Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Dissonance

Since the emergence of first-person shooter games like Doom in 1993, discussions within academia have increasingly focused on the ethical implications of violence in video games. Initially, critiques centered on concerns about desensitization to war and combat depictions in these genres. As video games evolved with greater narrative depth and complexity, criticism of violence within them underwent a notable transformation. Critiques began to manifest themselves, often taking the form of metatextual works. Leading this approach were “serious games,” which used gameplay mechanics to emphasize educational and social commentary. This trend subsequently influenced even commercially successful first-person shooters. Games like Wolfenstein: The New Order, Dishonored, and the Red Dead Redemption series exemplify this shift.

Marcus Maloney explores how these games use narratives to redefine player aggression. While each title varies in execution, they all center around a common theme: questioning the moral certainty of player characters’ actions and emphasizing the repercussions within the game world. As a result, the portrayal of acts of violence as morally objectionable persists despite their confinement to fiction. These games disrupt the conventional portrayal of video game violence by highlighting its usual lack of consequences and sanitized presentation.

While criticism of the unrealistic and uncritical portrayal of violence is unquestionably valuable to the discussion, there’s also a need for a broader examination of the experience of playing violent video games. A prime example is Hotline Miami.

In Hotline Miami, gameplay centers on precise execution and efficiency. Inspired by “procedural rhetoric,” playing the game becomes a form of commentary. Players must eliminate enemies using various weapons, earning rewards for stylish and virtual kills. However, the emphasis on maximizing violence contrasts sharply with the extreme nature of the combat. The game’s retro-neon visuals and pulsating synth-wave music initially draw players in with their superficial charm. Yet, the graphic depiction of gore and blood undermines this initial allure. This dissonance is deliberate, forcing players to confront the emptiness underlying the violence they perpetrate.

Moreover, the game’s narrative approach adds to its critique. The story surrounding the protagonist and their motivations remains intentionally unclear through fragmented messages and dream sequences. “Metaleptic intrusions” punctuate this ambiguity, disrupting traditional storytelling and contributing to a sense of purposelessness. Conventional narrative structures like transparent hero/villain dynamics or defined objectives do not guide players. The absence of a clear purpose underscores the senselessness of the violence, stripping away any perceived cavernous significance.

In the end, Hotline Miami dismantles the spectacle of violence by subverting the very act of gameplay. Its developers deliberately crafted its core loop to be mechanically addictive, yet the game’s ironic references constantly undercut this allure. The fragmented narrative adds to this disruption, challenging the typical power fantasies found in violent video games and compels players to face the consequences of their violent actions. It scrutinizes the pleasure derived from its gameplay, exposing the underlying nihilism that often accompanies the violence glorification.

Reviewers unanimously highlight the pervasive gore as a defining feature of the game. IGN’s critique, for instance, argues that the sheer frequency of killings exceeds any meaningful purpose, rendering them utterly pointless. In his Polygon review, Chris Plante described feeling like a “glorified killing maniac” while immersed in the gameplay. On the other hand, PC Gamer’s review finds a refreshing honesty in how the game portrays the protagonist’s actions as straightforward acts of murder. This honesty stands out against the common trend in video games, where narratives often justify violence through revenge plots or other rationales. Critics notably grapple with the tension between the inherent enjoyment derived from gameplay mechanics and the unsettling nature of perpetrating digital mass killings.

One of its developers, Jonatan Söderström, illuminates the reasoning behind the game’s design choices. Before the game’s release, he openly described the violence as a deliberate tool intended to unsettle players. In an interview with The Verge, he emphasized his belief that presenting violence as stylish, chilly, or humorous is inherently irresponsible, given its serious nature. As a result, the development team worked diligently to portray violence as unsettling rather than glamorous.

Like Doom and Mortal Kombat, the rise of violent video games in the 1990s mirrored sizeable cultural shifts. These games targeted teenagers hungry for intense excitement, aligning with the rise of counter-culture and grunge movements that questioned societal norms from the previous decade. Yet, the depiction of real-life violence also ignited national debates and highlighted worries about the media’s impact on teenage behavior. These discussions reached Congress, echoing earlier concerns about the influence of controversial music genres like heavy metal in the 1980s.

