"Sure I Like Hurting Other People!": Hotline Miami and the Paradox of Justified Violence

by osbornep, last updated 02 Jun 2014 04:06


In the discussion over highly enjoyable-yet-confusing-as-all-hell Hotline Miami, there seem to be two distinct recurring narratives: According to the first, Hotline Miami is indeed largely another post-Bioshock game, holding the player accountable for actions his avatar must take simply in order to complete the game.1 According to the second, Hotline Miami challenges the very idea of a game narrative; the critique of game violence is there, to be sure, but the game is largely making the case for the ludologist's approach to games and systems.2 But I'm increasingly convinced that Hotline Miami isn't primarily critique of either game violence or game narrative, and I think that seeing the game in this way might tie together a lot of the disparate threads left dangling by existing interpretations.

In my view, Hotline Miami isn't trying to dispense with either violence or narrative, but the combination of the two: Hotline Miami questions our habit of creating narrative pretexts for violence. The only possible and sufficient justification of violence in a game lies simply in the fact that it is a game, that it isn't real, and that hey, you're are not actually killing anyone. Where we get into trouble is precisely when we try to go beyond this and search for a justification of the violence within the narrative. The basic conceit of the game's critique is to frustrate this search at every possible turn.

A brief (and highly spoilerific) summary

Even summarizing the events of Hotline Miami is no easy task,3 but I'll make the attempt anyway. Our tale takes place in Miami, 1989, and centers around an unnamed protagonist, dubbed "Jacket" by fans.4 Jacket receives mysterious phone calls telling him to go to specific addresses to perform seemingly mundane tasks, like showing out of town guests a good time or some such banalities. The real task, it always turns out, is to go to the location and kill everyone there.

After "rescuing" (almost certainly the wrong choice of word) a girl who was seemingly being drugged and abused by someone who appears to be a pornographic movie producer, Jacket (apparently) begins a relationship with her. And around a third of the way through the game, Jacket gets a phone call during a mission asking him to take care of a 'prank caller' at the phone company (called "Phonehom"). When he gets there, he finds that a biker (called "Biker") has killed everyone there and is attempting to access a computer. Jacket kills Biker with a golf club, and from this point things start getting super weird.

Later on, an assassin named Richter kills Jacket's girlfriend and then shoots Jacket himself. The injuries leave Jacket in a coma for several weeks. When he awakens, Jacket tracks Richter to a police station and kills everyone there to get to him. Richter points him in the direction of the police case files, which in turn eventually lead Jacket to a Russian mob leader. Jacket kills the mob leader, walks onto a balcony, lights a cigarette and throws a polaroid off the balcony; we never see the picture ourselves. Roll credits.

The story suddenly 'rewinds' to several days before the encounter with Biker at Phonehom. We find out that Biker is also getting mysterious phone calls, but he's getting frustrated and instead of doing as instructed, he's searching for answers. His search leads him to Phonehom, where he encounters Jacket and kills him easily.56 Later, he is led to a sewer where he encounters two janitors who have been orchestrating the phone calls all along. These characters are obviously developer stand-ins. At this point, two endings are possible:

In the vanilla ending, the janitors tell Biker that they orchestrated the murders because they were bored, and hey, you're the one actually carrying out the murderers, so who are you to criticize them? In the secret ending (obtained by entering a password into a computer just outside the sewers; the password is acquired if Jacket obtained the clues in the first fifteen missions of the game), the janitors tell Biker that they are members of a super secret ultra-nationalist organization called "50 Blessings"; they hope that their actions against the Russian mob will somehow destabilize the burgeoning "Russo-American coalition."7 In both endings, Biker has the option to either kill or spare the developers. And that's it.

Who is leaving messages on your answering machine?

Hotline Miami's concerted effort to frustrate the player's search for answers (and hence, justifications) begins with the content of the phone calls themselves, which are constructed in such a way as to have no possible relation to the actions the player actually takes: What exactly does "watching over the kids for a while" have to do with killing Russian mobsters? Here, Hotline Miami is reversing the standard order of action game story-telling; whereas ordinarily the player is provided with the narrative background which contextualizes and explains the later violence, we here begin with the brute fact of the violence itself, which immediately invites the question, "Why?"

The second, and more subtle way in which the game undermines our efforts to rationalize the violence is by introducing some of the standard justificatory tropes for violence, only to completely undercut their power to justify moments later. The first such trope comes from the identity of the enemies themselves; they're Russian mobsters, a stable villain if there ever was one. Yet beyond the fact that he is getting these cryptic phone calls, Jacket appears to have little discernible motivation for taking violent action against them; at any rate, he is most certainly not taking a principled stance against violent crime. The standard justificatory trope is detached from its function as a justification for violence.

