There is an intangible charm and style to Devolver Digital’s Hotline Miami. Devolver Digital frames the game as a frantic David Lynch-like fever dream. The game’s stylishly low-fi 16bit-styled top-down action is fast, brutal, but most important of all, deeply satisfying.
From the onset of starting the game, it is apparent that Hotline Miami borrows from a faux-80s milieu and tone that is now chic and in vogue in popular culture. To that end, Hotline Miami uses an incredible soundtrack, visual aesthetics, and a fairly quiet protagonist – much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 neo-noir crime film Drive – to create an experience that is as tense as it is attractive to look at.
The game opens up with the player entering their apartment to a waiting panel of masked men who accuse the player of doing terrible things to them previously. The mystery of what transpired is then unraveled via flashback. The game’s murder-filled levels then begin to fill in the gaps as to what exactly happened, complete with a set of twists that bend the player’s perception of what is real in the game’s world and what is not.
Over the course of 19 levels, the player kills their way towards finding answers, to seek revenge, and then to find closure and clarity. As ultra-violence is the core interactive component in game, it is hard for the game to express any other design concept. From the very beginning of the game, the player’s core objective is to gruesomely maim and murder everyone on the level. There is no deviation from that core objective. Hotline Miami’s use of violence, unfortunately, becomes its one defining identity. The perception that the game repeatedly plays upon one core concept can be easily perceived as a nihilistic celebration of violence and gore.
The arterial spray and the occasional dismemberment caused by machetes, lead pipes, and firearms are ultimately superficial and secondary to the game’s core mechanics. Hotline Miami’s core strength, rather, is its action puzzle gameplay. The game is built on a simple rule set of interactive verbs – or better put, “things to do”. Limited to only attacking, throwing items, and stunning nearby enemies with doors, the player is tasked with clearing out a stage of highly lethal mobsters. The limited amount of player action is then coupled with a system of perks and buffs. At the start of every level, the player has a choice from a variety of animal masks, each granting the player unique passive abilities to be used in the level. A horse mask, for instance, allows the player to kill enemies if an opened door strikes them. A wolf mask gives the player a knife at the beginning of a level, therein by giving the player a tactical advantage from the onset. The masks, in slightly modifying gameplay , allows for the player to experiment with different combinations and gameplay styles.
Without any reprieve from the carnage, however, Hotline Miami is forced to place all its weight on the game’s level design – something that it does fairly well to challenge the player and force them to experiment. Enemies are fairly predictable in their AI routines and pathing. The game outright encourages to use the AI’s predictability to the player’s advantage. A loud noise from a firearm will predicatively bring curious nearby enemies to investigate, allowing the player to set up a bottle neck to simplify the enemy encounters. This kind of a tactic, though, comes from the required experimentation.
Death comes easy in Hotline Miami. Not only is player death expected, it is essentially required. Unlike other action games, save for Super Meat Boy, Hotline Miami uses player death not as a cudgel of punishment, but rather as a teaching tool. After a few minutes of dying and learning the layout of a level, the player becomes invested. Late segments of a level become a matter of pulling off a combination of timing, skill, and judgment – to the point that it amasses an incredible amount of tension. It is not uncommon to give a large breath of relief when a level is completed.
Hotline Miami, though, also stands as a thesis on the use of violence in video games. Since violence is the only available player interaction, Hotline Miami joins in on the discussion on the nature of violence mechanics in video games in general. At the end of the game, the protagonist asks the masterminds behind the game’s carnage “why” – or more to the point, “why did you have me do such terrible things.” Their reply was simply, “because.”
Devolver Digital’s point of view on violence is similar. Violence in video games is everywhere. It is only when it becomes as pronounced, however, as it is in Hotline Miami that the player begins to question it. Hotline Miami is ultimately subversive in that it points out that the heritage of games has always been rooted in violence – it just was always in the abstract. After all, Mario stomps and kills in order to save a woman who has been violently kidnapped. The narrative arc is as dark and violent as Hotline Miami, only Devolver Digital is willing to allow the violence in the narrative and mechanics exist as they are without abstraction.
Hotline Miami, being worth the purchase for the soundtrack alone, may not be the best game this year; but it certainly is the most stylish. What makes Hotline Miami so special, though, is that its style is ultimately counter-culture to how modern games are presented. Devolver Digital proves that a game does not need to be a bombastic AAA game from a massive studio and an equally large budget to be great. 
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: Dennaton Games
Classification: R16 – Violence, Offensive Language and Sexual Themes