Controversies over violence have posed significant challenges for the video game industry. The industry’s ability to navigate public outcry has encouraged developers to delve deeper into mature themes. During this period, there was a notable emphasis on increasing stimulation, exemplified by the immense popularity of games like Quake, which prioritized intense action over narrative complexity. This trend coincided with the emergence of cultural provocateurs like Marilyn Manson and South Park, figures who similarly pushed boundaries and confronted societal norms.

However, as time has passed, what was once considered shocking has lost its edge. The once-rebellious genre of violent video games has become mainstream and frequently follows predictable patterns in entertainment. What were once innovative experiences have now evolved into formulaic productions, with their initial shock value fading long ago. This historical shift highlights how cultural anxieties cycle over time and how the industry reflects and capitalizes on them.

In the mid-2000s, the Grand Theft Auto franchise soared in popularity, marking the onset of an era defined by daring content. During this, they embraced an aesthetic inspired by chain wallets, skateboard punk culture, and an overall rebellious attitude. Video games prominently featured muscular anti-heroes wielding unconventional weapons and morally ambiguous protagonists. The game didn’t necessarily prompt players to form nuanced opinions about these characters; preferably, they witnessed their outrageous actions unfold.

However, the portrayal of violence in video games underwent a notable evolution in the early 2010s. The focus shifted away from the exaggerated, almost cartoonish violence often reminiscent of films like Pulp Fiction or the intense gore of Aliens. Instead, violence became a narrative tool aimed at conveying stark realism. Call of Duty: Black Ops exemplified this shift, where players confront a harrowing torture scene. Unlike scenes designed for shock value or entertainment, the creators crafted this sequence to provoke discomfort, shedding light on the brutality of war and the moral dilemmas soldiers face in combat. It aimed to depict a sense of “grim political realism,” compelling players to confront the human toll of warfare. The enduring impact of this scene underscores its effectiveness in prompting reflection.

Söderström takes a thoughtful stance on violence, making implicit themes overt. An encounter vividly illustrates Jacket, the protagonist, facing a spectral rooster questioning him about the indiscriminate killings he commits under anonymous phone instructions. The rooster’s poignant query, “Do you enjoy hurting others?” is a profound challenge meant to unsettle players. Yet, the genuine discomfort arises not solely from the violent actions but also from the particular circumstances that surround them.

Liz Ryerson argues that the violence in Hotline Miami takes on a disturbing dimension when intertwined with its competitive structure. Players can become deeply immersed in the rapid-paced action, causing the graphic brutality to fade into the background. Their attention becomes on perfecting gameplay mechanics, which inadvertently desensitizes them to the visceral violence unfolding on screen.

Descent into Madness

The heart of Hotline Miami lies in its streamlined gameplay, which creates a frenzied rhythm that propels players forward. Each level begins with an enigmatic protagonist receiving a mysterious phone call containing a single address. Players step into the shoes of this shadowy figure, guiding them through a series of predefined steps. This journey includes locating a vehicle—perhaps their own—and using it to reach the designated destination. Upon arrival, players select a distinct animal mask from the options. Here, the narrative employs symbolic elements, suggesting that these masks may symbolize the protagonist’s descent into violence or divergence from their true self.

Once the preparation is complete, the player bursts through the entrance of the building. The game environment transforms into a sensory overload. The pulsating electronic soundtrack ramps up, its frenetic beat echoing the impending action. Visuals undergo a similar shift as vibrant colors wash over the world in psychedelic hues. This convergence of audiovisual stimuli aims to intensify the player’s excitement and immerse them in a heightened state of concentration.

With everything in place, the core gameplay unfolds. Players embark on a brutal dance of violence, systematically eliminating every occupant on each floor. The focus here is on efficiency and flawless execution. Level design features narrow corridors and strategically positioned enemies, demanding a meticulously planned strategy. A misstep, a misplaced swing, or a missed shot can be fatal due to the unforgiving “one-hit kill” system. It intensifies the tension, as players are aware that an error could lead to instant failure constantly. As a result, urgency permeates the gameplay, urging players to refine their approach and aim for perfection—a meticulously choreographed sequence of actions that eliminates all threats with ruthless precision.

