Dead Letters: Hotline Miami
Everyone knows about you. Everyone knows about what you’ve done. They know about how you work and how you live and how you exist in that particular way which you, through your gore masked among pixels and filters, become damn popular while escaping any damnation from those who would rather you not exist. You come from an independent world backed up by big – business publishers, being so primitive in your construction and yet so certain in your æsthetics that it brings a special type of easily – marketable mass appeal, where normie gamers can find it because it’s easily – available, and the hardcore sorts can appreciate it for being something they’ve never seen before.
I know about you, my friends know about you, and even some strangers know about you. You’re the type of title that one can play for two hours several years ago and still be stuck in some crevice of the cast – iron skillet that is our consciousness. Indeed, I have been trying to dig you out, so I can recall best your ’80s fetish, your mask leitmotif, your appreciable ultra – violence, and even some portion of the gameplay. For though we found you a typically “hard” game, I lost track of the fine details, as easy as they are to forget under the rest of your arts.
How you did all that back in the waning evening of 2012, before pink and blue became the colours of a particular type of zeitgeist that browsed Net Art and listened to vapourwave, who now appreciate future funk and even Future the rapper, and who saw this trend of absurd non – sequiturs with the Roman busts and virtual malls and the Seinfeld appropriation, is something I hope games like you will replicate in the early morning of 2018. 2012 was the latest year we could ever say the Internet was “just for fun”, and yet around that time, we made the Internet fun again.
The way you are, Hotline Miami, is a result of the time you came out of. If you were released in 2009, you would have been seen as too alien for publication, like a bad Flash game, and with gameplay as fair and balanced as one. If you swapped places with your sequel in 2015, you would have seen your culture leave you, where nu – disco gave way to lo – fi hiphop, where we swapped out our neon pinks for business casual darks, and where Nazism was something to forget about rather than debate. We were just ignorant enough, just carefree enough, back in that brief, glimmering period of time from 2011 to 2015 where we forgot about how fundamentally fucked – up our world is, that we could enjoy games like you, not just as a novelty of a time now gone, but as something to enjoy on its own.
You were part of an era where crime became cool again, where the Payday and Saints Row series felt wildly original rather than being old hat, and where we could enjoy video game hedonism such as sex, drugs, and killing everyone you meet. Now all of that is passé, with the canning of a game like Hatred showing that 2015 was coming up to be a more sensitive, refined year, for a more sophisticated era, and where the only games that could get away with such gruesome violence are those who have done it since their inception. You would not see the Hotline Miami 2 rape scene if it was published today.
Your sequel was released as late as it could have been and still be considered tasteful. When you have your back against the wall as culture closes in on you, knowing that you are on your way out as a relic of the past — like classical walking simulators so often derided, or the novelty visual novel where you date a bird, a horse, or a fidget spinner — , then all you can do is do what you have always done, but this time do it the best you possibly can. Eminem did that with the Marshall Mathers LP 2. The Phantom Pain is sure to be the last true Metal Gear in a now – zombified franchise. And Hotline Miami 2, like those titles, was the last cheer for a culture that will take a long, long time to get out of its new niche status, and become a sign of the times yet again.
But how well you did affect our culture; the style the outrun genre adopts is thanks to your reformation of it, where the tenets of ultraviolence, a neon motif, and retro – futurist 1980s revisionism contrasts with the vapourwave outfit of ironic passive – aggressiveness and satirising the fetishisation of a time that never was. You, however were sincere in your depictions, where although the ’80s are a nice place to visit you wouldn’t want to live there, you were clear that there was some value in being nostalgic for this time.
It’s funny. The video game before me is unremarkable in its gameplay, which is best described as hellishly inconsistent, being a series of petty frustrations that add together, in the micro space and time you have in order to clear through the short, too – easy levels, to make a game that you only want to play once. I have replayed you recently, bought from GOG and requiring 32 – bit Linux libraries to run, and I feel that it will be a long time before I want to play you again.
You are so simple in your construction that anybody can make a clone of you in a few weeks. Indeed, people have; fangames are out there, mods are out there, and even a few mashups, like Superhot and you. This simplicity should lead to gameplay as satisfying as creening a baseball off the middle of your bat; it instead leads to a constant string of niggles that you are forced to ignore — but can never really — in order to enjoy how ultimately inconsequential the gameplay is. You die, you live again. Little tact is needed as long as you have corners. And the weapons, as varied as they are, do essentially the same thing. In particular, the firearms miss when you need them least to.
Your story, too, is a mess. It is retold better on Wikipedia, where its clinical structure is made more obvious than the game ever does. A simple setup, being prank callers blackmailing people into committing mass – murder, devolves swiftly into a nationalist Statesian conspiracy called “Seven Blessings” which involves destroying the Russian mafia in order to drag out the Cold War. And why? You have never properly explained, and in your sequel which adds in so many plot points that are never resolved, the ending involves dropping rocks on everyone and having them die. It did, as Zero Punctuation said, made me very full and very disappointed. But not in myself.
And not to make this a gripe letter, of course. I feel, though, that you are notable less because of your scattered themes and ideas, and less because of the retro brutality that you can find dating back to the earliest notions of video game history. Everything you say and do is found elsewhere. Each individual motif has already been done before, and has been done since. I am asserting, for the year 2018, that you are notable because you have blinded us with style at a time where we barely even knew the style existed. And having stolen this style, you ran with it, and ran as far and as fast as you could take it, before we all found it to be — as trends go — to be too stale for the delicate sensibilities that those of us from the future were waiting for you to come offend us with.
This seems to be the nature of you, Hotline Miami. You are not bad, and your popularity is not undeserved. But you have come out at the only time that you could have and become the game you are today. When Mass Effect ended, it was the end of that era. When Human Revolution came, it was the start of our previous era. And when Hotline Miami 2 came, with Undertale just a month later? It was the final goodbye for the culture you, for your part, almost single – handedly created.
In a week, it is 2018. We are past the age of smarm and sleaze, and into the age of sincerity. The Beginner’s Guide, Night in the Woods, and Cuphead are the showpieces for the noontime luncheon we can now feast on for this particular zeitgeist, where games appeal less and less to our base titillations, and more and more towards honesty, realism, and reflecting art to match reality, instead of making art a parody of its possibilities. It is a sign of our times that such games, free from corporate horrors, can exist as appreciable forms. And though Hotline Miami is its own horror, in all that you show and all that you try to be, we still remain in your debt.
It’s funny. When the world is pure, the art is evil, and when the world is evil, the art is pure. Perhaps we should stop relying on the world to guide us. It is, after all, hellishly inconsistent.