Splashed in ever-changing neon palettes that suggest a drug induced reality; pulsating beats and blips contribute to a cool rhythm, and an unmistakable atmosphere. Spattered nearby are the thuds and icky thumps of your most recent kill, blood pooling as a grim reminder of what was left behind, what you're capable of, and what will surely be repeated. Stylish. Driven. Perplexing. That's Hotline Miami—the game with multiple voices, multiple personalities and no easy answers.
Before the phone rings on March 10 and it's Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number calling, here are some things that made Hotline Miami so fantastic.
It Starts with a Bang
The game introduces itself in a fascinating way that effectively sets the stage for what's to come. The first step is action: you're dropped into a tutorial and taught the basics of murder by a ragged, homeless man. Then this new knowledge must be applied directly.
Death and rebirth. You have met the Buddha on the road, and you have killed him.
The second step is confusion: upon finishing the first level you find yourself in a nondescript room. Darkness envelops you, broken by spotlights of bright color. Debris floats across the screen. Flies? Ashes? A record spins in the room's center. This music plays:
Then three talking animal heads tell you three drastically different things.
This tension sustains the entire game: the need for constant, decisive action, and the helplessness of not understanding why. It's what defines Jacket as a character, and it's what makes him such an excellent surrogate for the player.
Hotline Miami is told through varied means: through its hallucinatory visuals, omnipresent soundtrack, and the speed and fury of its gameplay. It also occasionally raises questions to the player through its trifecta of personalities.
Don Juan, Richard and Rasmus
Three talking animal heads is just one way to start a game. Their initial words read like coded messages.
Don Juan, the Horse head, incredulously asks Jacket if he doesn't know who he is. Rasmus, the Owl head, acts like a maniac and swears he doesn't know who Jacket is at all. Richard, the Rooster head, says that he knows exactly who Jacket is and insists Jacket knows who he is too.
They're confusing but they also initiate a conversation that clues the player into how best to consider the experience as a whole. The talking heads ask players to admit their love for the senselessness of it all, to take it at face value, or to deny the guilty pleasures of what the game presents.
These questions aren't clear from the start, and it takes a playthrough and some extra work to reveal the game's intent but even then Don Juan's, Richard's and Rasmus' purposes are open to interpretation, often shuffling between roles as the game's narrators while voicing players' curiosities and concerns.
"Do You Like Hurting Other People?"
Early in the game when Richard asks you this, it sounds like an admonishment. "You sicko" it implies. "is this what you wanted? Chaos, destruction and death?" But like many aspects of Hotline Miami, this question operates on multiple levels. In order to read it properly we must consider a few important factors.
As addressed to Jacket, we can interpret it as a rhetorical question. We assume Jacket must like hurting people because he serves no other function. His involvement in the game's "true" story amounts to a shrug. Were his actions compelled by sinister forces in the background? Was he somehow tricked into his mission? Or was he merely acting on urges he could not control? How extensive was his psychotic break, and what version of events is the "truth?" While the game is uninterested in illuminating these questions definitively, it's a fair assumption that he does, in fact, like hurting other people, much in the way we, the players, like playing the game. But of course, this answer is intentionally incomplete. There were people orchestrating Jacket's actions, like the game's designers have orchestrated ours. Hotline's answer to this question is fascinatingly ambiguous, left to the player's own interpretation and experience.
The game's depiction of ultraviolence deliberately plays with this tension as well; the brutality of the world on screen and the player's mental distance from it. The low-res pixel aesthetic and top-down view would seem to severely limit the level of detail, and yet it does not diminish the queasy power of the gore on display. There is no glamour to the violence, but rather a sickening literalism: the quiver of thumbs gouging eye sockets; the optimistic-yet-futile crawl of the fatally injured; and most of all, Jacket's return trip through each level, an enemy-less stroll that leaves him no choice but to reflect on the carnage he's wrought.
