Hotline Miami

A game by Dennaton Games for PC, Mac, PS4, PS3, Vita, and Switch, originally released in 2012.
Most video games are about killing. Even in a game as simple as Space Invaders, your goal is to murder your way through an onslaught of aliens before they can destroy your ship… and presumably the unseen pilot inside. But the subject of violence in video games didn't reach the forefront until games began to present semi-lifelike renditions of human beings. And, while no one was worried about the violence we were committing against nondescript blips, they were suddenly very concerned that our tiny minds were being warped by the violence we were committing against human-looking blips. Parents and legislators alike roared against this new form of media that was surely turning us all into violent psychopaths, in the same way that comic books and television had done to the generations prior.

Games like Mortal Kombat and the fairly innocuous Night Trap were paraded out as examples of just how bad things could get… and we weren’t even really doing 3D at that point. The subject reared its head again with the first 3D rendition of Grand Theft Auto, even though it was just an extension of its own cartoonishly violent predecessors, full of caricature and satire.

Looking back, it’s almost laughable that anything rendered in 2D could be seen as being violent to the degree that it would cause lasting harm to anyone playing it. Sure, modern 3D games can give a player the thrill of bashing someone’s head in with a baseball bat, slicing open their bellies to watch their intestines spill out, or blasting them in the face with a shotgun at point blank range. But in 2D… Seriously? Games like Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse are so incredibly tame by comparison. Nothing that was making it through the gatekeepers at Nintendo and Sega was likely to mess you up for life. But independent development has negated many such gatekeepers, and there is no longer any limit to what can be done in 2D.

Hotline Miami is probably the most warped and brutal 2D game ever created. If Joseph Lieberman had played this game in 1993, he would have shit blood from his eyes.

Hotline Miami is disturbing to its core, from its haunting title screen, unsettling music, warped overhead perspective, dingy settings, nasty characters, and non-stop brutal and bloody violence every step of the way. A quick tutorial demonstrates all that you need to know with an opening line of “I’m here to tell you how to kill people.” From bludgeoning, to slicing, to shooting, to bashing someone’s skull in with your bare hands, violence is the only way to get anywhere in this game.

By default, you aim in the direction you’re facing, but using the mouse or right analogue stick, you can move and aim independently. You can also lock onto enemies or look around the environment to get a better lay of the land before you charge in. Beyond that, you only have the ability to pick up and drop/throw weapons, and a multi-purpose attack button that lets you attack with your fists or with whatever weapon you’re carrying.

From the dark and gritty tutorial, you’re tossed into an even more disturbing introductory scene, featuring 3 people sitting in a dark room, all wearing animal masks and speaking with unseemly dispositions. The dialogue and presentation beg the questions: Who are these people? Who am I? Is this really happening?

You begin each new day in your dirty apartment, and answer the telephone. The person on the other end of the line speaks to you in code, telling you where to go so that you can kill everyone there. You leave your apartment, get in your car, and arrive outside of the building where the level formally begins.

At the start of each level, you’ll need to select an animal mask to wear during your killing spree. At first, you’ll only have one mask, but getting a high score in each level unlocks new ones, as does meeting certain undisclosed in-level requirements, and each new mask grants you one special ability when you wear it. For instance, the tiger mask gives you more powerful punches, which allows you to kill most enemies silently with one punch to the face. The pig mask causes more guns to be deposited in the environment (as opposed to bludgeoning weapons or knives). Other masks allow you to walk faster, see farther, or even start the level with a weapon.

Once you select a mask, you have free reign to move through the building, one floor at a time, with additional floors opening once you’ve killed everyone. Clearing a floor acts as a checkpoint, although many of the early levels only have 2 floors. Each floor is packed with enemies, with some standing in rooms, others patrolling hallways, and some covering each other in groups. Some enemies are unarmed, but many of them have bludgeoning weapons or guns. If an enemy sees you, he will attack.

You will learn a very important lesson in the first few seconds of playing: enemies can kill you instantly. That guy with the baseball bat? If he sees you, he will run over and smash your face in. And if you run face-first at that guy with the shotgun? He will blast you into oblivion. Pretty much any mistake you make will leave you lying on the floor in a pool of your own blood.

Dying means that you’ll have to start the floor again from scratch, but like the games of old, death often teaches you something about how to survive your next attempt. Maybe you should try a silent kill instead of a gun blast to keep from alerting nearby enemies. Maybe you need to account for a window that an enemy could spot you through (or you may want to shoot through the window yourself). Maybe you need to hide for a few seconds and let a patrolling guard move past you.

