to see violence getting it's due in games writing. These last few years have really opened people's eyes up to just how fucked everything has become. Gratuitous is a word I can't use enough, and I could slap it all over games and film.

#4 Posted by chilibean_3 (1697 posts) -

Excellent post, duder.

#5 Posted by FancySoapsMan (5818 posts) -

Any chapter that starts with those guys in the masks makes me really fucking uncomfortable.

I wish I could finish it but It's been slowing down a lot during the later levels :(

#6 Posted by jakob187 (21762 posts) -

It's important?

I think people could be reading way too far into it. I see it as a game that is ultra-violent for the sake of the environment, setting, and story. It's not something where I'm saying "that's disgusting". I'm saying "that's necessary". I look at a film like Running Scared or The Wild Bunch when I play this game and think "this is just the way that it is, the way it needs to be in order for everything to gel together and work".

It was a good write-up, but I just don't see it as anything deeper than being an incredibly well-made game (and possibly my favorite game this year).

#7 Posted by Kieran_ES (258 posts) -

I somewhat agree. Not most important, but very important for a number of reasons. Not just the approach to violence either.

HLM is a game that holds two distinct, competing ideas in its mind. The indictment of violence's pervasive place in the medium, and the gleeful concession that violence is fun. It lets those two ideas go at it.

But the game is mostly about flow. What it's brilliant at is in that flow. Violence plays a large role in that as well.

#8 Posted by Animasta (14726 posts) -

@jakob187 said:

It's important?

I think people could be reading way too far into it. I see it as a game that is ultra-violent for the sake of the environment, setting, and story. It's not something where I'm saying "that's disgusting". I'm saying "that's necessary". I look at a film like Running Scared or The Wild Bunch when I play this game and think "this is just the way that it is, the way it needs to be in order for everything to gel together and work".

It was a good write-up, but I just don't see it as anything deeper than being an incredibly well-made game (and possibly my favorite game this year).

that story does make it so that you can read into it as much or as little as you want though, so both your view and the OP's view can coexist.

#9 Posted by Undeadpool (4998 posts) -

@deadmoscow: I haven't played Hotline Miami (and didn't read the end of your post cause I don't wanna be spoiled) but I feel like Spec Ops: The Line brought up a LOT of what you're bringing up, particularly in load screens with phrases like

"You are still a good person"

"This is all your fault"

And my personal favorite "The United States Government does not condone the use of lethal force against civilian targets. Good thing this is just a video game, huh?"

So without getting into Hotline spoilers, how would you weigh the impact of the sort of anti-violence/ultra-violence in Hotline VS Spec Ops?

#10 Posted by Animasta (14726 posts) -

@Undeadpool: this game also tells you that you are a horrible person

#11 Posted by Winternet (8055 posts) -

Oh, boy.

#12 Edited by Etnos (245 posts) -

Some good points.. but mostly hyperbole. If so, I think X-Com success is sending even a stronger message to publishers.

#13 Posted by dabe (299 posts) -

It tackles a similar theme to Spec Ops but accomplished what it sets out to do far more subtlely, succinctly and intelligently.

Also, the narrative has a large rabbit-hole, how far you go down it depends on your own mind.

#14 Posted by project343 (2838 posts) -

I think the Mass Effect 3 ending controversy puts it as the most important game this year. It sparked a really fascinating debate between creative integrity and compromising that integrity to satisfy fan expectation that we just don't see too often (if at all) in the video game industry.

But boy does that sounds like a really interesting game that I need to eventually play.

#15 Posted by Giantstalker (1728 posts) -

Well written blog post, but I disagree with your assessment. The entire game felt and played like a cheap novelty to me, but it's neat to see how at least one person bought into the experience (and liked it).

Me, though? Next month, I doubt I'll even remember it. A decade later, I still vividly remember Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Battlefield 1942.

Pseudo-moral arguments aren't why the vast majority of people play games; I'd take a competent military shooter any day if games like HLM are the best people can do to "critique" the mainstream genre.

#16 Posted by MikkaQ (10344 posts) -

I was first in line to defend the game from people calling it out for the violence, because it justified it well enough. But I'd be the last person to say the game is important in any way. It's another fun indie game with incredibly tight level design, and very precise controls that render all mistakes made onto the player's head, which is unfortunately still refreshing in this industry, but saying that, it does nothing Super Meat Boy has already accomplished. As for it's statements on player agency and motivation well... y'all haven't been paying enough attention to MGS 2. That game nailed that shit perfectly over a decade ago.

#17 Posted by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

@Undeadpool said:

@deadmoscow: ...So without getting into Hotline spoilers, how would you weigh the impact of the sort of anti-violence/ultra-violence in Hotline VS Spec Ops?

Spec Ops is one of the games I haven't gotten around to playing this year, unfortunately. I'm going to try to pick up a copy this Sunday (since there's no 49ers game to watch).

I should probably qualify my statement as "most important game," because I think it's important in one context that a game like Journey or Mass Effect isn't. I think Hotline Miami is extremely important because I haven't seen any other game (mind you I haven't played Spec Ops yet) that critiques the use of violence in the industry and the player mindset in such a subversive, confrontational way. It's certainly easy enough to play this game and have a lot of fun killing dudes, but you don't need to look very closely at all to see the ways the developer is poking at you. It's very deliberately amoral about the on-screen violence, and it's straight up about its nature as a power fantasy. "That's what you wanted, right?" I don't think any other games are saying that, and I think it's really important we start to look at games with a little more critical distance than "it felt good to press the button and shoot that guy, and the graphics look nice."

