Christ, do I love Hotline Miami.
Sorry, have I given away my bias already? Hotline Miami is one of my favorite games and I’ve played through it a dozen times. I think I’ve played through it in its entirety more than any other game.
Okay, so I’ve gushed enough to lose some of my integrity as a writer. Why do I love Hotline Miami so much? Well you know how I keep on saying pretentious stuff about games as art and mechanics conveying themes? Well, Hotline Miami does it perfectly.
Something I’ve said before is how a good piece of art in any medium should use what it has been given to its fullest potential making it untranslatable in any other medium. Hotline Miami really does that. Whenever I have to describe it to non-gamers I call it “Taxi Driver: The Game” but that is kind of offensive to both works of art.
I mean they are both hyper violent depictions of media and its influence and mental illness and sex and a loving relationship with a prostitute and both have these vague ambiguous interesting endings and... Okay so they have a couple similarities but I’m not here to talk about Taxi Driver.
So what does Hotline Miami do so right?
Firstly it puts you in the place of the main character, Jacket. While movies and tv shows have ways of showing a character is crazy or schizophrenic(changing filters or adding odd ambient noise or hallucinations etc.) Hotline Miami is a game allowing the player to play and experience it, and I think it’s especially interesting because Hotline Miami is so unstructured. I mean its an arcade action game with self contained levels and cut scenes but I’ll come back to the unstructuredness in a second.
The cut scenes and more story oriented levels have interactions with strangers or friends who all look like the same man in different outfits. It starts decently enough. You go to convenience stores and the like and pick up some food with a nice friendly conversation with the clerk as a man in the aisle picks his food too. They’re weird breaks through all the violence and murder of the main game, but it allows us to see into Jacket’s life and the world. These killings ARE weird in this world and are making the news! Stranger yet is that Jacket is a seemingly normal member of society with friends. I mean they give them everything for free but as far as we are told at this point Jacket is normal. Then it gets weirder.
As the game progresses the scenes in between are treasured breathes of lucidity in the sea of insanity of Jacket’s mind. The above is one of the more extreme scenes, but other more subtle ways are used to convey the craziness spreading into Jacket’s regular life.
Secondly Hotline Miami makes you kill and fell bad about killing. But it does it in a different way than say Spec Ops: The Line. If you know Spec Ops: The Line you know what I mean. In it you kill Americans and the game constantly tells you what you are doing is wrong and that they are people. While that is a good way of deconstructing violent games and Spec Ops is definitely worth your time Hotline Miami does it different.
It basically tells you that you’re justified that they are mobsters and bad people. You’re doing vigilante justice. But at the end of each level you have to walk back to your car wading through all the corpses and blood you have left in your wake. The pulsing music quiets down and everything stops. You’ve killed dozens of your fellow man like it was nothing. Chapter done. (You can read a tiny bit more about this here.)
Finally the narrative of Hotline Miami. This ties into the last point in that the overarching themes and main moral/question in Hotline Miami is “Do you like hurting people?” It’s asked throughout the game by the main character in Jacket’s head and also in a strange epilogue section that while heavy handed is well done enough that I won’t completely over analyse it and spoil it like I’ve been known to do in the past.
Hotline Miami is a wonderful beautiful smart game about the deconstruction of violent media with some nice fun arcade-y visuals and gameplay. If you haven’t already played this 3 year old game (wow does time pass by fast!) then please do.