Monday, December 17, 2012

you will never see the whole picture: why hotline miami is one of the most important games of the decade

In game reviews, it’s expected that the reviewer goes from one aspect of the game to the other (eg gameplay, graphics, sound, etc), like they’re going from level to level collecting the plot devices in order to get to the final boss (in this case, Summary Of Game). Hotline Miami is a game that integrates each of its parts so beautifully that nothing in it can be discussed on its own; it is a small, simple, beautiful, horrific, fun, frustrating, intelligent, twitch-inducing, jaw-dropping game that, if it supported a controller, would have made me throw mine through the window and decapitate someone in the building next to mine. Thankfully, keyboards are less effective projectiles.

JG Ballard said that “there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Similarly, it’s so far been impossible to make a perfect high-budget (“AAA”) game. The closest things to perfect games in the last ten years have been comparatively small games that achieved something holistic that no big games could: Portal was a brilliant, engaging, simple concept and showed how games could make truly great (and funny) stories that couldn’t have been made in any other medium. Hotline Miami achieves something similar.

From the intro screen one gets when they first open the game, Hotline Miami throws its aesthetic in the player’s face: pixel-art style in neon colors, like if the first Grand Theft Auto (a common point of reference for the look of the game) had been dipped in glow sticks; a title screen with text that gently rocks back and forth; and burbling synths. The player starts a new game, and a bearded man says “I’m here to tell you how to kill people.”

I killed a lot of people in Hotline Miami. I threw knives at them, I smashed their heads in with crowbars, I shot them point-blank with shotguns, I mowed them down with assault rifles. The first time I executed a knocked-out enemy (necessary, because he would have stood up and shot me within a couple seconds), I was genuinely shocked at the mass of blood that shot out of the half of his head that remained. This is part of what makes the game’s “retro” aesthetic so effective: it’s combined with ultraviolence in a way that we could barely conceive of in 1989 (the year of the game’s setting, the heyday of pixel art when it was necessary rather than purposeful, and my birth). It may, in fact, be the most brutally violent game I’ve ever played.

The game’s feel is more than pixels and blood, though. Just as the title screen, and the talking heads of characters, wobble back and forth drunkenly, so does the entire level as the player walks through it. Rather than the entire screen being filled with the level, there is always a shifting border of color (red, purple, blue) framing the action. The action parts of the levels are soundtracked by uptempo, retro-analog dance music (just like the game’s graphics, none of it is from the era of the game’s setting, but it calls back to it while improving upon that material); as soon as the player kills the last enemy in a level, there is a synthetic whooshing followed by a shifting tone that sounds like drunken tinnitus. The player then has to walk through the piles of bodies they left behind as they walk back to their car, which is such an obvious-sounding and simple twist on level design in ultraviolent games that I’m shocked no previous game had already made it famous. When the player goes back the protagonist’s home to begin the next level, it is accompanied by the date, then a slow fade onto the player’s character, and accompanied by songs that are slower, vaguer, half hangover, half dirge.

The official tutorial part only lasts 30 seconds or so, but the real learning takes a lot longer. A familiar aspect of modern games is how they guide the player slowly through new mechanics, giving them to the player one at a time with a detailed guide to use them before throwing them into a specific area where they must use that specific mechanic in order to progress. Hotline Miami, though, has only a few things the player can really do (move, pick up weapon, attack with weapon, throw weapon, execute enemy, take human shield… and that’s the definitive list, as far as I can tell), but a seemingly infinite number of ways they can be combined. The game doesn’t tell you how to do these things, but just like you were really a mass-murdering assassin, you figure them out as you go along. Unlike real life, though, you will die a lot and try over and over.

This is one of the defining aspects of the game: dying repeatedly. The player enters a room, dies instantly, presses R to restart, dies instantly again, figures out how to kill the first guy without dying, does so, progresses to the next room and dies instantly, presses R to restart… on and on until the player’s timing is honed to perfection and they can do the level flawlessly, because performing at any level below “flawless” leads to instant death.

