Video game music can be great, but sometimes it’s fun to pair your wine with some different cheese. In Alternate Soundtrack, Derrick Sanskrit matches a video game with an album that enhances the experience.
The Game: Hotline Miami (2012)
The Album: Yeezus, Kanye West (2013)
There haven’t been many public figures to attract as much controversy in recent years as Kanye West. He may assault photographers, interrupt other people’s moments on live television, have a poor sense of humor, and generally be an egotistical hypocrite, but it’s those qualities that allowed him to produce The A.V. Club’s favorite album of 2013. Yeezus is a brutal collection of songs about drugs, fame, and a whole lot of aggressive sex. Love it or hate it, it’s hard not to appreciate the album as the most confident statement yet from an increasingly challenging artist.
Much like Ye’s rise/descent into the role of hip-hop’s most vocal bad guy, Hotline Miami creator Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström has steadily accrued a reputation as one of the most consistent, prolific, and strange game designers around. From the hypnotic trash-collecting of Clean Asia! to the greased-up-naked-guy street racing of Hot Throttle, Cactus’ games are raw and expressive. A thoughtfulness cracks through their discomforting atmospheres. It was the 2011 game Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf that teamed Cactus with artist Dennis Wedin, and the two almost immediately began work on their first full-length collaboration, the brutal and bloody Hotline Miami.
Hotline carries an evocative and searing soundtrack. It feels wrong to suggest replacing it, but doing the wrong thing and getting away with it is so much a part of what makes both Hotline Miami and Yeezus so enjoyable. Just as the unnamed leading man of Miami murders entire buildings full of punks and crime lords only to cruise home for some pizza and a rented movie, Kanye describes vicious and degrading sexual pursuits with his chest puffed. He likens himself to beasts and deities and asks his lover to embrace him with open arms, faults and all. Both characters are monsters, but we know their flaws. Their behavior is enrapturing, and to root for them is to ignore your better judgments.
The harsh digital squeals and squelches of “On Sight” introduce Yeezus as an aggressive missive of personal expression with little regard for the listener’s comfort. “How much do I not give a fuck?” the rapper defiantly asks, challenging his naysayers in the same way Hotline Miami’s jacketed star kicks in the door of a room filled with armed guards. “Let me show you right now ’fore you give it up.” A chorus of children assures us that “he’ll give us what we need; it may not be what we want,” asking not for forgiveness but demanding that we understand and accept the sins this glamorous antihero is about to commit.
Put together, the game and the album amplify each other. The marching drums pound throughout “Black Skinhead,” demanding blood and refusing to subside until the player obliges with plenty of gore. The reverberating synth that fills “I Am A God,” “I’m In It,” and “Send It Up” is so unashamedly wet and grimy that no shower could ever hope to wash away the filth of the player’s crimes. The infrequent yet pervasive shrieks throughout Yeezus—with timbres of both the innocent and sinner alike—echo the Hotline hero’s storied mass-murder sprees. “Do you like hurting people?” the rooster-headed stranger asks the player. Awash in all of this sex and blood, it’s hard to say no.
“This that what-we-do-don’t-tell-your-mom shit,” Kanye warns on “Bound 2,” an admission that our sinful deeds would be admonished if anybody found out, but we keep them up because they just feel so good. This is the most sentimental track on Yeezus, though it still reminds the object of the rapper’s affections that “when a real nigga hold you down, you s’posed to drown.” Even the most romantic moments are caked in aggressive dominance and a confusion between violence and eroticism. The closest our jacketed hero in Miami comes to romance is bringing home a girl he finds at one of his murder sprees. She’s drugged-out, sexually abused, and begging for him to kill her. Their story does not end well.
Hotline Miami is a difficult game to digest. It routinely asks the player to question why they’re committing these vicious acts of violence and what purpose they serve. Hallways covered in blood—blood spilled by our hands—are common experiences in modern games, but they are shown in Hotline with a new light that is both playfully surreal and horrifying. The same rings true of Kanye expressing his personal feelings. He exorcises his inner demons rather than perpetuating the cycle of pop songs about love and money. Both Yeezus and Hotline Miami present difficult sentiments in entertaining fashion, even if you might need a long, hot shower with a rough loofah to wash the filth away.