Adam's already run his review of Dennaton's sequel to neon-hued tactical murder party Hotline Miami, but while he's a big fan, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number hasn't been met with universal praise. Alec, more cautious about the game, joins Adam to discuss what may and may not be deliberate about its design choices, its bewildering story and its bugs.
Alec: I've got a purring cat on my lap and I'm listening to quiet, nautical music. I couldn't possibly be in a more appropriate state of mind for discussing hallucinogenic ultra-violence
Adam: In my experience, cats can tip into hallucinogenic ultra-violence with less than a minute's notice. There is time.
I'm drinking herbal tea.
Alec: Oh, it's not hallucinogenic for cats. Unlike half of Hotline Miami 2's befuddled gonks, they know exactly what they're doing when they decide to draw blood.
Adam: Hotline Miami 2! That's what we're here to discuss.
I've played through the whole thing twice now. Because I thought I might have got my thinking all wrong when I read other critiques after it launched. Not so. I'm not sure how much of an outlier I am - if at all - but I think it does so many things right.
While accepting that it goes about its business in a way that many people have found to be frustrating and limiting.
Alec: Be steadfast in your opinions. Unless of course they are incorrect. I don't entirely know what to make of it yet, which is probably in part because I haven't finished it. I'm at the bit where I'm the commando guy in the jungle - how far along is that?
Adam: There are several commando guy in the jungle bits - if it's the first, you're not particularly far at all. It's much longer than the original.
Alec: Oh, blimey. Well, I've put quite a few hours in, but it's hard as nails compared to the first, which has slowed me down.
Adam: One of the main criticisms seems to be that it goes against the fast flowing style of the original. It limits and directs, asking for perfect routes and decision-making rather than reactive play. And that's tied into the difficulty.
For me, that was an excellent choice. It extends all of the individual parts of the first game but with a razor sharp focus on individual skills and techniques
Which seems like a weird but smart thing for a sequel to do.
Alec: Yeah, I presume it's deliberate but it's frustrating how often enemies with guns are off screen, further than you can pan, and you either need to take a blind chance or wait it out and lose your combo. This does effectively prevent players phoning it in, I suppose.
I'm finding I have to use guns much more than I'd like, which are less, I guess, creatively satisfying. (Because let's be honest, HLM is about violence as creativity). But maybe more skilled players would find more ways around that
Adam: I think part of the design is to force players to see the entire ruleset and the edges of the individual parts of that ruleset. The utterly ridiculous way you can kill somebody in full view of their chums but nobody reacts unless you step into their line of sight while you're doing it. The murder itself isn't important, only their detection of the perpetrator is.
By pushing up against the edge of those simple rules, and exposing how unusual they are, it collapses on itself a little. But that seemed to be the point.
Alec: This reminds me of Dota a little, the way so much of it goes against conventional gaming wisdom then actively makes a feature out of it, and how you exploit it
Alec: Of course, HLM2 has also got this great get-out clause for all that stuff, in that its internal reality is melting all the time anyway.
Adam: I think there's a case to be made in that HLM 2 exploits its own rules at the player's expense rather than letting the player exploit them for his/her benefit. That's perhaps where some of the annoyance comes in. It punishes creativity in a way that the first game didn't. In fact, that line about "violence as creativity" is interesting. Parts of HLM 2 seem to be a reaction against that idea. Violence as rote learning.
I wish the dialogue articulated some of those ideas better so that I could back them up with reference to the text - but I do think it can be seen in the level design.
Alec: Yes, I have noticed that there's a great deal of incremental improvement each time I restart a failed level, having learned a little more of what's likely to happen and honing exactly what I need to do. I'm finding my scores when I finally complete a level tend to be higher than in HLM, which is perhaps because it's forced me to be more precise, to not miss a move
Adam: It's a better teacher
Alec: but this does affect the sense of satisfaction too; completing a level feels (appropriately, given it grades you) like passing an exam now, not the rawer exhilaration of surviving a bloody great fight. Relief rather than thrill.
Adam: Yeah, that's fair. I enjoyed that. And I enjoy the fact that there is a very different response to what looks like it might be exactly the same game.
Alec: Cynically, one could argue that this allowed them to make a new game while still making the same game. I really don’t know. I also don't know if I like it or not. I certainly don't hate it, and I'm certainly better at Hotline Miami than I was because of it. But I miss the party. It hasn't felt like something to celebrate, you know? At best, something to nod at respectfully.
