Candied, crushed sago't gulaman

Drawing the Line of Violence, Part 1: Hotline Miami

like a scene straight from a slasher flick

[This is the first part of a two-piece essay. Click here for Part Two. This post contains spoilers for Hotline Miami.]

A History of Violence

Violence has long been a part of video games. For those of us who’ve grown with this form of media, we have long since come to accept it as a natural element of the platform.

We jump on menacing mushrooms, and run roughshod over mechanical monstrosities. We beat up street thugs with lethal combinations of kicks and punches, and summon elemental gods to rain ice and fire on behemoths and tentacle monsters. We hunt all sorts of birds, reptiles, dogs, rats and cats to pit them against other such powered-up animals, and we simply hunt wyverns and dragons to get more powerful weapons and armor to get better at killing.

We hack and slash through imperial armies, demons, colossi  and the legions of Hell itself. We shoot down criminals, cops, terrorists, counter-terrorists, Nazis, Allied forces, aliens, and zombies.

Even in video games where violence isn’t the main path of achieving success, we find ways to enact atrocities such as removing ladders from pools to drown virtual dolls and calling upon meteors to level populated cities.

if only i could use my limbs to pull myself out of the pool without using a ladder

We justify committing these acts of violence with all kinds of reasons, most of which are valid in the context of the games’ worlds. We have to rescue the stereotypical damsel in distress. We have to save the world/galaxy/universe from being destroyed/conquered/altered-into-a-hellish-new-reality by a mad dictator/corrupt shadowy organization/nigh-omnipotent malevolent being/s. We have to avenge the death of a family member/dear friend/significant other.

We want to become the best fighter/Pokemon master/monster hunter in the world. We want our cause and/or country to prevail.

We need to survive.

Developers give us all these reasons to make thumping, stabbing, slicing, piercing, shooting, maiming and killing acceptable. The thing is though, we’ve come to take all these violent actions as the normal route to “beating” a game that we immediately get into this mindset, sometimes even before the context for killing is cleared up.

about damn time

We’re all grown-ups here, so the thought of video games actually spurring most of us level-headed gamers who’ve been taught basic human decency and morality into lashing out physically in the “real world” isn’t what we’re afraid of here.

It’s just that there is something inherently disturbing even for a little bit about the fact that a lot of us enjoy taking an active part in such a primal and destructive act as a hobby (and for a few of us, as a profession).

It’s something that two video games I recently finished have begun to question – Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line.

The former is a top-down action game made by indie developer Dennaton Games, and the latter is an FPS made by fairly new AAA dev companyYager Development. The former is a surprise smash hit from the independent scene, garnering glowing reviews and impressive sales for an indie game. The latter is a critical darling, sparking many a debate for its tackling of heavy issues.

Drop Me a Line

and you're the cleaner

In Hotline Miami, the player takes control of a nameless man who receives cryptic phone calls in his apartment telling him through thinly-veiled orders to murder a group of gangsters in a certain area while wearing an animal mask.

The gameplay is simple in concept. You start a level with a choice of what mask to wear, as all of them except the first one grant a bonus that will help you in your mission to kill every mafioso. The enemies are unaware of your presence at first, while you can scope out their positions and patrol patterns and the level’s layout thanks to the top-down view.

Having this information is vital, as you are as vulnerable as the opposition, meaning one swing of a baseball bat or a shot from a rifle equals death. The fun is in figuring out how to successfully end the lives of all the mobsters without getting hit once, usually after getting hit and dying over and over and over.

This goal can be achieved in a number of ways. You can take the relatively safe route of firing off a loud shotgun shell into a thug’s stomach in one room to attract the rest into a proverbial conveyor belt bullet buzzsaw.

You can also go down a more creative road by knocking down a goon with a door slam, throwing a knife straight at the throat of an incoming enemy, searing the face off another with a frying pan, and boring a hole into the face of the poor sap you introduced to the plywood earlier with a power drill.

Such morbid ingenuity is actually rewarded by the game. You get style points that pop up on screen as you rack off kills and combos, giving you a specific letter grade at the end of the level with a code name designation depending on your performance. New masks and weapons are unlocked to sow more carnage with. All this is mayhem is set to a bright pixelated palette and thumping synth-heavy dance music, a visual and aural aesthetic heavily influenced by the 80’s and the coolest movie ever. It’s a kitschy catchy ambiance that makes the violence hypnotically addictive and all the more inviting.

there's only so much you can do with a knife, a lead pipe, and a handful of thugs in a seedy train station

You go about this murder spree for a good number of levels with only the ambiguous hit messages and bits of your exploits connected to activities with the Russian mafia reported in newspaper clippings to go on. Grimy darkened fly-infested visions of three anonymous people wearing the animal masks you have access to only serve to obfuscate your main goal.

Then halfway through the main story, the game experiences a schizophrenic shift. After cleaning house in a condo building, a nearby telephone rings. You pick it up, and you’re told by your “handlers” to take care of a particular prank caller immediately. It’s the first time you’re burdened with another mission right after completing one, and you start to feel that there’s something wrong.

That feeling is validated as soon as you enter the phone company where your target is up to no good. Bodies are strewn across the floor, the desks, the walls, and it’s not because of you. You find the enemy in the middle of hacking a computer, interrupting him for an improvised fight to the death. It’s the first time the protagonist faces real adversity one-on-one, as the man in the biker helmet moves deftly to corner you and slice your neck open with a knife.

I struggled to get past his fast and furious attack. I felt the spike in difficulty was unfair, as I had little time and room to pick up the golf club and smash the guy’s head in as he lunged towards me. Having to do this three times to finish him off only made it worse. But I prevailed eventually.