After Jacket's girlfriend is killed, we appear to have a clear motivation for the violence, and an expectation that the game will become a fairly standard revenge fantasy. Yet the killer is already in custody at a police station, so Jacket's first mission after escaping the hospital is to raid the police station and kill everyone there so he can get to the assassin who almost killed him. So much for any semblance of moral high ground; once again, we are denied the possibility of providing a meaningful rationale for the violence of our player avatar. The killer himself provides little to no information, and what he does provide leads to an encounter with a Russian mob boss who, as it later turns out, had nothing to do with the killings at all.

Where are you right now?

While minimizing the significance of in-game justifications for violence, the game makes us aware of its preferred out-of-game justification by repeatedly making us take note of its own artifice as a game. On several occasions during the non-combat sequences, we encounter enemy characters with wounds that appear obviously fatal, but who blithely mind their own business and ask us, "What the fuck are you looking at?" After Chapter 8, Jacket enters a video store wherein he sees the headless body of Biker writhing on the ground. The video store owner8 then kindly informs the protagonist that none of this is real, whereupon we get a few instantaneous moments of static covering the screen, followed by the reveal that the body of biker is no longer there.

Initially, these events may be taken to indicate that Jacket himself is somehow losing his mind, or that the events depicted aren't "real" or "canon" within the context of the game. But I think it may be more precise to say that within the game world, the appearance/reality distinction ultimately has no application at all. This becomes evident with the split between Jacket and Biker's versions of events. Which set of events is "real?" My inclination is to say, "neither." Both Jacket and Biker's stories are equally unreal in the sense that they're both part of a video game which doesn't depict real life events. To search for an in-universe explanation of the apparent inconsistency is precisely to miss the point.

In forcing us to confront the gamey-ness of the game, Hotline Miami is simultaneously giving us the answers, at the meta level, that we were so desperately seeking at the in-universe level. What justifies video game violence is that causing sprites to spray red pixels and overcoming the challenges of the game is just plain fun. In Biker's standard ending, the final encounter with the developer-avatars make this explicit, revealing that the killings were every bit as pointless as they seemed; the developers did it because they were bored, and hey, that's why you did it too, isn't it?

Why are we having this conversation?

Let's suppose that the picture I've painted is generally correct; that leaves us with the following obvious question: If justifying violence is such a bad idea, why is this so? Hotline Miami's answer to this question is political in nature: When we give ourselves reasons to do harm, we make an implicit rightward political shift towards nationalism and, in the worst of cases, fascism. This is because we have tacitly equated goodness with the ability to use force, and more often than not, that force is wielded in defense of the existing social order.9 This political thrust is made most explicit in the secret ending, where it is revealed that our developer stand-ins reveal their membership in the ultra-nationalistic secret organization "50 Blessings."10 In response to their conspiratorial ravings, Biker simply dismisses them: "You've wasted enough of my time. I have no interest in politics."

In its characteristically over-the-top way, Hotline Miami is calling attention to the highly nationalistic character of much video game violence: Whether it's killing brown-skinned terrorists in most modern military shooters or playing a vigilante who goes outside the law to enforce the law, video game protagonists have a way of enforcing the status quo through violent action. The setting and aesthetic of Hotline Miami further reinforce the distinctively American character of this kind of narrative violence: i.e. the 80's as the height of American capitalistic excess, Russian enemies, the ubiquitous Miami Vice-esque white suits, etc.11

In making these observations, Hotline Miami does not break any particularly new ground. The idea that action-oriented stories, in equating goodness with the use of violence in defense of the status quo, have a fascistic strain has been around since well before Pauline Kael's review of Dirty Harry. And if we are being fair, then we have to note that the right by no means has the monopoly on politically motivated violence in media. It's certainly possible in principle to have a leftist action movie or game12, although it is relatively rare in comparison.

More significantly, there is an instability at the heart of the game's critique of narratively-excused violence. On the one hand, to show us why it's bad to give reasons for killing people as opposed to pixels, the game must call into attention the horrific nature of such violence: Thus we get some of the more gruesome sequences, like Jacket lighting a person on fire in Chapter 11, etc. But to make the case for its own existence, Hotline Miami must simultaneously trivialize that same violence by reminding us that after all, it is just a game. One moment, the killings will seem horrific, and the next, they seem trivial. Hotline Miami struggles to find the balance between these two disparate poles of its critique, and consequently ends up as a game not entirely sure what its own critique is. This underlying tension may explain some of the confusion over the meaning of the game.

Still, the game asks the right questions, and with reservations, I find myself in broad agreement with its answers. In the typical action game, the violence is not a means to tell the story; rather, the story is a means to tell the violence, which is the end in itself. What we are ultimately after is a reason to go about killing lots of pixelated persons without having to feel bad about ourselves, and at the end of the day, it seems that the most honest way of doing this is to simply admit that we do it because we're bored, and shooting people is fun.13


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