Hotline Miami is one of the best examples of telling a story through gameplay. The main character – nameless in the game, but fans have dubbed him Jacket – is speechless, and besides the masks used for perks in the game, you never see his face. There’s no glorious shot of him on the front cover of the game with the American flag behind him holding guns ala Bioshock Infinite. It’s just a man with a pig mask on and a girl in his arms. It’s sinister, it’s haunting, it’s the cover of one of the best games of this generation.
Spec Ops: The Line tried to show the disconnect of first person shooters with its dire and dark trudge through a sand filled Dubai. It’s a fine game, and an interesting example of how to question the implications of the violence on screen. Hotline Miami takes this one step further and presents you with a throbbing score which provides the soundtrack to your violent detached murders.
Each episode begins with a dark phone call to Jacket in his apartment. A voice appears and tells you to go somewhere – the reason changes each time, but never overtly suggesting that you’re going off to kill someone. Off you trundle to your Delorean – the vehicle of choice which shows exactly how eighties the game wants to be – and a short loading screen later, you’re at your soon to be crime scene.
Where Hotline Miami excels perfectly is its ability to give you the dizzy feeling of having killed someone. Or a room full of people. (Full disclosure, I have not actually killed someone so I have no idea how it feels to actually kill someone.) Deaths come quick – yours and your enemies. If Jacket dies, a quick button press and he’s back in going through it all over again. Dying is a natural process in the game and how quickly it happens is at first frustrating and annoying, then you learn the layout of the room and the feeling of being in control and clinically taking down Jacket’s enemies becomes the norm.
Because death is so quick for Jacket, you are at first very cautious – your first few kills actually cause Jacket to vomit and the screen goes a little hazy – then as Jacket progresses the killing becomes easier. The twitch style gameplay – similar to Super Meat Boy‘s insta-start-again – is perfect at giving you a dizzy feeling. The desire to get it right and get it perfect is there – getting that oh so vital A+ at the end of each level requires you to be quick, to be as brutal as possible, and to have as much variety as possible as well. It’s a strange feeling, but eventually you become cold and disconnected from the deaths, it’s all about taking the meat down and taking them down quickly.
That is, until you walk out and past your carnage. The stark reminder of what Jacket has done – you have done – appears on the screen with a throbbing bass beat. It’s nauseating, it’s disturbing. Half of a man that you took down with a samurai sword may be lying on the other side of the room – blood and brains sprayed all over the floor and wall. The top down aspect of Hotline Miami shows how brutal and vast the carnage is. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a game actually show how much blood there can be after a death. The first to show the brutality of death. No bodies disappear after ten seconds. They remain in pools of blood until the level is over.
The deaths themselves are surprisingly realistic. If Jacket manages to knock someone down with a baseball bat hit to the head, they’ll crawl away with blood pouring out of their head. Or there’s the beheading’s with swords where the victims head rolls away, them grasping at their neck and blood spurting out. It’s gruesome, but not gratuitously so. Where you’d think that the level of gore on hand would border on gore porn levels, there is a meaning behind it all. The cold reminder at the end of each level followed by the (at first questionable) score tally of who you have killed is the heart that pumps Hotline Miami along.
Bioshock Infinite is a gruesome, slightly over the top, ridiculously gory game. Booker DeWitt is a great character, as is Elizabeth. But the disconnect with the narrative and the players actions takes away from the heart of the game. The narrative happens around you, rather than you as the player having an effect on the narrative. Where the violence in Hotline Miami progresses the narrative, the violence in Bioshock Infinite (and many other games in fact) works as a way to titillate. You want to jump off the zip lines and nail that guy in the face with your sky-hook. There’s no connection between what DeWitt is intending to do as a character and what you intend to make DeWitt do with his weapons.
And that’s where Hotline Miami excels – and for me, is my current game of the year. It explains the violence on the screen. It gives your actions meanings rather than telling a story around the actions you take. This is twitch gameplay at its finest. Bite sized brilliance with a great punch, or crowbar to the head, or silenced pistol through a window, or a boiling pot of water… to the face.