GamesCom, Cologne, 2012. I'm working on a photodoc. It's the height of Summer, the temperature is unpleasant, bordering on frightening. Numerous sets of large double doors, all wide open, run the length of the enormous main hall, yet not a hint of a breeze makes its way inside.
Earlier, I briefly ventured out, and the heat reflecting off the pavement was so powerful it felt like fire on my skin; I could feel it actively damaging me. Using what little energy was left unsapped by the sun, I faintly dribbled inside. I grabbed one of those ice cold, proper glass bottles of Coke; drained in about four seconds, absolutely no effect. I should probably point out that I'm a total heatwimp, so whilst everyone else was enjoying the pleasant, balmy weather, I was crumpled up in the corner like a soggy marionette.
I hate GamesCom; it's gigantic and roasting hot, the end of the day sees the whole place covered in litter, and people queue for hours for a five minute go on the latest dull-as-shitwater AAA title. Great crowds of unbearable arseholes huddle together in front of the big name publishers' stages, screaming and barging each other out of the way as free lanyards are slung at them, as if they were a village of third world refugees greeting an army food parcel drop. Arguably the tackiest of tacky gaming events. Even the Farming Simulator stand had a booth babe.
Now I'm sat on a plastic chair in the "indie section" – a tucked away, pop-up, cardboard corner – playing a currently relatively unknown, unfinished title called Hotline Miami. A small table hosts a laptop with over-ear headphones plugged into the jack, the property of Dennis Wedin, Hotline Miami's artist.
I've been playing for a while, familiarising myself with the controls and not getting completely shagged about the shop, so my confidence is up. The soundtrack is pounding in my ears; I'm gaining momentum; sweating like a particularly sweaty pig (or a man in a pig mask); revelling in this skill based, fast-paced, unblinking, gaudy, unapologetic, relentless digital murder simulator.
I know the comparison is rote at this point, but it really does have a strange parity with Drive, particularly the cold efficiency with which The Driver uses whatever is to hand to brutally and swiftly send poor sods to their exceptionally messy graves. Hotline Miami and Drive share that same uncomfortable balance between cool and horrific; stylish and repulsive.
Brimming with adrenaline, I attempt to communicate this sentiment to Dennis, except it comes out as staccato, giddy babble. Dennis replies with "it's the pizzeria window scene in Drive, if The Driver had decided to go in".
Leaning closer to me, Dennis says, "You might have a bit more trouble with this next stage." A wry smile breaks out across his face.
Granted, there's no way he could know he's talking to the raddest man alive (at videogames), so I'll let him off. I stretch and shake off my hand to ease the Quake Claw that is setting in, as the woozy, gloopy, warping text wibbles onto the screen once more, declaring:
"FOURTH CHAPTER TENSION"
Paris by M|O|O|N fills my hyperactive little headbox and I am ready for retrodeath.
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knifDEAD
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knife down. Bathroom next. Need to knock over the first guy with the door and thrDOG.
Jumped out of my skin, nearly shit myself. A fucking attack dog! Okay, restart.
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knife down. Where's the dog? Let's
look ahead with shifOH GOD DOG HE'S SO FAST.
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knife down. Alright dog, I'm ready. Knife through your tiny doggy face. Pause. Into the bathroom, throw the knife. Got him. Curb stomp on the second guy. Thanks for the shotgun, mate. Now I'm invincible. Back to the first room. Kick the door, shotgun the other guy WHUH-OH everyone in the stage heard thaBLAM.
Look at Dennis. Bastard's grinning ear to ear. RIGHT.
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knife down. Dog down. Bathroom down. Stealthy option this timWHERE DID HE COME FROM?
This was the moment I learned Hotline Miami sometimes has randomised patrol routes. Even if you plan meticulously, there is always room for an unexpected factor, and the challenge lies in being able to deal with that without breaking stride. Tension is the stage that first teaches you that because, quite frankly, you won't be getting any further otherwise.
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knife down. Bathroom down. Back to the first rooDOG. How could I forget about the dog? I'm making stupid mistakes now. This has become a test of nerve as much as it has muscle memory and skill. Just like the first time you play through Dark Souls, Hotline Miami is intimidating me. The music began as an ally, a relentless feed of adrenaline, but over the course of more than a dozen attempts, it has transformed into a looping, digital antagonist - the soundtrack to my failure - adding to the tension.
Come on. Come ON.
Through the door. Leave that room to the left for now. Guy with knife down. Dog down. Bathroom down. A panicked scramble sees me succeed in the front room by accidentally pulling the second bad guy's windpipe out with my bare hands. Jeeeeeee-zus. OK, this is the furthest I've gotten so far. It's taking everything I've got to hold my nerve. I could do with a drink, but all I've got is the dregs of some warm water in the bottom of this plastic bottle. I edge along the corridor, waiting to take the guy looping the pillar by surprise. Right, let's wait til he gets around the baBLAM BLAM. Buckshot zips from the kitchen and Pollocks my face across the tiled floor.
"FUCK!" I bellow, as I jump half out of my seat, partially out of frustration but almost entirely out of surprise. The jolt of being shot snaps me back to the real world, like those half-dreams where you miss a step on a stairway. Dennis politely throws me off at this point, as quite a large queue has formed behind me. I concede defeat for now, but I know I have to come back and finish that stage.
Tension. The name smacks me square in the face. I'm sat here now, in 2014, having another run through on the recently released free PS+ version. Locked in a score war with your man Andi
Hamilton. By this point the controls are second nature to me, but familiarity has not dulled the appeal - in the practice of beating scores, there remains excitement, difficulty, and tension.