My first exposure to Hotline Miami was just after returning from the IGDA demo night, tipsy and riding the high of being on stage and meeting inspiring people. Rick was sitting at his computer, beer in hand, twitching slightly. “Oh man,” he said. “This game has totally screwed me up…”
He then feverishly tried to explain it to me. It’s set in the eighties, and everything has this weird, lo-fi quality to it, like a VHS tape that’s been played a few dozen too many times. The view is top-down, but it’s usually askew, adding to the unsettling, dissonant feeling of the whole experience. The music is at turns driving and ambient, creeping into your soul and messing with your head. The dialogue borders on nonsense and the colours are all slightly hallucinatory.
And the goal of this game?
Murder. As fast, and bloody and brutally as possible.
And it’s brilliant.
For lack of a better explanation, Hotline Miami is the Super Meatboy of twitch murder sims. I don’t think such a sub-category actually exists, but it’s the only one that applies. The game tests you both as a player and as a human, the sum of its parts adding up to an equation that aims to force the player to reexamine their relationship with violence. It is thrilling, jarring and totally affecting.
Inspired by the Nicolas Wending Refn film Drive, the game involves listening to seemingly random answering messages, going to the location indicated, putting on a mask and murdering everyone in the joint with whatever is at your disposal, including your fists. However, one hit will kill and you have to start all over. It is both brutally hard and deceptively simple and the “wet” sounds that are produced with every murder are as visceral as the pace of the game.
The masks give you different powers, like extra guns or murderous doors, and there are dozens to unlock, but they also introduce another layer of dissonance into the whole thing. Who are you? Are you your mask? Are you the weird pizza guy/video guy/etc.? Do you like murdering? Do you have a choice?
Watching the way that the game unnerves Rick to the point that he’s slamming his fists on the keyboard while the murder buzz races through his blood is almost as unsettling as the action in the game itself.
Which seems to be the point.