Every enemy dies in one hit. The tradeoff is that the player does as well. This change that would seem to serve no purpose other than making the game impossibly difficult, but it’s so important that it changes the genre of the game entirely: with a standard health bar, Hotline Miami would be a rather dull shoot-‘em-up, but when death can come from an offscreen enemy’s stray booger, everything has to be perfectly planned and executed. Hotline Miami is an action-puzzle game, where the player has to figure out some way (and there are an infinite number of ways, in most cases) to progress through the level, then have the skill to implement that plan, then the improvisational ability to change the plan when an enemy reacts in an unexpected way.

Puzzle games are expected to be thought-intensive games where the player can sip their latte while thinking, and action games are generally meant to be played in a thought-bereft way that, personally, lets me devote the unused brainpower to thinking about what I’ll have for dinner and whether one needs to be British to effectively rhyme something with “rubbish.” Hotline Miami’s integration of these two genres consumes me so completely that thoughts unrelated to it can barely enter my mind; I involuntarily yell “FUCK” when I die on the last enemy in a difficult level, despite it being 2am and I live on a crowded and non-soundproof floor. I have had more emotional ups and downs due to this game than I have from most relationships. When I exit out of the game, my feeling mirrors that of the character after completing a mission: in a haze, drained, relieved, and wondering what just happened in the last few hours.

The difficulty is the only reason I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this game to everyone. There’s no way to get around it, there are levels that feel borderline-impossible. The only thing stopping me from recommending the designer of the final boss fight kill himself is the fact that he designed the rest of the game. For anyone that can muscle past the extreme difficulty, though, it deserves at least one playthrough. It was the best game I played this year.

The “plot” of the game is discussed below. If this review has convinced you to play it and you haven’t already, I’d advise not reading further until you’ve finished it.
Okay, so you’re this… guy? And there are people who talk to you that, chances are, do not exist, because they’re also the masks you put on, and you get calls telling you where to go, so you go there and kill people, and you see the same retail employee at every place you go after the said killings, and then after a while you start seeing things that definitely aren’t real and then you are shot maybe? And you don’t die, except later in the game you…

Okay, maybe the spoiler warnings were unnecessary, because the plot of the game makes basically no sense. And I’m alright with that, because it all adds to the general “haze” feeling that I get when I play the game. I’m not really sure what’s going on, but I’m sure invested in getting further.

Gamers, and nerds in general, when faced with a complex plot such as this one, have a tendency to look for minutia in order to “solve” the plot; they tend toward works like Fight Club (and, uh, Spec Ops: The Line) that, at the end of the work, have some sort of big reveal that explains every single aspect. If that doesn’t happen, they try to make some all-encompassing theory (usually by taking tiny aspects and basing everything off those) anyway. The attempts at this that I’ve seen for Hotline Miami don’t really make any sense, either. What’s much more interesting is looking at the Big Themes contained.

At the end of the game, we’re shown that there are a couple guys who created the phone calls on their own, because they felt like it and it made them some money, and there was no meaning beyond that. This is who, indirectly, teaches the main character to kill. They seemed to be pretty simple metaphors for the designers of the game (the game had two main people working on it, as well): they’re just setting up ways for you to go on a killing rampage, and there was no real point to it, but what a ride while it lasted, eh?

People looking for some sort of rock-solid explanation as to What Happened are taking the same path that the biker does, turning over every rock in a futile attempt to understand what’s been going on, and they’ll hopefully end up with the same crushing disappointment upon realizing that there is no secret code, there is no vast conspiracy beneath it all, it’s just been a couple guys fucking with them the whole time. (There’s also a “secret” ending, which I initially thought was stupid and should be entirely ignored, but once I thought of it as a purposefully overly-neat explanation for the sorts of people that want a clean wrap-up, it become much more palatable.)

The plot of the game, then, is another aspect that harkens back to the days of 1989. In this case, it recalls the action games of that era; “kill these people to destroy the Russian mob!” is a plausible NES plot. Those games didn’t need a lot of backstory, exposition, or character development in order to get the player to go around killing people, and their grand denoument would be “THE END.” That’s basically what we get here, but with a lot of fun headfakes and red herrings along the way.

