Game Title: Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Year of Release: 2012
What can be said about Hotline Miami that has not already been said? That it is tightly designed, that it is a commentary on violence, that it is self aware without being self-conscious? Maybe that it is a game that has to be played to be understood in context, built out of pure aggressive fantasy that shoots you full of adrenaline with every playthrough? I think that all of these things have been said already but with little in the way of explanation for you, the uninitiated. So I will try.
Hotline Miami is set in a fictionally stylized version of the 80s, full of electric hues and set to an exceedingly hip and synth heavy soundtrack. It takes place of course in Miami, which is apparently completely infested with the Russian Mob. You play an emotionally distressed loner, never named in the game but referred to by most players as Jacket for his choice in varsity wear. The exact nature of Jacket's mental disturbance is never addressed but he is visited by visions of strangers wearing animal masks when he sleeps who mysteriously hint at some ominous bigger picture. When Jacket is awake, he receives phone calls from strangers telling him to go to different addresses in Miami and perform odd jobs, such as cleaning, baby sitting, and DJing. These addresses all turn out to be dens of the Russian mafia, which Jacket then systematically exterminates with whatever is at hand while wearing an animal mask of his own.
As the game progresses, it is revealed that Jacket is not the only one receiving these phone calls or even an animal mask. In fact, he runs across a large number of them in varying states of dismemberment after being captured or killed by the Russians, who seem as perplexed and disturbed by the inexplicable massacres as anyone else. And it is hard not to feel a little bit of empathy for them; not only do you have no idea why you're killing these people but you're killing them in spectacularly brutal fashion with lead pipes, axes, shotguns, and often your bare hands. The game is unrelenting in its depiction of bloody violence despite taking place entirely from a top-down perspective that is heavily pixelated. Brains leak on the floor, intestines come slopping out, limbs are twisted, and blood spews everywhere. A completed level will always resemble a human slaughterhouse and the game unapologetically rewards you for your savagery with a kill combo counter and an intricate scoring system that encourages you to be as "hands on" as possible.
After each mission, there is a short cool down sequence in which Jacket visits a convenience store, a bar, a video rental store, or a pizza place at which he always sees the exact same bearded clerk who offers him some small item "on the house" while speaking vaguely of current events and the media fallout of Jacket's actions. It eventually becomes clear that this man is a hallucination and he represents the first real hint (other than Jacket's bizarre dreams) that the player character is an unreliable narrator.
Unreliability and fantasy are major themes in both Hotline Miami and its sequel. The tactical situations Jacket enters into are generally stacked absurdly against him, with heavily armed enemies outnumbering him about 30 to one. Of the course of completing a level a player will die many, many times and Jacket's deaths are often just as gruesome as those he inflicts upon others but failures are all erased in an instant with a single push of the "R" button, which returns everything to the state it was in when Jacket arrived at the scene. Analytic critics have compared the quick resets of Hotline Miami levels to reincarnation or, more specifically, the unending process of samsara in Hinduism where a soul is reincarnated however many times it takes to finally achieve enlightenment. The end result however, is that the player witnesses dozens of deaths for every major success that they have and learn the ins and outs of a level until they can finally visualize the best route to victory and is in this way lowered to the same level of unfeeling violence as Jacket, who symbolically discards his humanity through his use of animal masks and indulges in pure cathartic violence to try and wipe his pain away.
Jacket is definitely in pain too. At the very start of the game it is hinted that he is upset because he has recently lost his girlfriend. His apartment, in which the player starts each level and receives the mysterious phone calls, becomes more and more disheveled as the game continues; pizza boxes pile up, the floor becomes stained with blood that drips from Jacket after his killing sessions, and clothes litter the floor. It becomes a convenient symbol for the mental distress of an otherwise completely silent protagonist.
In the end, Jacket's pain is also all that really matters. Hotline Miami deliberately ignores all the clues it has been carefully laying out over the course of the game by the time you reach the end and Jacket ignores them too, murdering the only "fellow traveler" he meets alive while the latter is attempting to investigate the source of the phone calls. He continues to do as he is told and goes after the father-son duo heading the mob. The son kills himself after being disarmed by Jacket but the elderly father, confined to a wheelchair, seems accepting of his fate.
Ah, so you're the one causing the ruckus?
What's your business here? ... *COUGH*
Actually... Why don't we skip the details?
I've done so many horrible things...
Nothing seems to really matter anymore, does it?
I'm not going anywhere, as you can see...
Just go ahead and do what ever you came here to do.
Jacket then shoots him and steps out onto a nearby balcony to smoke a cigarette while the song "A New Morning" by Eirik Suhrke plays. He reaches into his eponymous clothing and removes a single photo, the contents of which are completely obscured to us by the nature of the games perspective, and releases it into the wind. And that's it. Nothing more is known of Jacket is known, at least until the sequel is released three years later in 2015. He never knows who was calling him or why they had him do what he did. He never understands the nature of his visions. He just kills and kills until all the questions and pain go away, escaping into fantastic carnage much like many who seek solace from their lives in videogames.
... The game doesn't truly end there, of course. There are a few additional chapters tacked on after the credits where you play in an alternative timeline as the "fellow traveler" who Jacket killed in his version of events, known as "Biker". In Biker's story, it is revealed that the callers are actually part of a bizarre right-wing conspiracy seeking to destroy something called the Russo-American Coalition and heat up the Cold War, the context of which is, again, only explained in the sequel. This is a tantalizing additional layer of lore and exposition but it really only acts to reinforce the wholeheartedly nihilistic themes of the game as the conspirators, neatly disguised self-inserts of developers Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, attempt to conceal the broader scale of their work by claiming it was all for fun. And they're right, it was fun. Dark, terrible fun.
The Hotline Miami OST
The Hotline Miami Wiki
The magnificently designed Dennaton games website
The Hotline Miami Steam Store page