Hotline Miami – An Examination

Ah, the joys of gaming to play catch-up. While the rest of the world scrambles to overpay for the last 12 state-of-the-art GPUs left on the market, I am safe and sound at home, chillin’ and catching up with a small handful of modern PC classics and remasters of less modern PC classics. It’s a good system! I’ve been slowly but surely acquiring gobs of games that I’ve wanted to check out on the cheap.

To wit, Hotline Miami is a game that has been on my radar since it was first released, seeing as late 2012 was a period in my life where I spent a not-insignificant portion of my spare time enjoying some electric lettuce and watching Miami Vice. But alas, circumstance and chronic depressive tendencies conspired against me back in those days, and in the time since a bunch of other stuff happened, leaving me without a crack at the game until a couple of weeks ago.

Since we live in the future and no small amount of the internet at large is dedicated to chronicling just about every video game in existence, I more or less knew what I was getting into with Hotline Miami before starting it for myself. I knew the gameplay was fast and twitchy. I knew that the controls were a little goofy at first, but once I got the hang of them they would make sense for the game’s format. I knew I would die and die a lot, but I also knew that dying in Hotline Miami is a minor inconvenience, and the game rewards you for taking risks.

In Hotline Miami, you control a nameless pixel art protagonist who most certainly is not modeled on Ryan Gosling in the movie Drive, obviously, why would you even entertain such a silly notion, who is tasked with mowing down wave after wave of pixel art Russian mobsters. Also, it’s the 80’s, and you’re in Miami. The game is divided into chapters, which are in turn divided into stages. You clear a stage by killing all enemies within that stage, and when you die, you restart at the beginning of the current stage. However, should you advance in the chapter and quit the game for whatever reason, you will have to start the entire chapter over next time you play, regardless of how many stages you cleared.

Nope, there’s definitely no way whatsoever that’s supposed to look like Ryan Gosling in Drive, don’t be ridiculous. (Image credit: Rob’s computer)

The game takes a top-down perspective, with independent movement and aiming. You move with they keyboard and aim/use weapons with the mouse. True to what I had heard, this is a tricky scheme to get the hang of at first – the key is to keep your eye on the aim cursor, not your character – but once you do get the hang of it, it makes perfect sense.

It is vital that you get used to this control scheme as soon as possible because from the very start of the game, every enemy you face is armed with a gun or melee weapon that will kill you in one hit. By contrast, you are at a disadvantage; you start each chapter with only your fists. Your fists don’t kill enemies, they just knock them down. You can finish off knocked down enemies by pressing the space bar to grab them and clicking left mouse repeatedly to bash their heads in, however, this leaves you exposed to any other enemies that may be nearby. You cannot disengage with an enemy grappled in this way, so if anyone else is around while you have an enemy grappled, you’re almost certainly toast.

Once you do have a weapon, the odds even out, as weapon attacks kill most enemies in one hit, with limited exceptions. Melee weapons only work at close range, but are also silent. Guns can work at short or long range, but are loud and will typically attract the attention of other nearby enemies when fired. They also have extremely limited ammo capacities, and therefore require judicious use and frequent replacement. I typically prefer to use melee weapons whenever possible, but sometimes guns are necessary, especially in the later chapters. I also suck at playing the game, so take this and any other advice I have on playing Hotline Miami with several hefty shakes of salt.

This brings me to my main beef with the game, and that is the grading system. Hotline Miami grades the player at the end of each chapter, much to my consternation. I have always regarded grading systems in video games with great disdain, as they’re invariably exist solely to berate the player for clearing stages with insufficient flair. As I mentioned above, Hotline Miami rewards the player for taking risks. In a game with one-hit kills, where operating in silence can be tremendously advantageous, it can be tempting to hang back and pick your spots.

However, planning is highly prone to backfiring. Not only does hesitation result in certain death, it will also result in receiving a poor grade for the chapter. It’s almost always better to charge into danger and make all your enemies dead as quickly as possible. This is all well and good in the early chapters of the game, where fewer enemies have guns and the ones that do are often located in enclosed areas, thus taking away the advantage of being able to kill at range. But, as the game goes on, not only do more and more enemies have guns, the maps also open up. This makes these enemies extremely hard to kill before they kill you, especially since the controls are twitchy and you are given little time to aim, if any.

I do love taking huge risks and getting huge rewards as a result in video games, but as I’ve gotten further and further in Hotline Miami, I’ve found this harder and harder to pull off. I want to charge in and cause as much havoc as possible, but seriously, how am I supposed to do that when I am always and invariably killed the very second I open certain doors or cross certain thresholds, regardless of what weapon I’m sporting?

My interest in playing a video game is getting through it, and I don’t give a good goddamn for whatever style points the development team thinks I should be chasing down. My play style in video games tends towards discovering unsexy but practical solutions to whatever problems I’m presented with, and I refuse to apologize for it, nor do I see the need to tolerate being punished for it. Getting through the later chapters of Hotline Miami has been a tremendous grind. After a certain point, it’s taken well in excess of an hour to get through most chapters; that’s not all that long in absolute terms, but it feels like an eternity in a game this twitchy. Struggling through a chapter and clearing it seemingly due only to good fortune, only to receive a piss-ant C+ for my troubles, has been unspeakably demoralizing. After so much time spent dying over and over again, I neither want nor need any further reminders of how much I suck.

As of this writing, I haven’t finished Hotline Miami, and I’m starting to suspect I won’t bother. I have reached a mandatory stealth chapter, where there is no death but restarts are just as common, giving me all of the grind with none of the catharsis. What I’ve left unmentioned until now (despite being one of the most salient components of the game) is that Hotline Miami is outrageously, disgustingly violent, even though it’s rendered entirely in pixel art. The exact story details are difficult to parse at absolute best, but the arc of the story is clear, chronicling the player character’s descent towards a total psychotic breakdown as they murder others by the hundreds.

This stealth section comes late in the game, well after this theme is established, and is fully justified in the context of the story. On the one hand, I think this is a neat trick; I admire Hotline Miami for reflecting and forcing the player to reflect on its own violence. But, on the other hand, thematic resonance does nothing to make this stealth section more fun, and I also can’t help but feel the game is judging me for enjoying it enough to play through to this point. I can’t begrudge the developers for making this choice, and again, I think it has plenty of artistic merit, but that doesn’t mean I must suffer through such a slog of a chapter.

In the end, I’m grateful I finally got a crack at Hotline Miami, but I believe I’ve had more than my fill of it before getting to the end, and that’s OK. As a wise man once wrote, at a time when he, too, was reflecting on horrific violence and its consequences, albeit in a drastically different context, so it goes.

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