#18 Posted by Romination (2777 posts) -

Sounds like Hotline Miami succeeds at doing what Manhunt wanted to do.

#19 Posted by Undeadpool (4998 posts) -

@deadmoscow: Spec Ops does a great misdirection by basically starting out Modern Warfare and becoming Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness).

#20 Posted by Kierkegaard (604 posts) -

I love that this game is self-aware and attempts morality where it could be "just a game." I'm not interested in playing it particulary, but I'm glad it's got something to say about its gore, that it's approach is intentional and thoughtful rather than the usual Modern Warfare gravitas and violence without commentary because we don't want the player to feel bad. Great write up! Thanks!

#21 Posted by jakob187 (21762 posts) -

@Animasta said:

@jakob187 said:

It's important?

I think people could be reading way too far into it. I see it as a game that is ultra-violent for the sake of the environment, setting, and story. It's not something where I'm saying "that's disgusting". I'm saying "that's necessary". I look at a film like Running Scared or The Wild Bunch when I play this game and think "this is just the way that it is, the way it needs to be in order for everything to gel together and work".

It was a good write-up, but I just don't see it as anything deeper than being an incredibly well-made game (and possibly my favorite game this year).

that story does make it so that you can read into it as much or as little as you want though, so both your view and the OP's view can coexist.

Both views CAN coexist...but one is taking the game way more seriously than it actually takes itself.

#22 Posted by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

@jakob187: Taking something "seriously" is kind of irrelevant in this context. In academia, you've got people doing all kinds of wacky shit like applying Marxist / feminist theory to episodes of Full House. Cultural criticism exists for dumb pop culture as well as "serious" culture; I don't see why you can't apply intellectual rigor to games as well as film and literature.

#23 Edited by Animasta (14726 posts) -

@jakob187 said:

@Animasta said:

@jakob187 said:

It's important?

I think people could be reading way too far into it. I see it as a game that is ultra-violent for the sake of the environment, setting, and story. It's not something where I'm saying "that's disgusting". I'm saying "that's necessary". I look at a film like Running Scared or The Wild Bunch when I play this game and think "this is just the way that it is, the way it needs to be in order for everything to gel together and work".

It was a good write-up, but I just don't see it as anything deeper than being an incredibly well-made game (and possibly my favorite game this year).

that story does make it so that you can read into it as much or as little as you want though, so both your view and the OP's view can coexist.

Both views CAN coexist...but one is taking the game way more seriously than it actually takes itself.

how do you know? The developers purposefully made the story abstract so people can have their own theories. And just because you're saying that's necessary doesn't mean it isn't also disgusting.

also @deadmoscow: I love your TWP avatar

#24 Edited by Gold_Skulltulla (222 posts) -

The dark, serial-killer tone of the trailer actually put me off from playing the game, and to that end, if the message HLM conveys is as effective as you say, then it's great to see it subverting such a targeted audience. The way HLM bills itself plays up the gore and the violence to attract players who are interested in that experience, and speaks to them. I think it's great that the game isn't for everybody, but has something to say to its niche beyond cathartic, nostalgia-grounded interactivity.

#25 Posted by Serpentenema (219 posts) -

@Romination said:

Sounds like Hotline Miami succeeds at doing what Manhunt wanted to do.

The last time I played manhunt I was like 12 and used a game shark to beat it. Was that the underlining theme of the game? I remember it was Brian Cox putting you in places to murder dudes and you fought a pig dude and you chainsaw pigsy and Brian Cox.

#26 Posted by AssInAss (2746 posts) -
#27 Posted by Romination (2777 posts) -

@Serpentenema said:

@Romination said:

Sounds like Hotline Miami succeeds at doing what Manhunt wanted to do.

The last time I played manhunt I was like 12 and used a game shark to beat it. Was that the underlining theme of the game? I remember it was Brian Cox putting you in places to murder dudes and you fought a pig dude and you chainsaw pigsy and Brian Cox.

It's what I understood it to be- a game that uses grotesque violence in a sadistic setting, giving the framing of a voyeur creating a snuff film, to really make you stop and think about all the horrible violence you're doing to someone in a game. Shit got GROSS. Even the fact that you're just watching your character do it through a hidden camera as someone else begs for their life was a way to suggest that maybe Cox wasn't the only creepy, sadist voyeur.

#28 Posted by casper_ (908 posts) -

nah.

#29 Posted by jakkblades (401 posts) -

This game is incredible, my favorite so far this year. Unstoppable combat and a narrative experience you won't forget. Amazing.

#30 Posted by deadmoscow (268 posts) -

@AssInAss said:

@deadmoscow said:

Why Hotline Miami is an important game (Gamasutra)

So, this is the indie Spec Ops The Line?

Wow, I need to play this then.

I just started playing Spec Ops yesterday, and I can definitely see parallels between the two games. I'm glad we're starting to see games that are not only telling interesting stories, but are acting as critiques of the industry they exist in. Neat stuff.

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