The aestheticization of violence has been a growing trend in entertainment media in the past few decades. People like Quentin Tarantino, Hideki Kamiya, Robert Rodriguez and others have built their careers on showing audiences the coolest ways to kill. It’s interesting then when something comes along that depicts excessive violence as grotesque and unnerving.
But Hotline Miami does just that, and beautifully I might add. Many small details in the game’s design contributed to my feelings of unease, tension, and disgust but somehow produced a really fun game as well. Levels have a strange sway to them that makes it feel like a bad acid trip. The sound design is amazing, with brutal sound effects and a wonderful electronic soundtrack that cuts to static at the end of each level to simulate the experience of “crashing” after an intense high or adrenaline rush.
The Psychotic ’80s Aesthetic Gives Hotline Miami a Unique Look
The fast-paced gameplay had a lot to do with my feelings of discomfort. In movies, television, and video games slow-motion is often used in violent scenes in order to show off how awesome a punch, sword slice, or gunshot wound looks. However, in real life violence is fast and disorienting, much like it’s depicted in Hotline Miami and, despite how I felt, this design choice makes the game better.
Most enemies can be killed in one or two hits, but so can you. Besides the ability to scan the area and don different animal masks for slight power ups, you’re extremely vulnerable. Standing behind a door or corner, waiting for the right moment to strike creates a tension that feels like you’re actually trying to kill several people on your own. Levels can be approached either stealthily or in a reckless run-and-gun style, and sometimes one is needed more than the other.
When You Get a Closer Look – It’s as Dark as You Would Expect
The storytelling aspect of Hotline Miami blends a minimalist approach with dialogue boxes and strange visuals to create a very surreal and disturbing experience. You play as a nameless hitman receiving phone calls that are either thinly-veiled jobs or the psychotic hallucinations of your own mind. It’s a very interesting tale that doesn’t spell everything out for the player but implies some extremely dark and horrible things are going on.
The game does have a few weak points. The enemy AI is pretty hit or miss, sometimes AI might not notice gunshots in the other room or might be able to kill the player through a door. I’ve also had characters fail to see me while scanning a room even though I was in plain sight. Luckily, these missteps are few and far between and I can honestly say that 99% of my time spent with the game was wonderful, albeit unnerving.
Promotional material for Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami made me kind of uncomfortable. The PC launch trailer specifically creeped me out because I realized just how sickening the game’s story would be in your usual live-action film setting. Hotline Miami’s isometric pixelated presentation distracts you from the gravity of what’s going on. The game may seem like it’s glorifying violence, with its focus on brutal finishing moves accentuated by a bright neon arcade-like score counter, but upon closer inspection it’s really showing just how terrible violence can be and how it affects people.