The top down view, pixelated action, and gunshots disrupting the colors with quick bright flashes of yellow, all contribute wonderfully to the game's 1989 aesthetic. The setting (rising?) sun motif and palm tree silhouettes segue gameplay levels into Jacket's everyday routines, referencing the popular image of Miami as colorful, stylish and easy going. And yet there's an undeniable filthiness to it all, from dingy streets to grotesque characters, and it all works together to create a deeply unsettling experience.
There's a dizzying moment in Hotline Miami where Jacket is trying to escape his hospital room to exact revenge on the rat masked man who put him there. The game shifts from its unusual dark chameleon colors to brighter, muted tones transitioning night to day. The level removes much of the color that previously assaulted the senses in its carpets, walls and the always changing space surrounding the buildings Jacket enters. The signature arcade points that usually litter the screen as Jacket incapacitates an enemy do not appear here, as the goal of the level is to escape unseen.
It's a stark, noticeable change, particularly with the mechanics of Jacket's walking. They're labored steps to his usual quick and decisive movements.The screen flips into white static to show how Jacket's vision is impaired, as he struggles with the physical pain of returning from the brink of death.
The hospital level makes clever use of aesthetics to dull players' senses as it does Jacket's. It dampens the otherwise trigger (and melee) happy frenzy mood of previous and subsequent levels, in which shades of purple and pink frame the blood spatters that dominate the scenes.
For a game that plays out as one level after another of little but ruthless assassinations, Hotline Miami has a wonderfully varied and deep soundtrack. Its style is typified by synthesizers and upbeat techno, priming players for action, while other tracks brilliantly capture the blissful relief of completing a difficult mission, or even Jacket's more mundane daily tasks.
This particular track, "Hydrogen" by M|O|O|N, speaks to the aspect of the game that prioritizes gameplay fun over all else. The song can be the focus point for mapping out enemies' locations and behavior, or it can be the driving force to keep going after multiple failed attempts. It starts with an understated level of anticipation, adds a heavy beat and bass at the 15 second mark or so and for the rest of its runtime maintains this anticipation while layering in pointed, rhythmic sounds. These sounds eventually take center stage and are presented like stilted movements which set a pace for the player to carefully consider their moves and that of their enemies.
It also sounds playfully wicked and, much like the chemical element of the same name, there's a sense that you're caught in a highly combustible situation; one that may trigger a volatile reaction.
With so much of the game spent in the midst of high-adrenaline action, it's easy to undervalue Hotline's quieter moments. For Jacket, there is no rest, and Sun Araw's hazy theme to his apartment contributes hugely to the game's deeply unsettling tone. The beat slows to a crawl. The synthesizers moan like wounded beasts, echoing and distorted. A distant voice sings unintelligible syllables, as if calling from the void. It sounds quite nearly soothing in a droning, meditative sort of way, and yet also unmistakably tinged with madness.
During these downtimes we can explore the apartment as Jacket, but our interaction with it is limited. We merely watch it change to reflect Jacket's recent actions. Newspaper clippings and other pieces of story accumulate, but they provide few answers. We see glimpses into Jacket's unsatisfying life outside the killings, providing some, however small, context to his actions, and yet like so many aspects of this game, they only tell a fraction of the story.
As if the game didn't do enough through its narrators, aesthetics and music; it goes further to define players' heavy involvement in its experience through its gameplay, masks and its two main characters.
Masks, Play Styles and You
There are 26 masks in Hotline Miami (27 with the exclusive mask for the PS3, PS4, PS Vita versions). With the exception of the Richard mask, they all have various attributes that affect gameplay. Some are aesthetic changes, such as the Jones Alligator mask which produces more in-game gore, while others are designed for an increased challenge, like the Oscar mole mask which places "darkness" filters to alter players' perceptions.
