On the floor of the killer’s living room you’ll find a tiny bundle of grey and red pixels. It’s a NES, a way for him to kick back with virtual violence when gaps between real violence present themselves. But the killer’s a character in his own videogame, of course – he’s you, in fact, the true star of Hotline Miami. It’s a game that asks a simple question, one that so many games have assumed they already know the answer to: do you like hurting other people?
Chances are you will: hurting other people in Hotline Miami can be a blast. It’s a one-hit kill kind of world for the most part, too, one that could be called ‘masocore’; there’s no room for mistakes. Answer your phone, pick up your job, choose an animal mask – which come with a tantalising range of perks – and then work your way through a series of ratty top-down 8bit dives, filleting everyone you encounter.
This agenda is not new, nor is the game’s thematic preoccupation with the link between violence and entertainment. What feels new, however, is the rhythm it’s found for videogame action. It’s an elliptical loop that starts when you crouch on a threshold, watching the scene, and waiting for the AI to create an opening. Death may come by katana, by wrench, or by door, but it always comes in a sweaty blur. Most violent games are about chewing through an endless bus queue of murder. Here, the queue is gone and there are just three distinct states: waiting, killing and dying when you get it wrong. Think of it as a return to genuine tension.
The instant restart, meanwhile, suggests that maybe that rhythm’s not new after all. Maybe it’s Trials HD for headshots, or Super Meat Boy for the lead pipe crowd. Without the threat of instadeath, levels might last less than a minute as you sweep through each room, maximising your combo through grisly invention. But the prospect of an untimely end turns the whole thing into a glorious sandbox of gore, asking you to make choices big (do you opt for guns, which are quick but noisy, or knives, which are silent but require real nerve?) and small (bathroom or living room first?).
It’s a puzzle game and a strategy game as much as an action game, then, and like Rockstar’s Manhunt, it will sicken you even as it provides its murky thrills. All the while, that simple question echoes as the bodies pile up, the narrative starts to fragment, and the scarlet thread through this darkly clever game becomes a racing line. Think back to the NES, to one virtual world trapped within another, endless pixellated mirrors stained with endless pixellated blood. The mirrors become a hallway that you walk, trailing a golf club behind you. Up ahead is a door. Do you like hurting other people?