Hopefully in the future, Video Game Studies courses at colleges are common instead of just being a gimmick. If this happens, just like film studies majors watch Rear Window and Peeping Tom because (aside from being great films) they deal with filmmaking as a theme or subtext, two of the first games students should play are Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

response to my possibly-ongoing dci investigation

I would like to reiterate that I have absolutely no inside knowledge that I am under DCI investigation. If someone were to tell me that I was under investigation, this would be a blatant violation of DCI policy, and I would immediately turn myself in for violating the Lack of Knowledge Regarding Ongoing Investigations (LOKROI) rules. Not to do so would be a severe offense, and one I take very seriously.

While there have been many wild rumors about things I allegedly said on Twitter that may have contained objectionable language or other unsavory content, I will remind my readers that none of these statements can be conclusively proven to have come from me; Twitter accounts remain vulnerable to many exploits that could allow other people to post statements without my knowledge or consent.

Since I am confident my readers, a smart, capable, and well-educated bunch, I’m sure they understand alternative pleading in law1. As such, these loathsome comments were not created by my fingers; second, in the alternative, they would be the result of a temporary and justifiable state of mind in the aftermath of certain games that I may have played against certain people.2 Who among us has not entered a fragile emotional state after an intense game of Magic: the Gathering3 and wished upon former opponent similar things to the phrase in question of “get a thragtuysk shoved so far up yr buttplace you sneeze beast tokens” (and its subsequent post hoc revisions to include other cards commonly played in the archetype and their corresponding suggested anatomical locations).

While I would never personally stoop to such depths as to verbalize such vile instructions, let alone post them online, I will still take a stand in favor of freedom of expression; in favor of freedom of thought; in favor of the myriad rights that we as people too often take for granted. While it was certainly not me who posted such hateful statements, I will be the first (and hopefully not the last!) to take a stand against their persecution .

“First they came for the douchebags,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a douchebag.”

Yours truly through these trying times,
Jesse Mason

1 While totally unnecessary for my readers, I’m sure, I’ll include an explanation just as a refresher: a defense “in the alternative” creates a legal fiction wherein the defendant does not acknowledge a certain thing, but creates a scenario in which they do acknowledge that. Consult your bedside law textbooks if my humble explanation is lacking in any way.

2 For my detractors and those participating in this witch hunt rubbing their hands hoping that I will slip up and mention the number of these comments (as a sort of admission of guilt), no such luck.

3 All trademarks property of their respective owners. All tweets’ copyright is currently in question and I will claim no ownership of them unless, hypothetically, they were proven to be mine (which would be an inaccurate proof, as I did not make them).

Monday, December 3, 2012

you can't solve magic with data

A short time ago, Wizards changed how Magic Online Daily Event results were posted to Previously, every completed event had all 4-0 and 3-1 decklists posted within 24 hours; now, this is restricted to results from one event per format per day.

For my non-Magic Online-inclined readers, I implore you to temporarily suppress your yawns, eyerolls, and faux-masturbatory gestures, because this change speaks to a Wizards ideology bigger than some obscure MODO-related reporting. It is, on philosophical grounds, one of the worst decisions Wizards has made in quite some time. Fortunately, it has next to no direct impact. Wizards has finished some sort of beverage in a glass bottle, seen recycling and trash containers equidistant from themselves, considered their options, and decided to smash the bottle over the head of the closest Magic Online player.

First, to address the tangible impacts this decision does have: all the work that’s been poured into mtgoacademy, puremtgo articles, and the like is devalued, because they can no longer analyze anything but a subsection of the data. When I was actively working on decks and playing in DEs, mtgoacademy was invaluable for seeing different archetypes, variants, sideboard strategies, and linking people to my deckbuilding ouvre and demanding they find five improvements I made over earlier versions of the archetype. Will these data analyses still exist? Sure, but they’ll be notably worse due to Wizards’ change to their reporting.

Before going further, let’s look at the given reason for the change, courtesy of Wizards_Sean on the official forums after someone made a thread after noticing (ie, the change wasn’t announced until after it was implemented):

“In regards to the recent reduced event coverage, this was a conscious decision by the Wizards R&D team that wasn’t made lightly. Ultimately, we feel that publishing every deck list leads to solving constructed formats far too efficiently, resulting in early stagnation that’s not fun for anybody. We still want to show new deck ideas every day and provide insight into the Magic play environment, but we don’t want metagame development to become purely a function of data analysis.”

