Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami sings a song of death, and its beautiful.  Not in the sense that the grimy 2D sprites and blood spattering effects are aesthetically attractive, but in how the composition of the game mechanics harmonize into an intense and satisfying experience that will still leave you harboring questions about what the game’s protagonist (?) is doing.  I played the majority of the game in a single sitting, and within the next day had finished it and played through half of the levels again.  It lasts between four to six hours on the first play through.  Long enough to explore the spectrum of the game’s systems, but not so long as to exhaust players and deter them from playing again.  I can easily see myself playing it for another 10 to 20 hours.  So what exactly makes Hotline Miami compelling?

HM is rich with verbs, the first and foremost being kill.  The player wakes up, checks the message machine and is given a location.  He takes off in his car, and once on-site your job is to kill every target in the building.  There isn’t much more context than that.  Before entering, the player is allowed to select an animal mask to wear.  Besides obscuring the character’s identity, it will also endow you with a special perk.  Your targets anticipate your arrival and are prepared to greet you with pipes, shotguns, sub-machine guns, knives, machetes, and a whole host of other brutal weapons.  You can take-down targets several different ways:

  • Stealth kills dispatch targets with a single button press, assuming you can get close enough without alerting anyone.
  • Targets can be knocked over with doors, punches, or thrown objects.  Once down, the player can finish them off in a brutal fashion depending on where they fall and what you have equipped.
  • Weapon kills are just that, the player outright kills a target with whatever is in hand.

Every enemy can be killed with one lethal attack, but so can the player.  Weapons can be acquired from enemies and are scattered about levels.  Melee weapons can in many shapes and sizes.  They will also take varying amounts of time to wield.  Since they require you to close the distance between yourself and the target, these can be a gamble.  On the other hand, there are also ranged weapons with a preset number of bullets and cartridges that can be fired.  You can clear a room in a flash, but it will alert all enemies in nearby rooms as well.

HM shines in the design of its spaces.  All of the action takes place from the top-down perspective and is presented through the lens of hyper-stylized 80’s visuals.  It’s as garish as the violence is unsettling.  In combination with the music, it has a hypnotic effect that’s difficult to ignore.

Levels in Hotline Miami almost flawlessly demonstrate what levels are meant to contribute to a game.  Each introduces new game mechanics and verbs while reinforcing existing ones.  It teaches the player how to execute the designers’ vision of action and culminates at the height of the player’s ability.

The player can die in a flash, and while this can become a source of frustration, that frustration is short lived as each floor can be restarted instantaneously.  The player must be aware of their surroundings, but the game encourages you to take your frustration back out on the game’s targets and actually rewards you for this.  You will find yourself slowly becoming more efficient at becoming a cold-blooded killer of sprites.  Slam open a door, kill the guard, grab the gun, launch into another room, shoot everything, throw the gun at the enemy that runs in from the next room, rinse and repeat.  When the strategy comes together, the effect is incredible and encourages you to take on the next challenge.

Your performance on each level is graded on a number of factors from time to complete the level, combos, recklessness, and the variety of weapons that are used.  There are many ways to complete each level, and your final evaluation will categorize your approach with a “play style” which will give you hints to how you may want to change your strategy in the future.

High scores unlock new weapons that will become available throughout levels, which provides incentive to replay levels even if you aren’t paying particular attention to how you’re playing.  New masks are also unlocked as you play and can be discovered as hidden items in the levels.

Of course, with all of these factors coming together there’s the ever lingering thought that you are kind of a dirt bag for getting this invested in being an assassin, and the game isn’t afraid to remind you of this.  And I’ve always been a fan of games that create this kind of cognitive dissonance: teaching you how to be a monster while pulling you aside every once and a while to say “hey, you remember that you’re probably not very comfortable with this, right?”  And when it’s a creepy person in an animal mask telling you this, it really drives the bizarre and surreal experience home.

Hotline Miami Screenshot

The fact that Hotline Miami hasn’t inspired sensational headlines about violence in video games and children’s access to them is a good sign that we’ve gotten past the post-Columbine panic in American culture.  While we shouldn’t be comfortable with this level of violence, that doesn’t mean that the theme is off limits to exploration in games.  And it’s hard to beat what Dennaton Games has accomplished with Hotline Miami.

Official Website

Note: For more information on the context that I use the terms “verbs”, “spaces”, and “impressions”, please see the post titled I’m going to take the fun out of games.


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