Written for February’s Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance.
When Hotline Miami slammed open the front door about six months ago, the touchstone that reviewers and commentators reached for almost unanimously was Pulp Fiction. The whole feel of the game echoed – intentionally – a specific, and typically lurid and amoral, cinematic tradition of which Tarantino’s film is the iconic example.
It’s a long long time since I last saw Pulp Fiction – well over a decade. I can’t remember much of the detail (something do with a samurai sword and Uma Thurman’s nails?). However, one moment stands out in my memory of the film: John Travolta’s character, Vincent, opens the bathroom door and is gunned down in an instant while the film moves on, following Bruce Willis’s story, with barely any acknowledgement of the death of a central protagonist.
Hotline Miami traps us in that moment. Looping it repeatedly until the deaths of enemies and the deaths of the player character appear indistinguishable. In fact, in most respects the deaths of the player and the enemies are indistinguishable. There is nothing to suggest that there is any more or less meaning given to the player character’s death as compared with that of a bald headed enemy: there is no death scene, no last words or gloating enemy, we don’t even get Dark Souls’ emphatic YOU DIED screen. It is only from our vantage point as an external player that there is any meaningful difference – if the player character dies it necessitates a restart, if the enemy dies, it doesn’t. Any disclosed meaning attaching to the player’s death is pulled as far back from the diegetic plane as possible.
In my memory of Tarantino’s film, he achieves something similar. By chronologically shuffling his narrative Tarantino brings Vincent back to life to continue and complete his story arc. The event, Vincent’s sudden and violent death, that should have been the completion of his story within the fiction is reduced to nothing more than a momentary blip and becomes a punctuation that is only meaningful from our perspective as an external viewer. In a rather prescient act, Tarantino turns it into what I now recognise as a videogame death – a death that simply marks Bruce Willis’s progress from one objective to the next. Or – turning it around – a death that simply means a respawn for Vincent.
Hotline Miami, in turn, picks up the baton from Tarantino’s film, making Vincent’s death into the starting theme for the looping variations of its game mechanics. Variations that include walking through a door and, without hesitation, beating a stranger to death with a crow bar, turning too slowly and being shot in the face or mauled without warning, waiting around a corner to knife someone the instant they come into view. The list is endless.
The game’s narrative addresses the acts of violence to some extent in quasi-therapeutic sessions with a group of masked interrogators. However, I haven’t really been paying too much attention to that thread. Hotline Miami is the kind of ultra-tough (for me) videogame that I can only play in short, sporadic doses so the wider narrative has fallen away to some extent. I am also still not even half-way through. For me, the meaning is in the mechanics.
Hotline Miami is unquestionably a very violent game. However, compared with many other games, that violence is, in a sense, experienced very indirectly. In contrast to, for example, the killcams in Fallout 3 – with their slo-mo disintegration – or trading bullets in Modern Warfare, in Hotline Miami the violent act happens almost subliminally fast. Instead of being a game that lets you splash around in death animations, targeting specific limbs to sever and organs to puncture, the overwhelming experience of the game, for me at least, is in the preparation for and aftermath of violence.
What is the effect of this change of focus? Emotionally, a traditional shooter, particularly FPS, trades on a certain satisfaction and vindication from the act of clicking on targets and seeing them go down, a certain power fantasy. Like other modern games, Hotline Miami subverts this emotional narrative. However, while other games try to subvert this at a narrative level by introducing guilt after the fact – “Look what you’ve done!”, Hotline Miami is unusual in (also) subverting it in the detailed texture of its interactive mechanics. The subliminally fast nature of each kill, whether on enemy or player, prevents the player from sucking much nourishment out of the moment to moment killing and instead diverts the player’s emotional engagement into the spaces around that kill.
In a sense this is an extension of Thief-like stealth mechanics, where waiting in the shadows, reading the level and preparing to act are the meat of the game. However, in Thief a skilled player is more often than not hoping to act with the minimum interaction, hoping to slip between the gaps in patrol paths with as little meaningful impact on the games systems as possible*. Hotline Miami denies the player that possibility. Slipping between guards and up the stairs is not an option because those stairs will only become passable once every single enemy is dead.
So not only does Hotline Miami undermine the power fantasy of the traditional FPS shooter it also undermines the power fantasy of the stealth game – the fantasy of Gyges’ ring which renders the wearer invisible thereby giving them power over others. In Hotline Miami you have to come out of your corner, become visible, approach the enemy and, in a split second, either kill or be killed. It is this moment of exposure and hurried violence that feels so real.
I am lucky and it is a long time since I have been either party to or witness to violent behaviour. However, working, and for many years living, in central London, the aftermath of violence is not unfamiliar – the broken cycle and red blanket in the middle of the road or the broad slick of blood stretching across the pavement at a night-time bus-stop. Encountering these horrible tableaux, the contrast with videogames is immediately apparent: that cyclist had not been ducking in and out behind a chest-high wall for ten minutes; the motorist who killed him had not been waiting in cover, chipping away at his hit points; in fact, she looked utterly devastated and in shock. Whoever had bled out across our bus-stop had not, I am quite sure, scurried off to find a health pack before coming back to trade further stabs with their attacker. If they were lucky, someone got them to a hospital.
Real violence, serious violence is not slow. It is not a case of give and take, tit for tat. It is not a case of hiding for two minutes until you can carry on. It is also not particularly difficult: get a sharp knife from your kitchen drawer, stick it in someone; swerve onto the pavement, hit some children; push someone in front of a train. Any one of us could kill someone today if we wanted to and didn’t care about the consequences – it’s a sobering thought. Real violence is radically different, on a mechanical level, from the ‘violence’ we are used to experiencing in videogames. It is also radically different from the way violence is traditionally depicted in a lot of other media: to take an extreme example, at the climax of Wagner’s Ring Siegfried sings for three and half minutes with a spear through his lung; Brunhilde then sings for more than twice that – in one of opera’s greatest ever scenes – while burning to death.
I find that Hotline Miami, and Pulp Fiction before it, go much further towards capturing a more authentic reflection of the mechanics of violence than is traditional in either medium. The momentariness of Vincent’s death, intentionally desaturated of meaning, speaks to me about the casualness and suddenness with which you can carry out or suffer a violent act.
Hotline Miami uses the unique interactivity of videogames to take this theme in a direction specific to the medium, building a reflection of and commentary on violence into the very mechanics of the game. This experience, the breathlessness of waiting, the reflex-twitch of killing, the disruptive ejection from the game when, without warning, it is suddenly you who is just another dead body, cuts closer to what I imagine to be the real dynamics of violence than any number of high profile shooters. The game goes further than any other game I have played recently towards capturing the immediacy, irrevocability and ease of violence and reflecting that reality, albeit through a heavily stylised mirror, in the core of my interactive gaming experience.
*Read this brilliant article by John Brindle about attitudes to ghosting in immersive sims.