I used to think Hotline Miami did a neat job dicing up the classic tropes of American masculinity that have dominated various media forms for decades. I still think it might, but I get the sense that no one else—including the game’s developers—sees the same lampoon I do. I feel all the more doubtful of my interpretation the more I hear about Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
The end of the original Hotline ties up all of its loose ends by allowing its contract killer protagonist to murder the men who run his crime ring, thus preventing future deaths (and future games—or so we thought). The heroes of Hotline Miami 2, a game presumably demanded by and made for fans rather than for the sake of continuing Hotline’s wrapped up narrative, features fans as its protagonists. In the world of Hotline Miami 2, the original protagonist of the first Hotline Miami has been elevated to cult status by folks who want to follow in his murderous footsteps.
Given that the leaders of the crime ring in Hotline Miami intentionally resemble the developers of the game, the second game’s story about fans keeping the killings alive feels about as subtle as a two-by-four. Bonus points for the next-level Fight Club parallel, as that’s a comparison I’ve made since the first game: It doesn’t matter if Jack (or Jacket) leaves his life of violence behind. The seed has been planted. The inherent violence has been awakened in everyone around him. Well, all of the men around him. Because men are violent. Get it?
In discussing Hotline and Hotline Miami 2 with friends and fellow critics, I often find myself deflecting back on the “intent” of the game, the “intent” of the authors. “Surely they meant this to be satirical—look at all of these indicators within the game that the writers are in on the joke,” I’ll say, as though I’m the only one who got my Dennaton Games Decoder Ring in the mail. But if almost everyone else thinks that Hotline Miami is playing its tropes straight, then perhaps Dennaton fell short of its mark. Or, perhaps I overshot and became a victim of Poe’s Law.
With the first Hotline, Dennaton managed to have their cake and eat it too: They made a game smart enough that games critics would fall over themselves explaining that Hotline’s violence had purpose and meaning and was an unexpected commentary on masculinity. Meanwhile, 99% of the people playing the game mowed down their enemies and bobbed their heads to the beats in complete sincerity.
Overwrought interpretation or no, I went along for the ride with Hotline Miami because I felt like I was in on the joke. Hotline Miami 2, on the other hand, seems to have thrown out Hotline’s original notes. Hotline Miami 2 opens with a campy, staged rape scene that takes place on a film set; you play the part of the rapist. It involves a classic double-take: You commit rape, and then you find out you’re just an actor! Sorry, did I say “classic”? I meant “horrifying”. Nothing about this scene feels familiar. No videogame has ever done this. It’s not a send-up of anything, other than the contents of my stomach.
In the original Hotline Miami, I committed many a deplorable crime, but all of my actions followed classic videogame logic: I killed people (and dogs) with methodical precision, stole weapons and threw them like projectiles, opened doors into people’s backs in order to instantly murder them (?), all while wearing a goofy animal mask that gave me super-powers (???). All of that fell within the scope of bizarre videogame and action movie tropes, but not necessarily the scope of reality (how often do people die from having a gun thrown at them?). But I’ve never played a videogame that demanded that I rape someone. Rape definitely qualifies as an oft-mishandled trope across action genres, but the inclusion of it here doesn’t make sense as a satirical commentary on anything.
There are videogames that will allow—nay, encourage you to commit that particular crime. Recently, my mother heard that the videogame RapeLay existed; she demanded that I justify “how people let this happen,” and I found myself responding that no one can keep an independent game developer from creating whatever the heck they want, no matter how vile or nonsensical it is. But what purpose is there in creating a game that includes rape without any attempt to comment on the presentation of rape in other forms of media? Players will feel discomfited by this sequence in Hotline Miami 2—but to what end?
Although I am disappointed that Hotline Miami 2 seems more interested in upsetting me with misplaced discomfort rather than in charming me with its satire (“intended” or not), Dennaton Games does get to make whatever kind of art they want, including bad art. I am mostly disappointed that these games aren’t as smart as I thought they were, or at least, that the games as a set of two do not appear to be as cohesive nor as tightly planned as I had imagined they would be.
I can’t speak for my fellow critics, but the dialogue around Hotline has me reevaluating the entire concept of “commentary” or “satire” in media, especially games. Take, for example, Jason Rohrer’s The Castle Doctrine, an upcoming indie multiplayer game in which players take on the role of a white patriarch with a wife and kids. These fathers and their families live in a dog-eat-dog neighborhood that requires them to decide between bulking up their home defenses, looting other homes, or both (bonus: actual dogs are involved, presumably for literal dog-eat-dog action…or as a Hotline Miami callback). Presumably, an enterprising player might win a Man of the Year award if they kill everybody else on their server.
The concept of The Castle Doctrine unnerved rather than intrigued me even after I read that Rohrer hoped the game would serve as a commentary on American masculinity tropes, rather than as a celebration or endorsement of them. The game may well live up to what Rohrer intends for it to be, but that remains to be seen. When I play a game, I have to put aside whatever interviews I’ve read or marketing I’ve seen and look at what’s in front of me. Even if I try to abide by “death of the author” rules as best I can, I still come into a game with the bias of my own lived experience, my own inability to empathize perfectly with—say—Jason Rohrer’s experience.
