Hotline Miami: Questioning Violence in Videogames

I get a phone call. “We need a package delivered to Estate Drive 232, express. The normal driver has fallen ill. Please wear something suitable. *CLICK*”. I walk down to my car and head on over. It is a quiet drive. Outside the door, I put on my tiger mask, I call it Tony, and put on a killer soundtrack on my iPhone. I take a deep breath, driving electronic music playing in my ears, and then burst through the door. There is a man in front of me who barely has time to acknowledge my presence before my fist goes through his skull, splattering the walls and floors behind him with blood and brain. I pick up what he dropped, a baseball bat. I turn right and kick the door open. Two men stand there, surprise on their faces. With a swing one of those faces is removed, exposing the skull underneath.The second man is about to take aim with what looks like a shotgun when I throw the baseball bat in his face. He hits the wall and slumps down on the floor, allowing me to give his head a few kicks and to bloody my shoes. I pick up his gun, go through the next door, and shoot the man I find on the other side, sending him across the room in a cascade of blood. I go through the rest of the house in similar fashion until everyone of its former inhabitants, all Russian mafia and all armed, lay dead. Just as the last body drops, the song in my earphones reaches the end.I make my way back to my car in silence, wading through the evidence of the carnage. On the way home, I stop for pizza and the guy at the counter gives me it for free. Sweet!

This is Hotline Miami, an ultraviolent top down shooter of sorts where a single misstep is a game over. In the game you kill a lot of people in many disturbing ways. The action is so fast paced and the visuals are so bright and happy so that the killing done by the character barely has time to register with the player. But when you complete a level, the music stops and you are then made to walk through the slaughter you caused in near silence, the game finally giving you time to reflect on what you have done.

On one hand, Hotline Miami is a senseless kill fest. On the other, it is a sharp critique of violence in games. The game asks you outright if you like hurting other people, if you know who is telling you to kill, and later, it tells you that it was all pointless. The game mocks you and makes you feel like crap if you stop and think about what it is telling you. The character you play, dubbed Jacket since he is given no name, unquestioningly accepts the missions of murder given to him. He does not seek answers and he is not, save for one instance, discriminate in who he kills. He will gladly put down mobster and civilians alike, although there very few of the latter. At one point in the game, he does get a clear motive to kill when he decides to get revenge for the murder of his girlfriend. After defeating the last boss, he calmly walks onto the balcony, lights a cigarette, and tosses away a photograph. Credits roll and many of the games questions are unanswered. In this ending, we see the conclusion of a killing spree. There is no one left to kill so there is nothing left to do. We don’t get answers as to why but it does not matter. We played it anyway, and we had fun. What does that say about us, the players?

If we continue, we take the role of Biker, or Helmet, as he is also not given a name. Now our character speaks, and he wants answers. He is searching for the people who have been calling him, for the people making him kill all these people. Like Jacket, he also receives cryptic phone calls directing him to kill. Unlike Jacket, he is now tired of it, and he wants out. Also unlike Jacket, he does not always have to kill. Playing Biker, we are often given the choice if we want to kill the civilians in level or not. When you get to the end of his arc, you meet two characters who are modeled after the developers. Biker confronts them and demands to know why they made him do the awful things he did. They laugh in his face and give him blunt answers. We were bored, we did it independently, they proudly say. They are the developers of the game, mocking Biker, mocking the player, for continuing the killing spree to get to the bottom of the narrative. They have no satisfying answers to give, you did it anyway and look where it got you. They force people to do things by making them fear the consequences, but they say the consequences do not have to be real. It is enough that the consequences are implied. The consequence here being answers to the mysteries of the narrative. Isn’t the game enough? Does it matter that you killed all these people if you enjoyed the game? Are you looking for an excuse, a narrative, to justify the enjoyment of simulated murder? What does that say about us, the players?

