I should feel worse about all this. I've sliced throats with broken bottles, beaten in heads with golfclubs, and cut through all sorts of blood, guts and tissue to eviscerate fat guys with a shotgun. I've murdered dogs, and gouged out eyeballs. I've thrown knives through windows and sprayed a sprinkler of hot lead into rooms full of goons.
I've killed so very, very many people.
Hotline Miami is a 2D top-down whirlwind of violence that is soaked to its core in 80s nostalgia. The whole screen literally pulses with synth pop and lurid neon, and you kill kill kill until there's nothing left to do but wander back to your car and head on home. Every level is a puzzle whose solution is bringing deadly silence to everyone you encounter.
Hotline Miami would have the Daily Mail running to press with eager fingers and desperate hyperbole, if they were the sort to pay attention to esoteric Swedish indie games. It sits with Rockstar Games' Manhunt as one of the very few games that actually deserves the title 'murder simulator'. Sure the goons have guns, baseball bats or pipes, but they don't deserve this.
In their own way, each level starts off relatively pleasantly; the dudes with guns are going about their business. Some are reading papers. A few are chatting in the toilets and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally, they might pet their dogs. They're clearly enemies, and they clearly need to be killed, but it's only on the entrance of a grey car that pulls up outside, before a man steps out and puts on a rubber animal mask, that the status quo is disturbed.
I emphasise all this not because I feel bad about all the people I've killed. Nor because I think Hotline Miami teaches you anything about the nature of games, and the role we play in them, beyond a half-hearted question thrown out: Do you like hurting people?
No, Hotline Miami, I don't like hurting people. But I do like playing you.
What the game does do is an awfully good job of desensitising you to the violence, losing you in a heavy fog of saturated lights and pulsing synths. It's marinated in the violence to the extent that it is all but meaningless. It's also hard. When a single bullet or swing of a bat can kill either you or your enemies, the slightest misstep can leave you as just another corpse on the ground. You're going to be restarting it over and over again, and that makes each kill even less of a life, and even more of a construct.
But occasionally the fugue lifts and you can't help but wince. Downed enemies have to be finished off, otherwise they'll get back up, and every single finisher eschews efficiency in favour of brutality. Mount one with a baseball bat in your hands and you'll be forced to keep pounding the mouse button as you smash his brains out. If you do the same with a bottle then Hotline Miami's player character will smash the end off before gouging his victim's throat. This is all pixelated brutality, but it's perhaps the most unpleasantly violent collection of scenes a game has shown me.
Peel off the viscera and you're left with the rest or, the actual game of Hotline Miami. As much as this looks like a shmup, both in how it handles and how it appears, this is a puzzle game through and through, one emphasising muscle memory and dexterity more than anything else. You're only safe so long as you know what you're going to be doing, and while Hotline Miami's enemies are wonderfully predictable that's only after you've learnt what they're going to do.
What sounds like a contradiction actually leans heavily on the way the game plays out. Every time you die you hit R to restart that section of the level, and it's through this that you're constantly refining your kill lines, almost like learning a track in a racing game. There will be slight deviations, but once you figure out what you're going to do the focus of the game is on refining it.
And it's here that Hotline Miami transcends that immediate impression of an unpleasant murder simulator. You can only be shocked so many times by the brutality of it all, and once you sink deep into the guts of the game, constantly refreshing and restarting every single part of it, you hit that zen-like trance that the best mechanical games always create. Hotline Miami is Super Meat Boy, it's Geometry Wars, it's Trials HD; it's five seconds of action that you can lose yourself in for five hours.
Every level is scored, presenting you with a grade, and higher scores unlock more weapons to be found in each level, along with different animal masks to slip on before the violence begins. It provides a little more of an incentive to revisit levels beyond just trying to improve your score, but after spending so much time blasting through each of them, the thought of going back feels more than a little exhausting right now. For the moment, I'm tired of all the killing.
There are niggles, but they're only ever mild frustrations. When everything is always so close to failure, the slightest hiccup can leave you bleeding on the floor, and occasionally the controls will fail you. If this happens against the last enemy, that might set you back twenty minutes, desperately trying to recreate that one perfect run, and that can grate a little. But Hotline Miami is a fair game, as much as it is hard, and you always know why you're dead, even if it was a fickle turn of the controls.
After hours of assault, the finale of Hotline Miami gives you an opportunity to find out why so very many people are being murdered in quite so brutal a fashion. The explanation serves as a mirror to the player, presenting you with the question of why you're enjoying it, and whether you do genuinely like to hurt people.
As for the answer? I don't really have one, and that alone makes me more than a little uncomfortable.
Version Tested: PC