The Making Of: Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami – a deliriously violent videogame that stood out in a year full of assassins, exotic ways to cause harm and elaborate gunplay – asks players a searching question: do you like hurting people? Heads are crushed with bats, throats are slit with kitchen knives and machine guns bullets cause arterial rain to spatter across living room carpets and ramshackle tenement stairwells. Sometimes a dying bad guy will crawl around on his hands and knees, blindly bumping into the walls for a while. And you may not even care enough to put him out of his misery.

At the end of each mission, you walk back to your car, retracing your bloody footsteps through the building you’ve just painted red. As you pass each mangled corpse, you’re forced to witness the carnage that you’re responsible for. It’s grim, disturbing and not a little nauseating (even the silent protagonist, dubbed ‘The Jacket’ by fans, pukes after the first mission). So the question, as posed in surreal cutscenes by the game’s animal-masked puppet masters, lingers: do you like hurting other people? And if you don’t, why are you still playing?

Hotline Miami is provocative in its attempt to question our attitudes to simulated mass murder. Yet despite being released just before the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, it’s managed to avoid being dragged into the current round of tabloid outrage over videogame violence. Instead, its impact has been confined to gamers and the game industry itself. Which is pretty much how two-man Swedish developer Dennaton planned it.

“We wanted it to be disturbing and we wanted people to feel the violence,” says graphic artist Dennis Wedin. “But we weren’t afraid about it being controversial, because it’s pixel art. If we’d made it in 3D and very realistic then it might have been different. But the graphics keep the game out of the spotlight. At Gamescom, they had to rate all the games, so two people came over and played it. And they gave it a 12, I think, because the graphics are so colourful.”

His partner, well-known freeware developer Jonatan Söderström (AKA Cactus), agrees: “We wanted to show that we were self-conscious about the kind of game we were making.” How ironic, then, that Hotline Miami began as the most violent, least self-conscious game imaginable.

Some people make games. Some people craft games. Some people churn out games like a one-man production facility. Ever since he started releasing freeware games in 2004, Söderström has fallen into the latter category, firing out new titles at the rate of M60 ammo rounds. And inspired by everyone from Japanese developer Ikiki to novelists such as William Burroughs, his output has often been avant-garde.

An early Hotline Miami prototype.

Super Carnage was a game he started working on back in 2004 when he was 18: a top-down shoot ’em up in which the aim was simply to kill as many people as possible. It was a teenage boy’s game: sick and violent, and little more than that. After struggling with the AI’s pathfinding, though, Söderström filed the game in the ‘unfinished and unreleased’ box and went to work on other things.

It might have stayed unfinished if Söderström hadn’t met Dennis Wedin, singer and keyboard player in metalcore band Fucking Werewolf Asso. They collaborated on a promo game based on the band (a psychedelic, punk 8bit outing named Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf) and an unfinished game called Life/Death/Island that grew too big for them to handle.

Running out of money and with bills to pay, they decided the next game would be their first commercial release. Flicking through Söderström’s collection of unfinished prototypes, Wedin came across Super Carnage and instantly saw its potential. They’d spend the next nine months holed up in Wedin’s apartment creating what would become Hotline Miami.

“It was fucking hard,” recalls Wedin of going into development with no budget and no clear idea of how they’d even sell the finished product. “Some days we were so fucking tired, and we didn’t know if we were going to earn anything from this game or if anyone was even going to play it. But we always loved playing it. As soon as I made some graphics, and we put them in, and tried it out, it felt so good… and all the motivation was back.”

While the core gameplay of Hotline Miami owed much to Super Carnage, there was a big change. Before they started development, Söderström and Wedin hung out watching movies for inspiration. Among them were vigilante superhero adventure Kick-Ass, Miami-set drugs documentary Cocaine Cowboys and Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-tinged, bubblegum pop-scored thriller about a Hollywood stuntman who gets caught up in a heist gone wrong. Raising questions about screen violence, Drive was a movie with smarts. It got Söderström and Wedin thinking: what if a videogame could do something similar? What if Super Carnage wasn’t merely a game in which you killed people, but a game that posed questions about what it meant to kill people in a game?

Layering on a surreal narrative full of flashbacks and cutscenes featuring men in animal masks, Hotline Miami turned its violent game design into something more than the sum of its parts. “Me, I’m into games that are just games,” explains Wedin. “But Jonatan thinks a lot about how he wants the player to think about the game. He believes the game should leave something with the player when they stop playing.”

Like all Söderström’s releases, Hotline Miami was put together using GameMaker, YoYo Games’ development toolkit. “One of the reasons I don’t move on from GameMaker is that there are very few tools that allow you to make games as fast,” he explains. “It’s very easy to use and you can code pretty sloppily in it. It gives you a lot of pre-built-in functions and tools that you’d have to invest a lot of time in making yourself if you used another engine.”

There is a downside to the flexibility and speed that GameMaker offers, though. “It’s a lot slower than most other engines, where you can use the hardware a lot more efficiently. And you can’t do whatever you want, because you are limited to what GameMaker was designed for, which is mostly 2D games. It doesn’t have support for shaders or stuff like that – at least not in the version I’m using.”

Using an older version of the software threw up other issues that didn’t become apparent until after Hotline Miami’s release, such as the troublesome fact that certain printers would stop the game from running correctly. “A lot of strange things happened after we released the game. I guess most of it has been fixed in the new version of GameMaker. But we’re still using the old version that wasn’t really built for the newer operating systems.”

