Some people really liked Hotline Miami. Some people really didn’t like Hotline Miami at all. It’s a pattern we are seeing repeated with Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. Both games are accused of using violence and gore as a reward mechanic, and as far as critique goes it is not wrong. The violence in Hotline Miami, either game, is brutal. Head stomps, firing baseball bats across rooms, and more bullets than a season of 24 all combine to make the games really, really violent. The series also has some of the tightest gameplay of any game to use violence as a central mechanic in quite some time.
You need to be fast but considered, you need to be risky yet careful. Your character is no immortal bullet sponge like in so many games, instead you are as frail and fragile and easily killed as any of the NPC’s you go up against. You die just as easily as your enemies, except there is only you. They all have friends, and their friends have guns. Despite the low fi graphics, Hotline Miami presents a more realistic take on violence than many other games. Bullets kill, normally only requiring a singular round to down somebody. Smashing someone full force in the skull with a baseball bat or iron pipe tends to cave in that very skull. If you cut them, do they not bleed?
One of the reasons many people don’t like Hotline Miami is because they don’t see how a game that embraces violence as a core mechanic can then point out the overt reliance of popular entertainment and culture on violence as a mechanic for entertainment. The games cannot have their cake and eat it too is the popular claim. I worry a little for these people as there are many facets of the games you need to ignore for this to work. If Hotline Miami games were little more than a glorious send up for violence and the nastier themes then I would agree with them, but it isn’t. Hotline Miami 2 doesn’t just have it’s cake and eat it, but it beats the shit out of it with a bat and shoots it a few times before said ingestion.
To claim that a game cannot embrace the fun of a mechanic that it wants to skewer in order to highlight the very skewering of it is, at best, a simple dismissal of the intricacies of a debate that you don’t want to have, because the possibilities of the thoughts and opinions that might fall out in the process of that debate don’t line up with what you want to hear, or say, or the agenda you want to push. That might sound harsh, and more than a little bit dismissive, but it is largely true. The current climate in gaming is to very simply, quickly and effortlessly rush to the end line, when it comes to either the games themselves, or the debate around gaming culture, or even its themes and the aspects of human nature that we can explore via the medium.
“Violence in video games is fun” and “violence in video games is not fun” are two very common phrases you will see on the internet these days. “Why is violence in video games so much fun” is a less common phrase. “Games do not make you violent” and “Games make you violent” are two other common phrases that abound in recent times…the more interesting question of “Why do non-violent people enjoy violent video games so much” is a far less common question. Why? Because it is less agenda driven and far more complex. Why does the person who has kids, works hard and loves their family and friends like to sit down at their computer and smash in a head, or shoot a face, or blow up a city? Is it as simple as a billion people on the planet really being wannabe serial killers who are simply biding their time and sating their bloodlust via imagined violence until they day they finally break and start burying the bodies somewhere in their local woods? Is it really just as simple as the fact that with violence being such a prominent mechanic in games, the simplicity of a present threat being reduced to a past threat through a combination of movement, aim and in game mechanics jungling, and the endless repetition of this mechanic across so many titles, means it has lost all of its power? That it has become something that gamers simply move past because it is what is endlessly presented to them? If a viable alternative were offered to us that instilled that same feeling of reward that simple threat termination does, but without the hanging rags and gory dress, would we all jump on it? If, for example a finely balanced, accessible but challenging city building game were to hit the market that required good planning, budget management, foresight and clever decision making, would that game, with no triple A marketing budget or bought and paid for hype, be able to sell a quarter of a million copies in 24 hours?
If a viable alternative were offered to us that instilled that same feeling of reward that simple threat termination does, but without the hanging rags and gory dress, would we all jump on it?
The most obvious route to take is that games and the audience that plays them, as a whole, are complicated. The games themselves exist in an odd space between interactive entertainment and art, and the people who play them exist in an odd space between investors, consumers and even cast and crew in the stories that they partake in.
So, in such a complex space, where complex questions lead to complex answers that should, in a right thinking mind, spawn even more complex questions…why do some people so readily dismiss that most complex question of all; can a game which rewards violence also make us uncomfortable with that concept? The answer to me is “yes”.
Hotline Miami games may be violent, but it is an odd sort of violence. It’s a strange marriage of the real world ramifications of violent acts that result in death with the cartoon nature of blood spattering across the ground and walls in lo-fi graphics. It’s a complex strategy game that demands incredible timing on the part of the player that just so happens to display threat-state switches via the crimson calling card of spattering blood. It’s a game about hurting people that asks you if you enjoy hurting people. For some people it will go no deeper than that but for others the question will settle into their mind while they play. I don’t particularly enjoy hurting people in real life, but why do I enjoy it so much in games? It’s not a comfortable place to be while trying to play the game.