The inspiration for The Castle Doctrine.
When Jason Rohrer appeared in the comments on the piece about him at Gamasutra to fret that people “are already misreading so much about the game,” and when he wrote multipleblogposts attempting to clarify what his game would be about, I felt myself shaking my head involuntarily. So few people will read all of these defenses or see all of these explanations. This conversation, this controversy, which felt so important to a handful of critics and developers in the industry, would in all likelihood never be seen by most players. Players will approach this game, and most other games they play, with little to no knowledge about the creator’s intent. The games will have to stand on their own.
It’s the job of Rohrer, and of Dennaton Games, and of all creators, to make their game’s experiences accessible—unless, of course, there is no intended meaning and no hope of a takeaway, in which case, all bets are off. Maybe these games should unnerve their players; maybe we are meant to hate either ourselves or the societies presented therein. But how many videogame players (or videogame critics) need to walk away with that understanding before a game can be considered a successful satire? Does a game still count as satirical if almost no one sees the joke?
Such is both the blessing and the curse of punk DIY games, which is how I feel I must refer to these two games, as both seem interested in bucking “the system” (albeit in a way that appears to be about as subversive as a Green Day record, but the rest of that argument will have to wait until after I’ve played the games). For indies, the challenge is to make an artistic statement that can also make bank. How do you manage both? If you’re making Call of Duty, at least you don’t have to worry about your indie cred. But if you’re worried about paying your rent next month, then it might be tempting to turn your subversive critique into a more commercial product.
I feel sorry for these indie developers, but only up to a point. Just as Green Day “sold out”, and just as the most successful faces of punk rock were the white-washed, easily digested ones, so too have many rising indie game developers fretted about selling out. Meanwhile, the developers who get popular enough to even have this worry tend to be the white, straight, male ones. You want to be a rock star, but you also want to have a house in the suburbs, right? Meanwhile, the indies who actually buck the system tend to be the ones you never hear about on mainstream sites. Ca, c’est la vie boheme.
I understand the contradictory dream of wanting to make art on your own terms while also getting paid for it. What I don’t understand is the insistence that critics laud games like Hotline Miami or The Castle Doctrine for pushing the envelope at all. “Don’t you want to support original and personal and different kinds of games?” No, not really, not if they aren’t very good.
The Castle Doctrine
These two games appear to stay well within the expected bounds of what mainstream games convey: a white man who battles his own violent demons. The Castle Doctrine, for example, features a narrative about anxious fatherhood, just like two other popular videogames from this year. And Hotline Miami borrows so many tropes from Drive and other action franchises that its creators banned further questions about Drive and about the game’s violence at Gamescom (that ban may or may not have been a joke, much like the game itself). The game’s inexplicable rape scene, meanwhile, remains a baffling pitfall.
It would be easier for me to believe that these two games and others like them were making commentaries on masculinity if I felt like anything was truly at stake for the creators. Instead, from where I sit, these developers seem to be playing their tropes a little too straight, so far. But, of course, they have a paycheck to worry about. They can’t alienate anybody too much, lest people not buy the game. It seems like the people who they want to buy the game include folks who buy into the un-ironic male power fantasy offered by mainstream gaming companies.
I admit I hold a smaller independent game to a higher standard than big budget games in previews and in early marketing stages. I assume the creators have a more cohesively realized vision, given the smaller staff involved, and I know the press releases aren’t written by a packaged team of PR professionals. I can read interviews and see that the developer hasn’t had any training on what talking points to say. And there’s the added bonus of potentially meeting the creator at an event, getting to question them in a website’s comment section, and seeing that person as human, as real—not as a distant millionaire or grinning celebrity.
All of that theoretical freedom is why I feel so disappointed when an indie game seems to play the same tropes straight that its mainstream big brothers do, either to make a buck or get a cheap shock-driven moment that doesn’t serve the game’s greater theoretical message. Compromises must be made to appeal to the lowest common denominator—but is this really the best indies can do? An embarrassingly mishandled rape scene, clearly included as shock value rather than as an attempt to fit any kind of theme? Tired clichés about fatherhood, presented as a commentary on…what, the overuse of clichés? Am I playing an indie game, or The Last of Us?
Is it not possible to create a mainstream product that critiques toxic masculinity narratives and power fantasies without simultaneously embracing them? I don’t know. But I do know that any game that does both at once won’t impress me so easily, next time. You fooled me once, Hotline Miami, but in so doing, you raised the bar. I expect more from my social commentary games, now. I expect them to actually commentate, as opposed to just presenting me with horrors and exclaiming, “oh, the humanity!” Prove to me that there’s something behind your bluster, a substance underneath your shock value veneer. If you can’t, I know some indies who haven’t sold out yet, and I think they could use my money and my attention a little more than you.
Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.