For the dev team, though, the biggest challenge was creating the enemy AI. Hotline Miami is a game that requires you to kill or be killed. Its fast-paced instadeath design demands that its enemies are worthy adversaries. There are various AI behaviours in the game, such as random enemies that move between rooms armed with guns, or patrolling enemies who don’t respond to gunfire, but will shoot at you if you’re spotted. Each enemy is also capable of switching behaviours to give a sense of variety.

Some players found the enemies’ uniform appearance and switching behaviour confusing, fuelling suggestions that the AI was broken, because the bad guys didn’t always respond to gunfire or chase you.

“It was intentional!” laughs Wedin. “The game is mainly a puzzle game. It’s not a Metal Gear sneaking game. If enemies reacted to the gunshots and bodies, they would destroy the puzzles in the room. All the rooms are designed so that there are a few ways to enter the room and solve the puzzle. But if you just started shooting outside the room and they all came running out, you’d just destroy that.”

In other words, more believable AI would have resulted in a less enjoyable game. “If you added those elements to the AI, the suspense and waiting element would be gone,” Wedin adds. “It would turn into a corridor shooter like Loaded or something.”

Proper planning and preparation, as any British Army squaddie will tell you, prevents piss-poor performance. In Hotline Miami the ‘seven Ps’ help keep you alive. On every mission, it’s the lulls that matter, as you linger outside doors and plan how you’re going to storm inside and absolutely, positively kill everyone in that room.

An early concept sketch.

Which guy should you take down first? Which weapon is best suited to the room’s goons? Baseball bat or shotgun? Stealth approach or kamikaze death run? Meanwhile, the game’s hypnotic electronic soundtrack, featuring music from MOON, Scattle and Perturbator, pulses on, prefiguring the revelation that this is all a feverish nightmare straight out of the David Lynch mould. And those surreal and menacing cutscenes show your hitman meeting masked figures in dingy rooms, who quiz him about his motivation, asking: “Do you like hurting other people?”

It seems like a question worth asking of the developers themselves. “No,” they respond in eerie overlapping synchronicity in our Skype conference call. “But we do like violent games,” Wedin laughs. “That is the main question for the game: do you like violence? Do you like violent games? Why do you like violent games?”

It’s a question that, on one level, Hotline Miami embodies the answer to: its fast-paced, adrenalin-charged gameplay distils pure, gut-level thrills into an addictive package. Yet the more you enjoy the game, the more troubling it becomes. Why are you taking pleasure from what is, essentially, a nihilistic murder simulator? Even within the context of the game, there are no justifications for your actions. It’s simply violence for the sake of violence.

“We didn’t want the player to have a purpose for hurting people,” explains Wedin. “There’s no girlfriend that’s been kidnapped, or president, or a country in need or anything. It’s just some weird phone calls you get that make you go and kill. Most games these days try to make it legit to kill enemies. You don’t do it because you’re bad. You do it to save a person or do something good. We didn’t want that for our game.”

“The game is a slap in the face,” Wedin continues. “A lot of players get angry with the ending – especially when they unlock the second ending and it doesn’t give them anything more.”

Despite such frustrations, Hotline Miami quickly made friends. The team at Vlambeer, creator of Super Crate Box, sent a copy to publisher Devolver Digital, which knew of Söderström and Wedin, and was intrigued that they were making the jump into the commercial sphere.

“I had no idea what kind of game was going to drop into our lap at that point,” says project manager Graeme Struthers. “When I got my build, I was just so happy. The music and the colour palette – it all just really came together for me in one magic burst of pixel joy. I didn’t connect with feeling queasy or worried by the violence, let alone thinking about the underlying story. I was just having a blast.”

Devolver took the game to the inaugural Rezzed expo in Brighton, where it won Game Of The Show. “I had the buzz of watching the awareness of the game spread around that show and people just playing, smiling and enjoying,” remembers Struthers. “It honestly never crossed our mind that the game’s take on violence and the actual brutality of the game could be an issue. I thought Dennis and Jonatan produced a game of such perfect poise within such a tight universe that they had already given context to what was going on, and that people would get where they were coming from.”

By the end of February this year, Hotline Miami’s critical success had morphed into hard sales, with just over 300,000 copies bought on PC, despite having been heavily pirated. That’s a success in any indie’s book, but Dennaton’s overheads are so low that it’s made the game’s poverty-stricken nine-month development more than worthwhile – both creatively and financially. “We can make more games and have money to spare,” says Söderström.

Still, the sudden influx of cash has been slightly surreal for the pair. “I’m not really used to having money to spend. I’m just not that materialistic, I guess,” continues the coder, who doesn’t own a HD TV, a decent stereo or even a current-gen console. “I am used to eating cheap noodles and fish sticks. And that hasn’t really changed yet.”

For the game’s release party at Wedin’s apartment, the frugal pair went to the local store to buy booze and emerged with three beers each. “We were like, ‘Why didn’t we buy a lot of beer so we could have a really big party?’ It’s just really hard to change your pattern.”

With Hotline Miami’s follow-up already in development, the future for Dennaton Games looks financially secure. Meanwhile, a separate team has been working on porting the original into a new engine for a Vita and PS3 release. “It will be cool to have a game on a console. It will be a dream come true,” says Wedin. “If you have played games your whole life, to actually have a game released on a console is kick ass.” Now all Söderström needs to do is buy himself one.