“Do you like hurting other people?” asks a man wearing a chicken mask, who may or may not be a projection of my own subconscious. I know the answer to that question. At least, I thought I did, before I started playing Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami is many things. It is a game made by the indie pairing of Jonatan ‘Cactus’ Söderström and Dennis Wedin. It’s a top-down version of Thief where Garrett is a mentally disturbed assassin with a penchant for violence. In part it’s a puzzle game; but the puzzle pieces are people and the solution is killing them all. It’s a game which sets its own rhythm. Pause. Pause. Burst of violence. Pause. Death.
A lot of death.
It’s also a game where the tutorial is orchestrated by an abusive tramp.
You are a nameless assassin, guided only by curious voice messages left on your answering machine in your grotty 1980s Miami apartment. After receiving your latest set of instructions to “pick up” (kill) that “batch of cookies” (everyone), you travel downstairs to your car, drive to the location, don a disturbing animal mask and get to work. Then you do it again. And again. And again. Until you’re so proficient at killing that it’s almost pure muscle memory.
The 16-bit presentation is a broad approximation of the early Grand Theft Auto titles and the mostly-useless Amiga adventure game DreamWeb, though Hotline Miami itself plays nothing like either of those things.
What Hotline Miami plays like is … well, Hotline Miami. You’ll recognise aspects of other titles in its outfit of features, but this particular ensemble is unique. Each level is a test of your situational awareness, your ability to retain and master the game’s rule-set, and (at times) your reflexes. Though you have the edge on your foes, you’re still just one man. A single shotgun blast or crowbar to the head will end your assault, forcing a Trackmania-like compulsion to press the ‘restart’ button.
If you’re good, you can clear most levels in a matter of minutes. In some cases, seconds. If you’re good. You won’t be, though. Not at first. At first you’ll fumble around with the mouse and keyboard controls, accidentally dash into a room, miss with the hurled baseball bat you just looted off a recently created corpse, and get gunned down. Soon though, you’ll develop a plan. A little later, you’ll have the execution to match.
Open the door. Send that first guard flying. Descend upon him, steal his weapon and finish him off. Pause. Take a breath, look around. Two guards in the nearby room. Pick your moment. Burst it, slam one with a thrown weapon, take the other down with a punch before he can rise from his seat and pull his gun. Silence the pair with your fists. Grab the discarded firearm. Let loose a round to attract some attention. Gun down the responding guards in the doorway. One was only winged. He’s trying to get up. End him.
Every mission is a rush. Even when you’re taking pause, assessing the situation ahead of you and how to take down four guards with just a broken pool cue, the adrenaline will be flowing. Part of that is down to the tension and fragility of the gameplay, but it’s a feeling greatly enhanced by a soundtrack that is simply magnificent.
Few game soundtracks, even the ones which work as terrific, stand-alone collections of music, fit the tone of a title as well as Hotline Miami’s. It’s hard to overstate what a difference this makes in-game, where a neon-synthed track like Perturbator’s “Miami Disco” can elevate a nightclub-themed level to a pulsating blur, and Sun Araw’s strung-out jams lend a sense of even more confused foreboding to already disturbing proceedings.
Even the near-absence of sound is used effectively. After each ‘hit’ is complete, the previous music dies away, replaced by an eerie drone as you pick your way back through the carnage to your pristine silver ride. Look at what you did. Was all of this really necessary? Do you like hurting other people?
Hotline Miami doesn’t celebrate slaughter. It simply makes it feel stylish. Cool. Videogame chic. Then it turns around and asks you if all that gloss makes your actions ok. Only then does it give you an arcade points breakdown for style and (periodically) reward you with new weapons and masks, wrapping your dubious actions up in yet more layers of videogame incentives. There’s no doubt Hotline Miami wants you to be having a great time; but it’s ever mindful of the fact that your enjoyment is directly related to your capacity to kill.
Here are three things that may curb that enjoyment. (1) A lone, somewhat rubbish, pure stealth level. (2) Lack of controller support (coming in a patch, if you can’t handle the thought of using mouse/keys). (3) Debug error boxes intrusively popping into your life (I had these a couple of times, clicking ‘Ignore’ made them go away). Version 126.96.36.199, the latest on GoG.com and the release the majority of this review is based on, appears to be pretty stable.
If you take its call, don’t expect too much resolution from Hotline Miami’s 18 chapter tale. You’ll find answers if you look for them, but they may not satisfy the questions you have. Depending how deep you want to go, it’s possible to view the game’s narrative through a lens of mental illness, hallucination, straightforward revenge or even alternative timelines. If you can discover and decipher a puzzle made up of tiles found on each level of the game, you’ll get a further conclusion – but it’s really no better (and in some ways worse) than the standard ending.
Instead, enjoy the journey. No … “enjoy” is the wrong word. There’s enjoyment in the game’s mechanics, in the way it hones your abilities until you’re a taut, efficient, angel of death, but little joy to be found in the unraveling of your subconscious and the consequences of your new-found talents. Unless you know different. Unless there’s something you’re not telling yourself.
“Do you like hurting other people?”
There’s only one way to find out for sure.