Receiving mysterious phone calls, a man goes on a killing spree in various locations.
Postmodernism, it’s in the game
Discussing the story of the game is no easy feat without spoiling the surprise or separating it from the gameplay, as it opens up various branches of interpretation. Even if it looks like a classic GTA clone and its reliance on hyper violence can spark controversy and disgust when watching the protagonist beating or shooting his opponents to a bloody pulp, the atmosphere creates something quite different…or if one has seen the movie Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn, something quite similar in its apparently nihilistic character portrayal due to the lack of information about the main protagonist who doesn’t even have a name.
The most striking element of the anachronistic storytelling is its surrealism. By performing the same actions all over again and after each completed mission going to a convenience or video store, a snack bar or restaurant, a routine sets in which is later broken up by something which could be out of a David Lynch-meets-Silent-Hill scenario. The interaction between the protagonist, the NPCs and their world is nearly non-existent, and by alluding to scenes the player is not aware of having witnessed (like a girl in the apartment’s bathroom who can’t be talked to) one has to fill in the blanks, which conjures up scenes in the mind which can be interpreted in different ways. It all becomes rather disturbing and doesn’t only question the protagonist’s state of mind, but also the perception of the player as well.
There will be blood and lots of gore
The depiction of violence seems to be gratuitous when all kinds of weaponry like swords, knives, pistols, machine guns, baseball bats, etc. are used to slice and dice or beat and shoot one’s way through the adversaries. Cutting people in half, but also fininishing them off by hitting their heads against the ground until they split open tops the comic violence of the old 2D GTA games by lengths. Many bloody bodies or body parts litter the floors and make the levels look like slaughterhouses after the mission objectives are completed, which usually consist of simply killing a certain person or everyone on each floor.
The killing game
The term stealth-shooter-slasher fits the general gameplay best, as both careful planning and fast reflexes are instrumental in surviving the many enemy attacks. Observing the various routes they take and behavior patterns they have could almost be out of a Metal Gear Solid title, while the combat is more reminiscent of old-school twin-stick shooters like Smash TV. Its arcade roots don’t only show in its combo scoring system, but also in the many restarts necessary, because one hit by an enemy means instant death (which is of course also true the other way around). With a checkpoint system which saves on each floor, this can be quite frustrating, to say the least.
The way the game is played also depends on which masks the main character puts on. These are unlocked after each level and give him different abilities like faster running, a boost in fist strength among others, but also the very helpful scrolling-the-screen method for tactical planning. The only problematical thing about this and the game in general is that it’s a lot of trial-and-error or rather kill-and-instantly-be-killed-again-and-again-and-again moments following the exhilaration one feels when going on a killing spree. Not knowing what to expect in each mission, choosing the wrong mask can mean an unnecessary restart, and as the sheer number of enemies is overwhelming (not even taking into account the unfair boss fights), the gameplay hails back to the golden age of arcade games when countless dying added to the learning process.
The 80s are back in style
Graphics are of course highly reminiscent of the old GTA games with a top-down perspective and the pixellated blood spilled on every stage. But the violence is much more tangible here, which is mainly due to the many deaths the player and the enemies suffer and the bloody corpses not just disappearing, but staying as long as the unnamed protagonist has life left in him. Backgrounds and character animations are rather simple affairs, but they feel just right for a game which is bathed in 8-bit nostalgia.
The similarities to Nikolas Winding Refn’s brutal movie Drive don’t end with its visual aesthetics, as the use of 80ies synthesizer pop/dance/plain weird-mix music enhances the overall experience as well, i.e. the tunes and beats become one with the player’s own movements, resulting in a violent, but also very satisfying arcade-like rampage through the levels. It’s definitely one of the best soundtracks which came out of the indie scene without sounding too similar to all the 8-bit tunes around.
A bloody good game
Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami is not a game for everyone. Some people will be put off by its harsh and frustrating difficulty curve, and some people will be disgusted and offended by its uber-violence. It’s also easy to say that the gameplay becomes repetitive after a while, relying too much on the kill-everything-on-sight formula.
Still all this is exactly what makes the game so special. It’s an amalgamation of old-school arcade gaming and postmodern storytelling with a brilliant soundtrack which both embraces and defies videogame conventions, creating something which stays in the player’s head even after its short playtime of 5 hours. Just like the movie Drive which inspired it, the game’s atmosphere immerses the player in ways few other recent arcade-like indie titles do, offering an experience unlike anything around.
The developer should also be applauded for turning the mindless killing game mechanics into something quite different in the course of the game, as this is thematized by posing the question why the player does these horrible things. Even if it seems to exploit the graphic violence at first glance, it’s much more a meta-game without an overreliance on exposition in storytelling.
If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every Facebook LIKE or comment is appreciated :).