Often, there are multiple ways to complete any given floor, particularly given that you can access many of the rooms in any order. That lets you take down a guy who may have a weapon you’ll need elsewhere, or to get yourself in position to commit a number of killings in a row for a huge combo bonus. Rampaging through a building and obliterating your foes quickly is key to racking up big points, and knowing how to get the jump on baddies and how they will react accounts for most of the game’s strategy.

A valuable tactic comes in kicking open a door with an enemy standing behind it. An enemy hit with a door will be momentarily stunned and will drop any weapon he is carrying (although you can also stun enemies by punching them or throwing weapons at them). From there, you can jump on top of him and finish him off silently. There are a number of context-sensitive kills depending on whether someone is knocked down on his face or his back, or leaning against a wall. Killing a prone enemy may mean bashing his head against the ground, gouging out his eyes, or kicking in his skull. If you're carrying a blade, you can even slice his throat. Leave a stunned enemy alone for too long, however, and he will get back up, either coming straight at you or going for his weapon. Severely injured enemies may even crawl along the bloodstained floor. It’s important to finish off stunned enemies before they regain the ability to fight back.

There are a number of other ways to take down an enemy, from various bats and pipes that can be used as bludgeoning weapons, knives and samurai swords that can be used to slice them open, and numerous guns. New weapon types are opened up as you reach specific score thresholds calculated at the end of each level. The fastest way to kill any enemy is with a gun, particularly with a nice up-close shotgun blast, which will send a satisfying spray of blood across the room. But firing a gun will alert nearby enemies who will run toward the direction of the sound. This can cause you to become overwhelmed, particularly if the investigating enemies are carrying guns of their own, and a pump-action shotgun only holds 6 shells.

But you can also use these enemy tactics to set up traps. Dashing into a room full of gun-toting bad guys is a sure recipe for failure, since you’re unlikely to kill them all before at least one of them gets off a shot, which will kill you instantly. However, if you fire a weapon in a nearby room, the guys will come running out, giving you the opportunity to take cover and potentially pick them off one at a time as they run into investigate.

Adding to the overall flavor of brutal violence is the level of detail in each of the environments. Locales tend to be rather seedy, with prevalent dirt and grime, trash strewn about all over the place, and dark underworld deeds taking place such as people being tortured, or a drugged out hooker lying in some back room.

Also, between each level, you’ll play through a short sequence that takes place in various locales, including a convenience store, a video rental place (with VHS tapes, since the game takes place in the late 80’s), and a bar. These areas are perhaps even more disturbing since they are “regular” places, but they still have a seedy feel, with people being sick in the bathroom and other such details. Even more strange is the fact that the operator of each establishment is the same guy, and he always gives you stuff for free.

Whether you’re in combat or moving through the between-level sequences, the presentation lends itself to a rather unsettling feeling. The warped viewpoint, garish colors and graphical highlights, and off-putting music give the entire experience a sense of surrealism. As you play, it’s unclear how much of what you’re seeing is due to the main character’s perception versus the reality of the world. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much of it is real, or whether the main character is mentally unbalanced or simply loves killing; this does not make his actions any less brutal.

Hotline Miami was developed by Dennaton Games, made up of developer Jonatan Söderström and artist Dennis Wedin. This was their first commercial release under the Dennaton label, although Jonatan has worked on a number of titles in the past under the Cactusquid label, which features numerous experimental freeware games with very short development periods (often a matter of hours or days). A collection of these games is available from the developer’s website under the title Cactus Arcade. Sound design was provided by Jordan Fehr, who also created sound effects for Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Snapshot, Shank 2, Krunch, and Incredipede.

Hotline Miami was published by Devolver Digital, who was also responsible for publishing Serious Sam 3: BFE and the Serious Sam Indie Series, including Vlambeer’s Serious Sam: The Random Encounter, Be-Rad Entertainment’s Serious Sam: Kamikaze Attack!, and Mommy’s Best Games’ Serious Sam: Double D and Serious Sam: Double D XXL. They are also the publisher for Luftrausers, Broforce, Foul Play, Luftrausers, Fork Parker's Holiday Profit Hike, Titan Souls, Not a Hero, Ronin, Downwell, Enter the Gungeon, Mother Russia Bleeds, The Swords of Ditto, and Minit, The Messenger, Crossing Souls, Gato Roboto, Katana ZERO, Carrion, GRIS, and Witcheye.