Hotline:Miami is a wonderful video game about premeditated murder. It is played from the top-down perspective. For fourteen levels, you are tasked with navigating a space and murdering its inhabitants. It is among the more aesthetically successful games I’ve played.
To begin: it is notoriously difficult to describe music, but it’s impossible not to remark upon its brilliant soundtrack: lush, funky, sunny, synthetically menacing. It is the sound of electric scarabs burrowing their way through your brainpan. Which is all to say: if I was looking to botch a cocaine deal, this is the music I would choose to accompany my undoing. It imbues the experience with a distinct air of druggy unease which sets the tone for everything that occurs.
One might say that Hotline: Miami borrows from the aesthetic of Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive. This is inaccurate. Great artists steal, remember? It is not just the neon-heavy color palette and aural texture of the film: Hotline:Miami is a marvelous translation of the films’s aesthetic sensibility into gameplay.
Drive revolves around a certain key duality in its protagonist: for long spells, including criminal activity, he is placid to the point of mental impairment. And then at key moments this calm is punctuated by moments of lunatic savagery. Brains stomped across the floor of elevators. Hotline:Miami’s gameplay dynamics create a structurally similar contradiction.
On one side, it requires you to be calm and methodical in your approach to each fight. You are extremely fragile. Your advantage on enemies comes in your ability to combine the various elements of your combat repertoire and exploit your knowledge of the level geometry. In each encounter with a roomful of enemies, you need to plan out and repeatedly rehearse a particular approach: knock one enemy down with a door, stab the next, throw a knife at a third, finish the first, seize the third’s weapon. Because death is routine, you will make dozens of attempts at any given level. A particular pattern of engagement will cement itself in your brain. It demands a lot of self-control, and the game’s responsive controls support everything you can plan out.
But your ingrained patterns of behavior are also interrupted by episodes where everything goes to shit and you are just frantically swinging a hammer at herds of shotgun-wielding enemies and dogs, dodging back and forth from behind a door, backpedaling as you try to frantically rightclick a shotgun. Although the enemy behavior is predictable, there is a small grain of randomness to their movements and behavior each time you restart. Which means that in the umpteenth repetition of a particular battle, you are assailed, unexpectedly, but an unforeseen attack and are forced to improvise.
Over the arc of the game, what the mechanics inculcate is a sort of studied boldness. A thoughtful thoughtlessness. Everything happens very quickly. You think up a plan and then don’t think about it; when you next come to yourself, you are either dead or the floor is swimming in pixelated brains. Forgot about that guy, you think to yourself.
The narrative economy of the game is also to its credit. There is a loose plot tying together the various mass murders you commit: between missions, you walk your player around your apartment, visit the pizza place, engage in cursory bits of dialogue with various shopkeepers. So much is delivered through suggestive, small details of the art in these scenes: the abstract pile of pizza boxes on your kitchen table, the disarray of your bedsheets. About a third of the way through you save a junky from a mission, and she appears in your apartment; as she stays your living space takes on a teh appearance of domestic order. Conversely, the spaces outside of the apartment become steadily more menacing– visited on its edges by surreal bits of violence and visual hallucinations.
At the heart of this plot is a certain puzzle about violence. The game accomplishes so much in the way of horrible, gory violence with its scant visual materials. As you walk back to your car after level you are treated to a gruesome sea of severed heads, spilled intestines, dismembered torsos. The quiet makes the scale of killing palpable. It accomplishes what Spec Ops: The Line attempted to accomplish with vastly superior resources: turn the lens back on the player and inquire why they sought out something so vile and graphically violent for kicks. Hotline:Miami gives the correct answer. Because it offers to the player something they can’t get elsewhere: thrills, mindlessness, oblivion. Who wouldn’t?