Adam: I said to somebody on twitter that Hotline Miami 2 feels like a game about the difficulty of making a sequel to Hotline Miami 1. I was probably joking (I don't even know myself most of the time) but I thought there was a sense of approaching the difficult second album and deciding to burn the instruments. The first game kicked down the door and burst into the room with its awesome soundtrack - the sequel is already in the room, with the soundtrack, and it's looking for the way out.
Alec: I'd go more with OK Computer to Kid A, to be honest. 'Being popular isn't good enough, we have to be elitist too.'
Adam: Ha - I definitely agree with that when it comes to the story. Or stories. Or non-story.
Alec: This is something I have wondered about: does Hotline Miami 2 *want* to exist? Or is there grudgingly? It's certainly not phoning it in, but I don't have to squint much to perceive a certain weariness
Adam: It's a good question - I think it wants to shut itself down. Like, this is definitely it. The end. But not in a conclusive narrative fashion, more in that it pokes into every corner of its own structure until the walls come down
That's what I find fascinating about it. The sense that it's running through all of the possibilities of its design and seeing how hard it can push them.
Alec: Yeah, that's my sense too, it's deliberately re-exploring everything internal rather than looking outwards to new stuff – which I’m sure it could have done.
But against that, we have this garbled, choppy narrative and dialogue which seems impossible to defend, and it's also riddled with bugs/ Which gives me some pause in agreeing to a master-crafted theory.
Adam: The bugs didn't bother me - spinning dogs and all - apart from one level where I couldn't go back through the first door after I'd woken the enemies up, but there was nothing that broke the flow other than that. And I quite like spinning dogs. But the narrative is a mess.
Alec: It's sort of brave to dismiss bugs like that, however. They are in there and that is a failing.
Adam: Oh yes. But in terms of my experience, they were like glitches rather than game-breaking interruptions.
Alec: The Swan Twins, where you control two characters at once if you equip a certain mask in some sections, was badly bugged for me. One kept getting stuck on the other side of doors, and that's a game-breaker. I can just choose not to play as those characters, but given it's one of the more headline 'new' features that's not a satisfactory choice, really.
Adam: Yeah, that's fair. I mostly steered clear of the Swans because I found them so difficult to use the first time through. They do not play well with corridors.
Alec: I also had quite a few instances of not being able to kill a dude because he was stuck behind a door. It is too much of a mess at release, I think.
Adam: I didn't find it particularly problematic at all - it felt far smoother than the original. But I think that may be in part because it hammered the idea of learning from what seem like unfair failures into me from an early stage - I perhaps forgave it too much that wasn't intentional.
Alec: The narrative we can agree on, however. Obviously I haven't got to the end (or particularly close to it - erk) but I feel like I need a wiki even to know who the characters I'm playing as are.
Adam: Imagine playing it before release and thinking that everybody else might immediately form a masterful flowchart in their heads and see some brilliant thematic plotting? I was almost certain I should have known what was happening. And who was doing what because of why.
Alec: With Hotline 1, I wondered a lot if often not quite grasping what it was trying to say was down to it being cleverly cryptic and my being lazy or stupid, but so far this is confirming my suspicions that it was freewheeling craziness rather than rich with careful subtext and statement
Adam: It doesn't get any clearer. There are some great setpiece levels that have a story IN them but, as a whole, it's not even interestingly weird.
The saddest thing is that even if it's supposed to be hallucinatory, it's not even a bad trip. It's quite a dull one. A slight overdose of night nurse.
Alec: And even the controversial implied sexual assault scene (which you can choose to turn off, just to repeat that for the record) in practice just came across as one more pointless pellet from a mad scattergun blast of half-formed, disassociated ideas.
Yes, dull is the word, really. It's like this wearying trudge through the intro sequences of 40 different forgotten newgrounds games.
Adam: If there is a point to it all - that scene included - I wonder if it's doing the same as the actual level design. Exploring where an ultraviolent style explosion of a game can go next. Hence the film sets and war stories and seemingly pointless callbacks. Eating its own lore, downing some bad chemicals and then regurgitating the whole lot.