Mask choices can speak to the sort of player you are. A bit more cautious in your approach with careful planning of your entrance and exit strategies? Do you favor stealth? Love a Shoot-em Up? Love close combat? It's all here, with some more gruesome than others. The masks offer a wonderfully clever way in which the game invites players to look at levels as a canvas for their creative brutality. As levels progress and the body count rises, there's also supposed to be a sense of accomplishment in how timely or stylish kills are executed or through stringing combos for high scores. These are just some of the ways the game rewards players, ultimately combining these macabre celebrations of death into a letter grade at the end of each level.
The game pushes against one perspective of a narrative, while fully engaging the flow of the other through its masks choices. It's just one more way in which Hotline Miami brilliantly projects what it is and what it isn't — a game that lacks a black and white narrative, with no distinctions of right and wrong but instead embraces all complex discussions when thinking about violence in video games and media, as well as what makes games fun.
Finding an Identity
As Hotline's masks act as the players' identities, and by extension players' motivations, it's probably no surprise then that its two main playable characters have no given names by its developers.
It's interesting our need to identify characters, as language instructs us to label things for easier communication, definition and discussion. As demonstrated by fan designations of Hotline's two characters, the names "Jacket" and "Helmet" are perfect for a game where masks hide its protagonists' faces, and there is limited presentation aiding to its vague storytelling.
Hotline hides what it wants to say, and when it's finally pieced together, there's still no easy solution. There are in fact two truths—Jacket and his masks act as a blanket statement of one truth, and Helmet acts as the hidden truth— either of which, as previously noted, can be left to the players' interpretations. There's something of a true ending, and a truthful ending. One's wrapped in conspiracy while the other mocks your murder spree actions, born of its orchestrators' boredom. One demands explanation for the violence in the context of Hotline's story. The other is simple justification for the unmitigated virtual reality fun, serving players' need for entertainment.
No Easy Answers
Except these truths do not end there. Getting to that point requires some incredible storytelling subversion, and Hotline Miami sneakily implements the end of one story to further another, without explicitly stating it has done so until players are in it.
**Spoiler Warning for the end of the game to follow**
Hotline continues to offer fascinating perspectives on violence even after Jacket's involvement ends, picking up at an earlier point in the story to explore the events from another character's perspective. The player soon realizes that we are not experiencing a mere retread of the game's main storyline, but rather a fully alternate story that diverges from the main timeline at a crucial event.
Helmet also offers a great twist on the game's central mechanics (a twist that the sequel appears to be running with). Unlike Jacket's blank-slate, Helmet is a defined character. A kind of thrill-seeker, his butcher knives are powerful but limited weapons, and mechanically unlike any other in the game. The player must re-learn their approach to the game's combat, taking into account Helmet's unique abilities. Many players might balk at the idea of losing the masks they've spent the game acquiring, but it serves a very effective narrative shift for the whole game, and the thrill of learning new lethal abilities is as invigorating as ever.
The most important difference between Helmet and Jacket is that only Helmet can ever learn the truth behind his actions. His hot-headed personality, balking against the orders received from the hotline, is a completely different beast from Jacket's psychotic-apathy. While Jacket could represent a vague idea of "the player" (someone who will obey, regardless of the questions they might ask themselves), Helmet is an anomaly. He pushes against the game's mechanics as well as the directives sent to him, and ultimately he is rewarded with the game's "true" true ending, provided the player has been diligent about collecting each level's secrets.
Does this invalidate Jacket's ending? Or vice versa? As expected, Hotline is uninterested in declaring objective "truth," instead prompting the player to consider these questions and their ramifications themselves.
It's easy to imagine gamers disgruntled by Hotline's refusal to provide easy answers. We are often conditioned to expect tidy resolutions from our entertainment: bad guys getting their due and heroes triumphing. Hotline doesn't provide anything so simple. Through its mechanics, aesthetics, soundtrack and writing, it transcends its premise as a digital slasher-flick to become something truly remarkable: an experience.
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Rasmus doesn't know you, and hopes you stay away from him. He can be contacted via commenter pocoGRANDES.