Hotline Miami


16bit chicken mask murder spree simulator Hotline Miami is best played in your underwear and a bloodstained Hawaiian shirt, half empty bottle of tequila and an overflowing ashtray at your elbow. It is, in the words of the developers, a top-down fuck-em-up. That description be entirely apt, yo. It was made by two guys, probably in a greasy motel room with Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit blaring out of a tape deck submerged in the bathtub. A dead mobster in the wardrobe, Hunter S Thompson crouched on the coffee table animating in Deluxe Paint and James Ellroy coding the next level and copying it onto blank floppy disks with a double-drive Amiga 500 in the corner.
Hotline Miami reminds me of stealth games, at least the way I play them, although it isn’t about sneaking around as it is about rushing a at the urinal with a shank before he can do up his fly. At the core of it is a search for the frictionless path, a repeat and reload driven search for the perfect route through the levels and patrols, where you slide between the cracks and they never see you coming unless its far too late.
Levels all start the same way. Your nameless hitman wakes up in his apartment and answers the phone. The voice sends him somewhere, to clean up, take care of them, pass along our regards. Downstairs, into a Delorean, out of a Delorean, into the building. Kill everyone inside. Leave.
That’s not how it goes, at first.
You open the door, a bald guy in a white suit gets up off the couch, rushes forward, punches you, you die.
Press R.
The game is built around the R key. R restarts the level, instantly. You reset the world. You rewind time. You say No. That didn’t happen. This does:
You open the door, a bald guy in a white suit gets up off the couch, rushes forward, you rush forward, snatch up the tire iron from the floor and open his skull up all over the wall. Left through the door, slam it open into another white-suit guy, he goes down and you roflstomp his head into the carpet. The door opens behind you and a shotgun blast-
No. That didn’t happen, this does:
Tire iron, whitesuit dead, right through door, throw tire iron. Guy down, roflstomp, gun, down into bathroom, blast whitesuit blood all over the tiles, gunshot brings them running, whitesuits pour through the doorway, you unload through the chokepoint, bangbangbangbangbangclick and there’s one left with a knife and you die
No. That didn’t happen. Ummmm… how about this:
It’s brilliant. A hyperviolent groundhog day, played on fast forward, you kill and die and restart and kill in a deleriously accelerated loop as you try to stitch together a clean run, a leapfrog of incremental successes as you feel out the problem and find your rhythm, until eventually, everyone is dead and you win. You don’t press R.
Yes. That’s what happened.
There’s a combo meter, which encourages you to pelt hell-for-leather through the level, to kill with speed, and imagination and above all efficency. Levels feel like sandboxes and puzzles at the same time, where the murderous path you carve is your own and solutions are emergent rather than prescribed. Some of the weapons on the floor and in the whitesuits hands are randomised each time, and on even the most carefully honed and practiced run you might be asked to suddenly improvise. This, for me, means I invariably get flustered and die instantly.
The subverted 16bit aesthetic is a perfect fit for the game. Rainbow strobing backgrounds and pulsing synth loops, levels tilted just off the vertical, it all feels off-kilter. There is an air of delirium about the whole escapade. After each level you go and grab a pizza or a VHS or beer on the way back, and the stores are different but its always the same guy, or a bunch of different guys with the same face, you aren’t sure. It builds a sense of unease, and gives the game its pacing, moments of quiet between the mad violence.
The violence is extravagant and oddly horrible, made more effective for being a spray of fire-engine red lego than specular-lit texture maps. Its the opposite of the uncanny valley. In Hotline you bash a bald head in with a pipe and a handful of red and grey squares comes out, but its brains on the floor you see. The killing feels deeply satisfying, and in a way I can’t quite put my finger on, like murder.
Maybe its because, when everyone is dead, you walk yourself back to the car, back through the wreckage, past the bodies and the blood. The music stops. It gives you time to be appalled at what you have done, if that’s your thing. Its weirdly affecting.
In my head, on the way back to the car, I see the all the other runs, the failures, the hundreds of dead Super Meat Boys from alternative universes where I fucked it up or was unlucky, peeling away to leave the survivor, the one possibility out of hundreds where it went right, the scene they’ll put in the movie.
I might be over-thinking it. Feel free not to. Just play it.

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