The easiest way to respond to this is by questioning whether such a minor change reporting a small subsection of Magic tournaments can possibly accomplish their goal of slowing the pace of metagame development; for this to occur, metagame development would have to rely to some degree on Daily Event results posting after every event rather than just some of them. I’m scratching my head trying to come up with a connection here. This is the “easiest argument” because it’s also the weakest form of this line of argumentation, and we can certainly do better if we dig a bit deeper and turn our outrage level up past three.

This Daily Event data is a snapshot in time. Its only pure usage is to show how things were at a certain place and time; it is not a window into the future. People attempting to analyze this data can, with infinite time, perfectly solve the format for that day. But, as anyone who has followed a metagame closely on a week-to-week basis at a time when there are large incentives to do well in it (PTQ invites, large prizes at SCG tournaments, etc), solving last week’s format will not help much for this week’s tournament, because last week’s solution has moved beyond its origin as a solution and become the basic problem for this week’s events. People are playing their decks this week, and they have access to last week’s results as well, and regardless of how perfectly you crafted armor to stop sword thrusts and slashes, that will not help when your opponent shoots you in the head. This is what metagame evolution is, and why reducing the amount of data will not stop the steady progress of technological development: data is definitionally old, and relevant technology is definitionally new.

There’s another term that needs defining, though, and it will certainly be difficult to pin down: “solving formats,” and what a “solved format” is. The consensus[1] is that a solved format has exactly one best deck, and that playing any other deck is just wrong; the deck’s worst matchup is itself. The canonical examples here would be Standard Affinity (post-Skullclamp banning[2]) and the most recent true boogeyman, Cawblade. While some people advocated playing other decks during the reign of those, they were proven more and more wrong with each tournament result.

Cawblade rose to prominence during a fairly unique period of time in Standard history: the roughly year-long heyday of the StarCityGames Open Series. With an unprecedented amount of money on the line for week-to-week Standard tournaments that previously had mostly been the domain of FNM and the occasional PTQ season, there came an equally unprecedented amount of work put into playtesting and tuning Standard decks.

Did data speed up this process? Not exactly. To develop the best deck for an upcoming tournament, players have to come up with their own data. Even if it’s publicly known that Cawblade only has a 48.47% chance of winning a match against RUG, that can be safely ignored by players that, from their own results, know that with better-than-average play, deck tuning, and sideboard, it’s more like 70% in their favor. Taking it further, because Gerry Thompson and other people constantly innovating Cawblade had such an advantage deck-wise compared to other people (their Cawblade builds were often categorized by SCG’s Too Much Information column under a subcategory due to large changes to the deck), they never produced any data that could be classified as statistically significant.

At the risk of being dismissive, I’m going to dismiss one of R&D’s arguments: metagame development will never be a function of data analysis, because development is so separate from data analysis by their nature. This leads to a basic truth about Magic: Magic is hard.

Seriously, have you played this game? Have you tried coming up with new ideas, or improving existing ones? Have you tried inventing a theoretical model to explain the game?

There is no mystical way to solve Magic. There is no super-secret system to figure out the game forever. There is no way that data analysis will be the main driving force behind metagame development, because (aside from issues of reflecting the present vs predicting the future) there is too much going on in the data of Magic for anyone to make sense of it. There are no computer models that can say what the big deck will be a month from now, because to have a computer model of something, we have to understand how it works. We do not understand how Magic metagame development works nearly well enough to model it in this way.

1  If pressed for a source on this, I will cite my butt.

2  This is something people tend to forget, but pre-Skullclamp-banning Standard was significantly healthier than post-. While all the best decks played Skullclamp, there was at least some variety; Goblins, Affinity, and Elf and Nail all had some claim on being quite good, and Goblins probably had the edge. After Skullclamp was banned, Affinity was the only remaining deck, especially since Fifth Dawn became legal at the same time, infamously replacing one headgear with another (Cranial Plating) and actually making the deck faster.