By Nathan Grayson on June 19th, 2013 at 11:00 am.
Yes, it’s happening.
Hotline Miami 2 is indeed very real, and the neon-slathered sequel made quite the appearance at E3 last week. Or rather, um, outside it. In a parking lot. Inside a trailer. It was an oddball setup even by E3 standards, but it got the job done. A brand new sparse, acoustic theme song drifted through the wheeled bullet’s chrome-y confines, mirroring the first’s but with a hint of somber resignation. Dennaton’s Dennis Wedin quickly explained why: Wrong Number is the second Hotline Miami, but also the last. It’s been a wild, psychadelic, gore-and-teeth-spattered ride for Cactus and himself, but all things must come to an end.
But seriously, Hotline Miami 2? As in, with a number on the end? A sequel? From a pioneering member of the movement to create veritable shotgun blasts of rapid-fire experimental games? It’s certainly a surprising announcement, to say the least. But this isn’t a matter of striking while the iron’s hot, cashing in, or what have you. One thing, claimed Wedin, is driving this sequel: unfinished business.
Everything ends. How do you cope with that?
“I think we felt that during the development of the first game, we came up with a lot of cool backstory and ideas for the universe, but we didn’t use them,” he told RPS. “So we always felt like we wanted to do one more game, because there were a lot of cool characters and ideas we didn’t get to explore. I know Cactus has made a lot of [smaller, experimental] games, but we just had a feeling of doing something awesome and really creative for ourselves. So we decided to keep doing it.”
Simple as that. Simple as a baseball bat to the back of the head or a single bullet to the brain. Simple as death. Except that, no matter how quickly death comes, it’s never actually all that simple. We spend our whole lives dying, and everything just gets more and more complicated all the while.
Hotline Miami was different. It was elegant and lightning quick. Straight to the point. Gracefully grotesque. But it also fit the aforementioned bill perfectly. Just when you thought everything was going your way – BAM – you were sleeping peacefully in a gravy of your own fluids, complete with bite-sized brain giblets. There was always another guy. Always another room. Always something new, different, and deadly to account for.
So how do you make a sequel without piling too much complication atop that perfectly sizzling platter of simplicity? That, in its own way, is the central conflict of both Hotline Miami 2′s creation and in-game story. Lounging comfortably in his trailer demonstro-lair, Wedin explained:
“There’s a lot of people having expectations about what the sequel should or shouldn’t be, but we also wanted to include that in the game. So there’s gonna be a bunch of playable characters in this one, and they all have different motivations and expectations about what their part of the game will be or should be.”
Ultimately, that’s the heart and soul of Hotline Miami 2′s existence: character. Or rather, characters. It’s not that gameplay is secondary. Instead, Cactus and Wedin are – like pretty much everybody else – just really happy with how the original turned out. Especially in the case of something so finely honed, why fix what isn’t broken?
“The main change is, ‘How can we tell a different story with this structure?’ The gameplay is pretty much intact from the first one. We’re super proud of how the first game worked, and people seemed to like it a lot. There’s really no reason to change it that much, so we’re gonna add more weapons and enemy types. More gore, of course. More of everything. The scoring system and combos and leaderboards are gonna be in there.”
With that, Wedin fired up a demo to walk us through Hotline Miami’s second lease on death-dealing. First taking control of the Pig Butcher (who you might recognize from this live-action trailer), he explained that the story will be told from multiple perspectives and timelines – some major and some minor, both before and after the original Hotline Miami. Sir Butcher M Pig Esq, for instance, will be slinging his slop on a slasher movie set in 1991.
I watched as he hacked through countless throngs of thugs – some instantly bleeding out, others tucking their entrails between their legs and crawl-fleeing away – but then he finished the level and something strange happened: everyone got up. “Cut!” called the director. It was just a film shoot. A shoot. Hah. Clever. “Make it look like you really hit them!” the director continued before dismissing all his actors for the day. Apparently that bit will in part be molded into Hotline Miami 2′s tutorial, because “the first game’s sucked”.
Next, we leaped to another core character group called The Fans, and that’s where things got really, truly interesting. Remember that whole “How do you actually make a sequel to Hotline Miami” conundrum I mentioned earlier? Well, it gave birth to The Fans. Or maybe the fans (non-capitalized) gave birth to it.
“The Fans are a bunch of wannabes who wanted to be part of this whole mass vigilante movement in the first game, but they kinda missed it,” explained Wedin, smiling slyly. “And since Jacket pretty much killed all of the Russian mob, there’s no reason for the Janitors to keep calling people. But these guys keep wearing masks and driving around in their van and finding fucks and beating them up. They’re trying to get enough media attention that one day someone will give them that call and they can be part of what happened in the first game.”
“They kind of symbolize those people who want Hotline Miami 2 to be exactly like Hotline Miami 1. Unlocking masks, getting phone calls, stuff like that. More masks. More stages. So some of that’s gonna be in there, but we don’t really want to make the same game again. We’re gonna try to approach the characters and their motivations in different ways. We’re gonna work with that more.”
