Oh man, Hotline Miami. I can still feel it. What a cutting, embarrassingly necessary parable of violence. What a way to stand on the shoulders of Shadow of the Colossus, by taking that moral throughline and wrapping it, head to toe, in the trappings of its time.
What’s weird, though, is I think parables are a bit rubbish. More often than not a parable will do somewhere between most and all of the work for you. You’ll finish up – watching, reading, playing, whatever – and you’ll know exactly what it is that you just consumed, what the point of it was, and what you need to do next, which is usually nothing.
Hotline Miami, a lot of the time, is at real threat of falling into that trap. You are summoned, via anonymous phone call, into a series of ultra-violent raids on various bad guy hideouts, and you obviously oblige. It’s 2012 so naturally, Drive still fresh in the mind, this is set in the late ’80s. It’s a cult hit because it’s indie and violent and has music, and the cult following has nicknamed your character “Jacket”, because he has a cool jacket. Everything is neon, but a sort of grim neon, with a dirty, grainy flicker over the top that could be a sort of VHS effect or could be a glaring sign, as it gradually flickers with more vigor and grunge, that what you’re seeing here isn’t entirely real.
The music pounds – this has to be an all-time great of a soundtrack, you probably thought, buying that lovely collector’s edition vinyl – even if sometimes that wave of synth is a little… off. You are entranced. You go in, you kill, you die, you repeat. It is fast. Post-death resets are instant, finger-snap sharp – take that Dark Souls – and the game is nails. Every now and then you snap out of the trance and actually stop to think, because to really get anywhere in Hotline Miami you can’t just burst in and react; you have to plan. Kill one with a door, another with a bat, knock down another but don’t go for that extended, three skull-smashes-into-the-ground execution, as satisfying as that fourth squelch of confirmation can be, because you’ll get locked into the animation and picked off by another grunt. You get more weapons, more points for style and speed and chained-together death. Maybe you think the meat cleavers, or head stomps, or bat-bludgeoning finishers are a bit much, at times, or maybe not.
And then comes the bit everyone tells you about. All the walks back to the car, eerie-silent through the bodies and the carpet stains, the crimson clashing, sickly, against that lovely sunset pink. All the times where things get weird; where reality warps and the perspective swaps. All the uncertainty: maybe you’re in hospital; maybe this time you’re carving through the police, instead of the mob. Eventually you wind up in front of a couple of janitors in a basement, and they deliver the fourth wall-breaking twist with all the subtlety of a cattle prod. You killed because the game told you to and, let’s face it, none of that extra gristle and gore actually bothered you until now (because this game is a masterpiece of top-down action, for one, but also because you are utterly sold on that American fantasy of violence and supremacy, of true grit and the fetish for good guys with guns).
Deep. Or not! Hotline Miami sounds dreadful when you write it down, and I can imagine it’s dreadful to read about too. Which is the problem, again, with parables, and a problem games are far less equipped to deal with than you might have thought. Time and again we’re led to believe games are unique in their ability to put you, the “agent”, at their heart. You feel that slap of moral imperative with far more force, the lecture goes, because you’re the one doing the killing, not Ryan Gosling or that bloke from Oldboy. But the problem with that is it means there’s only really one parable to tell – the one of vacant guilt and senseless violence by your hands – and it’s one that Hotline Miami has now told, superlatively, already. As a piece of acerbic, brutal criticism it is unparalleled, but as a result of it the conversation about violence in games – namely the fact that there is too much of it, and that it is, for whatever reason, still far too much fun – is over. Hotline Miami’s parable is a masterwork, but it’s also one I never want to play again.