Or so I thought.

The post-mission sequence where you go to a bar to partake of a “reward” from the same bearded bespectacled man behind the counters of the pizza shop and video rental outlet feels off. He says it so himself before handing you one last drink. You get one last meeting with the three masked men before the interludes start going haywire. The corpse of the biker fidgets on the floor of the convenience store, and that same guy at the counter tells you none of this is real. Static fills the screen for a split second. The body’s gone, and the clerk is none the wiser.

Soon enough, the mangled cadavers of your fallen enemies appear in those safe havens and even in your apartment, pointedly asking you what you’re looking at if you try talking to them. The friendly face behind the counter is seen belly down on the floor in the pool of his own blood, and the bald uggo replacing him tells you off instead of giving you prizes, incentives. Two never before seen janitors stare and grin at you in between missions.

Clearly, something is not right. And yet, the missions stay largely the same. You get messages on your phone’s voice mail, you don an appropriate animal mask, and you waste everyone in the level with brutal efficiency. You do your work, no questions asked.

Of course, these “glitches” do come to a head in the form of a rat mask-wearing pistol-toting assassin who shoots you in the head when you return to your apartment. In its first fourth-wall breaking moment, the game tells you to press R to restart, just as if you had screwed up in one of the missions and died.

You hit the button, and you enter the same scene. Your apartment ransacked, your girl shot dead in the bathroom. This time, however, you also see your dead body where the rat shot you. The rat is gone and it’s the chicken mask guy in the grimy visions sitting in the former’s place on the couch. He leaves you with an ominous message that you will be all alone, that nothing you do will have any purpose, that you won’t be able to see the whole picture, and that it’s all your fault.

You leave the apartment into a dirty white space, your letterman jacket and jeans switched with a hospital gown. You see a bed with your body on it. You fall to your knees. Your head explodes in a burst of blood.

hotline miami head explodes

What follows is a tale of the improbable story of vengeance. The protagonist escapes from a hospital in a hazy post-coma state, invades the police station to get to the captured killer, and ultimately finds his way to the heavily fortified mansion of the local Russian mafia chapter. He kills them all; the purple panthers, the katana-wielding lady assassin guarding Tommy Wiseau with his akimbo uzis, the wheelchair-bound old boss who’s done with all the violence.

It’s a non-stop action-packed sequence of events that ultimately feels like a tangent after the mystery set up in that fateful meeting with the biker in the phone company. So of course, the game continues after the credits have rolled, and you’re suddenly in control of that one biker.

The circumstances are the same. He’s a contracted killer hired by the same anonymous person/group as the main protagonist. The difference is that he’s no longer content being a puppet to some unknown agenda. He sets to find out the truth, and he’s back at the phone company trying to hack the mainframe.

When “Jacket” shows up, the biker dispatches him easily. He then uses the information he dug up to trace the root cause, only to discover the masterminds hiding in the sewers. It’s the two mysterious janitors.

At this point, the game presents two different endings that play out depending on whether or not the player solves the puzzle present in the pause screen. Although the “secret” ending you get from solving the puzzle gives a clearer picture for the chaos, it is somehow less fulfilling because of its turn towards conspiracy that doesn’t quite jive with the rest of the game’s approach to violence.

The default ending lets you ask all the important questions that have been bubbling in your mind. What’s going on? Who are you people? Who are you working for? Why are you doing this?

And the answers come in…

“We’re playing a game… aren’t we?”

“You don’t know? Haha, that’s pathetic!”

“We’re independent, we did it all ourselves!”

“We haven’t killed anyone, you have…”

“You think they deserved to live? Do you?”

“We were bored, that’s why!”

“Why would we need to justify our actions?”

“If you don’t understand why we’re doing this… then why should we tell you?”

“Haha, you seem disappointed?”

something? <i>anything?</i>

In the end, there is no rhyme or reason to the violence. It was all done in the pursuit of fun. No excuses necessary. If there was one, it was in the last half of the main protagonist’s journey into the crime bosses’ lair which offered no real closure. His hallucinations after his encounter with the biker also serve to skew his story into skepticism. Did he die, or at the very least was put into a coma, and just imagined the rest of the game, living out a literal revenge fantasy in his head? An excuse for the player to kill and kill and kill?

Was that secret ending actually thrown in as yet another excuse for those completely unwilling to accept the irrationality of the game’s premise, feeding into their desire to look for semblances of logic in a fucked up world?

don't we all?

To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed the slaughter. I felt pleasure in formulating strategies that would overwhelm an entire building full of mooks ready to kill me. I felt the adrenaline rush in executing them flawlessly, as if I were the DriverI felt joy in bashing the skulls of already beaten men crawling helplessly along the floor. I laughed or oohhhed in amazement when I decapitated or sliced a man’s torso in half, his 16-bit guts dangling from the clean cut.

The music drove me.

Until it screeched to a low buzzing halt whenever I finished a level.

The game doesn’t just fade to black or cut to the next interlude. It leaves you in the same place, making you backtrack through the level to reach your getaway car.

I am forced to bear witness to the aftermath. My masterpiece of violence. I pause for a second, then rush to the exit. There is no one left to “get” me, but I can’t shake the feeling that I have to get out of there ASAP. I can’t stand it. I’d prefer silence, but that buzzing, that lone note reverberating, the echoing. It’s unsettling.

I have to get out.

The laidback synths of the grading screen are soothing. I’m given a pat on the back. I’m good to go.

hotline miami sick

To be continued.


About Joseph Berida

Joseph likes video games. He also likes writing. Do the math. He hates math.

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This entry was posted on 17 April 2013 by in Features and tagged , , , .
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