Hotline Miami made me feel like a monster.
As the music drove me forward and the hypnotic neon visuals swelled around the edges of a stage, I lost track of the number of people I had so brutally and ruthlessly murdered. The first kill was shocking, fast, and pointless. I felt sick and angry at the person who’d forced me into it. Then they gave me a pipe, and then a gun, and I kept killing. For as disturbing as the mutilated corpses and pools of blood around me were, the feedback I was being given was intoxicating, and the thrill of barely avoiding death only heightening the sensation.
Hotline Miami doesn’t revel in violence, but it never attempts to shy away or filter it. It knows it’s depraved, but also that there’s some twisted part inside of us that enjoys, even craves violence. It fills our entertainment and history, but rarely asks us to recognize the horror of hurting someone. There’s always a justification, a clear line drawn between the “good” and “bad” people or those who “deserve it”. It’s what allows us to explore violence in media without becoming psychotic or repulsed, but it also seems to grant a lot of leeway for what is considered acceptable, a gap that only widens the more we consume and the less it registers.
I’ve played a lot of violent games, many far more graphic and realistically rendered than Hotline Miami, but I don’t know that I’ve ever played one that made me more disturbed of myself. Hotline Miami does this not by any narrative reason or even because it’s violence is so grotesque, but because of how fun it makes killing someone, and how it constantly pushes you to do it better, faster, more interestingly. It’s mechanics are tight and focused, reworking its top-down shooter framework into some more puzzle-like and melee focused. It rewards you for every action but always dangles the carrot slightly beyond your reach, challenging do it again, this time with style.
HOTLINE MIAMI NEVER GIVES YOU A CHANCE TO BACK OUT
The more I played, the better I became at thinking like the sociopathic machine my character had become. I forgot about people I was killing or the reason I was doing so (if there ever was one); they were just pieces in an elaborate, deadly puzzle which I needed to clear as efficiently as possible. It’s the tiny things that make Hotline Miami so mesmerizing. The way points explode after every kill, or that the music never stops when you die, leaving you no chance to back out. Everything is so tightly knit and ferociously intense, you aren’t afforded the space to think before acting. You just move and let your instincts take over.
But all of this wouldn’t mean anything if the game was nothing but violent, strategic rooms for you to exploit. It’s the moments that come later that remind you that you’re human and exist in a world not of exploding meat bags, but living people, that make Hotline Miami’s violence mean something. Picking up a pizza or talking to the video store clerk, there’s the haunting feeling of desperately trying to pretend you’re still sane; that you have some connection to the world you seem only capable of destroying. When you’re finally pushed out of the world, it’s disorienting and frightening, and left me with only more people to kill as every remaining aspect of my sanity evaporated.
If Hotline Miami has any major faults, it’s that it’s often as fragile as its protagonist, and by the end has similarly fallen to pieces. Enemy AI is barely present, somewhat intentionally to give you time to react but usually because it’s broken or suddenly hyper aware of your position. Hit detection is wonky and unpredictable, and the game crashed more than a few times before I was through. It level designs are also exceedingly front loaded, with many of the later missions stripping you of any freedom and pitting you against tedious death loops. A handful of truly horrendous scripted sequences also caused me more deaths than the entire rest of the game combined, and ruined the excellent pacing up to that point.
Part of me almost thinks those flaws are worth having though, as they were a reminder that at the end of the day Hotline Miami is still a game. With how overwhelming its audio and visuals are, I often became intensely absorbed in what I was doing, so being broken out of it by a bad level or glitch was almost welcomed. Because Hotline Miami is dark, twisted, perverse, and I had an astounding amount of fun with it, which is what really scares me.