VIDEO CONTAINS SPOILERS.
User Request: Review of Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami was made by Jonathan Soderstrom with art by Dennis Wedin that was made in Game Maker. A two man team, chunky pixels visuals and an eclectic mix tape of a sound track gives it all the ear marks of an indie game.
This isn’t exactly a good thing, but it’s not bad. It’s always nice though when a developer cares so much about their game experienced that they willingly patch pirated versions of their game just so people can enjoy it.
If there’s one thing everyone seems to like about Hotline Miami it’s the music. As I previously described it’s something like a mix tape, which I guess is an appropriate for a game based in the 80’s. The soundtrack features several artists whose tunes all have a distinct sound that fit perfectly for the games setting. Just stop and look out your window.
Regan’s not in office anymore. The Berlin wall came down. The Soviet threat has crumbled and the second Cold War is coming to an end. The threat lives on only in the paranoid and the future is being driven by patriotic consumerism. Party until only the neon lights aren’t bleeding together and call in sick to work when you’re so far out of your head you can’t remember what happen.
If it wasn’t clear, the music sets the mood right and the high energy and ambient pieces fit the mood of most levels. The only time I found myself sick of a song was when I spent longer than I would have liked in a level.
Hotline Miami is an indie game and as a result utilizes a “retro” look that lots of indie developers seem so keen to use. Its use is aided by the period setting so it becomes more appropriate and less of a throw back or cop out. One thing that kept me from fully accepting this art style was the character portraits. A number of the portraits feel crude and strangely drawn not out of choice or style but compared to the masks which aim for a level of realism. A few of the more important characters in the game even bear similarities between portraits, likely a result of a little corner cutting.
If we consider even in old games character portraits usually went one of a few ways; realistic renderings with limited color palettes or strong graphic styles that seem actualized and distinct. I don’t get either of those from the character portraits of Hotline Miami.
Gameplay and Story
I need to talk about these two together. Hotline Miami does something that indie developers like to do in that it tries to create a game experience where not just the story is symbolic but the game play is as well. It leaves space for interpretation and doesn’t give you answers… or at least it’s more satisfying when it doesn’t. So as I evaluate the story I’ll evaluate the gameplay as well.
Hotline Miami reminds me a good bit of the old Grand Theft Auto games not just in its visuals but for its top down camera and violence driven gameplay. The first large segment of the game you play as a blond unnamed young man that most fans refer to as Jacket. For maybe last quarter of the game you play as another unnamed character that fans have taken to calling Helmet. Unlike Jacket who wears animal masks, he only wears his Motorbike Helmet.
As either one the player fights their way through a crowded building full of thugs, usually trying to find someone at the end of the carnage that they’re supposed to kill. The game’s dynamic relies heavily on trial and error which can get annoyingly repetitive but is something of a problem since a good system dynamic’s challenge will be closely related to the player’s developing skill. While one of the characters has abilities that lessen this,
there’s still a few curveballs such as enemy AI that occasionally acts weird or unreliably ignores or becomes alert. There’s also two segments in the game that disrupt the game’s flow but I’ll touch more on that in a bit since it is part of the experience which relates to the story.
Jacket and Helmet differ in their methods and motives. The game design was successful in that as I played as them I could feel myself thinking like them. As Jacket I used any and everything I could get my hands on to brutally maim and slaughter the people in my way. Why? Because someone on the phone told him to. As Jacket, that’s all the motivation you need.
The two segments I previously mentioned that cause some trouble are experienced as Jacket. During one hit a seemingly infinite number of SWAT officers storm the building with automatic weapons, body armor and an aggressive AI that’s even looser then one of the unusual mobsters. This effectively forces the player into a stealth situation with little introduction and makes it even worse when the trial and error dynamic hits you like a shuriken to the face. I managed to get through that segment after a few deaths, by smacking a few cops onto their backs and sprinting for the exit.
If you didn’t find that troublesome, then maybe you won’t be annoyed when you do it again with tighter enemy AI who have wide vision cones, while you have no weapons and the inability to go too far without nursing your head wound. The hospital segment and this stealth mechanic is horribly implemented and can go from annoying to tedious.
Unfortunately I think it was an intentional choice by Soderstrom. It seems that this is a change in narrative, temporarily neutering Jacket and by association chastising the player for going on the murderous rampage. It’s a bit of a wash though since Jacket goes back to normal once he gets to his apartment and this possible development seems to be forgotten.
I appreciate this brave thinking of using the gameplay to create a certain mindset for the narrative, but I think there’s a problem when doing this purposely preys on something that’s not been taught and can kill the player’s interest. Whether it’s a series of gut wrenching trials or a despicable protagonist, the audience still has to maintain the interest of seeing it through. I don’t think the game did this and I only pushed through that level because I didn’t want to make this review unless I beat the game.
As Helmet though I found myself much more at home and closer to who I normally am.
Let me just say by the way Helmet is a pretty cool guy, he’s technologically savvy, probably does some dee-jaying and is all around kind of sharp. Helmet gets the same anonymous threatening phone calls, but he doesn’t take someone’s orders. Instead he looks for who’s threatening him.
As Helmet the player cannot wear masks that give him abilities or use other weapons. He only uses a heavy cleaver and a set number of those can be thrown. Playing as Helmet were the finger snaps that brought me back to my senses after playing as Jacket. Without the masks the game can get harder but ideally the time playing up until now has honed your abilities to work with the limitations.
Soderstrom does something strange in telling the story of our heroes. He not only overlaps them but makes them contradictory. It calls into question whether it’s all an abstract matter focused on style and purposely open for interpretation or if one of the two was working his way through some sort of delusion. For the most part it seems Helmet is the real hero of the game.
In Jacket’s story the interludes take on bizarre imagery. Three figures in masks speak to him in riddles, clerks and merchants witht he same face seem to know him and give him things for free. Eventually he begins to see corpses at his usual haunts and things culminate with him getting shot in the head, apparently alleviating him of these haunting visions.
So if Jacket isn’t a reliable narrator and his story contradicts with Helmet’s, why do we care? Was it real before he gets shot in the head? Was it real after he wakes up in the hospital? With Helmet’s story giving an actual explanation it seems to devalue Jacket’s narrative and makes him feel an after thought to Helmet’s grounded view of 1989 Miami.
Jacket is an obvious homage to Ryan Gosling’s character of the Driver from Drive.
Similar setting, similar sense of style and both seem to don masks to transform their blank demeanor as they slip deeper into brutality. With the matter of contradicting story and blatant throwback I can’t help but feel that Jacket was an afterthought to Helmet.
It leaves me with questions and not in a good way. As previously mentioned Helmet’s ending quite plainly states that it’s all an effort by two characters, who feel suspiciously like self-inserts of Soderstrom and Wedin, that are using these phone calls to send hits against the Russian Mafia in Miami. It tears down the fourth wall some but gives something of a plausible conclusion that throws away the uncertainty and mystery of what the player experiences as Jacket.
So to wrap it all up Hotline Miami has a killer soundtrack, art style that most people will feel works, decent but somewhat flawed game play and a strangely executed story. It doesn’t have the careful execution of a big title. Despite all that most players will likely enjoy and get their moneys worth if not more from Hotline Miami. It’s also a nice attempt at something different.
FEATURED MUSIC ARTIST:
“NoMouth” by Mike K.