If we collect all the hidden secrets and put them together, we get to see the third ending. Here, we meet the same two characters (the developers) but the dialogue is different. Now we know who they are, what their organization is, and why they did this. We get the backstory, the narrative, the excuse. The secrets we had to collect are small and rather difficult to see, so more likely than not we had to go through and replay those missions again and again to get them. We killed more and more people just to hear the end of the story. Here, the developers are not just mocking us for doing violent things in a videogame, they are also mocking us for our need of a story, a justification. Is the gameplay not enough? Can’t we enjoy a game without a story? If we would kill characters over and over just to complete a narrative, to get an excuse for the violence, what does that say about us, the players?

The narrative and game play of Hotline Miami made me question videogame violence while challenging me at the same time by providing a grotesque, intense and frankly, really fun, game. It recently made me think about another videogame that will be released in the not so far future. This game, like Hotline Miami, has been harshly criticized for its hyper violent game play. This time, it stems just from the trailer alone. This game is Hatred.

In the trailer for Hatred, which is really the only thing we have to go by, we see the player character murder a lot of people. These victims are mostly civilians and police officers, who beg to be spared, as you execute them. The camera seems to zoom in, go into slow motion, or otherwise emphasize the brutality being done by your character on these (mostly) harmless, innocent and non-threatening people. My impression of Hatred is that it seems to be less of a game and more a serial killer simulator. Whereas Hotline Miami mocked us for looking for a justification in the narrative for our slaughter, Hatred seems to provide us with violent gameplay without any narrative justification. Additionally, Hotline Miami is stylized and pixelated, thus removing, even if slightly, the player from the immersion of the violence. Hatred’s next gen graphics makes the violence look positively real. I acknowledge that it is unfair to evaluate a game based on trailer and statements alone, but then the developers say:

 

“The question you may ask is: why do they do this? These days, when a lot of games are heading to be polite, colorful, politically correct and trying to be some kind of higher art, rather than just an entertainment – we wanted to create something against trends. Something different, something that could give the player a pure, gaming pleasure.”

(source)

The game seems to be exactly the kind of game Hotline Miami mocks and questions. If gaming pleasure has been reduced to just the motiveless killing of innocents, whether virtual or not, it raises questions about not just what kind of people play videogames but also issues in our culture. If the game play is good enough, does it really matter what we are doing in the game?

Yes, yes it does. Graphics are just a representation of game mechanics and the mechanics of any game are not dependent on violence. A game is traditionally a set of rules and regulations with a win state and a fail state, a winner and a loser. The graphical depictions we give them are, on some level, purely arbitrary. The choice to make a violent game is on some level a conscious one.

I am not in a position to say what can and can’t be made into a game and I do not want any limits put on developers. I am also fully aware of the multitude of studies done that disprove a link between videogame violence and real world violence, so I do not feel that this is an issue. I also acknowledge that videogames, and most entertainment, is grounded in base instincts and aggression is one of them. It is almost too obvious to take a system with win and fail states and not make them about violence. And I am fully aware that it is unfair to criticize a game that has not been released yet, but Hatred is just a very extreme example of a choice in videogames. I know we can’t rid videogames of violence and I am not saying we should, but after finishing Hotline Miami I asked myself, is that it? Is that all we can do?

Maybe we as players and developers should think a little about what we are making and playing. I have no interest in playingHatred because for me, game play is not enough for that level of graphical presentation. Though I could say I’m better than that, I know I am not. I love Hotline Miami and I will continue to play it. At one point in the game, a character asks Jacket, “Do you like hurting other people?”

 

I want to say no, but maybe I do.

Maybe we all do.

 

 

 

 

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Here are some links, where others discuss this game and other themes contained herein:

Rami Ismail, of Vlambeer, Why Hotline Miami is an important game on Gamasutra

Devin Wilson on Why Hotline Miami? also on Gamasutra.

Maddy Myers, for The Phoenix, Hotline Miami and America’s narrative of masculinity and violence

Devolver Digital Soundcloud for the Soundtrack.

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Comments

  1. Nice post.

    I wonder if games like these bring out the ‘darker’ nature of everyone. Does it allow it to be expressed without forcing you to actually harm someone? or does bringing out the nature of something cause it to happen more?

    Regardless, for me as well, its a stretch to say the gameplay is about killing. I sadly get caught up in stories because usually game play mechanics are not interesting enough to subsist on alone.

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