It’s tough to believe, but today marks the tenth anniversary of Hotline Miami’s release. Exploding in various shades of red onto the indie gaming scene back in 2012, it was revolutionary in almost too many ways to count. Today I’d like to do a deep dive into the title because there’s a lot to talk about with it. Even ignoring the monumental impact it had on the industry, it is an incredibly well-designed title in so many ways. Grab a raincoat, turn on the synthesizer, and join me as I asses Hotline Miami on its tenth birthday.
I think this goes without saying, but if you haven’t played it, I will be spoiling many elements of the game. Go play it. It regularly goes on sale, and it’s great.
A Drive to Create
2011 saw the release of the art house action movie Drive, which features a no-name getaway driver in a sweet scorpion jacket caught up in a criminal conspiracy. There’s bumping synthwave music, and the violence is fast but positively brutal. The movie’s whole aesthetic—throwback music, strong, stylish lighting, nasty violence—informed the mood of Hotline Miami. That’s straight from the developers, too; Nicolas Winding Refn gets a special thanks during the game’s credits.
The thing is that Hotline Miami is Drive if Drive suffered an overdose and took more cocaine to keep going. Where Drive is almost dreamlike in spots, even during its nastiest scenes, Hotline Miami is a fever dream. The game utilizes strong, garish colors for its environments, the camera flashes with the action, and there’s an extremely vague narrative going on in the background that players must piece together for themselves.
Additionally, Hotline Miami upped the gore in a way that would be almost alarming if it weren’t for the hyper-stylized visuals. Whereas Drive has only a few nasty scenes, every single level of Hotline Miami has a higher body count than most slasher films, and the actual violence is far more sadistic and brutal. Despite the fact that it uses pixelated graphics, it’s clear that a lot of time and attention went into making sure the death animations are as brutal as possible. If you slash a guy with a knife, he doesn’t just fall back into a pool of his own blood. He might grab at his throat and thrash around while his blood leaks out, or he might grab his intestines as they pour out of his stomach. It’s downright disgusting, but in a detached way that means you barely even notice until it’s all over.
Lastly, Hotline Miami took the synthwave conceits of Drive and cranked those up to eleven, too. Drive featured some wonderful but relaxing tracks from the likes of Electric Youth, College, and Desire, while Hotline Miami features a whole host of different songs from artists like El Huervo, Scattle, El Tigre, Perturbator, MOON, and so many more. We’ll get into what the game does with the synthwave genre as a whole in just a little bit.
Suffice it to say that Hotline Miami would have likely been a very different game without Drive.
Hurting Other People
The core gameplay of HM is extremely simple. You are a squishy man, but so are all of your opponents, and you must kill them all floor by floor in whatever building you happen to be in. Everyone in the game dies in one hit from anything; bullets, baseball bats, katanas, they can all kill a person in one hit in the HM universe. It harkens back to old-school action games like Contra in this way. In those titles, despite the fact that you’re a badass soldier, you die in one hit from anything, and if you have some spare lives you’ll respawn right where you died. If not, it’s game over.
I’m quite bad at games like this. I have played several of the Metal Slug titles, and the only reason I was able to beat them is because of modern concessions like infinite lives in the modern rereleases. They’re a lot of fun, but if I had been playing with a traditional lives system, I likely would have put them down since the prospect of having to perfectly replay a whole level I thought I had mastered isn’t super appealing to me.
Hotline Miami smartly sidesteps this pitfall by ditching lives and having each new section of a level serve as a checkpoint. When you die, you hit the R key and you’re instantly back at the beginning of whatever section you’re on. In a game with such a chaotic and relentless pace, this immediate restart helps mitigate frustration. My first time through, I must have died upwards of a dozen times per section per level (definitely more in the game’s extremely challenging sequel) before learning the optimum route, but the fact that restarting is so easy meant I would rarely get frustrated. In fact, knowing that restarting is so easy meant I would come back more determined than before.
It helps that the level design is honed to perfection in most instances. The game keeps track of player combos, and the window is rather small, which, when combined with the fast restarts, encourages reckless play. As evidenced from the second game, levels that are too big or have too many open paths for enemies to get to you could lead to a more frustrating experience, but in the first, the biggest levels are near the end, and by that point, the player is more keenly tuned in to its wavelength. Early levels are small and confined but have plenty of little things like windows that players can use to their advantage.
For a game whose sole objective is to kill everyone in a given floor, the care that went into ensuring that players have the tools they need to emerge victorious is rather staggering. Having messed around a bit with the level editor in the second game, I’ve come to truly appreciate how hard it is to create a level that feels tough but winnable. It’s a difficult balance, but it’s pulled off wonderfully.
