Hotline Miami: A Piece of Poetic Prose

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If you look at it purely as a video game, Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter with a retro palette and a modern amount of blood spray. But Hotline Miami isn’t just an ordinary game and I felt it would be unfair to give it an ordinary review (though, I believe it’s worthy of perfect score, for reasons that I hope are clear). What follows is a “prose poem” that tries to get to the heart of Hotline Miami. I hope you like it.

Hotline Miami is a game about killing people. You play as an unnamed character.

In the opening of the game… the tutorial level… you learn how to kill people.
The next level… the game’s first real level… opens at the main character’s home.
His phone is ringing. He’s given an animal mask to wear and instructions to get somewhere, commit a few murders, and place a briefcase where it needs to go. Why?

It continues. The main character continues receiving call after call – each one giving him instructions about where to go and what to do. Perhaps he has to “babysit.” Maybe someone’s finally calling him back about their “date.” It’s always the same job, though. Go somewhere, kill everyone, leave. But why?

What does it feel like to kill? It’s quick. Enemies attacked with a weapon are felled in a single stroke. Guns are low on ammo, but nearly every bullet is deadly. Your death is just as quick, too. The game encourages stealth and speed.

Enemies can be knocked over with doors – then finished in a few clicks, as you smash in their heads with your hands or a weapon. You can throw your weapons and knock them over that way. You can use enemies as human shields. Your animal masks can enhance your powers – make the doors deadly, make your punches kill, help you see further. And enemies can be marked with a click – your protagonist will keep his gaze fixed on whoever you’ve marked as you move.

So you plan your attack. You memorize the patterns of your enemies. Wait for this guy to walk in front of the door. Mark the guy following him, his partner. Knock over the first guy with the door as you enter the room. Kill his partner with your crowbar. Double back and finish the first guy off. Throw your crowbar at the gunman in the room – quick, before he shoots you. You’ve knocked him over – run over and finish him off. Pick up his gun. Shoot his partner – wait, shit, everyone heard the gunfire. Now there are six guys running over to you. Hide behind the corner. Shoot them, pick them off one by one. It’s over in seconds. You’re done with the mission. Do you like hurting people?

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The mission is over, so the music has stopped. You’re on the fourth floor. Congratulations, leave the house. The bodies litter the rooms as you pass through them. Pixelated blood is strewn everywhere. Are you proud of yourself? Do you like hurting people?

The controls are tight, the mechanics are well designed. It makes you feel powerful, doesn’t it? Exterminating so many lives so quickly, with such grace and ease. It’s a ballet of blood. “Do you like hurting people?” someone asks you.

The protagonist is mute, so of course he doesn’t answer. But then again, was that question really directed at the player character – or was it directed at the player? And why do you have to keep killing people?

Hotline Miami is a game about killing people being disoriented. It’s a game about finding wanting answers. It’s a game that makes stops making sense. It’s a game that you’ll keep playing.

Because you got a C on that first mission, didn’t you? You feel like you could probably go back and do a better job. You could be faster. You could get a higher score. You could unlock more ability-granting masks, more powerful weapons. Or maybe you could use that one mask – you know the one that I’m talking about. What exactly does it mean? Will you ever know what’s really going on?

Do you like hurting people?

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