What if Fight Club came out today? What if there was a sequel? Would the franchise still be as well-received?
I might be dating myself here, but I remember when Fight Club was considered to be the height of edgy commentary. Everyone I knew was really into the film, particularly my male peers. After a while, I found myself caring a lot less about it than they did. “Reclaiming masculinity through violence” was not a new idea at the time, and it definitely did not seem to me like a groundbreaking reaction to the perception that our culture is somehow overly feminized. In short, the more I grew up, the less I liked Fight Club. It started to be a sort of ideological litmus test over time, too. If I met someone who liked Fight Club a whole lot, that often turned out to be a sign that they really bought into its’ themes.
In that vein, have you ever considered that Hotline Miami as a franchise was never good?
The reviews have been coming in fast and furious for Hotline Miami 2, and many have bemoaned the mechanical and narrative aspects and claimed that it’s a shoddy sequel to what was arguably a strong first game. The game’s pace has slowed due to expanded level sizes, and the story is overall extremely weak. What made the first game enjoyable was the heightened mood, the unforgiving difficulty and the potent aesthetics coming together to a taut murder-fest. The sequel, however, undoes the successful format of the first. Does it also serve to highlight that maybe neither game can stand up over time?
The things that supposedly made Hotline Miami great feel incongruous to how we receive new games coming out now. In an era where we’re poo-pooing other titles for leaning too far into “apolitical” violence simulation (like Hatred, for instance), Hotline Miami 2’s failure is only that it didn’t live up to the hype that the first game set. I believe that despite Hotline Miami only coming out 3 years ago, its time has already passed.
Media is not always as timeless we’d like to believe, especially now in the time of instant reaction and ever-changing political awareness. Many things we liked at one point become irrelevant and even offensive when we return to them years later, since we are always growing and changing as people. For example, Breakfast At Tiffany’s is still considered a classic for any film buff, but modern audiences cannot help but be struck by the film’s discomfiting racism and orientalism. Some stuff I remembered being really into even just a couple of years ago don’t survive a second re-watch or play-through without seeing all the issues. (My love of Bioshock comes to mind.)
Given the swift current of discourse in games that has been growing with each passing year, it feels like games are going to have to keep growing up right along with us—or else stagnate in the process. This is absolutely perpendicular to how game franchises are built, though. Think of it this way: Bioshock first came out 2007 and put out its last game in 2013. While many of the mechanics and graphics became more advanced, attitudes towards the narratives and themes in the story changed rapidly. It wasn’t that the game improved so much as that we did.
The games industry places its faith in sure bets, and franchises are the surest. Every year we get another Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, and I feel that every year the criticism of their core themes will become more and more pronounced for this reason.
Hotline Miami is a product of the time when the first game came out, hence the praise it received upon release. Had it remained one game, I believe that it would have withstood most criticism just based on the brevity of the experience. Borrowing heavily from the popularity of a film with a similar aesthetic (Drive), it captured what has consistently been a mode of heavily masculinized cool: the lone, silent male anti-hero, whose violence is explicit and extreme, but justified. Hotline Miami certainly got ahead of what many games have attempted by aping a cinematic sensibility, but unlike Drive, it chastised us for enjoying the violence we just participated in. Looking back now, however, I don’t think it was doing anything special compared to other games from that same time period, and I don’t feel it was particularly an important game. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone today.
Hotline Miami, like Fight Club, seized on men who felt that the game’s treatises on masculinity were somehow smarter, better than other fare that was less disaffected or nihilistic. I theorize that ultimately, Hotline Miami was elevated by games critics and players because thematically, the maladjusted loner speaks to emotionally sensitive men. These are men who are socially aware, who secretly want to play Call of Duty but who also feel that they shouldn’t enjoy Call of Duty as much as they do. They feel that games like Call of Duty (or perhaps, games like the aforementioned Hatred) are somehow a distinctively different kind of violence, one that is too deeply embedded in an aspirational power fantasy with which they want nothing to do. How then, though, do they reconcile the similarities? Maybe this is where their disappointment comes flooding back in.
With Hotline Miami 2, the franchise took too long and shot too high while saying too little. We want our violence to be free of limp moralizing but also not pornographic. The game’s return to filmic techniques like multiple points of view, or tricks like the “pull-back” on a sexually violent scene, read as confusing and vapid rather than fresh and revelatory. The bloodshed has become unmoored from the aesthetic gloss, and the tempo is too slow and careful. It is no longer fun in the way we remember it being. That time has passed.
We are, perhaps, better people now.
Nico is a feminist media critic and curmudgeon who lives with in the Midwest. She self-publishes at her blog Apple Cider Mage , podcasts at Justice Points and can be found on Twitter at @applecidermage .