Violence in video games – now there’s a hot issue if ever there was one. Ever since virtual blood was first virtually spilled, opponents of the medium have raised angry fists in protest against these digital killing fields which they would have you believe train killers to take up arms in real life. I don’t intend to talk about real life violence here, though; what I’m interested in is how a game treats you, a player, when it puts a weapon in your hands.
Specifically, I want to look at Dennaton Games‘ sublime Hotline Miami games – especially the first one – as I think these titles are absolutely perfect in how they both encourage and deconstruct ultraviolence in a harmless setting. Well, ‘harmless’ probably isn’t the word, as any number of pixelly mutilated Russian mobsters will confirm.
For those who missed it (and I really, really recommend you don’t miss it), Hotline Miami is a game in which you play as a masked vigilante directed by eerie, euphemistic messages on his answering machine to visit gangster strongholds and kill everyone there using whatever weapons are to hand. An M16, a revolver, a golf club, a broken pool cue – all’s fair in love and war, and whatever gets the job done is fair game. In fact, the less suited your weapon is to killing someone, the more points you stand to score.
It’s a truly gory spectacle. To name a few select examples, during my many playthroughs of this game I’ve smashed a man’s face into unrecognisable goo with a brick; I’ve blown scores of gangsters clean in half with a shotgun; with a singularly horrifying whirr and a crack of shattered bone, I’ve even opened someone’s skull with a cordless power drill. I won’t go into more details, because frankly if you want to savour the game’s visceral depictions of brutality, the best place to do that is the game itself.
You want to see just how much gore you can squeeze out of the numerous enemies you’re given. That’s okay, says the game, and not only is it okay, but you’ll be rewarded.
But Hotline Miami doesn’t just permit these things; it encourages them. This is where the question of agency comes into play. There is absolutely nothing stopping you from completing any one of the game’s levels with relatively clean kills: pistol headshots, a single slash with a knife, or a good old-fashioned baseball bat, for example. In many ways, this is even the easier option, as beating someone to death with your bare hands (or your bear hands) involves a fairly time-consuming animation wherein you straddle them, defenceless, and punch them multiple times until something goes ‘crack’.
You can do that; somehow, Hotline Miami knows you won’t. The game knows exactly what you want from it, which is precisely why it leaves things like pans of boiling water and discarded pairs of scissors lying around, waiting for the instinctive urge towards senseless homicide to do the rest. You want to see what they do. You want to see just how much gore you can squeeze out of the numerous enemies you’re given. That’s okay, says the game, and not only is it okay, but you’ll be rewarded.
‘Flexibility’ is a component of scoring whereby you’re granted extra points for using more than one weapon, i.e. experimenting, discarding, and using the various weapons scattered throughout the level. ‘Boldness’ grants more points for aggressing enemies before killing them (as opposed to stealth), usually therefore knocking them down to take their weapons, maximising the amount of time you spend in active combat. And perhaps needless to say, melee weapons grant more points than guns, and almost invariably produce more on-screen suffering.
This is all well and good – games promoting violent gameplay, nothing new there – but what’s the point? That question can be answered by examining the narrative.
Other agents pressed into doing the same require a little more pushing, usually in the form of blackmail or violence; the player character needs only an address and a car. This is what the game thinks of you.
The story of Hotline Miami is famously hidden, both in tiny environmental cues that are very easy to miss and in the literal sense of hidden tokens being required to unlock the ‘true’ ending. No spoilers here, but a great amount of it is related to the violence you’re expected to exhibit. ‘Jacket’, the development nickname for the protagonist (guess what he wears, if you can), needs no more incentive to kill a frankly unbelievable number of people than an impersonal message left on his answering machine, and a mask to hide in while he does it. Other agents pressed into doing the same require a little more pushing, usually in the form of blackmail or violence; Jacket needs only an address and a car.
This is what the game thinks of you. Jacket is no-one; he is the player, in the purest sense, an expression of what Hotline Miami thinks of you the player, you the killer, you the person who has paid for the privilege of killing a lot of people in a lot of ways. There’s no judgement implied, in fact, not unless you choose to take it personally. After all, the game is just as complicit in the violence, with adrenaline-pumping electronic music and hallucinogenic neon colours swirling in the background of the carnage. This isn’t a game that wants to make you feel bad about what it’s there to let you do; this is a game that breaks down your inhibitions and says ‘but fuck, isn’t this fun?’
This sounds like conjecture, I realise, so let me wrap up with an example. In one chapter, you’re dispatched to kill a troublesome individual at a phone company. As a sidenote, every person you’ve encountered outside of a cutscene at this point in the game, you’ve been required to kill. When you get to the phone company, however, you find two whole floors of staff who will do nothing but (quite understandably) get out of your way. You can kill them, but you don’t have to. Yet a later section of the game shows an alternative perspective on this level, and in this version, all the employees are dead, by Jacket’s hands. To repeat: that is what the game thinks of you.
Hotline Miami does something that I really don’t see enough in games like this, and that is that it holds up a mirror. Everything about it, from its mechanics to its story, allows and even encourages you to revel in insensible violent urges, but it sure as hell isn’t about to let you do it without highlighting that you chose to do that. You chose to play the game for one very specific reason, and it wastes no time in getting you there: the very first words in Hotline Miami read ‘I’m here to tell you how to kill people.’ The game knows what you want. All it asks is that you know it too.