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Wot I Think: HOTLINE MIAMI

Funny Games

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Dennaton’s HOTLINE MIAMI has the style of Drive in a fever dream, the look of GTA 1, the tone of American Psycho, the presentation of 80s video nasties and the combat of a strategy game running at 100x speed. It’s out now. Here are some words about it.
You probably think Hotline Miami is about this:

No.

It’s about what happens between this:

And this:

(Actually, I lied it, is also about this:

It’s just that that’s the destination, not the journey).

You will murder everyone, and you will leave untold bloodshed in your wake, but Hotline Miami is about the thoughts, the planning and the strategy that goes into each of those murders. It is about the split second between encounter and reaction, and what you do in it.

The GTA comparisons arrive pretty fast when HOTLINE MIAMI is mentioned, but that’s more because it evokes a hybrid of the first game and Vice City stylistically, and has a moral compass almost as broken as Donald Trump’s. If a Rockstar game must be mentioned then it should be Manhunt and its semi-stealth precision kills, though HOTLINE MIAMI’s Gameboy graphics and the breathless speed of the kills keep it largely out of gore porn territory. Hotline Miami is, however, violence porn, fetishing the fact of the kill, the successful and expert accomplishment of it, rather than the gruesome act of it.

It is not a straight-up shooter, despite what those retro graphics and all that blood might suggest. The single most important thing to know about Hotline Miami, other than that it has the best soundtrack in the history of the universe, is that you cannot rampage in it. You won’t last a quarter of a minute that way. Every action matters – every bullet fired, every knife swipe, every door opened, every corner turned, every split-second hesitated.

Hitman without the puzzles (though there are disguises, of a sort – more on that later). Thief where everyone must die. Syndicate off its head on amphetamines. HOTLINE MIAMI.

It’s not as amazing as you’ve heard.
Of course it’s as amazing as you’ve heard.

Every mission proper starts with a door. Here’s what might happen when you go through one of those doors.

SCENARIO #1

You slam the door into a guard walking by it. He falls to the floor, stunned briefly, at which point you jump onto his chest and beat him to death.
You grab the crowbar he dropped, sprint to a wall to remain out of sight.
You watch and wait as two more guards patrol up ahead. One has a gun, the other a bat.
When the latter has his back to you, you sprint fowards, throwing the crowbar as you go to stun the one with the gun. You punch the second one to the ground, grab the crowbar then beat them both to death with it when they stand up again.

SCENARIO #2

You rush straight through the door, hit punch just once to deck the guy, carry straight on up and do exactly the same to the other two before they have time to react. You have pressed punch three times, and three times only.
You then pick up the dropped gun, move behind a door, fire one shot into the air then wait, just for a moment.
The three stunned guards get to their feet, then rush you, with most of the other guards from this level right behind them. Your shelter means they run straight into your bullets as they round the corner.
You do not hold down fire, for you have only 24 bullets and they will all be spent on a single foe if you do this. You click fire then click fire then pause for a millisecond for the next wave to arrive then click fire then click fire then click fire then clickclickclick and you’re spent but fortunately everyone’s dead.

SCENARIO #4

You open the door and you die.

SCENARIO #5

You open the door, kill the first guard then another one sees you and you die.

SCENARIO #6

You open the door, kill the first guard, hit the second guard with your thrown crowbar then miss your punch on the third guard and you die.

SCENARIO #7

You rush straight through the door, hit punch just once to deck the guy, carry straight on up and do exactly the same to the other two before they have time to react. You have pressed punch three times, and three times only.
You then pick up the dropped gun, move behind a door, fire one shot into the air then wait, just for a moment.
The three stunned guards get to their feet, then rush you, with most of the other guards from this level right behind them. Your shelter means they run straight into your bullets as they round the corner. You twitch your cursor a centimetre upwards, miss one guard and you die.

SCENARIO #8

You die.

SCENARIO #9

You die.

SCENARIO #10

No-one sees you, ever. No guns are fired. Everyone is stealth-killed by melee. You are a god. A dark god of patience, picosecond-perfect door-opening and perfect aim.

Every action matters. You cannot charge in firing. Well, you can, but you will die. HOTLINE MIAMI’s levels are navigational puzzles rather than battlegrounds – how to get from the entrance to the exit/next floor, killing everyone along the way, but with the minimum of actions and action. You will die. You will die. You will die. That is not failure.

The truly masterful, which I do not number among, may be able to survive on guns alone. This requires never missing a shot but never having time to aim one up perfectly – railgun reflexes, essentially, but from a top-down perspective with a limited view distance.

Another comparison: Trials 2. Like that game of motorbikes and sickening injuries, Hotline Miami is about learning a pattern of actions necessary to make it to the end of level. Encounter by encounter, you will memorise and devise a response to enemy movement patterns, what weapons they carry and who can see you from where. You will die repeatedly, but each time you do your plan takes further shape: you now know of something else that might happen, some extra factor to consider as you make your play. Move by move you learn. What to pick up and where from, when and in what direction to throw a weapon to cause a stun, which rooms can be rushed and which must be crept around. The murders are not the half of it – it’s the conundrum of how you get yourself to the point where you can enact those murders that runs through HOTLINE MIAMI’s poison veins.

And once you learn the routines and the pattern, the sense of triumph as you enact your plan without a hitch is immense. Near-every enemy in HLM is faceless, meaningless, but your kills are not: they are the pre-planned, highly-practiced extension of your will and your reward for your powers of observation and logic. You’ll love it when a plan comes together, for you will have suffered to get to that point. Hotline Miami makes me feel like a man, not a pasty half-man hunched over a keyboard.