A Blood-Drenched Tale
To say that the plot of the first Hotline Miami game is a bit of a puzzle is an understatement. Much like the vicious mobsters, you kill with reckless abandon, the story for HM requires work and ingenuity from the player. Here’s the basic premise, though: you play as an unnamed man that the fandom has lovingly started calling Jacket. Jacket receives mysterious phone calls telling him to go to different locations and do things like clean the bathroom (but not to go easy on the mop!). Somehow this translates to him murdering all of the Russian mobsters at each location, and a few levels in he discovers the mobsters were keeping a woman hostage by forcing drugs on her. Who she is and why she’s important to them is unknown, but Jacket takes pity on her and starts living with her at his apartment. But as the game goes on, she’s murdered by another person who has seemingly been getting the same types of mysterious phone calls and also wears a rubber animal mask like Jacket does when he murders. The final act of the game is a supposed quest for revenge, but the game itself calls into question whether or not he murders the right people, or if these violent actions mean anything.
The thing about the narrative is that, like other elements of the title, it is merely one part of the whole. There is a lot left unsaid, even after finding the secret ending where it’s explained that the people making phone calls are an organization called 50 Blessings. They use people with violent, problematic backgrounds to carry out slaughters that will upset the foreign relations between America and Russia. In the context of the first game, this information raises more questions than it answers, but I would argue that it ultimately doesn’t matter until you play the sequel, which takes a more literal but no less confusing approach to the narrative.
To me, the story of the first game is more about Jacket, which is strange considering that he doesn’t utter a single word in either title. Between levels, players can see his apartment and the various changes it goes through. In the beginning, it’s messy, but once he starts living with the woman he saves early on, it becomes a little cleaner and more organized. Then, after she’s been killed, it’s a crime scene filled with gore and refuse thrown everywhere. It seems rather obvious, but it reflects whatever is happening in Jacket’s mind at the time, and it’s an effective way to tell the player a little about him without actually saying anything.
Meanwhile, there are various interludes where Jacket hallucinates that he’s in a dimly lit room with people wearing animal masks. Each one asks him cryptic questions or berates him in some way, and to me, that tells us that Jacket knows what he’s doing is indulging in his own worst tendencies. The phone calls are merely an excuse. In the first game, he is very much like the Driver; he has no name, and no past to speak of, but we know he’s capable of horrific violence in the right circumstances. The second game actually gives him a very clear back story (he’s a war veteran) but in the first, the player is left to decide why he’s so damaged and capable of so much carnage.
And the ultimate message of the game is extremely simple, but told brilliantly through its mechanics and atmosphere—violence creates more violence, and the only end is when all that you hate is dead. Jacket does claim victory against the local chapter of the Russian mob, killing their patriarch with a point-blank shot to the head, and the ending of Jacket’s story in this first title is him lighting up a cigarette, looking at a picture of the woman he saved, and letting it drift off into the wind. It’s a quiet, reflective moment and it’s pulled off beautifully.
This is all my personal interpretation of course. In a lesser title, the deliberate opaqueness of the story could come across as pretentious or frustrating, but it meshes well with the presentation of the game and its violence. Speaking of, there’s an even more important element of the game we haven’t talked about yet…
Music to Murder to
Hotline Miami is arguably more responsible for the thriving synthwave scene today than Drive. People know the music from the games without even knowing that they know it’s from a video game. It’s a thing of beauty, really, as between the two titles, this series has probably the best use of licensed music I’ve ever seen. Each level has its own track, and the sheer variety of music is staggering. I could go on and on listing the wonderful music each game has, but I think the specific music is less important than the impact it has on the game.
As previously mentioned, Hotline Miami is a fast-paced, relentless title. It has challenging gameplay that demands fast reaction and improvisation from the player, and in so many ways, the synthwave/ electronic genre was the absolute perfect choice for this play style. Electronic music in general is inherently repetitive, almost primal in a way, which is ironic considering it’s still a relatively young genre and wasn’t possible until just a few decades ago. In terms of hardware required to make it, it’s about as modern as it gets, but it taps into a very basic part of our brains.
I’ve been to a few synthwave shows now, and the best adjective I can use to describe it is hypnotic. It’s easy to mosh to, but looking around the crowd, I saw a lot of people just dancing in no particular style. They were simply letting the music wash over them, and letting their bodies go where the music took them. It sounds artsy fartsy, and in a way it is, but of all the live music I’ve seen in my life, the synth shows were the only ones where it felt like I was experiencing something more than just a musical show.
Why am I prattling on about this genre? Because it was the absolute perfect choice for what Hotline Miami wanted to achieve. There came a point in my replays of the game where I stopped caring about dying. I had played through it so many times that I knew the levels really well, and abandoning that final fear of dying is, ironically, what led to me getting A ranks on all the levels. See, the music hypnotizes the player. It’s all high-energy stuff, and that puts them in the moment. The repetitive but driving nature of the music puts them in an aggressive mindset, and in that pursuit of a high score, the player is entirely in the moment in a way I’ve rarely experienced in gaming. The music is absolutely perfect for sucking the player in.
The Magic Behind the Blood
It’s not just the music, though. No, every single element of the game comes together to deliver a message about violence, fictional violence, and the player’s relationship with it. Ever since their inception, video games, more so than other media, have embraced violence on some level. Even family-friendly games like the original Legend of Zelda are violent. In that game, you use a sword to cut down enemies. It’s far less graphic than in something like Hotline Miami, but functionally it’s the same thing. This is largely due to the programming limitations of the era in which video games found their foothold; it’s relatively simple to program an enemy to die compared to simulating a real human conversation. Hotline Miami is entirely aware of this and challenges the player every step of the way.
