Steam Safari – Hotline Miami

Watch as Jason does the unthinkable and actually attempts to clear his Steam backlog, one game at a time. These are the records of his voyage into the untamed wilderness. Join him on his  Steam Safaris, where he’ll play a random game from his Steam library for 3 hours and tell you whether or not it’s worth your time. This week: Hotline Miami by Dennaton Games. Available now for $10.

In many ways, Hotline Miami defies definition. If pressed, I might attempt to call it an acid soaked combination of P.N.03, Smash TV, and Natural Born Killers with a dash of Manhunt for flavor. But to attempt to distill it down to even just that is to do it a disservice. The net it casts is wide, pulling from films like Drive and Scarface in its visual and musical aesthetic, presenting the drug fueled nightmare that Miami in the 80s must have been. Neon lights and white polyester dominate the scene and, if the game were more detailed, you’d probably notice that nobody is wearing socks with their loafers. The world of Hotline Miami is a parody of itself, almost as if Grand Theft Auto Vice City was cranked up to 11. The protagonist drives a Delorean, regularly visits a VHS rental place, and everything has a cheap 1980s snuff porn quality to it. The picture is fuzzy, the colors are out of balance, and nothing seems to make sense. It’s the 80s in its purest form.

This style permeates every aspect of the game, but it comes across strongest in the music. Simply put, this is one of the most fitting game soundtracks of all time. The synth pop tunes that accompany the various levels, composed by a wide range of different artists (including Jasper Byrne of Lone Survivor fame) perfectly accompany the frenetic pace of the game. When the song below starts playing during the loading screen of a level, the beat dropping in just as you kick in the front door and send some ganster flying, you can’t help but smile and lean towards the screen. It’s telling when a game doesn’t reset the music when you die and restart the level. Hotline Miami wants to ensure that you’re always moving forward, relentlessly driven on by the thumping bass.

At its most basic level, the game plays like a classic twin-stick shooter with an emphasis on stealth. You move using the keyboard, aim using the mouse, and can either swing whatever you’ve got in your hand or give it a toss, knocking anybody in the way down. Once on the ground, you can mount your foe and unleash one of the many contextually brutal finishing moves to ensure they don’t escape. If you’ve managed to find a gun, you can unleash molten hell just as easily, but be prepared to alert every single bald-headed Russian mobster on the floor to your presence in doing so. Then there are the doors. Easily the most lethal weapon in your arsenal, doors knock down anybody they happen to slam into, which provides you with a perfect opener to any room you need to clear.

All of this sounds incredibly simple in theory, but in practice the game becomes far more Metal Gear Solid than Gears of War. Each room is a puzzle, a precise series of events that need to occur in a specific order to ensure success. Sure, you could just run in and start swinging, but all it takes is one pipe to the back of the head to send you back to the start of the floor. Instead, you need to set up a Rube Goldberg device of death, moving from enemy to enemy like you were a homicidal Roomba.

Almost every encounter begins with slamming the door into whatever poor sap was stupid enough to patrol near it. Then, do you rush the guy with a gun in the far corner, hoping to take him out before he can turn around? Or, do you throw your pipe at him, knocking him down long enough for you to punch his buddy in the face, take his knife, and slit his throat while he’s down? Or, do you just throw your arms up, shout ‘Fuck it!’, and rush in with your M16 poppin’?

Whatever you choose, it’ll be over in a matter of seconds, everything falling into place in the blink of an eye. There’s an elaborate combo and score system that rewards perfect stealth play or precision targeting, but the true gift Hotline Miami gives you is the satisfaction of seeing a perfect plan come together as your final foe crawls, bloodied, for the door. It makes you want to put a cigar in your mouth and do your best Hannibal impression.

