Particlebit: We have another guest post this week, this time from my friend Ian who loves the vaporwave movement and has played Imperial Guard since 2002.
Released in 2012, Hotline Miami is a top-down 8-bit game that is drenched in blood, gore, and neon. Although I was initially skeptical of the 8-bit graphics as I don’t play a lot of these games, I ultimately was roped in by the aesthetics and was charmed by the brutal and unforgiving gameplay.
The game explores the seedy underbelly of Miami circa 1989 from the perspective of an unnamed anti-hero who has been nicknamed “Jacket” for the the characteristic mustard yellow varsity jacket that he wears. One of the reasons I was so taken by the game’s aesthetic is how immersive and dreamlike it is for an 8-bit game, and a huge part of this is thanks to the soundtrack as well as the garish color palette.
There are definite influences from the 2011 Ryan Gosling film “Drive” as well as clear ( v a p o r w a v e ) connections. Neon and sharp contrasting colors are increased to baffling contrasts and painted across a slew of varied levels: apartment buildings, luxury hotels, methadone clinics, druglords’ safehouses, office buildings, filthy slums, metro stations and the like.
Each level’s scenery and accompanying music drip with either extravagant excess or stylized grime that left me satisfied and ready for the next mission. In one mission you blow away a crime lord in his penthouse suite replete with verdant wide-leafed palms, cream-colored marble, and a Siberian tiger rug with an assault shotgun. In another mission you take a baseball bat to a filthy and prone streetwalker after rummaging in the dumpster behind a train station.
Before I move to the gameplay, I want to stress how well the game is structured to complete the immersion effect without losing its retro arcade game feel. As I alluded to before, the game consists of following a sort of anti-hero and his activities through a series of progressing levels. The main character lives alone in a kind of run-down apartment covered in trash and waits around in his personal squalor until he receives a telephone call with thin instructions to go to a location and take care of a problem.
Shortly afterwards you arrive at the location and brutally murder everyone present while wearing a rubber Halloween mask with whatever weapons you can get your hands on — most of them pried from your victims’ cold dead hands. There is no raison d’etre, the phone call is enough.
It is unclear if Jacket is even being paid, if so it is not much judging by the condition of his apartment. In any case, the slew of mortal adversaries at each location doesn’t change much: nearly always Russian gangsters with cocaine-colored suits and robin’s egg blue dress shirts. What caused these people to draw the ire of whoever is sending Jacket down upon them is an open question, but interestingly is not one that even needs to be answered by the player. As a mysterious figure in one of Jacket’s unhinged dream sequences hints at, the extreme violence is probably for its own sake, the unresolved bloodlust of both Jacket and the player themselves.
Jacket matches his murderous days and afternoons with nights skewed with a type of dark glitz, in which he rolls around in his silver car listening to electro-dreamy pop hits. On his night drives he frequents pizza parlors, cheap bars, and a VHS store. And as the game progresses, it quickly becomes apparent that the anti-hero is not the most reliable of narrators, given the familiar faces at each hit site, pizza place, and bar — not to mention the dream sequences. Jacket is silent in his probable madness, never uttering a word, but speaking through actions instead. He is laconically questioned and berated by a mysterious triad of masked figures in the aforementioned dream sequences, but it is ultimately up to the player to decide if they want to dig deeper into what is truly driving the violence.
Although as I detailed above, the game’s charm heavily rests with the mood and atmosphere it creates, smearing moral ambiguity with bright color, noise and violence, it wouldn’t be able to stand up on its own without great gameplay, and luckily it delivers. As someone who is notoriously known as a completionist that needs to finish off each enemy in a video game before moving on — even if it is not strictly required — I was delighted to find that completing levels in Hotline Miami hinged upon eliminating everyone present.
The crux of the game’s attractiveness and replayability rests upon two factors, the variety by which you can complete levels and the ability to unlock additional bonus-granting masks and uncover secrets relating to the plot.
The strategies by which you can complete levels are numerous, but the difference between success and failure always rests on a knife’s edge because of how fragile Jacket is. The anti-hero can only take one baseball bat hit or a single bullet before he is killed. Luckily, the stage or level can be quickly restarted at the hit of a button. This encourages the player to practice their steps and strategies quickly and repeatedly. The difference between passing or failing a level could rely on a well timed weapon throw to stun a single remaining and charging enemy after every other bullet was spent on his comrades. One wrong step around a corner into the line of sight of an enemy or one missed shotgun blast could have fatal consequences which would force a mission restart.
Weapon variety is immense but splits between melee (some of which can be lethally thrown) and ranged firearms. Knives of course don’t win gunfights, but they are silent. The player cannot generally rely on too many firearms because of limited ammunition and the resulting sounds can cause an unstoppable wave of enemies from distant rooms. This fact forces players to vary their approaches, and removes the idea of a single dominating variety of gameplay a la the “Skyrim meme stealth archer.”
Masks also add a huge element to the customization of strategy. There are 26 masks in total, most of which are unlocked by finding them strewn throughout levels, but others unlocked through achievements. Each of the masks creates an unique effect on the player: it can create synergies, add something weird to the gameplay, or even make everything more difficult. For example, masks that grant speed or increased resistance to bullets can make a melee strategy more viable.
The ability of the player to perform combos by repeated hits and strikes can create a rush of energy and favorably impacts on the score breakdown that you receive at the end of each level. Although it’s possible to take a boring approach to each level, a safe route in which you try to hide and snipe slowly room by room, the game’s own blasting electro soundtrack and vibrant colors don’t reinforce that type of strategy. In fact, neither does the score — every time that I approached a level the long and boring way I got a terrible score.
Instead the game rewards you, through your score and the experience itself, when the strategy you take exhibits reckless speed, grotesque and varied weapon choice and sickly Dionysian impulses.
There have been a lot of violent video games made, but Hotline Miami is special because of how striking it is in both gameplay and environment. In fact, I find the game’s visuals so persuasive as a descriptor on the dumb uncultured excesses of wealth that I used to describe the decor of my old “elite/элитный” Moscow fitness club as “ripped right out of Hotline Miami.”
I highly recommend Hotline Miami to anyone who wants to pick up a game with engaging, addicting gameplay and an immersive, unique environment. The game is also full of mystery and second-guessing that can be explored as much or as little as you’d like. If the plot doesn’t interest you, the sheer combination of levels, masks, and weapons will keep you busy even if you aren’t replaying to uncover secrets.
Hotline Miami offers a lot: customizable gameplay, collectables, striking colors and soundtrack, all set in a dreamlike (and/or nightmarish) world that contrasts disgusting wealth with pedestrian grime and where player morality and even narrator reliability are far from certain. If you haven’t already, it’s definitely worth taking a look at.