There are a lot of stupid games in the world.
If you weren't the kind of person who plays videogames very often, you probably wouldn't be able to see the why these kind of games continue to be the object of obsession of some otherwise very intelligent human beings. Much game criticism exists for the purpose of pointing out to you why dismissing all these games as mindless sludge fails to understand the network of very fragile, finely-tuned elements that are all simultaneously at play in an effective stupid game. The genius in the design of these games, we say, is in the nature of the complexities of the interactions between the game and the player, which can only be properly understood by someone who has played and mastered at least one of them.
Hotline Miami - a new game by well-known indie developer Cactus and partner Dennis Wedin - is one of these games. HLM follows the "high difficulty, quick death, quick respawn" pattern of recent commercial indie games like Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, or Limbo. This approach efficiently maximizes the time the player spends directly engaged in the game, and not having to frustratingly endure anything else that is not the game for very long. In this particular instance the action takes place in a top down view (similar to Mission Impossible for the NES) and our "hero" is a man who runs through a bunch of small buildings with different creatively-assembled configurations of enemies and wonderfully colorful rug patterns. Our hero's only goal is to massacre every living thing in his vicinity before he is shot dead himself. Somewhat like Super Meat Boy, the levels are short and difficult, sometimes requiring a massive number of retries. There is also a letter-grade scoring system at the end of each level that that evaluates your performance based on your methods for killing the guards, how confidently you moved through the level, how long you took, and so on.
HLM is a very finely-tuned game. Every little part of the system seems to hold together impeccably. The goal of players is merely to find the most effective way to penetrate this system. This requires excellent timing, which is most of what the game is about - effectively completing each level means anticipating the the positions of the enemies and getting to them before they have very much time, if any at all, to respond to you. The intensely varied layouts of the rooms and the constantly shifting positions of the guards mean that the player has to be able to effectively manage a pretty large number of different situations to be able to beat a level. Some have compared this kind of play to the oft-praised beat 'em up God Hand, which is not a bad comparison, but the mechanics here are much simpler.
HLM, while difficult to play, is very approachable for people who regularly play games, so its critical and (I'm assuming) commercial success is hardly a surprise. Anyone who has become immersed into these sorts of games for any period of time will confirm how completely exhilarating the experience of playing them can be. Each new life is a wonderfully, gracefully rhythmic dance with the AI as you wait for the chance to turn your enemies into more blood fountains and paint those glorious carpets red. This is the rapturous release that often comes from all the tension that builds up over many previous failed attempts. The tension that comes from the terrible fear of lack of planning, or an unpredictable AI leading to situations falling out of your control and resulting in an unceremonious death. This is the sort of beautiful, nuanced play that videogame designers have spent years trying to perfect, and now the indie game world seems much closer to finally achieving it! Games that have attempted this sort of play in the past were often not nearly as successful at it, because they were both constrained by commercial demands which forced developers into narrow existing genre tropes, and just did not yet understand how to effectively deal these sorts of experiences. And now, these games like HLM are the ones that the old game industry veterans can tearfully hold up and say "yes!! this is what I have waited my whole life to make!!", right?
And how could we forget the game critics, those very serious young white men in their 20's and 30's, who will join them to celebrate of the final refinement of these sacred formulas. These critics would never stoop so low as to see these games at face value, oh no. They are on a very important mission to bring to light the great achievements of art that these games truly are. So what if they stretch them so paper-thin that they'll start to resemble something completely different from the actual games themselves.
How can you rhapsodize at great lengths about the joy of violence in a videogame without sounding like a complete psychopath?
We are no longer living in the mid-90's. The public is much less sensitive to violence in videogames now (though is still far from being over THE EVILS OF SEX). A game with ultra-violence is now one of the most commercially accessible, least controversial things a game developer can make. Don't believe me? Then don't try to look very hard at how the US military uses games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as recruitment tools, because they see how similar the skills required of playing a first-person shooter and being a solider in real life are.
Violence is power. We are living in age where people increasingly need to feel empowered at all times. Just being the one who's right, or smarter, isn't good enough. You can use your superior wits to completely conquer your opponent in a game of chess, but you can't leave their bloody chess pieces strewn across the board after taking them. And you certainly can't kill your opponent at the end of the game. Thankfully, some videogames finally allow you this opportunity.