And if it doesn’t work out in your favor? Just hit ‘R’ and restart the floor, something you’ll be doing a lot. Hotline Miami is not an easy game by any means, requiring planning and precision in some levels, lightning fast reactions in others. The rapid pace of death and respawn, similar to Super Meat Boy, takes most of the sting out of failure, with only a few levels where checkpoints are far enough back to irritate. Every death is a learning experience, an opportunity to reflect on and modify your strategy for the next time, much like ultra-punishing opus Dark Souls.

The reason for all this carnage and bloodshed is surprisingly simple. Your character, whatever his name is, is receiving mysterious phone messages guiding him to various locations. One might ask him to “pick up the laundry” while another demands that he “tell them to keep it down.” Upon arriving at his destination, the “hero” (I use this term VERY loosely) dons one of his many creepy animal masks, each of which grants him a different power, and goes to town. My personal favorite, Don Juan, is a horse head that makes doors lethal. There’s a plot somewhere in there, told through newspaper clippings are snatched glances, of Russian drug dealers and a strung out love interest, but it always takes a backseat to the visceral action.

At first glance, the paper-thin rationale for wholesale slaughter seems to be one of the game’s weakest points, a strange and impenetrable series of conversations and interactions that barely make sense on their own, but if you step away and look at the entire picture things start to come into focus. Much like Inception, which is a film about making films, Hotline Miami is a game about playing games. It is, at once, both unlike and exactly like every video game ever made.

Much like you, the protagonist never really understands why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s simply told to go somewhere and do something, but he’s never actually instructed to kill, that’s something entirely left up to the player. The wholesale carnage he leaves in his wake is entirely left up to his discretion despite being a requirement for clearing a level. Even the civilians must die. Hallucinogenic conversations with masked aspects of the characters persona highlight this, challenging you on your decisions. Much like Spec Ops: The Line, the idea of slaughter simply for the sake of progression is called into question here, especially as the plot nears its close.

When he finally is given a reason to do what he does, it’s hazy and unclear, his motivation being largely assumed instead of apparent. A love story is expressed without being told, occurring almost entirely behind locked doors. It’s kind of like Dom and his wife in Gears of War. We know he loves her because he has a picture of her, but that’s it. We simply assume he loves here because the game obliquely suggests it. We read between the lines based entirely of what we expect from video games. Hotline Miami’s story is almost entirely based on these kinds of assumptions. We simply intuit that he wants revenge, that all the bad guys must die, and that the guy in a motorcycle helmet is a bad guy, despite never actually being given any concrete proof that this is the case. It’s not until the end of the game that all these things are really called into question, after it’s far too late.

Finally, the masks. The player is anonymous, adopting different identities based entirely on their characteristics and abilities. You chose the owl mask (Erasmus) because you want to see secrets, not because you happen to love owls. As gamers, we do the same thing with almost every protagonist in every game. You play a soldier in Call of Duty because of their skill with guns, a vampire hunter in Castlevania because of your need to slay the pasty undead. Underneath that mask though, every protagonist is the same: a faceless monster hell bent on killing everything between him and his objective. The basic understand of the nature of gaming is the same no matter what the dressing is: everything needs to die.

It’s not until after all this, when you complete your objective and the music abruptly stops, that you’re given a chance to contemplate what you’ve done. Every level requires that you walk back to your car, passing by all the horror and gore. It’s a unique experience, as it’s only very rarely that we’re given the opportunity to really observe our handiwork as gamers. More often than not, corpses fade into nothingness or we’ve driven past them onto the next battleground, their deaths forgotten in favor of savoring more viscera and intestinal splatterings.

In summary: Hotline Miami defies expectations and understanding while drawing on them. It’s a bright, loud, and angry star whose everything exists in homage to all the things it refuses to be defined by. It’s an enigma wrapped in a puzzle buried in a conundrum. I can see why most people won’t like it, find it too brutal and unforgiving, but if you’re willing to stick with it and give it a chance, you’ll find a game that will grab you by the balls and demand you listen to what it has to say, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense, much like its nameless antihero.

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