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.


Unknown said...

I love your writing so much! <3

Unknown said...

Just finished the game and this is the first thing I read. Great article and utterly loved (but quite the right word - more like sucked into) the game.

The violence was so shocking yet compelling, the frustration and janky controls so perfectly tuned for compulsion, and the way that the music doesn't break when you start over was such a wonderful touch.

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