Anyone who survived the old "concerned parent" debates will talk about how violence in videogames is symbolic and shouldn't be seen as analogous to real-world violence. This is basically true, but there are other, more disturbing things at play here as well. Anyone who has tried to enter the mind of a serial killer will note how much they approach their act of killing as a game. And so-called "realistic" first person shooters like Call of Duty continually serve the purpose of glorifying violence in a real-world setting. It is fair to say that there is at least some kind of connection between killing in real life and killing inside a game.
So, it is fair for us to ask a question of a game about murdering large numbers of people: does Hotline Miami put us into the mind of a killer? Yes, it's probably fair to say that. Now that we're pretty far inside the mind of this killer, what is the game teaching us?
The game commits the egregious error here of trying to make your mass-murdering protagonist somehow sympathetic by making him not in control of his own actions. Instead, he is under the control of a strange, powerful organization that somehow uses cheery phone calls to convince him and others like him to get in his car and go kill a bunch of people. Or something. This could be taken as a statement about what bloodthirsty players want out of this protagonist versus what the character in the story really wants, but if so, it kinda falls flat into nonsensical videogame tropes. Knowing Cactus, I was willing to go into a David Lynch or Kubrick-style analysis where I look at the "surface narrative" vs. the "real narrative", but I couldn't find any real entry points of where I could begin that sort of analysis. If that is what it's aiming for i'll leave it up to it maybe, possibly, being my own failure.
But anyway, the story is really just a bunch of set-dressing for the actual game, which is about murdering people. From the title "Hotline Miami", I originally thought the game was either about prostitution or the drug wars (ala Vice City). That wouldn't exactly be new territory for a game like this to base itself on, but at least it wouldn't be much of a leap to believe that your character is a complete psychopath who approaches the violence he engages daily as some kind of a game that he is constantly grading himself on. Bruce Willis does that kind of shit all the time in the movies, fer chrissakes! It could also make sense if your character is a serial killer living inside of a poorly-constructed game world of his own creation, which is where I thought the game was going, until it wasn't.
The blood and guts of HLM could be seen as disturbing, but it's not unique. Violence is an unavoidable part of our culture, and an even more unavoidable part of videogames. So I am not, and cannot, say that that the violence can't, or shouldn't be there. I am saying, however, that we should be looking at why the violence is there in HLM and games like it, and how it affects us, as individuals who are presumably not planning to murder a large house full of people.
Games like HLM cut to the core what of what a pretty big chunk of life in the modern world is about. People feel that they have no control over their own lives. They want to be able to exercise that control somehow, somewhere. They want some sort of release - otherwise they feel like they'll just explode. videogames have come to fit the desire for release like a glove. Games have done this so well, in fact, that they've created a significant culture of people who use playing games for the sole purpose of feeling in control over the rest of the world. Anything that might come into those people's digital spaces and breaks their feelings of control is so incredibly enraging to them that they will fight viciously against it.
Imagine videogames as a kind of PCP. Videogame designers often tend to approach their designs on the terms of "How can we provide our players with more PCP?" Every aspect of the game - from the mechanics, to the world designs, to the visuals and the sound, are designed if having players feel in control is always the goal. They act as if the alternative is not even up for discussion. And they'll talk about how all experiences in games are the sacred ownership of the players, as if they're not the ones who put everything in the world in the first place.
It's important that we understand what games like Hotline Miami really mean to us, deep down. If the act of murdering a human being and leaving his or her bloodied corpse behind is so deeply satisfying to us, we should probably try and understand why. Otherwise, we are ignoring the monster that lives within us - the monster that will probably go post some rape threats on a 19-year old feminist girl's tumblr if he doesn't get what he wants.
I'd like to imagine that in the future we'll see a game that uses mechanics as effective and addictive as Hotline Miami, but in a more self-conscious, more self-aware, and more insightful fashion. I'd also like to imagine that it becomes the obligation of any game critic, or any other person who loves and defends these kind of games to death, to find some way to push these games to actually, meaningfully comment on the effect they have on the people who play them.
This is something to which I know a lot of people involved in games will scratch their heads in faux-puzzlement. As if they don't know exactly what I'm fucking talking about.