‘Do you like hurting other people?’ Hotline Miami’s waltz of brilliance and laziness

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Hotline Miami is a game of both incredible highs and extremely lazy lows. It’s a game that when given a baseball bat, knows how to get on the field and hit a home-run right out of the park, but when given that same bat in front of a piñata, it’s unsure which end to hold and it stares at you blankly like you have a bit of brain leaking out your ear on to your sweater and causing a terrible mess.

Hotline Miami is a critique on hyper violence through the use of hyper violence. It understands the power of showing its story through gameplay and it does so masterfully, but then it turns around and immediately forgets how to show the player something else through that same gameplay – namely how to play by its rules.

One of the biggest advantages a video game has in telling its story is that it doesn’t have to do it with exposition like in a novel. Many games will do the dreaded exposition dump, but this is usually not the right path, young kemosabe. Instead, games and other visual mediums can show you rather than tell you. What sets games apart from other visual mediums, however, is the fact that you, as the player, are actively playing a part in what you are being shown. I could devote an entire article to this idea, but instead let’s get into the gory tidbits of example through Hotline Miami. This analysis will have massive spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

In a word, the violence in Hotline Miami is over the top. Okay, that was a few words, you going to make something of it? Huh, punk? Somehow I doubt you’d even have time to between cracking a dude’s head in with a door, chucking your lead pipe into his friend’s face, picking up a hunting rifle from your victim, blowing away most of the room and then some with it in a quick one-two of incognizant pseudo-justice, then bringing it all home by picking up that friend-making pipe from before and repeatedly bashing in the face of the last straggler trying to crawl for his pitiful life. Unless of course you’re really good at this whole violence thing, then maybe by the end of all that, you’d still have enough time left on your Combo Timer to come make something of my improper use of “in a word.”

What’s really unsettling is that the description doesn’t really do the hyper violence justice. This is one messy, gory, “kill absolutely everything that moves” game. And it knows it.

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Hotline Miami is broken up into levels that tend to follow a structure of our “hero” being given some nonsensical instructions from a stranger on his message machine, with a location for him to go obliterate from the face of the planet. You pick from a variety of unlockable animal masks that change something about your character, such as moving faster or silencing your gun shots, then head into the building to proceed to convert every living thing inside into spaghetti chunks. Everyone, including our hero, dies instantly or within a breath of it, making the hard-hitting massacre come lightning fast.

The amount of blood that flies everywhere and just how easily it does so can start to feel unsettling despite being a good deal of fun. It’s a blast scouting the room, then preparing your assault and whisking from one kill to the next in a blood-soaked tango of unspeakable doom, all in the name of long combos and big points. In reality, Hotline Miami has managed to boil down violent video games to its bare-bones core with this approach. Violent games tend to have you killing *nameless bad guy* in *random location of choice* through *insert means of death dealing*, and we go at it without question.

Where things start to take a bit of a turn is after your first level, our hero encounters an aggressive bum in the alleyway. The bum promptly gets his face beaten in, followed by our hero dropping to the ground and vomiting. At no time does the game ever tell you that violence is sick, or what you are doing is wrong, but instead, in that moment where you coat the pavement in green pixels, you feel sick to your stomach as well. The massively over the top nature of the violence you just wrought feels weird, when moments before it was just pure fun.

It’s not all that long after that you find yourself in a strange room where 3 figures wearing your animal masks sit and talk at you. The room is dimly lit and full of flies, there are eerie music, trash, and blood. It feels like you’ve walked into the bowels of death itself. If this was an intervention, it’d leave you scarred, weeping, and likely not entirely collected in the sanity department. Every fiber of your being, every one of your senses that is drinking in this scene is screaming “NOPE!” at you, yet you stay. Then the game really hits it home. The figure wearing the trademark rooster mask asks you a particular question: “Do you like hurting other people?”

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Despite the question being aimed at the character, it feels directly aimed at you. It manages to make you think about the violence with such a simple question, and the resulting feeling is more uncomfortable than a deer barging in to a hunter’s club. This thought lingers in your head as you throw one killer party (turbo puns!) after another and the game progresses to get more and more bizarre and disturbing. The peaceful areas of the game where you had a kind “friend” talk to you and show concern for you turn into scenes of animated gore and hate, and you start tripping out really hard as you learn that you’re actually in a coma. You’re left wondering if the acts of mass murder were you remembering what you did or if they were simply all unconscious dreams.

The game comes to a pretty “meh” conclusion as you wake up and go on a revenge spree, and seems to almost lose sight itself in the process. Its saving grace is that near the end you come across two moments where you’re begged for mercy, yet the way to progress is to show none, and the weird thing is this doesn’t even feel forced. It just feels like you’re supposed to murder with extreme prejudice, and considering how I and many other gamers love our choices in games, even to the point of sparing people just to see what happens, it makes this fact all the more impressive. Clearly the message Hotline Miami has is working, and despite never telling you what you should be thinking, it shows you through your actions what it wants you to consider. You’re left pondering what it means that we so easily go on murder-sprees in games “just because.”

