Hotline Miami is one of the most violent games of recent times, and its sequel Wrong Number has managed to outdo its predecessor, so much so that it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) banned in Australia.
Hotline Miami is not shy about its display of violence. Blood is permanently visibly beside the bodies of downed enemies. This is dealt via an assortment of different weapons and abilities (afforded by the various masks or skills chosen at the start of a stage) available to the player in which they can inflict damage upon their enemies. Some “merely” kill, whilst others go beyond just maiming an enemy, resulting in death via decapitation, or being chopped in two with intestines pouring out.
Yet Hotline Miami is by no means a realistic game. Its modern 16 bit sensibilities help rein in the extent of the violence and help to negate the sense of reality. Some have compared the series to a drug trip, and with the bright neon colours, distorted camera angles, thumping music and sounds makes this comparison somewhat apt. This is all supported by a narrative that continues to become more delusional. By the end of Wrong Number any sense of reality has long been forgotten. Then again if you were expecting a rational and/or logical ending you missed the point of Hotline Miami.
There is a central question that the original Hotline Miami proposes to the player; ‘do you like hurting people?’ It’s a statement that many might not give any thought to, and others might dismiss for trying too hard to seem edgy. The latter point is not too far off though, as by the end of the game the player is led to believe they will find out the real reason as to why they have been committing these brutal acts of violence.
However, no proper answer is provided. This purposefully provides a non-answer for both the character and the player. Ultimately it is about the proposition at the start of the game. ‘Do you like hurting people?’ If you don’t, or think you’re ok with digital violence only to discover that Hotline Miami is too intense, maybe you should stop playing?
Hotline Miami is not alone in this sentiment, as two other video games released around the same time posed a similar conundrum. Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line both put the player into the shoes of well-meaning Americans who are brought down by their “decisions” that only result in more death. The violence present is intense and in both scenarios neither Jason Brody nor Captain Walker (respectively) can be considered heroes; far from it.
With both games people involved in their development made statements suggesting that despite the game offering the player choices from time to time, there was an additional choice they could make, one that that would stop all of the killing; and that was to stop playing.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is different to its predecessor then, as it is quite likely that those opting to play this game have played the original. As a result the question of whether ‘you like hurting people’ is no longer needed to be asked. Just in case though the game’s first level has a litmus test to make sure the player is prepared, as the sequel increases the intensity.
Before the game starts the player is asked whether or not to skip scenes that ‘allude to sexual violence’. If the player decides not to have the content skipped the scene in question occurs during the first section of the game. This scene appears to depict a rape taking place, yet this is almost immediately revealed to be part of a film shoot, and therefore is not real. Sexual violence is a very difficult subject to address, and here it just about gets away with it. Although its use comes across as less of a commentary on sexual violence, and more of a tool to highlight how violence taking place in a fictional setting can also be fictional.
Wrong Number does not utilise a linear narrative and is constantly jumping around to different time periods between 1985 and 1991. This results in what could be considered a Lynchian aesthetic, as it is not always clear what is taking place in regards to the larger narrative, and nor are any specific clues provided. This is interspersed with dream like sequences that contain the more absurd moments and allows for some of the more drawn out scenes of violence to occur. Yet this does not negate violence from the core narrative, in many ways the violence portrayed when in a state of what appears to be normality comes across as even more shocking and vitriol.
Like David Lynch’s films music also plays a significant role, and here it goes beyond the role of mere background noise. The music permeates throughout the entirety of the game, managing to capture the intensity of the action and then being able to shift to reflect the “come down” in between stages. The soundtrack can almost seem overwhelming, yet the bombardment of electronic beats complement the activity taking place and helps to invigorate the player, as if providing a rhythm to play to. All the while further pulling the player into the mad and paranoid world that Hotline Miami takes place in.
The overall confusion is further added to by the lack of stability in the minds of many of the playable and supporting characters, making it difficult to understand what the meaning is behind their actions. At one stage a Colonel, presumed to be in a drunken state, laments that humans are all just violent animals underneath, said whilst wearing an animal mask from an actual panther.
The sequel provides a more cynical take on the world, that almost everyone has the capacity to resort to unspeakable acts, and that ultimately we are all doomed anyway. In a world where it is increasingly possible to legitimately question what is real, Hotline Miami’s interpretation of the world seems more than just a critique and instead a parody of the confusion that reigns.
From the archive: Features we love given new life. This musing from James, on the violence and themes of the hugely influential Hotline Miami, was first published on March 23, 2015.