I have been aware of Hotline Miami on the periphery. I never tried my hand at it because the graphics of the screen shots turned me off, on the face off it an 8-bit mess, as well it being a top down shooter, not one of my favourite genres. What also steered me away from it was its connection to ‘Drive’ a film which I thoroughly disliked, ultra-cool, ultra-violent but empty, no soul, nothing beyond shocking and visceral, absurdly devoid of motivation. I have nothing against gore, if anything I am a fan, some of my favourite films employ it to great effect (such as Videodrome and Visitor Q ) but always in a context which illustrate and confront the sordid components of life rather than just red paint to be flopped around carelessly in a desperate attempt to seem dangerously careening over the edge of the publicly acceptable while masking the mundane. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found a well-crafted and surprisingly holistic game.
Yes it is ultra-violent, yes its soundtrack is phycho electro 80’s cool, yes its gameplay rewards murderous creativity of the Saw kind but it’s also interesting. In the tradition of games like Manhunt and Bully it defends its existence by employing the much maligned argument that through being violent and having people participate in that violence it can somehow have us engage with the horrible substance of it and make us think. The counter argument which has been made well by Rami, is that it is honest about that violence. The game makes no effort to make our protagonist seem like a hero, he simply gets phone calls and murders lots of people, some of whom beg us to spare their lives, some of whom seem innocent. There is no overarching morality, you are, it is implied, simply a hitman working for criminals killing other criminals. As you go on this journey you become increasingly disjointed from reality eventually seeing dead people, having recurring meetings with clerks in different stores who all seem the same person and having mysterious meetings in a unknown location with people in animal masks. It draws from a rich tapestry of films, certainly Twin Peaks comes to mind, with its meetings in the mysterious lodge inhabited by spirits or gods with unknown motivations who speak in riddles. But perhaps more importantly, Lost Highway and by extension Cache / Hidden come to mind as the game comes to a close. We find out where the mysterious phone calls come from poorly motivated bad guys whose only intent is to make us kill and cares not whether they themselves live or die. Like in Lost Highway and Cache these imagined villains are a stand in for the creators of the medium itself, in this case the games creator who simply admits they are pushing us to engage with this directly, as the game literally asks us:
So the question is do we really want to celebrate this sordid violent sickening kind of art. I think the answers is yes, because regardless of the existence of this game most of us are obsessed with violence, violence in literature, violence in painting, violence in movie, violence in newspapers, violence in our street. It is the kind of point, as others have also mentioned, Funny Games also makes, and while we obsess about violence we often placate it, get bored of it and want to see new and cool ingenuity in the art of killing. Drowning in this sea of violence for personal pleasure, any kind of mirror however flawed, as Hotline Miami is far from the most eloquent, well considered or progressive expression of this, is in my view worthwhile. Even though we may cynically lay it to a side as we gladly participate in its sordid murder schemes and plots and discard self-reflection induced by moments such as pictured above, as many players, commentators and even the creators themselves bask in its minutely detailed violence, it is a ripple that may mean something small or big to some of us. In this it is infinitely to be preferred to any number of games that link violence to some morally skewed sense of militaristic nationalism or the suave and cool of a bloodless James Bond murder who kills people and gets to drink a shaken Martini with the intensely publicly fetishized pretty blonde accessory, the bond girl afterwards. This comment under Devin’s critical article linked to above, summarises it nicely.
Murderers are not nice people and maybe not all games about killing others have to present this as the activity of sane people with desirable heroic lives.