For instance, the sound design when bashing an enemy’s head in sounds kind of like a watermelon exploding, and it’s immensely satisfying. I am fully aware of how psychotic that makes me sound. Describing what you’re doing (taking a living man’s head in your hands and bashing it into the ground until the grey matter that makes up his entire being spills out) is an exercise in borderline sadism, but the game makes it simple and satisfying with its sound design. Additionally: it’s not real. I’m not actually killing anybody when I play Hotline Miami. No, I’m chasing a high score, playing more recklessly than I have in the past, and trying to improve my reflexes so I can more efficiently be a better fictional killer.
The scoring system, where you only have a few seconds after a kill to build your combo, combines with the music beautifully, and the greatest trick it pulls is showing the player just how intoxicating (simulated) violence can be. Jacket, as a character, has a higher body count than most slasher villains, and yet we are with him every step of the way. When I’m chasing a high score, I’m reveling in the violence just as much as he is, if not more so because, for me, the violence has no real-world consequences. For him, he is so far gone that by the end of the game the only way he knows to express himself is through gruesome, bloody vengeance, and the game itself tells him, and the player, that it won’t mean anything. For Jacket, it’s because his love is already gone. The woman he fell for was taken from him and taken violently. For the player, it’s a bit more complicated.
That’s because of the way the game ends levels. Once the last bad guy is dead, everything stops. There’s no more score counter, no more music, just Jacket, the player, and the mountain of bodies you’ve both made. Smartly, the game forces players to walk back through the whole level to the entrance, and the bodies of those they’ve slaughtered don’t go away. It offers the player the chance to reflect on what the game is doing, and the message it’s sending. It says, “There, the level’s over. Everyone is dead. Now take a good look at it. See everything you’ve done and accomplished. Was it worth it for some cheap thrills?”
This is why I love gaming. Hotline Miami is not a story that could be told in a passive medium, although it takes more than a little inspiration from the slasher films of yesteryear. In many ways, it’s a game about the horrors of violence as much as it is about getting a high combo to increase your score. By the end, Jacket has lost everything, including his reason for living, which was revenge. It’s extremely honest about its message: yes, we enjoy the simulation of hurting other people. The game’s about three hours long and according to Steam, I’ve sunk over 30 into it. I wouldn’t have played it so many times if I didn’t enjoy it.
And that’s why I consider it to ultimately belong to the horror genre. Even ignoring its more overtly creepy scenes (the aforementioned hallucinations spring to mind) it flips the narrative onto the player directly and reveals a horribly uncomfortable truth about them. They have violent impulses and simply choose not to act on them. Hotline Miami is just one of many games to let the player indulge in a violent power fantasy. It’s just far more introspective about it than most.
It’s tough to say for sure exactly how big of an impact Hotline Miami had on the gaming industry, but according to a quick Google search, the game moved over a hundred thousand units just a few weeks after it dropped. Since then, it’s skyrocketed and it affected gaming as a whole. For one, it basically put now-infamous publisher Devolver Digital on the map. I can remember that at the time of release, they only had a few games on their steam page, but now they’re one of the industry’s most prolific purveyors of weird, offbeat titles.
Additionally, it was one of many factors responsible for the current wave of ’80s nostalgia we are still in the middle of. When it was released, though, that felt a lot more novel and fun than it does now. These days, to me, it’s played out unless executed in a way that barely references the decade. It also helped realize that synthwave is an absolutely incredible and versatile genre, and fans of it are now spoiled for choices. I myself count several acts like Carpenter Brut among my all-time favorites, and I discovered a variety of the artists I love through this series.
Lastly, there are, to this day, games that ape the neon-soaked violence of Hotline Miami, and many of them are in Devolver’s catalogue. Games as awesome as Katana Zero or Mother Russia Bleeds wouldn’t exist as we currently know them without the influence of Hotline Miami.
A lot has happened in the past decade since Hotline Miami first dropped, and I feel rather bittersweet about its tenth anniversary. I was in a much, much different place in my life ten years ago than I am now, but my love for the series hasn’t waned a bit. This first entry was one of my favorite games of the 2010s, and even now, typing this all up, I feel the urge to load it and hurt a bunch of pixelated people badly. It changed the way I view games by showing me how every facet of a game can feed into a single thesis statement that’s simply when stated plainly but endlessly complex when you try and pick it apart. It’s absolutely an example of how video games can be even more artistically enriching to experience than movies or books.
For a game made by two Swedish people because they liked the movie Drive, I find the impact of the game and its legacy staggering. I deliberately avoided talking too much about the second game because it, too, will turn ten in a few years, and I wanted to focus primarily on this first game, which is among the most smartly designed, fine-tuned, gruesome, hypnotic, disturbing, and amazing that I’ve ever played.
Happy tenth, Hotline Miami.