Hotline Miami: Stylish, surreal and sadistic


Warning: this story contains spoilers for the story of Hotline Miami as well as descriptions of graphic gameplay

The early 2010s were a landmark period for the indie market. The survival horror genre would get the acclaimed title Amnesia: The Dark Descent in 2010, whose popularity was only increased by its presence on YouTube. That same year, the platform genre would be blessed with the insanely challenging but ever rewarding Super Meat Boy. One year later, Fez would become a landmark title in the puzzle genre. 

Then, in 2012, a two man dev team released not only one of the most beloved indie games, but a landmark in style and gameplay and often considered one of the greatest video games of all time: Hotline Miami. 

I finally got the chance to play both the first and second Hotline Miami games over Christmas break. I proceeded to play Hotline Miami 1 four separate times on the Xbox One, PS4, PS Vita, and Switch. Needless to say, it lived up to the hype in my eyes. Hotline Miami is an incredibly stylish and unique title with challenging but fun gameplay, a distinctive art style, an incredible soundtrack and a surreal but engaging story. 

Jonatan Söderström (left) and Dennis Wedin (right) are the two man team behind Hotline Miami. They are collectively known as Dennaton games.

First released for PCs in October of 2012, Hotline Miami was later ported to PS3 and PS Vita in 2013, PS4 in 2014, Android in 2015, and finally Nintendo Switch and Xbox as part of the Hotline Miami Collection in 2019 and 2020, respectively. The game was produced by Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, collectively known as Dennaton Games, and published by Devolver Digital. 

The main story takes place in 1980s Miami, and follows an unnamed protagonist – referred to by fans and later the developers themselves as “Jacket” – as he gets strange calls on his answering machine to carry out hits on the Russian Mafia. Söderström and Wedin were heavily influenced by director David Lynch, as well as the 2011 film Drive, when it came to the game’s tone, style, and level of violence. 

The entire game is played from a top down perspective, and features a distinct pixelated artstyle. It is divided into five parts with a total of 19 chapters overall, and each mission gives you one simple goal; kill everyone. This is accomplished with a variety of melee weapons and firearms; from baseball bats, pipes, hammers, and glass to bottles, and shotguns, assault rifles and revolvers. 

The player can choose either to use stealth to dispatch enemies, or go in guns blazing and wipe out everyone as fast as possible. Melee weapons can be used to kill enemies silently, while guns draw any enemies to your vicinity. As you progress through the story and chapters, new enemies are introduced, such as dogs and thugs, the latter of which can only be killed by gunfire. Variety in weapons, boldness, combos and the time it takes you to complete a level all contribute to your score, giving the name plenty of replayability.

An in-game sprite and artwork (created by Hitgunners) of the main character, Jacket. He received the nickname from fans due to his yellow and brown letterman jacket; the character himself is nameless. 

At the beginning of each level, Jacket must choose from a range of animal masks. Each mask, except the default chicken mask ‘Richard’ grants the player different perks. For example, Tony the tiger mask makes your punches lethal (bare fists usually just knock enemies out, requiring you to finish them off), Dennis the wolf mask starts every mission with a knife equipped, Ted the dog mask keeps dogs from attacking you, and Zack the frog mask increases your time window for combos. 

The gameplay itself, while it is fun and fast paced, is also incredibly challenging. Hotline Miami, for me, is one of the games I have so much love for and yet gives me a lot of frustration. To put it simply, Hotline Miami is a very, very hard game, and you will die a lot. Jacket, despite having impressive speed, can only take one hit before he keels over in a splash of blood. 

However, thankfully, dying is hardly the end of it all. Hotline Miami is all about trial and error, and each death is just an opportunity for you to develop a better action plan. The feeling of satisfaction you get when you manage to clear an entire room in one fell sweep is amazing. 

That’s the other thing about this game: It is violent. Very, very violent. Every swing from a baseball bat or knife and every shot from a shotgun or an SMG will result in a large amount of blood and guts showering the floor and walls. 

While it would be easy to dismiss the game for its gore, it has a purpose. The game itself serves as a unique and interesting deconstruction of violent video games and violent media in general. It’s meant to make you think, why do we enjoy violence in media? It also begs the question on where we cross the line. When does the “it’s just a game” excuse become mute? And why exactly do we root for Jacket, who, by all accounts, is a complete sociopath? 

The sadistic and sociopathic nature of the game is hammered home not just by dialogue or story moments, but through game play. At the end of each level, instead of just exiting automatically, you must walk all the way back to your car manually. As you do, you have to look at all the carnage you left after clearing each room. The usually pulse pounding soundtrack is replaced with droning static. The game takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to look at all the violence you wrought. 

The game features a distinctive pixelated artstyle, and is played entirely from a top down perspective. This shows Jacket finishing off an enemy while wearing “Richard”, the rooster mask.

