Mar 21, 2021

10 min read

You Can’t Stop Worrying: Hotline Miami 2, The Apocalypse, and The Greatest Ending in Video Games

24th April 2012: Telltale Games release The Walking Dead: Season 1, setting alight a new-found appreciation for their episodic gameplay, and the moment-to-moment narrative choices that affect the story. The horrific downfall of Lee Everett showcases a character study in which a man seems to believe he has no other choice than the predetermined notion of doing the right thing. He realizes too late that his actions have consequences.

26th June 2012: Yager Software released Spec Ops: The Line, bringing forth a new wave of discussion not just for linear narratives, but the ethical nature of contemporary war shooters. The horrific downfall of Capt. Martin Walker showcases a character study in which a man seems to believe he has no other choice than the predetermined notion of doing the right thing. He realizes too late that his actions have consequences.

23rd October 2012: Dennaton Games release Hotline Miami, and becomes an overnight sensation due to its simplistic gameplay, addictive soundtrack, and hyper-fast, hyper-stylized hyper-violence. The horrific downfall of the eponymous Jacket showcases a character study in which a man seems to believe he has no other choice than the predetermined notion of losing control. He realizes too late that his actions have consequences.

“Richard”, the ambivalent character of Hotline Miami, asks the protagonist whether they “like hurting other people”.

Now, these 3 things are connected, beyond similar paragraphs. 2012 saw a renewed interest in pushing narrative concepts in video games as far as they could go, with these 3 games taking wildly different paths. The Walking Dead became an over-saturated blueprint for a company desperately attempting to ignore the idea of a mortal coil, Spec Ops saw a slew of companies desperately attempting to copy the now over-saturated blueprint. Hotline Miami, however? That became its own impenetrable bubble.

It wasn’t just the violence, or the style, or the soundtrack, or the story. It was a perfect storm of aesthetics, something alluring and hypnotic, even while simply looking at it. Hotline Miami is a cultural touchstone in terms of not just what it offered, but the inspirations its visual flavors left behind, almost single-handedly responsible for making Devolver Digital, synthwave, and neon fonts a mainstay.

That being said, a large portion of Hotline Miami can be considered “fucked up”. Despite being so simplistic in gameplay presentations, it’s the executions that Jacket can take part in that can make you squirm, even in undefined pixelated bit-form, an evergreen example being the boiling pot. Throw the contents of the pot at an enemy, and watch the pixels bubble, melting the face and staining the pristine Miami Vice get-up these mobsters are wearing, all while M|O|O|N plays in the background.

One believes that this orgy of blood, violence, and fire was something that Dennaton Games were acutely aware of. During a Reddit AMA in 2015, Dennis Wedin stated that Videodrome, Fight Club, and Alice in Wonderland were some of the critical inspirations for Hotline Miami’s narrative. This, in turn, only helped to elevate the hyper-violent core gameplay designs, able to stand on its own two feet with more ambiguous inspirations.

Part of the genius came from the 2010s new-found affinity for 3 decades ago; the 1980s, a decade dedicated solely to bad hair-dos, keytars, and a culture bordering the line between vivacity and nihilism. The Cold War soldiered on in the background, with the battles being fought with red tape rather than spilling red, and the USA comparing the size of their nuclear armaments with the former Soviet Union. Only one thing felt certain, and that was Mutually Assured Destruction.

It was a concept and possibility that the decade itself pondered and bought to life in media. The UK was responsible for two of the most harrowing tales regarding a nuclear apocalypse, those being the made-for-TV drama Threads, and the animated film When The Wind Blows. Both explored the aftermaths of what would happen to the smaller guys standing in-between the two global superpowers, and both came to the same conclusion: That no one would be the winner in this metaphorical fight over the bigger boots.

A character with a face mask from the 1984 film Threads

This has always been the case though, hasn’t it? The art of letting that mushroom cloud fill the mind with a perverse curiosity. From Threads to When The Wind Blows, Dr. Strangelove to The Sum of All Fears, Fallout to Call of Duty, it’s the act of pushing the big red button that enables fantasies of patriotism, camaraderie, and survival. Chances are, however, that you won’t be the king of the irradiated hill. No, you’ll be a speck of glowing-green ash that slowly rots the dying trees from the inside out.

Beyond Dr. Strangelove and the topic of this piece, a lot of the work surrounding nuclear warfare seems to focus on the aftermaths. It’s not about who dropped the bomb on whose front yard first, it’s about building from the ground up the second age of a world obsessed with power, and there’s the pull. Whereas a bullet or a disease can still bring about all 5 stages of grief, Mutually Assured Destruction has the power to skip it all entirely. No denial, no anger, no bargaining, no depression; just forced acceptance, which brings us to the main event.

10th March 2015: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number releases, a sequel to a cultural phenomenon with an expanded story. The societal study of a city shaped entirely by one man’s path of complete and utter destruction, nobody realizing just how this affects them, before the end of the world happens with a click of the fingers. Just like that, everyone realizes too late that their actions have consequences.

In retrospect, Hotline Miami 2 can be considered bloated, or lacking in the same nuances that made the original so feverishly addictive, with quantity overtaking quality. More mechanics, more attention paid to playstyles, and more of an insight into the human condition, rather than it being a straight-up challenge. Don’t get it twisted, Hotline Miami 2 is still a challenge that taps into the same vein, but for all the wrong reasons.

