Hotline Miami is a simple game. It is hard to describe, though. On the surface it’s simple – “you go into a house and kill everybody.”
Trying to convey what makes it interesting in a comment or two to a wondering friend or colleague has proven frustrating. “I love this game!” “This is the year’s second best game, right after The Walking Dead.” “It’s an acid-dripping trippy take on GTA One and Two, oozing style and atmosphere.” “It’s weird, it keeps you guessing.” “It’s super hard. I died 510 times in my initial session.” “It was made in Game Maker by just one guy, and another on the art.” “It’s got the best soundtrack since anything (well maybe Super Hexagon).”
All of that is accurate. Little of it matters.
I only saw the release trailer after playing the game. It’s a great trailer – it captures the mood of the game and shows what it’s about, but doesn’t actually show you what it’s like.
Hotline Miami is a game set in Florida in 1989. It depicts you as a Mafia hitman. You’re called to go on sites to kill everybody in the address you’re given. The addresses only ever contain white-clad Mafia thugs. You don a plastic animal mask to hide your identity. Shot in a top-down, retro pixel style with blaring colors, you use any weapons you can find to kill everything that moves. Once the last body falls, the super stylish, action pumping music stops and you retrace your steps back to your car, a DeLorean. Sometimes you get lost in the carnage, the hallways now awash with crimson gore.
Often you can’t quite tell how you succeeded in single-handedly taking out some twenty armed guys, sometimes just with your bare fists and any thrown items you came across. The action flows so fast and frantic, the best-laid plans thrown out the window the instant the first door is kicked in. Typically you die dozens of times before nailing a mission. It’s not a shooter, it’s a reaction puzzle. It’s an unforgiving gauntlet, with the tiniest mistake killing you and restarting you at the start of the floor you’re in, time elapsed between attempts typically counted in seconds in the single digits.
This alone would make Hotline Miami an interesting title, albeit a small, limited scope curiosity. It’s elevated by a harsh, feverish narrative that pulls no punches. You don’t know who you are or what the hell you’re doing, yet you’re killing everybody the voices on the phone tell you to. Or are you? Other characters fade in and out of your life. The reality of entire locations is suspect.
That it’s all then wrapped in the drug-addled, bass-pumping, sun-bleached Miami of the late 80s, the image zooming and panning and tilting to reflect the skewed world it’s depicting, makes it a triumph. Hotline Miami is a rare, perfect union of style and substance, form and function. Nothing in this game is out of place and everything is necessary. If you removed any component, it wouldn’t work anymore. It’s perfect the way it is. I wouldn’t even remove the bugs or the somewhat suspiciously designed boss and stealth sections.
When you come to the end and the narrative has crashed you into a wall repeatedly, leaving you dazed and confused, you’ll likely feel an equal mix of satisfaction of a job well done, of vengeance unleashed, of closure, and an uneasy feeling that you’ve barely begun. The initially confusing branching narrative with its non-linear paradoxes comes together on reflection. It makes you value and question your role as a consumer of violent entertainment in a way Call Of Duty never will – nor can. Between its hypnotic, gory orgies of satisfying carnage, it gives you room to think. More than that, it makes you think. It’s an important game.