Hotline Miami is a disgusting game. It takes no longer than fifteen minutes for the sheer depravity of it all to set in. The verbally abusive tutorial is caked with a screen overlay effect that makes little 8-bit flies crawl across your monitor. An abrasive, high-pitched screech is background music. Story dialogue is borderline nonsense; the whole scene is reminiscent of a fever nightmare. After a brutal difficulty wall of a first level, you find yourself murdering the tutorial instructor from earlier. No more than fifteen minutes after hitting “Start,” your little pixel man vomits up a little pixel pile of green bile straight onto the corpse. Somewhere among this mess of glowing trash-colored squares is a sign asking you to leave your humanity at the door.
Hotline Miami throws out as many punches as it can. It’s a product intended to evoke the worst responses from a viewer: disgust, hopelessness, frustration, sickness and sadistic pleasure. That’s why it’s one of the most satisfying and well-designed shooters in years. The real accomplishment is that it rises to such greatness because of its abrasiveness (rather than in spite of it.) Virtually all gameplay is centered around a beastly combat system that uses one-hit kills and ludicrously fast enemies to slay the player on a per-second basis. The game requires split-second reaction times, level memorization and an evasive streak of luck to win, and none of those qualities can be achieved without overcoming repeated failures.
The game is so self-aware of its high difficulty that it gives you a one-tap retry button. Slap “R” and your character respawns at the beginning of a level just as fast as he dies. Levels are short, and consist of top-down floor plans full of bad guys who have to all be killed to progress the game. Gameplay choices boil down to a morbid binary: what weapon do you use, and what mask do you wear while you do it? It’s dead simple: you’re a killer trapped in a weird phosphorescent void of pink 80’s neon. It’s full of people who want to kill you, and you can’t leave. You just do what comes naturally.
You have no choice over which levels to complete or where the abstract narrative goes. A noncombat intermission in-between levels sees you picking up late-night snacks and movie rentals, but they only serve as non-interactive eerie backdrops to the carnage. These bizarre intermissions and the overarching nonsense narrative serve to highlight the absurdity of the violence. Within the framework of the game, there’s no point to the killings. The mission briefings themselves are lie—always beginning levels with an anonymous phone call shrouded in euphemisms and dishonesty. It’s never fully explained or justified—the top-down shooting action exists within a framework of story bits that are paper-thin.
Another one of Miami’s punches is its aesthetic theme, which tosses the game’s environments into a soupy neon-colored vacuum of flashing colors. The whole screen ebbs and flows with a seasick sway, tilting everything you see to a presumably random persuasion. There are scanlines overlaid across the screen, and they flicker with glowing television luminescence. Occasionally you’ll get a flash of static. These graphics are only ostensibly “retro.” Back in my day, games were easier on the eyes.
Almost every visual design decision is questionable. There’s no reason for the screen to sway and bob the way it does, and the feature only serves to disorient the player. Sometimes enemies bleed into the backgrounds, thanks to the game’s top-down perspective and messy sprite work. Don’t play it in a dark room either: it’s a flashing acid lightshow of a game. But without these bold decisions, Hotline Miami would be less than the sum of its parts. The electronic techno music soundtrack is loud, lo-fi and scratchy. But it pulsates with infectious beats that are too catchy to ignore. You’re always aware of its presence, and it’s the perfect backdrop for this kitschy television game killing spree.
Then there’s the gore. It’s gratuitous and exaggerated to a degree that isn’t comical. Bullets, baseball bats and bare knuckles produce gallons of crimson-colored pixel fluids, with the occasional organ or limb dotted about. While most shooters prefer to render smaller amounts of blood in greater detail, Hotline Miami revels in the ambiguity of gut-strewn pixel art. Ever notice how the most effective horror games and movies leave the gruesome sights up to the viewer’s imagination? Hotline Miami manages the same effect by the opposite method, callously spewing about gratuitous amounts of low-fidelity splatters.
Both you and your victims fight at a lightning-fast pace, and almost all hits are instant deaths. Gunfights end in a lightning flash and melee fights only last two seconds longer. It’s a battle of attrition: kill, die, and retry over and over again. Failure is necessary for mastery. At some point you’ll accidently pull off whatever miraculous feat is required, and wham! The feeling of satisfaction is immense! At each level’s end, the music rises to a light crescendo and a brilliant cityscape scoreboard tallies up your carnage. It’s a game that manages to glorify and condemn video game violence all in one act.
Hotline Miami asks you to repeatedly throw yourself into a multidimensional gauntlet of punishment. Nearly every element of this game is built to challenge the player—there’s much frustration to be had in its core gameplay, and the visual and aural package that it’s presented in screeches with deliberate intention to hurt the viewer. But that’s why it’s satisfying as a game and effective as art. It’s interactive sadism that turns its users into masochists, and so many gaming conventions get turned upside-down in the process. It’s only through the repeated act of failure (another typically unsavory event that the game makes right) that enjoyment can be derived out of this thing. And after enjoying these depraved, disgusting acts, you can begin to make sense of it all.
Hotline Miami is a game about desensitization. By the end of its wicked two-hour pain tour, the game demands mastery from you. The eerie intermissions, the surreal nonsense storyline, the aura of dishonesty that permeates underneath every line of dialogue in the game. Even the exaggerated pixel gore and one-hit kills play into the theme. You have to have mastered all that. You have to be desensitized to it all.
It’s far sicker than the Vice Cities and Manhunts that inspired it, and far too inaccessible to ever get the same media hatred. However, it uses gameplay mechanics and a visual symbology unique to gaming to make its point, and that’s what elevates it beyond schlocky shock entertainment. It gets away with exploiting violence and depravity in the same way that Lynch and Scorsese get away with it: through a deep and meaningful love of their medium.
It’s macabre with a message, and the message is that it’s too easy to get used to games as disgusting as Hotline Miami.