An expanded ranged arsenal made you deal with more unexpected deaths from outside of your peripheral vision, and a melee-focused playthrough became less viable. Bringing a knife to a gunfight in Hotline Miami 2 felt more like a death wish than it did a stance of power, with widened arenas leaving little for cover and safety, but not all was lost. Hotline Miami’s continued struggle with the concept of doors allowed the player for a cheapened, but more relaxing fight against Florida’s most dumbfounded, thanks to stun-locking and glitchy executions.

Alas, that’s not why we’re here; we’re here to explore the story surrounding all of the protagonists that feature in Hotline Miami 2. The game boasts a fairly inter-connected story, with various crossed paths and an omnipotent figure in each of their heads. The Henchman, The Son, The Fans, Martin Brown, Evan Wright — all of them are visited in some capacity by the rooster-headed manifestation of Richard, whose returning enigmatic presence after watching Jacket leaves a lot of questions.

Jake, a character from Hotline Miami 2, is engaged in an argument over the phone.

He speaks in cryptic dilemmas, never showing his full hand, only giving vague precognitive ability, and it’s enthralling to watch. Richard’s played these games before, albeit on a smaller scale dedicated to destruction for the benefit of a third party, and it’s how people who’re inspired by this reverberating movement which fascinates Richard. In some places, Jacket is dubbed “The Pig Butcher”, an ironically butchered depiction of his personality, perceived as lurid and psychopathic, leading to inspiration and innovation from onlookers.

Whether it’s The Fans’ dedication to being noticed across the country for the sequel to Jacket’s rampage, or Evan Wright seeing if there was more to Jacket than the world thought, Richard visits them and… doesn’t ask for much. He’s not there to stop them, he’s not there to ridicule or patronize, he simply wants to ask if they’re sure. What does that next step entail? The end of everything, or rather, something.

It doesn’t need to be the end of the world for it to be the end of your world, and Hotline Miami 2 deals with that in spades that still seem both unimposing and foreboding. Everyone plays their part in a vaguely meta-physical look into the final labored breaths of a dying society, drenched in cynicism and begrudgingly accepting one last dance. The game has one last scene to show, not wanting to leave any potential maybes, and ponders the brevity of life.

Richard, the ambivalent character from Hotline Miami 2, speaks to Richter, a playable character.

“Leaving this world isn’t as scary as it sounds”, Richard muses, his current partner only responding in blase sentences. It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey you take part in, and for better or worse, everyone had their time, completed their journeys without a hitch. One by one, the pieces all fall into place, and soon the light becomes blinding. The wave too strong. The sirens drowned out. They’ve been here before, although on a different side of the court. The screen continually cuts to each character, left behind in the blood-crazed and ego-driven states they chose to push, as their pains and struggles are immediately erased.

One could argue that the rather blunt ending of Hotline Miami 2 is Dennaton Games explicitly saying goodbye to a series that elevated them to stardom. That it was only natural for the series to run its course, and it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Logically, it’s airtight, but it does feel like it was more than that, that it was more than just a rather effective goodbye, more of a punishment for being human.

The world is a cruel place, and it can be crafted as otherwise, but it’s the human condition that’s inherently flawed. Survival of the fittest is more than just a one-liner for the villain to throw, it’s a principle that means no rules. Whether it's brains or brawn, good or evil, day or night; toes will be stepped on, aspirations narrow, blood will be shed, and the path to the top will be lined with the ones you left behind.

In the first Hotline Miami, Richard asks Jacket with blindsiding neutrality, “Do you like hurting other people?”. Beside him are two other figures, one reacting with sympathy, the other with disgust. It’s not just a vague step into the surreal dreamscape that the series slowly became, it’s a statement that resonates beyond one game. Whether it’s Hotline Miami or Spec Ops: The Line, it’s less about doing the right thing, and about accepting the parameters you cannot remove along your journey.

For years, developers and writers have struggled with the concepts of implementing meaningful moral complexities into branching storylines. For example, Fallout 4 always displayed dilemmas in black and white, the protagonist’s choices lack solid footing on the skewered paths they take, and sometimes it’s better to just lose yourself. Forget weighing the pros and cons of being a good person, because what is a good person in their view? Shooting the least amount of people? Getting the least people hurt in the long run?

Hotline Miami disregards all of this. Richard knows that the human condition is vague in its direct endeavors and that no matter what, no one will be happy, but he’s empathetic to our drive. He enables the lust for violence, but he doesn’t outwardly condone or promote it, instead he showcases depravity with the promise they’ll get what they deserve. As the game moves on to the sequel, however, Richard realizes this is more than one person, one group, one country.

A pixelated landscape resembling a post-apocalyptic Miami, FL.

He doesn’t deny that they can change, he doesn’t grow bitter with rage at their actions, he doesn’t attempt to bargain with them, and he isn’t depressed that they lack humanity. Instead, he accepts that soon enough, this will all be paid in full, and the show will end with the curtain call. No encore, no afterparty, just forced acceptance via the end of the world that is Hotline Miami.

Hotline Miami is more than just a neon-drenched insight into the scummier underbellies that the late 80s had to offer, and it’s more than an endlessly replayable action game. It peeks into current trends of decisions having consequences and decides that you don’t need to have a moral complex to have a morally complex story. Instead, you let humanity runs its course, and decide whether or not they had the right idea. It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey you take part in, and everyone has their journey.

Leave the light on, please.