Doing reviews and analyses of specific games is kind of out of form for Problem Machine, but I seem to be doing it a lot nowadays regardless. The thing is, I’ve been playing these games and they’re just too damn exciting, they set my brain on fire with new ideas for things to talk about it and the most logical way to talk about all of these disparate ideas is to talk about the games themselves. So: Why fight it? I believe that Hotline Miami is an Important game, and I think it will become highly influential over the next decade of game design.
The first segment here is going to be spoiler-free, discussing Hotline Miami’s general design approach, before moving on to the specific details of the plot and how it interacts with the gameplay to create a truly unique and integrated experience. I really would like anyone who has any interest in experiencing games to play through the game before reading the second segment of the essay: A game is the experience of playing the game, and if you undermine that experience by knowing more going into it than you should then you risk tainting that experience.
It’s kind of a Heisenberg sort of thing.
If you’ve been paying attention to some of the thinking going on in game design circles over the last few years, you may be familiar with the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’. As I’ve alluded to previously on Problem machine, game mechanics have meaning, particularly in combination with a narrative context. The problem is, when game mechanics are used thoughtlessly in tandem with narrative components(as they all too often are), they can send messages that either blatantly conflict with those narrative elements or, together, imply something altogether unsavory and unintended. Thus, game(ludo)-narrative- dissonance. The challenge to game designers is to create a ‘unified’ game– I’m not sure if this is the popular term, but it’s the one I will use– or, in other words, one which is ‘ludonarratively consonant‘.
And I believe that Hotline Miami is quite possibly the most unified video game in the short history of the art.
So: How does it achieve this?
First we must ask, what is the game about? Well, the obvious answer is that it’s about violence. This is half-true: As I discussed in one of my earliest pieces on Problem Machine, a lot of the games which use the trappings of violence aren’t really about violence per se. This is, in fact, a common cause of ludonarrative dissonance. Therefore, in order to make a unified game, one must either implement non-violent gameplay, and create a narrative context suitable to that gameplay, or address the violence somehow. Implementing a non-violent gameplay paradigm is much more difficult than it sounds, because most of the progress of the industry has been in honing inherently violent gameplay elements to perfection. It would be foolish and naive to discard this experimental data entirely, which is a big part of why even people who want to forge out into non-violent directions find themselves creating implicitly violent games. Non-violence is an exciting field of development, but any time you’re experimenting with untested game tropes you run a risk of, well, creating a kind of shit game.
So, if you want to reap the full benefit of everything we know about game design, you basically have to make a violent game. However, if you want to achieve consonance between the game and narrative elements, the game needs to acknowledge the violence somehow. This is why we’re starting to see games like Spec-Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami pop up, because it is the obvious, and necessary, first step towards consonance. Hotline Miami doesn’t treat the violence as real violence, but it acknowledges it and raises the obvious next question: What kind of person does that sort of thing?
Yet merely avoiding dissonance is not enough to achieve consonance. To make a unified game, one must reinforce the message through every available avenue of expression: The art, the music, the effects. And this is where Hotline Miami begins to truly distinguish itself.
Before we discuss how the graphics and sound complement the gameplay, I should probably spend a few words explaining just how the game plays for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. In Hotline Miami, you play a silent cipher of a man who lives in a run-down apartment. You receive a series of anonymous phone calls, disguised as everyday business calls, telling you to be somewhere, dress nice, and be discreet. Then you go there and murder everyone in the building.
Murdering everyone in the building is done from a top-down perspective. You start out unarmed: one blow from your fists will knock an opponent down, where you can easily finish him as long as no other opponents are watching. After this, you can pick up any weapons which are lying around or those which enemies drop. All weapons will instantly kill opponents in one hit. Any weapon can be thrown to stun an opponent, the same as a punch. This all sounds very simple, but it happens incredibly quickly, and the enemies can kill you as easily as you can kill them, and generally have better reactions and aim. The only advantages you have are your wits, near perfect information about the state of the world, and that you can try a challenge over and over until you finally fail to die. Also, uh, I guess they don’t throw things.
Now that we’ve established the action of the game, let’s talk for a moment about how it looks. All of the art assets are blocky and pixelated, reminiscent of the Super Nintendo in terms of resolution and palette. The coloration of the world jumps from blaring neon pinks and cyans to muddy greens and browns, alternately evoking the most ludicrously garish 80’s fashions and the poisoned urbanity of a ghetto. Movement and rotation are done on a finer grid, which would break the illusion of retro if retro were the ambition in the first place, an effect common among modern indie games as they use low resolution and easily produced assets alongside modern toolsets. One could argue that this is or isn’t the case here and risk quickly descending into sophistry, so I’m going to assume the pixelated graphics are primarily for pragmatic reasons and move on.
I can speak with a bit more authority, however, when it comes to the not-strictly-necessary post-processing effects layered on top of these graphics. The screen fizzles with lined noise like a television or a heart monitor, the level background outside the immediate playable area flashes with neon lights, and the screen lurches sickeningly back and forth as the character runs to and fro across the level. This game will literally make you slightly nauseous. Cactus, one of the developers of the game, actually tends to experiment with effects like these a lot, and has even spoken at conferences on how to how to spice up simple graphics using such techniques. Over time he has only gotten better at creating games where the world of the game is actually well-suited to those effects– or the effects are suited to the world. Whichever.
So let’s talk about the music.
The music can be broadly divided into two categories: Story music and combat music. The music when you’re preparing for missions, or coming down afterwards, is surreal and atmospheric, reminiscent of some of the more coherent music from Silent Hill. Like Silent Hill, they lend a sleepily and disturbingly strange air to the proceedings. Conversely, the music during ‘missions’ is synthy dance stuff, evocative of the 80’s setting the game employs and reducing the friction of what could easily be frustrating action segments into, once a degree of proficiency is achieved, effortless killing sprees. The basic enemy AI routes, each taking corners in their own rhythm, contribute to the overall sense of flow, of rhythm: They make their own beat in tandem with the music, and make the experience even something like a rhythm game. You end up playing to the music, not just alongside it, which makes it all the more startling that, as soon as the last opponent’s skull is kicked in–
the music stops.
And you have to walk back to your car, through silent rooms of dead Russian gangsters painted in spurts of dead Russian gangster blood, discarded weapons scattered across the floor. You did this. You feel pride, and also a nauseated terror at yourself. Maybe.
This happens over and over, increasingly surreal story segments followed by increasingly intense combat segments, a metarhythm, burning adrenaline followed by surreal unease followed by adrenaline murder followed by discomfort wrongness followed by…
All of this serves to highlight a point: Having the best musical or graphical quality is not the same thing as having the best soundtrack or having the best visuals. I love the soundtrack, but a lot of the music is stuff I wouldn’t normally choose to listen to. One can certainly at very least conceive of better music– but could one conceive of a better soundtrack? It fits perfectly. And in the end, having awesome music is nice, but we’re not talking about writing albums here we’re talking about making games, and the best track is the one that works best in the game you’re making. And, of course, the same goes for graphics.
I’ve said about all I can say without delving deeper into the plot and getting into spoiler territory. Once again, I’d like to ask you to play the game before reading any further if any of the things I’ve said here are the slightest bit interesting to you.