Hotline Miami: unmasking indie gaming's ultraviolent video nasty
This preview originally appeared in issue 245 of PC Gamer UK.
A lot of purple prose is going to be written about Hotline Miami, by people like me. People who, after hours of rhythmic repetition of its delirious, top-down killing sprees, have been bolted into its lead character’s brain: a silent, terrible man committing violent, senseless acts in a scuzzy, neon 1980s.
It starts like a stealth game. I’m standing outside a train station, unarmed, and almost every enemy inside has a baseball bat or a crowbar or a sword. So I take it slow. I track patrol routes, wait at corners, and take out enemies one at a time.
On the second floor, everyone has a melee weapon, a shotgun or a machinegun. I’ve picked up a bat, but again start slow. I die. I reload. I die, reload. By the time I’ve died five or six or ten more times, I’ve lost patience. I start sprinting through the first door, swinging wildly. When I finally get the level right, I do it by smashing the first man across the face and taking his knife, immediately slashing the throats of two more in an adjacent room, and then turning to hurl the knife into the face of a third. When his only living friend runs at me, I punch him to the ground, climb on top, and pound his head against the tiles until he stops moving.
This happens on every mission. The frequent deaths and instant restarts create a rhythm. You smear the contents of a man’s brain across the floor with a crowbar, then turn and kick another man’s head into a wall until it pops. Smack a dog across the head with a pool cue, then take the cracked stump and spear it into a peeing man’s chest. It feels like you’re solving a brutal puzzle: finding the correct order and methods to get you to the end. It’s not pleasant. It’s not meant to be.
That rhythm is helped by the music, which is excellent whether you’re on a mission or a menu screen. It’s all by artists I’ve never heard of, in genres with names like ‘80s dark synth’ and ‘immoral disco’. It’s another part of what makes Hotline Miami one of the most stylishly confident games you’ll play this year. Every colour, every font, from mission screens to every seedy apartment you visit, contributes to the game’s feverish atmosphere.
Grand Theft Auto is the obvious reference point, but your brain instantly goes to Drive, Pulp Fiction, any Bret Easton Ellis novel, the hammer scene in Old Boy. Hotlinesucks you into its world, aided by vignettes between each mission of your character’s normal life: a strangely emotional silent relationship; the oddly friendly bum who works in every shop, restaurant or club; the fly-ridden stinkhole where you have hallucinatory conversations with men wearing chicken, horse, and owl masks. The owl hates you. It’s the game that Rockstar think they’re making, but never quite pull off.