Year of release: October 23, 2012

"Do you enjoy hurting other people?"

Hotline Miami operates with the same brutal elegance as a virus. Deceptively simple in design and its more insidious elements are almost imperceptible to the naked eye, but the infection it's responsible for is something to be marveled.

Why did a title like Hotline Miami make a list of the most important and best games of the last five years? Cursory evaluations may credit the game’s impeccable music direction, the glorification of its deeply rewarding, visceral violence, or the seemingly innocuous decision to create a top down 2D shooter that intentionally forces your guard down thanks to a triggered nostalgia response in your brain. But the game is phenomenal on those levels and many more.

These baseline explanations barely begin to justify the wholly welcome experience of Hotline. Visually, Hotline Miami is representative of the contemporary trend of embracing the medium’s Neolithic forebears. Titles that bill themselves as ‘retro’ ‘vintage-inspired’ and ‘16-bit throwbacks’ are found everywhere with varying degrees of success. Hotline Miami distinguishes itself by employing a visual minimalism that camouflages the title’s jarring and gloriously disturbing narrative. 

No conversation about the game can be had without immediately addressing the influence of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive. Dennaton Games, a team composed of Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, have stated that film was instrumental in creating Hotline Miami’s aesthetic. Both pieces of media employ the same brutal economy of tension punctuated by instants of extreme violence. Hotline Miami's nameless protagonist has been dubbed jacket by fans, as both Gosling's Driver and Miami’s Jacket share a fondness for varsity letter jackets and the complete lack of a given name. It is this anonymity that is the first clue of Hotline Miami's deeper thematic thrust.

The game employs a wraith like effectiveness through its narrative, soundtrack, and gameplay. You may not even realize the deeper themes and sub-text that exist, but they are there, they are challenging you, and they are amazingly fucked up.

The gameplay is simple: you receive a voicemail recording of a location and a target. Simple. Go to point A, assassinate target B. And just like that the player is unquestioningly off to perform some of the most admirable ultra-violence found in recent games. Each stage is broken down into multiple sections where players traverse the interiors of apartment buildings, hotels, and condos. The shooting/moving mechanic is such a finely-tuned test of gaming reflex, you only start to master it after you've been cut in half by a gangster's shotgun for the thirtieth time. The learning curve is steep, but also extremely gratifying. You are going to die. A lot. And with each successive death, you are forced to come to terms with the fact that you suck and you better step it up. It's an instant gratification kept warm by the arterial spray of another murdered gangster.

The game employs a wraith like effectiveness through its narrative, soundtrack, and gameplay. You may not even realize the deeper themes and sub-text that exist, but they are there, they are challenging you, and they are amazingly fucked up.

The player is introduced to the game through a conversation with three masked figures in your squalrous apartment. An owl, a chicken, and a horse inhabit the decay that is your living space. Or, perhaps, this isn't your home at all. Perhaps these three figures merely exist as components of your very fractured psyche. Perhaps all of this is just happening in your mind, and there exists no justification for your unhinged brutality other than the shortcomings of your own psychology. How can we trust anything if we can't even trust ourselves?

Employing the literary device of the unreliable narrator, the game unfolds as an exploration of pervasive mental sickness as much as a game about executing targets as a hitman. The shifting, out-of-sync chronology only furthers the notion that events can not be take at their given value. Not to spoil any of the major plot points of the title, but it becomes clearer and clearer that this game is asking bigger questions of the player than originally advertised on the tin.

Who is leaving you these messages? What is the impetus behind these spectacular acts of violence? Am I even control of my own actions? Is this all just a hallucination?

It is with these questions that Hotline Miami begins to reveal the larger themes it represents. How accepting of violence in video games have we as a culture become? How comfortable are we with bashing in the head of an enemy and then leaning down to silence him by slitting that enemy's throat to end the threat he represents?

Hotline Miami is a prism that refracts and reflects. In our Grand Theft Auto/Call of Duty world, how at home with violence have we been conditioned to be?

The real trick is how subversive Hotline actually is. By forcing you to move so quickly that you are never really given adequate time to pose these questions. You check your messages. You return to your car. You have to kill again. You aren't given a moment to consider just how comfortable you are, and in turn, all of us have become with how secondary our reactions to violence have become.