Violence is horrible. It’s terrifying. It’s fast. It’s primal. It’s exhausting. I’ve been a victim of it. Shamefully, I’ve been a perpetrator of it. I even judge it being professionally applied. But too often in video games, violence is simple. It’s easy. Mundane. This isn’t news to us. It’s simple to criticise videogames for their over-reliance on this most base form of interaction. So I don’t intend to. I intend to talk about a game that did it right.
Hotline Miami makes violence even easier than the average game – a single click will end a life, but any hit will end yours too. It’s shockingly realistic like that. No one in real life takes a shot from a baseball bat and keeps going. That’s the most terrifying aspect of Hotline Miami and the most devious element of it’s design. Each enemy kill requires a single click, until that enemy is rendered helpless. Then you have to take further action to follow up your attacks.
Space. You straddle your victim’s chest.
Click click click. You beat a skull into pulp.
Click. You slit a throat.
Click. You pour boiling water over a face.
Click click click. You hack a head from the body.
Click click click click click click click click click click. You strangle the life from an innocent man.
It was late into my playthrough when I noticed this evil bit of design. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Hotline Miami has gotten a lot of coverage about how it’s plot addresses violence in games, but it was never the plot that got me thinking about violence and it’s impact in that game. It was always the actions I took as a player and often I wouldn’t realise the change in gameplay until my second or third time through. Why did it take so much more effort to kill an innocent man? Why did I have no choice but to kill this man? Was it demonstrating that the character was completely irredeemable? Was it a temporary loss of control? Had I as the player assumed that murder was the only answer and killed simply because it was what I expected to do?
I have been trained to be a killer in games. In Hitman I no longer hesitate to kill a bystander who saw the wrong thing. In ArmA I’ve learned how to hit my target from 1500m away with careful calculation and observation. I’ve chainsawed Locust in half in Gears of War and torn cyclopean eyes from heads in God of War. I’ve often thought “this seems gratuitous” while playing, but Hotline Miami was the first game to make me think “this is wrong”. All with just a few clicks.
I’m intrigued by the developers very deliberate choice to tease threatened sexual assault in the Hotline Miami 2 press campaign. It’s a dangerous area in which to tread and has already met with criticism including an excellent interview at Rock Paper Shotgun . I want to believe that they can handle it with the same aplomb with which they skewered the ease of violence as design and grammar in the original. I want to believe that it isn’t just cheap titillation aimed at creating buzz, but they’re treading on far more dangerous ground.