Unfortunately, this masterful work of “show, don’t tell” did not carry over much at all into the level design or game mechanics. While this game is incredibly difficult, and that’s no bad thing, what tilts it over into frustration sometimes is that the game royally sucks at explaining itself. Great level design will teach a player how to play by showing them what they can do, rather than dumping an instruction page at you. The only instance of this in Hotline Miami that I noticed was when you get the horse mask, which lets you kill someone with a door, and the next level immediately has an enemy in front of a door for you to demolish like a joyriding lunatic. Beyond that instance, the game is purely lazy, all the way to the point of failing to explain key mechanics at all.

The game starts with a tutorial section where you’re given some quick instructions, and you do those actions on some test dummies before it throws you into the real game. It feels incredibly tacked on and disconnected, and while it works somewhat, it’s very unsatisfying. To make it worse, they spend time teaching you the largely useless mechanic of taking someone as a body shield, but don’t even bother to mention other important mechanics. One mechanic in particular – a stealth takedown – I didn’t even learn was a thing until halfway through the game when I got a monkey mask that let’s you take your victim’s weapon as you kill him. The way to do this is through the instant stealth takedown of some sort that the game never mentions and I would have never learned about if I hadn’t looked up how the mask worked. And despite that, the people discussing it weren’t even entirely sure how it works. It was just a sort of malaise of “well you can kind of, sorta do this one thing some times for some reason.” This mess was only compiled by the fact that the mask descriptions are incredibly short and vague, leaving some of them to be just a guess at what they even do.

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The worst offender of these instructions written by a blind schizophrenic are the boss fights. These are an absolute train wreck being rocketed into the moon on the backs of retarded cyborg dogs. I don’t even know. Each boss fight starts with a red arrow pointing to a weapon you can pick up giving you some level of direction, but then it leaves you to just figure things out with no indication to go on. It took an absolutely absurd number of tries to even figure out if what I was trying was the correct path and I just sucked at it, or if I was way off. There’s simply no guidance to speak of – not through the game organically teaching you through play or past experience, and not even through the lazy on screen text approach of the tutorial. Instead, you die over and over, and it all happens so quickly that it takes many tries before you feel confident enough to say that this approach isn’t the right one. Then you start the fight from the beginning, again, and try to figure out what on Earth to do.

To make it somehow even worse, they introduce logical inconsistencies. In the first boss fight, a biker with a knife attacks you and you must fight him with a golf club. You can’t hurt him while he has the knife. Period. He doesn’t make a motion to block, it’s not clear that he’s dodging – you just can’t hit him. If you get close enough to ensure you’re connecting with what should be the hitbox and not just skimming it, you get cut in half. After a bit of waiting, the biker will chuck his knife at you, and then you get the “ohhhh! This is the opening!” moment. Wrong. The biker runs to get his knife and while he’s running I tried to hit him. Club went right through him, didn’t do a damn thing, he gets the knife, and I die. Okay, let’s try the next logical idea. This time when the biker throws the knife, I ran to pick it up before him, but touching the knife that is stuck in the wall kills you instantly. It’s only once the biker is trying to pry his knife from the wall that you get to hit him, because you know, that’s how all my knife fights play out.

This frustration gets more common as the game gets near the end, with patrolling enemies from off screen murdering you that are impossible to account for, to inconsistent enemy behaviors that you rely on to be able to pass a section. It ends up being a series of try-fail-try-fail until the parts magically come together with your decisions not changing. It feels cheap because of the inconsistency, and when you pass a section or die, it feels much less to do with skill. This problem is only really present in the boss fights and last few levels, making most of the game quite a joy to play, but much of the difficulty does end up stemming from this complete failure to really explain, or better, show the logic that the game is working on.

What it all amounts to is that Hotline Miami is a game of both incredible triumph and incredible failure. It’s amazing how the game rockets ahead of many of its peers and tells a story and message mostly through its gameplay – a hard feat to pull off – but then stumbles on the basics of solid level design that teaches the player and allows the game to fairly challenge them with that new knowledge. It’s a very fun game, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like the developers are a kid with a huge lollipop running off so excitedly that he doesn’t notice the pillar he sprints headfirst into. It’s great to design a game around this awesome idea of how to tell a really impactful, albeit simple story, but you can’t forget the fundamentals of good level design that teaches your player. That’s just senseless.

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Kyle McArthur
Kyle McArthur 17 posts

Freelance Writer. Game Designer. Poet. Life-long gamer. Jedi enthusiast. DM extraordinaire. Shrimp lover. <a href="http://rolltonotdie.com/">http://rolltonotdie.com</a>