In the original Hotline Miami, you switched between power-imbuing animal masks at the start of every level, but in the sequel only The Fans have masks. Like Wedin said, they’re clinging to what came before – both from a narrative and mechanical perspective. Digging another layer into the game’s fiction, it’s hard to not also read them as a commentary on the role widespread media coverage of shootings and the like plays in creating new killers. They want to be on TV. They want the guts and the glory. They want it because it’s there, right in front of them, 24 hours a day.
Fittingly, we first met The Fans as they were casually throwing a Hotline-Miami-themed party, worshiping their old idol and planning something new. Tiger was the obvious leader, his mask rancid with blood that he claimed came straight from the events of Hotline Miami 1. Was he telling the truth? At this point, who knows. For now, though, say whatever you will about him, but he certainly knows how to get the job done.
The Fans’ van pulled up outside an especially dingy drug den, and they immediately got to work. Tiger’s power is rapid-fire flurries of one-hit death punches, but as a trade-off he can’t carry guns at all. Granted, it didn’t seem to matter too much as the demo driver pulverized every thug in sight until the place looked like it had been smeared with scrumptious strawberry jam and/or tragedy. At this point, Wedin mentioned that the goal is for every character – Fan or not – to have unique abilities that lend them far more varied playstyles than the first game’s. For instance, another member of The Fans, Zebra, can enter levels by crashing through any window he pleases, turning locations’ tactical blueprints entirely on their heads.
It was only after they’d made a seedy apartment look like the world’s first active blood volcano, however, that The Fans did something truly nauseating. The entire four-member group dragged a hopelessly, helplessly drugged up man off a couch and began beating him. Then, briefly, they stopped. Left eye basically dangling from a sinewy thread, the man sputtered equal parts shock and surprise. “Am I bleeding?” he asked. “Am I in the hospital?” And then, wordlessly, The Fans went right back to tearing at his flesh like hungry vultures on carrion.
More complex or not, this story is still very Hotline Miami – told far more through actions than words or, say, dialog options – and The Fans’ big moment proved it. In fact, despite the increased focus on narrative, there still won’t be any choices at all. Sometimes, Wedin and Cactus believe, it’s just as much about what you can’t do as what you can.
“You felt really cool, but then this happens,” Wedin pointed out. “A lot of people might want to make The Fans walk away from beating up that guy, but it’s not for you to decide. The Fans have their own agenda, and we don’t want the player to color them too much. There’s gonna be other characters whose actions you might agree more with, you might feel more for.”
And he was right. The whole scene did feel really, really awesome. A new musical track – just a small piece of an expansive new soundtrack that features both returning stars like Jasper Byrne and, naturally, contributions from fans – made the whole scene dance with a driving mix of high-energy synth and ultra-groovy funk. I didn’t know those things could go together, but it totally worked. Meanwhile, each kill was greeted with such thunderous cracks and wet, squishy slaps that I could practically smell the blood. I wanted to be playing. I ached for it. But then that last scene replaced all my fight with a very strong desire for flight.
“It’s like, ‘The Zebra’s so cool or the Tiger’s just punching him,’ but then they do something you don’t agree with, and that changes the whole way you look at them,” Wedin continued. “But you’re still helping them. You’re helping them get into the room and beat the shit out of this fucked up guy. In a way you’re part of it.”
On that note, the demo drew to a chilling close. It was quite a moment, and it definitely left me hungry (read: dangerously close to retching violently in a corner) for more. That said, I am a bit concerned. For all of Dennaton’s unflinching dedication to a bold “Fuck you” attitude, Hotline Miami 2 seems eerily similar to the first. Disclaimer: I loved the original. I’ll be perfectly content if Hotline Miami 2 is just more of the same.
But Wedin was making some big promises – for instance, increased focus on environmental diversity/storytelling and events that evoke emotions beyond feeling awesome or disgusted – and I didn’t really see those things in the demo. I mean, I guess environments looked to have been crafted with a bit more of an eye for detail, but I’ll need to see more to really appreciate it. Honestly, I’d be even more skeptical of this one’s chances if it weren’t Dennaton at the helm. I mean, highly linear stories with overt references to videogame fans and things of that nature? In anyone else’s hands, that would be a recipe for overly-meta, “wink-wink nudge-nudge” disaster. Cactus and Wedin, however, have most certainly earned the benefit of the doubt. And, to be frank, what I saw did look really great. Just more like Hotline Miami 1.5 than 2.
I suppose Hotline Miami 2 will live and die by the finer details of its execution: story, new characters, powers, level design, weapons, etc. It’s a sequel of the truest sort, born from a desire to replicate the original – just, you know, better in every conceivable way. But Wedin was adamant that it’s also about closure, about letting Hotline Miami die a natural death instead of going in the potential-squandering prime of its youth. And if that’s truly the case, then I think we’re in for something really, really special when it releases late this year. Because that’s the kind of mentality that breeds a story well worth telling.
“We want a bit of sadness,” Wedin offered, “especially since this one is the grand finale for the series. The final Hotline Miami. So [one of our themes] is gonna be stuff ending. Everything ends. How do you cope with stuff just ending, both for the player and the characters in the game. They’re gonna meet the end of the line or the end of their mission. How do they cope with that?”