The game itself confronts Jacket and the player’s actions. At the end of each part, Jacket has a hallucination of three figures in masks; these three figures are the horse masked Don Juan, the rooster masked Richard, and the owl masked Rasmus. Each figure represents a different person, with Don Juan being a woman he saves later on, Rasmus being a Russian mobster, and Richard being Jacket himself. 

Due to the different persona adapted by each mask, they each confront Jacket in different ways; 

Don Juan is sympathetic to his plight, Rasmus is hostile towards him, while Richard gives cryptic warning and constantly questions Jacket about his actions. Richard is the most important of the three masks; not only is he featured the most in the game and marketing, he represents the games’ themes. I think of him as the developer addressing the player directly, hammering home what Hotline Miami represents as a whole.

Now, in terms of Jacket’s sociopathy. While he is completely unhinged and is not meant to be a hero, he isn’t devoid of humanity. He may not have any qualms about killing the Russian mobsters in each level, but he doesn’t have the same level of apathy towards others. In the very first level, Jacket vomits after being forced to kill a homeless man who wouldn’t let him leave an alleyway. 

Later, he saves an abused woman from a movie producer (whom he brutally killed). This woman would later become Jacket’s girlfriend (and is Don Juan in Jacket’s hallucinations). So yes, Jacket is undeniably not a hero or even sympathetic, but several signs point to the fact he isn’t truly devoid of kindness or empathy. 

This ultimately goes into the story. Now, to say that Hotline Miami’s story is confusing is putting it mildly. The game constantly blurs the line between what is real and what isn’t, and there are several times where you ask yourself, “What is happening?”. But that’s the beauty of it. 

The main storyline sees Jacket getting strange phone calls on his answering machine, telling him to go to various places to perform jobs; while they are all in code, they all resort to Jacket killing members of the Russian mob. It’s revealed that the organization giving him the calls is “50 Blessings”, a ultra-nationalist group with a strong hatred against the Russians. Jacket can also discover other characters, usually diseased or heavily wounded, wearing animal masks similar to his; this quickly proves Jacket isn’t the only one recruited by 50 Blessings. 

Between each mission, the player is greeted by Beard, who appears to be a friend of Jacket’s and works at every store Jacket enters. However, it’s pretty clear Jacket is an unreliable narrator as the game progresses. While I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, let’s just say Jacket’s perception of reality is heavily affected by something. 

The Russian mafia is just the tip of the iceberg. Another way the game comments of violence is how players only focus on the violent gameplay and nothing else; this directly ties into Jacket’s story, as he’s never able to see the full picture and move past his vendetta against the Russian mob, and believes they are the one who are sending him phone calls. 

The true masterminds are unveiled when you play as Biker, another character encountered during the main story. He’s been receiving the same phone calls as Jacket, but unlike him, has grown bored and wants out. He ultimately goes on a path of learning who sent the phone calls. 

Throughout each chapter, the player can find numerous letters scattered around the map. These letters fill up a puzzle the player can solve in the pause menu when they have enough pieces. This again deals with the aspect of never looking beyond the violence; if you just played the game for the violent action and never paid attention to anything else, the true story would’ve never been revealed. 

Confronting two janitors, the ones sending the phone calls (who you see skulking about in previous levels) at the end of the game without solving the puzzle, will reveal nothing, as the two of them simply taunt you. If you solve the puzzle, however, they will tell you the full story of 50 Blessings and how they recruited several people to their cause and what they plan to do. It’s a nice detail and is meant to show that sometimes, you should look beyond the surface level aspects.

Finally, I want to get into what many people agree is absolutely amazing about the game: The soundtrack. Hotline Miami’s music is the stuff of legend in the indie gaming sphere, and gaming as a whole. Even as someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of electronic music, the pounding tunes that play throughout each level is guaranteed to get your blood pumping. 

French musician Perturbator (left) and Portuguese musician M.O.O.N (right) are just two of the many artists behind Hotline Miami’s iconic synthwave soundtrack.

Artists such as Perturbator, MOON, and Jasper Byrne provide some of the best music the gaming industry has to offer. Whether it’s the hyperactive beep boops of MOON’s “Crystals”, the heart bounding beats of “Vengeance” by Perturbator, or the more relaxed notes of “Miami” by Jasper Byrnes that play at the end of each chapter, each song makes the already fun experience even more enjoyable. The entire soundtrack of both Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2 are available on Spotify, and both are worth a listen on their own. 

All in all, despite its high level of difficult and graphic violence, Hotline Miami is an incredibly fun, rewarding, and engaging title that delivers high octane gameplay, insane replay value, fantastic music, incredibly interesting lore and story, and plenty to think about even after you turn the game off. It’s one of my favorite games ever (not beating Red Dead 2, but up there), and a title I believe everyone should play at least once. 

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