In gaming’s infancy, stories were largely told by implication. The technology struggled to accommodate superfluous information. Consequently, action—running, jumping, kicking, shooting—was left to describe itself, to show what the hardware couldn’t tell. Many early games offered a line or two of exposition by way of introduction before sending the well-armed hero on his way. Others denied players even that meager luxury, inviting them to wreak virtual havoc without any real reason or motivation. And so players proceed from any sort of instruction. The princess is in another castle: Pulverize these waddling turtles until you find her. The president has been kidnapped by ninjas: Is the protagonist a bad enough dude to rescue him? These stories, such as they are, provide a wispy context, indeed a pretense, for action. You shoot. You kill. You hardly stop to ask why.
Hotline Miami is a “retro” game. That is, it is a 2-D action game designed to resemble early beat-’em-up titles, its graphics scaled down and constrained as if it were a newly unearthed relic. One of its most striking characteristics is that its familiarity is inflected by something more uncanny: The “retro” style has been distorted, intensified, exaggerated. It’s a delirious and strange techno fever dream awash in neon light. It could be called the contemporization of an obsolete aesthetic—an effort to make the old-fashioned once again new and re-invigorated, gloriously chopped and screwed. But it’s also a pointed corruption of the past, of players’ pasts. Hotline Miami is like the games you’ve played, but nothing is quite as you remember it. It’s like a dream of a game only half recalled. Everything seems hazy and indistinct.
This feeling is deliberate, and it doesn’t apply strictly to the game’s aesthetic. Its approach to narrative—frustratingly oblique—amplifies the sense of the uncanny. What is the story of Hotline Miami? Players are given only a faint objective, just enough to get the vaguest sense of a shape and direction. It seems clear that the game is played through as a kind of hit man, unnamed and wearing various animal masks, who receives jobs by phone from an unspecified organization. These jobs are simple: Enter a building, murder its occupants, and return home for another job. Between stages the hero briefly speaks with an obsequious store clerk and, during a handful of flash-forward sequences, with a trio of masked gangsters, but these conversations only serve to further obscure. Questions are frequently posed, but they’re never answered. They’re left to simply linger. And so players are left to do the only thing they can: carry on killing.
And killing is vigorously done. It’s only at the end of “Deadline,” the game’s 11th chapter, that the routine of murder and silence to which players have become accustomed is disrupted. It’s here that the hit man returns from yet another successful job to find that the woman staying at his apartment has been brutalized and left on the bathroom floor for dead. It’s here, too, that the player marches into the living room to find a man draped lazily across your couch, silenced pistol in hand, and it’s here that the player is unceremoniously shot in the head. (Why? Well, you’re not to ask those questions.) The stage that follows tracks the recovery in and eventual escape from the local hospital. And the stage that follows, “Assault,” is the point at which Hotline Miami finally, ingeniously tips its hand.
“Assault” begins much like the 12 stages before it: Players pull up outside a building swarming with men who are armed and ready to shoot the hit man down. The player must duly barge in, unannounced, ready for gratuitous slaughter. The difference is that the building in question is not a mafia hideaway or a street gang’s safehouse but a police station, one bristling with a great many rifle-wielding officers of the law. Arriving unscathed at the end of the stage—no easy feat in a game notorious for its difficulty—awaits a greeting, at last, by the man accused of shooting you and butchering your girl, defenseless and ready for questions. His response might as well by a message on behalf of the developers: “I know you made it all the way here, but I think you’re in for a disappointment. I don’t really have answers for you.”
You begin laying into him, though he hardly seems surprised. He understands the obligation at play here. “You know,” he mutters at the end, “we might not be that different, you and I. Have you been getting those weird phone calls? I wish I had something to tell you. But I don’t.” You strangle him and leave, deflated and alone. In this moment it becomes painfully clear that you, the player, are no less to blame for the ambiguity of the story than the developers for leaving it undefined. After all, you’ve gone ahead and conducted yourself like a lifelong vigilante without any need or reason, killing dozens at the behest of a mystery caller. As players, we rely upon a story to provide a context that justifies action—that justifies virtual killing. We don’t really need one, of course, because in the game everything is permitted, and there’s no moral question to consider.
But perhaps we feel more comfortable laying waste to our enemies when we’ve been convinced that we’re a hero with a mission, virtuous and guided by well-defined goals. A narrative of heroism makes violence seem acceptable, even desirable. It’s the necessary course of action when players are off to save the world. The brilliance of Hotline Miami is that it exposes that narrative for what it is: a pretense to action. And it does so by adopting the framework of a classic game, one whose technological limitations would have reduced the story to its essence as a necessity of the era. All that remains is pure action—pure violence—divorced from context or meaning. You’re revealed to be a pawn—not only the character, who is a pawn of the phone calls and the system around them, but you, the player, who is a pawn to the game. You shoot. You kill. And for some reason you hardly stop to ask why.