And I'm not saying that's a good thing! I'm just trying to understand what it might be for, because it seems so baggy and disconnected that I can't even get a handle on what it's trying to do.
Alec: My sense was that it's riffing on the archness and surreality of the HLM1's last chapter but - again this wonder if it's a sequel that didn't entirely want to exist - it's not naturalistic about it. It tries too hard to be cool, essentially, because it thinks that's what's expected of it. It's Prometheus.
Adam: Ha. You can't dodge the rolling ship because one of the Swan brothers is stuck on a door
The ending is very weird. There's nothing to spoil, so don't worry about that. It has a gorgeous song playing over all these scenes that conclude the characters' stories, and it really is quite beautiful and sad. And then, when the music stopped, I snapped out of it and thought "BUT I DIDN'T EVEN CARE ABOUT THEIR STORIES I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW WHAT THEIR STORIES WERE ABOUT."
Alec: Maybe that was a conscious thing. Maybe it was just fucking with us the whole time, seeing what it can do to our emotions, our confusion, our self-loathing or our bloodlust. But so far I've not seen anything to suggest the narrative's anything more than a disordered jumble of post-it note scribbles.
I suspect you're right about the level/learning design, however. There's too much of that stuff - the off-screen snipers particularly - for it to be simply an accident, but it does seem willfully suicidal to turn off a whole bunch of people who loved the first game by doing that. It's kind of the Evolve paradigm too, making itself too specialist for its own good.
Adam: When I was playing it, I thought - more windows, more guns, punishing levels, more dogs; it's the ultra-difficult megawad that plays with all of the elements and then moves on.
Alec: Yeah, or the hardcore Stalker mods which prioritise hard graft over all else. That said, I've often found the windows to be a boon. As I get better with guns and enemy prediction I can safely snipe through them from great distances and at acute angles.
Adam: I think that's one of the things it teaches. In the first game, they were horrid things that brought death raining down around you, or sprinting across a level toward you. Now, you have to learn to utilise them.
There's a late level which is basically lots of small rooms, glass on every side, full of enemies with guns. It's almost like a punchline. I loved that.
Alec: I think you're broadly right, and I think a lot of the negative criticism hasn't seen what HLM2 is essentially trying to do, but it does leave the question of whether we're left with something that activates all the right thrill glands.
For you, clearly it worked. For others, it's going to be disappointing that there's this fiddly, exacting thing. I guess it's brave of Dennaton to not give them that, and to prove that they can make something far more strategic than twitchy, rhythmic chaos.
For me, not sure. I think I'd be getting more out of it if my 'reward' for beating these big challenges wasn't frothing, overlong lunacy about apparently nothing at all. I'd enjoy it more as something like The Lost Levels, just a collection of badass new challenges
Adam: Yes. Agreed. Part of my enjoyment of it might be that I get a buzz out of seeing the mechanics at play rather than actual playing with the mechanics. I think that's certainly true actually. It's one of the reasons I like simulations - which HLM 2 certainly isn't. But it has some of the same qualities that I enjoy IN a simulation, in that it seems to be asking for an understanding of its machinery.
Alec: "superficially stupid game doesn't want stupid audience after all"
Adam: The most pleasant surprise about the whole game for me was that the narrative didn't matter in the end. I thought that's where the attention and care would have gone. That it'd be an extension of the style and setting but not of the design. I was so glad to find all of the interesting developments were in the latter.
Alec: Yeah, I mean we never wanted HLM for its lore in the first place, it would be sad if the lore overwhelmed it now. Frankly, I think it almost does - I think there are people who are going to think character X is ultrocool and go make a DeviantArt painting about him. But at least it's essentially ignorable/forgettable for the rest of us.
Adam: Final word - soundtrack as good as the first? I've been playing them side by side and can't decide.
Alec: The first has meaning for me, so I call it better for that. If it's playing I can close my eyes and feel what HLM made me feel. Because my associations for HLM2 are confusion and frustration more than exhilaration and escapism, the second doesn't seem to have power. But there are some lovely pieces in there for sure.
Alec: Anyway. Let's drive off into a peach sunset, say something random about Russians and call it a day.
Adam: Annnd I was trying to find the track that goes with the prison break level (my favourite part) and completely failed. Back to playing with the Benny Hill theme in the background it is.
Alec: And when are you ever not doing that, eh?
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is out now.