Hotline Miami was generally beloved by players and critics alike when it was released in 2012, with particular praise going towards its violent, hard as nails combat, pulse pounding music, and the simultaneously bright and gritty visual aesthetic.
Warning: Spoilers for the Hotline Miami series from this point forward.
The term “surreal” is often tossed around when talking or writing about Hotline Miami. But simply being surreal isn’t an element of Hotline Miami. The surreal nature of this game is the manifestation of all of its different elements coming together in lock step.
The game is technically set in 1989 Miami, but more accurately set in a drug fueled nightmare version of 1989 Miami. Take the level design for instance:
The building you are infiltrating and clearing of foes is seen from a top down perspective, but the outside of the building, the only objects rendered are vehicles. Everything else is a pulsing, washed out, neon void. As you walk through the stage, the entire building subtly tilts as you move. Combined with the dark, yet funky, soundtrack (more on it soon), the effect is strangely hypnotic. The only things that feel grounded are the killing and the objects you use to kill or avoid being killed yourself.
Why you are killing and dying is hardly the point, it is rather that you are killing and dying. It is easy to play through the game and not get a firm grasp of anything. Your character, simply known as “Jacket”, receives mysterious calls instructing him to carry out hits on Russian gangsters. Why he is doing this isn’t made completely clear, at least in the first play through. It is heavily implied that Jacket is being manipulated, but he also seems to have some agency of choice in the matter.
Regardless of other motivations, Jacket kills simply because he likes it.
This is brutally apparent in the gameplay. It is fast and arcadesque, with a stark success or fail state. Clear the floor of all enemies in one run without being killed. Seems simple enough, but your character can generally only take one hit from his enemies, two if he is exceedingly lucky.
Jacket doesn’t just kill people. He crushes their heads with repeated slams against the floor. He gouges out eyes, cuts throats, and blows people apart with firearms. Jacket is a bloodthirsty predator. He is a shark swimming with seals. Video games rarely shock me with their violence, but Hotline Miami initially made me uneasy.
But just like our main character, I couldn’t stop. The game demands speed and quick decision making, but is also strangely puzzle like in execution. There are people that needed to be killed, and it is up to your problem solving skills to do so in one clean run. Hotline Miami is a deeply cynical premise for an action game, and it would fall apart on close inspection if the gameplay didn’t work.
No matter how weird everything gets, how much you are questioning what the phone calls are and what they are about, it washes away in a second when you roll up to a new stage and are greeted with this:
The only way I can describe it to someone who hasn’t played Hotline Miami is that the music puts you in a trance. It immediately grabs you and drives you into doing the acts of violence necessary for completing the game. A small, but key, decision is to have the same track loop continuously, even when you die. As explained before, killing is quick in Hotline Miami, but death is even quicker. The continuous pulse of music makes it nearly impossible to not press “R” to restart.
The in mission music gets tons of praise, and rightfully so, but the real strokes of genius are the tracks used for the intermediary parts of this head trip. Examples abound: The warped, unsettling herald of a new phone call “Deep Cover”. The pure menace of “Silver Lights”. The funky night music of “Daisuke”. I simply can’t imagine the game succeeding as a complete experience without these tracks.
As the game goes on, the few ties that the tale has to reality start to slip away. Initially, there are things that simply seem weird. Every cafe or convenience store your character frequents has the same bearded man (known simply as Beard) as the attendant. Eventually, you start seeing the bodies of the people you have killed lying on the floor, dying or near death. A particularly bizarre scene has Jacket speaking to a man and his dog outside of a restaurant who are missing parts of their faces.
It goes on like this. Cut scenes are interrupted with frequent bursts of static. There are people you speak to that seem to be guiding you wearing animal masks, but are they even masks at all? Are they even real? Even the attendant you have encountered through most of the game is later found dead, replaced by another person seemingly covered in his blood. The reason for his death is left unexplained.
When you do beat the game, you unlock the option of playing as another character you encountered, simply named “Biker”. His version of the story is different from Jacket’s in huge ways, the biggest of which being that Jacket originally killed him and now the inverse is true. The player is left to decide which of these stories are real, if either of them are (turns out, they are both half true).
None of the dots fully connect if you step back and think rationally. It is better this way. How many nightmares have you had that have felt so fully real in the moment, but when you wake up, you realize that the situation was ludicrous? The scenario was imagined, but the feelings associated with it are all too real.
Hotline Miami is going to be remembered for a lot of reasons, and is a landmark title in the “indie” scene. However, the best lesson to take from it is the power of committing to your premise. Hotline Miami refused to pull a single punch, and the result is a strange nightmare that you can’t wait to relive.