If there is one thing that Hotline Miami games revel in more than the rewarding nature of video game violence, it is in making the player uncomfortable with those feelings of reward. While threats are active and a level still needs to be completed, the music will often be neon drenched, 80’s inspired, synth laden slabs of electronica that could be rolled out onto the dancefloors of any forward thinking club in the world by any DJ of merit, regardless of his normal genre and sonic landscapes. The tension is high and the adrenaline flows with a vast risk/reward mechanic that is always stacked firmly against the player. You will die and die again as you try to find the best way to forge a murderous path across the level. But when it is over? The adrenaline rush is gone and you are left only with the quiet introspection of the lone survivor, often with the disjointed narrative and seemingly random jumble of dialogue the game throws at you, left echoing around your head. You are left to walk back through the level, over the bodies and around the blood puddles of all those little virtual people that you killed, whose murder you delighted in and felt so powerful for causing. I can’t think of any other game that makes you kill your way to victory, and then not only doesn’t erase the bodies and the blood before it can offend your sensibilities, but also makes you walk back across it all, surveying the damage done while a droning, hollow and stark song plays. The party music is gone and now their is only the come down. Is this an exploration of the post-euphoria of the killer that we play as, or the post-euphoria of the player that we are? If games are indeed childish and meaningless, then why did we feel such tension and investment for those exciting minutes that the level lasted? If games are indeed art and worthy of emotional investment, then why do we limit them so much and embrace such base reactions to such lowly motivations as killing?
Is this an exploration of the post-euphoria of the killer that we play as, or the post-euphoria of the player that we are? If games are indeed childish and meaningless, then why did we feel such tension and investment for those exciting minutes that the level lasted?
The only way to truly examine the violence in any video game is how it is framed, and this is often the classic mistake made by the detractors of Hotline Miami. There is no comfort here, the game teases you and manipulates you into enjoying a ballet of violence that it then judges you for causing. Aggressive use of slightly nauseating visual effects, point of view manipulation, thematic exploration and soundtrack all work against the idea that the violence you partake in is in any way glorious. The characters that you play as, broken demented killers and the most worthy of social outcasts remove any ability of the player to justify what is happening as a moral crusade where the ends justify the means. The disjointed and frayed narrative and story arc leaves you constantly questioning if the character is actually killing people in the current game level, or is just on the set of some slasher movie while the cameras are rolling, or just having a fevered dream fueled by their own sickest desires and motivations. When the level is over will the director shout cut, will the eyes flicker open to reveal little more than the desperation stained room your character fell asleep in, or will you have to take that long, slow, drone accompanied walk back through the level? Does any of that matter to you, as a player? Do you even care that the game itself and the developers who made it are manipulating you emotionally to evoke a response, and the lack of any such response is the most damning of all…for them, and for us, and for games? Is the failure of a message to hit its mark more a condemnation of the art form, the artist, or the simple nature of art itself?
It is completely fair to argue against the effectiveness of what Hotline Miami is trying to do. Even the implication that its attempts to use simulated violence as a mechanic in a meta-conversation about the nature of simulated violence and its impact upon and appeal to those of us who partake in it are a little hamfisted and awkward are not without merit, it is simply not okay to say that Hotline Miami cannot attempt, and even largely succeed at its attempts to do so. To say otherwise is nothing more than the a disingenuous attempt to shut down a conversation that you don’t want to have, because it is more complex than you are comfortable with and may just lead to revelations that we just don’t want to face. Maybe we enjoy violence in video games because deep down humans are all just animals who enjoy feeling rewarded for making even artificial constructs suffer. Maybe we enjoy the violence in video games because the vast majority are able to filter the unreal from the real, and find feelings of reward in things that are simulated that would be completely abhorrent to us if they were real. Or maybe we are not all that comfortable with it all, and the party music, splashing blood and the long slow walks afterwards are challenging us in ways that we like to be challenged. Maybe some of us are comfortable with forced internal exploration of who we are and what drives us, and what our motivations are, even if we don’t like the answers that we find. Or maybe it is all just games and we all take it far too seriously. Regardless of the answer we come to, someone somewhere is going to be mad at us for not believing what they believe and not feeling the same way they do.
And that is when things get even more uncomfortable because the gory, glorious truth of it is, when it comes to what somebody else thinks, it doesn’t even matter. What does matter however is that we never let anybody else tell us what we can and cannot take from a game, or what art is or is not allowed to do, or how it is allowed to challenge us, its own conventions, and its detractors.