The Ecstasy of Death

I mostly write about books on here. Prose is my favorite art form, and the one in which I am most invested. I’m not just about books though; I love everything! I’m interested in everything. I don’t have much time for scribbling on here, as I’m often busy scribbling for myself, and there are already a million jackasses out here on the Internet babbling about movies and video games, so – while I have a great deal of appreciation for those things – I doubt I’ll be talking about them much. People don’t say much about books anymore, not out here in the great digital wilderness, so I’ll do it. I’m content to be in a niche.

Every once in a while, however, something comes along that sticks itself so firmly in my head that I can’t help but want to talk about it. Hotline Miami is one of those things. If you have any awareness of video-gaming’s indie scene than you’ve probably already heard a great deal about this nasty little masterpiece. I honestly don’t know if I have anything worthwhile to say about it, but I feel compelled to write about it, if only in an effort to dislodge it from my mind.

Hotline Miami, like most of the best independently made games, takes a boldly simple idea and executes it with such a graceful stylishness that it makes all the complex posturing of AAA titles look like the overburdened dross they are. You’re this guy, see? Run into the room and hit/shoot/stab those guys. If they hit you once, you’re dead. Kill ’em all. That’s it, that’s the game. Hotline Miami is a machine of death, and gleefully so. If that sounds like it’s repugnant and offensive and irresponsible… well, you might be right. This is what people are talking about when they talk about “murder simulators.”

This is, however, an extraordinarily thoughtful and thought-provoking murder simulator.

To really understand what makes the game special, you have to know your way around the grungy back-alleys of the murder-game genre. The thing that they tend to have in common – and the thing which makes them so repulsive – is this: they are, in essence, power fantasies. These are games in which the player is meant to feel like the absolute master of their world. Stuff like Postal and Grand Theft Auto is about giving the player a feeling of control. Hotline Miami, on the other hand, is about losing control. Your characters slips through the world in a clumsy stuporous tumble of frantic key-presses and desperate mouse-wrangling. Simply moving gives the player the sensation of being on the brink of disaster.

Death comes quickly and often. A fraction of a second’s hesitation will get you killed. A momentary slip will inevitably leave you spattered on the floor beside your victims. You are no better than any of them. You are just as frail and human. You are not in control here.

The pre and post level intermissions leave you stranded in neon convenience stores and VHS rental places, unable to do anything not dictated by some oblique guiding hand. In most games of this sort the player would have the power to butcher at will, and the freakish cast would be quickly dispatched, if only to prove that, yes, you can kill them if you want. Here, however, you cannot. Failing to dispose of them, you might try talking to them. Pushing them aside. Waking them up anyway you can. They will not move for you. They will not acknowledge you. Stripped of your ability to destroy, you find yourself adrift, cut off from everything. In each intermission there will be one grotesque figure spouting nonsense phrases, sometimes offering meaningless interaction. Small moments of inexplicable commerce. These rare moments of connection leave you clutching and grateful to have been able to touch something, anything, in the pulsing hypnotic nothingness. It is a profoundly unnerving experience, one that serves each and every time to drive you on towards the next level. Anything to be in a world that makes sense, even that blood-soaked wasteland. At least out there you have some measure of being.

There is a moment early in the game which caught me quite off guard. At the tail-end of one of your massacres, just as you are moving towards the exit, you hear a voice. A woman’s voice. She lays bare in the midst of the bloodbath, calling out for you to do to her what you’ve done to the others. She tells you to kill her. You might try ignoring her, walking out the door. You cannot. The door won’t open. Something holds you back. You return to the house, stepping past the mangled bodies you’ve left behind. You stand over her. She does not move. The controls in this game are very simple: move and attack. Those are your only options. And you’ve already tried moving.

I sat there for maybe five minutes, a queasy feeling growing in my stomach. Did I want to push that button? Every “gaming” instinct told me yes. Push the button to advance. Advance to win. Push the button. Kill her if you have to. I looked at the bodies strewn about, collections of pixels. So much nothing, I told myself. I looked at her, just a bundle of dots on the screen. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? I thought back to a question put to my character at the start of the game: “Do you like hurting people?” Half serious, half mocking. Well, do I?

I told myself that it would be alright. Just push the button. My character vomited after his first kill. This isn’t some unrepentant power fantasy. You put on animal masks before going into each level. Sometimes the simplest metaphors are the best. Push the button. Every time you die the mask is torn off your face. Humanity showing through only in death. Push the button. The game wouldn’t allow me to murder her, not like this, not helpless and inert. Push the button. And yet… what if it did? What if I killed her? I couldn’t discount the possibility. I had no control here, only the choice to stop or to continue.

In the end, I pushed the button.

And yes, in case you were wondering, the game is a hell of a lot of fun.

“Do you like hurting people?”

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