As a kid, I really wanted to play violent videogames, mostly because I wasn’t allowed to. My parents were adherents to the ESRB, a rating system that judged what games were appropriate for what audience, and I was forbidden from playing games with an M (for Mature) rating, the ESRB’s equivalent of an R rating for film. This was the ‘90s, a time when it was widely questioned whether violent videogames induced violent behavior in adolescents. Pundits went as far as blaming games like DOOM for the shootings at Columbine.
I’ve never really thought about violence as an issue in games, nor have I ever been particularly sensitive to the digital spilling of blood and guts. That was until I recently played Hotline Miami, a violent new indie game styled to look like the kinds of games I played in elementary school. And despite the fact that it’s critically adored, I find myself sounding like my parents when I say that violence is an issue with this game.
I’m afraid all criticism levied against Hotline Miami will be unceremoniously lumped in with this Gamasutra post, in which Devin Wilson objects to the game’s celebration of violence even though he has never played the game. Hotline Miami actually has a lot to say about violence in videogames; it’s just that none of those ideas are particularly interesting.
You’re a masked hit man of sorts who answers phone calls, shows up at a designated location, and murders everyone there. The aesthetic of Hotline Miami is terrific, evoking a moody, drugged out ‘80s nightmare, complete with slurry new wave electronica. It’s like a 16-bit take on the film Drive.
Hotline Miami’s music and neon palette is more enjoyable than actually playing it, although there is a maddening, compulsive sort of fun to be had. The trailer for the game is a little misleading. This isn’t a run-and-gun game based on reflex (though good reflexes do help). Hotline is extremely difficult, and punishes you for every mistake. It requires a lot of trial-and-error and tactical thinking. The concept is smart, balancing stealth and around-the-corner shooting to make your movements as efficient as possible.
But the most disappointing feature of Hotline Miami is the narrative, which shows a lot of promise at the start. Throughout the game, you start to question the source of the phone calls, and the pre- and post-mission sequences become increasingly surreal. The game descends into a macabre sort of madness, and there’s a clever post-credits perspective change that introduces a few more levels. Hotline Miami’s big reveal is that the phone calls are coming from the game’s developers, who manifest themselves in-game as janitors. The final scene actually has dialogue options (the first in the game). When you ask them what’s going on, they simply reply, “We’re playing a game aren’t we?”
It’s this final moment in which Hotline Miami reveals itself as a satire on the idea that videogames are murder simulators. It’s just not very funny, and the criticism is only skin-deep. The janitors are asking: how is being instructed to kill people any different from doing what a videogame asks you?
Well, actually, very different. In Hotline Miami, you don’t have the choice of disobeying your instructions. You can’t clear a stage until you’ve brutally murdered every single enemy on the screen. The game encourages you to kill as savagely as possible, awarding you extra points for bashing people’s skulls in.
The gameplay mechanics — beating levels, scoring points, powerups — deliberately trivialize the violence. But the retro-styling of the game makes the violence abstract; bad guys spew big, pixelated blocks of red.
It wasn’t until near the end of the game that the violence started to bother me. There are a few clumsy boss fights. In one of them, you fight a woman with a katana. After you disarm her, you have to bash her face into the ground, not once, but twice. The first time, the game does it for you; the second time, she’s crawling away, and you have to click the mouse to bash her face each individual time. With the game’s maddening repetition, I had to experience this several dozen times to beat the level. This was the point and I felt disgusted.
The narrative power of videogames is based in interaction, the way you play the game. If developer Dennaton Games wanted to say something meaningful about violence, why does the gameplay glorify violence? What Hotline Miami needed to do was to criticize violence with its interaction, not encourage it and then slap the player on the hand with a half-assed postmodern wink. What Dennaton Games has done is designed an environment where murder is fun and appealing, then effectively slapped an M-rating sticker on it, like that will deter players from taking pleasure in that violence.
But maybe I was wrong earlier. Hotline Miami might be linear, but you always do have a choice: play or don’t play. I suppose the developers are doing you a favor by recommending the latter.