There’s a lot that can be said about a game like Hotline Miami 2 and its predecessor, as well as the audiences that play them. These are very violent games, but in such a low resolution as to merely suggest a more graphic depiction. It’s a very clever method to broadening the vocabulary of the game by sacrificing visual fidelity, while ensuring that more squeamish audiences who would otherwise be interested the game aren’t turned off by graphic violence. These games become a meta-discussion at points where its super-natural characters ask you, acting as the protagonist, if you “like hurting other people.” Those are moments when you might stop to wonder if your avatar is the one being addressed, or yourself. It’s another fascinating angle to the games, which can lean heavily on the fourth wall without actually breaking it.
What I found to be extremely interesting though about Hotline Miami 2 was its world-building, and the messages it delivers through it. It’s world lingers on cold war fear that is taken to a mad extreme. This is an alternative late 80s/early 90s world shaped by that madness, where Soviet Russia sphere of influence readily encompasses Hawaii, and exerts influence over the entire United States via a Russo-American coalition. It’s a world where the over-the-top violence of the American, martial culture of the 80s and 90s is expressed in a way that simultaneously captures the over-the-top action movies of the time and contrasts it against the fragileness of life. While completing a level and getting an S ranking can be very satisfying, the path along the way is littered by countless player deaths, and many more enemy deaths. The message to take away may not necessarily be whether or not you “like to hurt people” but the acknowledgement that this is the logical conclusion of American fear and martial culture of the era. In this same vein of thought, Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2 draws from a similar creative heritage as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
HM2 offers an array of different characters who are in some way entangled or aligned with the events of the original game. These are people who are either driven by their own psychotic need for violence, or by those who feel compelled to coerce others into it to serve their own psychotic ends. While the Russo-American conflict can be read literally as the struggle of a resistance group against oppressive forces, HM2’s non-linear storytelling provides an immersion into the world without getting preoccupied on the high concept. This allows the game to focus more squarely on its character vignettes, which tell the player of the larger conflict indirectly. While all of the player characters engage in extremely violent battles, they are characters that solicit your investment, and to varying degrees, even your sympathy. For those who wish to engage the game on the merits of its gameplay alone, there’s nothing to get in your way. But audiences who find themselves intrigued with the game’s world will be able to piece it together and take in the consequences of all of the involved parties.
It’s not the game I was expecting to play. It is a great game in as far as it’s taken HM’s mechanics and design and expanded upon it. It has a coherent and compelling presentation that stands on its own merits. But it also delivers a world and plot that, while not immediately obvious, is engrossing and nuanced. I enjoyed Hotline Miami quite a bit, but Hotline Miami 2 makes itself a very memorable experience as well in ways that most other games wouldn’t even attempt to achieve. Yes, it captures an 80’s aesthetic, with pumping music, trippy graphics, and action that rivals anything that John Rambo has accomplished on screen. But that’s icing on a cake of the world that Hotline Miami 2 has delivered. And I’d love to dive into more of the reasons why that is, but I’ll reserve spoiler topics for another post. Hotline Miami 2 is an early favorite of the year for me, and a game that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to other video game enthusiasts or fans of the original.