McMillan’s Codex 21 by Charles McMillan
Before the technology was available, classic videogames had to rely on challenge and competition to give gameplay dimension and appeal. That is why every famous arcade title has a score system and varying degrees of difficulty depending on what you are playing like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Galaga. Come the emergence of 3D technology and modern development practices, a compelling story, cut-scenes, and an artistic style became necessary to make games work as a whole. With this paradigm shift, however, the old way has yet to fade out completely, especially in the case of Hotline Miami.
If Bloodborne is the RPG equivalent of a barbed flogger, then Hotline Miami is its arcade shooter counterpart. From a top-down 2D perspective you control the character’s line of fire and movements through levels that consist of floor plans. In each stage are several enemies you must kill in order to progress. Though simple in concept, actually doing it can be a test of your patience.
You start each level unarmed and can only pick up weapons after killing an enemy or finding them in random places. Your default attack is a simple punch combo that gets you off to a pretty good start before you experience the game’s extreme difficultly. All enemies have one hit kills for every kind of attack. If they have a gun, one shot kills you; a pipe, one hit you are dead; a sword, one slash puts you down. And when you die, you must restart the stage over again or from the previous checkpoint, of which are rare.
Skill, coordination, and timing are what get you through levels. Enemies are set on linear patrol routes they follow without deviation. When they hear a noise or see something, they rush in to inspect and kill you on sight. Their intelligence is purposefully dumbed down to make it easier to predict where they move and how they act. If you are in a room and they follow, you can hide beside the door and kill them as they walk in. If you spot a patrol and have a gun, you can line up your shots to where they walk right into your fire. Each of your deaths is a learning experience as you test a strategy, die, do something different, and keep at it until you finish the level.
While gameplay can be fun and frustrating, Hotline has a very clever way of conveying its narrative themes. The story itself is difficult to explain because it feels like an extended dream sequence directed by David Lynch. Between levels the main character known as Jacket receives phone calls that give him addresses and kill orders. At the same time there are moments where three other characters in masks insult you and ask if you like hurting people. This is standard practice for games that shame players, my favorite trope, but how Hotline does it is far more effective and subtle compared to Metal Gear or Spec Ops: The Line.
The kills are graphic. You can bash in skulls with a pipe, slash throats, and throw boiling water. The gore is on par with Django: Unchained and Robocop with bright red splatters that burst out as the best soundtrack ever plays in the background. After you finish a level, however, the music cuts out completely, leaving a low hum in its place. Then you have to make your way back to where you started.
As you walk through the stage, you see the full extent of your actions. Corpses number in the dozen, laying in large puddles with severed limbs and entrails rendered in colorful pixels. It is strange you do not notice what you do while playing and only after it is over does it become clear. You do not feel the rush of success or tension moving through the stage; you feel repulsed and hurry to the finish. It makes Hotline feel more like a horror game than an arcade shooter. It is something you have to experience for yourself because the act of playing is what makes it so visceral. You did the killing and your revulsion is your fault.
Hotline Miami is a true blend of the old and new. On the one hand, you have the challenge that keeps you coming back and on the other, you have a deep narrative that works seamlessly with gameplay. If you want something you have play over and over to get right, this is the game for you. But if you want a perfect example of narrative theme through player interaction, get ready for a tough and frustrating play through.