Between these tactical missions – again, a small-scale, high-speed, uni-character, no room for error, neon Syndicate is a better touchstone than GTA is – is woven a fever dream of a narrative. Much is open to interpretation, it is not conventionally linear and it is certainly not particularly reliant on logic. Like Drive, a film with which it surely consciously has an awful lot in common, it’s not especially interested in the morality of what its character does for a living (murder, in this case) nor in providing any explanation of how it came to pass. You are given missions of murder via answering machine, you go and do them, then you return to your apartment to pick up the next assignment.

En route, things go wrong. Reality flickers and fragments, nightmarish reflections of yourself taunt and probe you, sequences and characters repeat and those precious few links you have to humanity die suddenly and without explanation. HOTLINE MIAMI might be celebratory about expertly-achieved murder, but it also finds oblique ways to drive home the psychological consequences of a life lived by the sword/shotgun/frying pan/crowbar/brick/drill/silenced Uzi. The soundtrack can turn from pulsing, driving, motivating beat to queasy, unsettling electronic wobble, the lights can dim and flicker and familiar locations subtly change in unmentioned ways.

There’s even a strange vein of sweetness, as a female presence introduced into the player’s apartment in an early mission sees it gradually evolve from dingy cesspit to clean, decorated home. HOTLINE MIAMI is not a love song, but it does have a silent sub-plot showing what the player’s life might have been were he to ever stop picking up those damnable answerphone messages. It all goes wrong, of course. The only happiness in HOTLINE MIAMI is what you yourself feel in response to a kill or series of kills done well – when the combo meter builds as you chain deaths together without pause and without wasted action.

There is, perhaps, an air of smugness to it: it is clearly determined to be both obtuse and entirely cavalier, and that can come off as the game seeming to think it’s smarter than you. It resists explanations as part of this, so there will be unscratched itches come its conclusion. In this cocktail of the utterly superficial and the all-knowing archness it reminded me strongly of Michael Haneke’s chilling, obnoxious, unforgettable movie Funny Games. It seems to want to teach you a lesson, but it is not prepared to explain what that lesson is and at the same time it chooses to behave as though nothing, nothing at all, matters. It’s nihilistic, but with an undercurrent of pitch-black irony and, of course, open sadism. It’s not courting controversy, but it wants to be objectionable. You could, perhaps, call it cool. I know I do. Super-cool. Just don’t expect satisfying answers: expect the narrative of your actions first and foremost, and on top of that a series of vicious events beyond your control.

For me, this air of arch nastiness also added to rather than subtracted from the experience – the nagging doubt and the discombobulation even as the bodies piled up. On yet another hand, it could just be read as as a twisted stoner fantasy. It probably is. I don’t think it bears too much analysis, but it certainly gets inside the head and starts fucking shit up in there. I loved it because of this – because I felt weird as well as brutal.

It can also, optionally, be played for points, and there are weapons and ability-altering masks to be unlocked for those who excel in this field, but it was never about that for me. I just wanted to solve its dastardly, deadly puzzlebox and feel proud of myself for doing so.

You could argue that all HLM does is the same thing, again and again. There are only a handful of enemy types, many locations are visually similar and your range of actions comprises move, shoot, hit, pick up, throw, grab and open door. But playing Hotline Miami is like learning to drive: you improve as the challenge mounts, rather than the situation and experience remaining the same from the first time you remember when all the controls do. Some of the later missions, and especially the handful of take-no-prisoners boss fights, are unashamedly brutal. You need not just to have learned all the ways to control the game and all the patrol patterns of the guards, but to enter a state of mind, of absolute focus, where you know the exact moment at which to press punch or shoot, that hummingbird blink between entering an enemy’s line of sight and his reacting. And the setpiece locations, the levels in nightclubs and hospitals and penthouses? They are marvels.

You could argue its AI is weak and stupid. It is. But it will nonetheless kill you hundreds of times. So maybe it doesn’t matter.

You could argue that it is too short. It will take you the waking hours of one day to complete, presuming you aren’t demolished by the difficulty of the later levels. But each level can be ‘solved’ in various ways, depending how reckless, tactical or stealthy you can be, with different ratings upon its completion. Plus, there are the masks – sinister animal visages forever worn by the unnamed protagonist as he embarks on his cryptic killing sprees. Each of these offers a new ability – start with a weapon, opening doors onto enemies kills them, survive one or two bullets (as opposed to the default none), play in near-darkness, be ignored by dogs, and more game-changing surprises. Between scoring highly enough to unlock most of these, and finding the others hidden in the levels, and then actually replaying missions with these new abilities, it’ll last you plenty of time.

You could argue that it is bit buggy. It is. I saw enemies exit levels, guns spawn without ammo, savegames break, the grab move didn’t work… I hope it will see plenty of patches. But it works, and sings its dark song ’til the end.

You could argue that it’s nasty. It is. This is a murder simulator, and it is not pretending not to be. Though you do only ever fight other murderers. Not that that’s any excuse. HLM is indefensible. That’s rather the point.

You could argue that HOTLINE MIAMI is brilliant, vital, a tactical and aesthetic masterpiece as well as a pixel-art odyssey of ice-cold violence. It is.

And that soundtrack. Action to beat, in perfect, twisted harmony.

HOTLINE MIAMI
is out
NOW

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Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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