Game Pile: Hotline Miami

When one is pushed to the outskirts of storytelling, one tends towards the extremes. This is why indie games have a fairly deserved reputation for weird or screwed up plots and characters. It’s rare to see an indie game which bothers to have a simple, good, emotionally driven story with fun characters and likeable dialogue, and that rarity is what makes Cave Story so fucking great. Still, when you turn away from that one shining jewel, indie gaming is a sea of metatexual narratives seeking to manipulate player perception. Ever since Bioshock did a number on what it meant to play an FPS, indie gaming has particularly been awash with games that are meant to question the audience for enjoying something fun.

Yes, it’s this classic gaming trope, the ‘mind of a loon’ driven narrative which tries to make the experience of violence enormously fun, and then make you feel bad for enjoying it. Hotline Miami is a game set in the late 1980s, in the searingly hot Florida town of Miami, though that’s lipservice if anything. No, this game is set in the Miami of the movies, a place defined by badass gangsters, loose women, fast cars and screaming past hypercolour landscapes with the silhouettes of palm trees dotted over them. It’s cocaine and violence and loose cars and fast women, and while the narrative can’t be called minimalist, it certainly is spartan.

The graphics can’t be called simple, but the core of the graphics is a 16-bit set of pixels that don’t behave like same. All the objects move as voxels, meaning that while graphically simple, they can naturally move, such as doors that swing back and forth like real doors don’t. Enemies animate quickly and gracefully, and the visual style helps to add a wholly unreal psychosis to the events. Somehow it’s much worse to watch an enemy scramble around helplessly on the floor, trying to find the chunks of his brain I tore out with a claw hammer, and because it’s a sprite, the game can show this sort of thing regularly without it being a centerpiece. By choosing a super-stylised depiction of events, the game can show you horrible violence repeatedly without it feeling genuinely nauseating.

Remember how I commented that Spec Ops: The Line lets you get into things before it jerks you around? That’s really true here; there is no way to play this game cleanly – you’ll die too much, recklessness is rewarded (and works), and the semirandom way parts of the level spawn or act mean there’s nothing at all to planning. The arc of play experience is clear and distinct; there’s the approach, where you try to keep an eye out for what’s going on around you, map out the plan, there’s the colossal failure, where the plan doesn’t work, then there’s a psychotic break, where you both get ‘into’ the game’sm indset, kill mercilessly and senselessly until there is nothing around you and then, then there’s this strange disquieting silence. The music stops and you get this dull buzz in your ears until you leave, go to one of the between-mission headfuck scenes, then move on to the next mission – where it all starts up again.

It’s fast paced but ridiculously frustrating, with seemingly no actual ‘difficulty’ curve, though with one big built-in cheat if you’d like to experience the plot the easy way (walking through walls). You die as quickly as anything else on the field, and there are a few enemies that simply cannot be killed without one of a small number of weapons. The final chapters even mix it up by excluding you from using specific weapons – or worse, any weapons at all. The boss fights are both strange and interesting, with the real challenge in overcoming them flowing from narrower and narrower windows of timing to react. Honestly, the final boss is breathtakingly hard because you wind up with a window of reaction time for important tasks less than a millisecond. That’s pretty typical, though – this game is designed that reloading after a death is literally blink-fast: you’ll play with a finger hovering over the ‘restart’ key (that only works once you’re dead) so you can minimize your time between attempts.

The plot, though, merits special mention. You remember Braid, how there’s this super-secret ending that’s meant to explain things, but takes a reasonably understandable plot and turns it into a gigantic confusing pile of bullshit? This is the opposite. What seems at first to be a classic Gainax-style plot, where the ending makes you feel like the writer was fucking with you, is explained, actually explained if you bother to gather all the twelve sparkling maguffins. It’s not a particularly amazing plot, but it is one that is foreshadowed, turning a lot of weirdness in the background elements (like the title font, of all things) into something that makes coherent sense.

Hotline Miami is ten bucks of mouse-smashing frustration with a fussy plot progression, outrageously unfair boss fights and an achievment for 1,000 deaths in a single playthrough that is obtainable without farming, and I came close to getting. On the other hand, to play the whole plot, if you’re as good as I am, should only take you about eight hours, start to finish. If you enjoyed Super Meat Boy for its fast-reloading frustration-based platforming, you should enjoy this; and if you enjoyed Braid for its mind-screwy plot that played with your perceptions of what was and wasn’t expected, you should enjoy the story aspect. I did – I sat down to give the game a shot and didn’t stand up again for eight hours when the whole thing was finished, even through wave after wave of keyboard-cracking snarling expressions of gut-twisting frustration. In the same way Fallout New Vegas couldn’t be called bad after eating a full contiguous week of my life, it would be ridiculous to claim Hotline Miami isn’t good – hell, with its high octane pacing, its coherent visual style and its risk-reward ratio set at a teetering knife edge, it’s goddamn fantastic.

Either way, I need to reiterate: Hotline Miami’s primary gameplay mechanic is frustration.

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