In Hotline Miami, players encounter a gameplay experience with a multifaceted evaluation system. Success isn’t just about completing objectives; it’s also judged on style, adaptability, and execution speed. This cyclical loop of violent encounters followed by rewards forms a central mechanic of the game. However, the rewards—often dubious characters offering odd items like pizza or VHS tapes at random spots—introduce an initial layer of thematic discordance.

The game portrays violence with brutal efficiency. Acts of brutality are depicted in a pixelated art style, leaving much to the player’s imagination. This interaction between the game’s visuals and the player’s mind generates a feeling of unease. The relentless pace of gameplay discourages deep thought, as any hesitation results in failure. These design decisions create tension between the actions demanded of the player and the inherent brutality of those actions.

The protagonist’s home environment subtly but powerfully conveys narrative elements. The state of the apartment, with unwashed dishes and overflowing trash, mirrors the protagonist’s declining mental well-being. The transformation of the second bed, from its initial presence to its eventual disappearance, suggests a worsening relationship, which enhances the complexity of the protagonist’s challenges.

The story gradually reveals itself through a patchwork of fragmented details. Ambiguous promises of rewards, cryptic references to the “50 blessings” initiative in scattered letters, and progressively more brutal phone calls demanding violence all add layers to the mystery. The discovery of masked corpses scattered across levels complicates the narrative further, while unreliable snippets from newspaper clippings offer fleeting glimpses into events surrounding the protagonist’s deeds. This fragmented storytelling approach heightens the overall sense of unease and uncertainty.

The storyline is absurd when the protagonist receives a chilling directive to eliminate a motorcycle rider and, determinedly, traces the mysterious phone calls back to a phone company. This event acts as a catalyst, prompting the protagonist’s return to the grimy, insect-infested apartment. The protagonist encounters a cryptic trio adorned in masks—their physical forms obscured, but their words heavy with foreboding. They issue vague warnings, hinting at looming isolation for him.

The protagonist’s home turns into a nightmarish scene. Once familiar spaces now harbor horrifying apparitions—mutilated corpses and disfigured figures emerge, their spectral forms disturbingly blending with everyday surroundings. These ghosts, impervious to physical touch, emit desperate screams, urging the protagonist to “move on.” The narrative escalates with the arrival of a suspicious janitor, his eerie presence in the household unsettlingly juxtaposed with the spectral chaos. Every action carries an unsettling undercurrent of discomfort.

The protagonist marks their spiral into madness with bursts of violent action. A swift assault from a SWAT team suddenly halts his killing spree—armed officers appear with startling efficiency, compelling him to flee in sheer desperation. This harrowing encounter further undermines his already fragile grip on reality.

The storekeeper, once a symbol of normalcy, gets drawn into the protagonist’s warped perception. He warns about the fleeting nature of the horrors witnessed. Suddenly, a burst of static interrupts the narrative, and the decapitated corpse of the motorcycle rider disappears from the convenience store. Static becomes a recurring theme, obscuring the protagonist’s violent acts and further blurring reality and fantasy. The storekeeper himself meets a similar fate; his lifeless body appears in every store, replaced by a bald, openly aggressive man who callously ignores the deceased storekeeper lying nearby. The indifference towards the dead underscores the protagonist’s isolation and the distorted reality he now navigates. The store owner becomes hostile, replacing gestures of free food with threats to leave.

Then, the story into uncertainty, plunging the protagonist into a crisis of faith in his sanity and the truth of the world around him. Uncertainty now clouds the once-perceived righteous acts of killing. The protagonist wrestles with the horrifying notion that his actions may not be driven by noble intentions but rather by a dark inclination toward murder. The shocking discovery of a murdered girl, someone he had previously saved, becomes a narrative bombshell. It shatters his fragile sense of purpose and underscores the senselessness of his violent mission. Subsequent encounters with a disturbing masked figure resembling a rat deepen his feelings of helplessness.

The protagonist awakens in his dimly-lit apartment, now occupied by a masked figure symbolizing his inner self, delving further into psychology. The chicken mask represents the protagonist’s ego, emphasizing his internal conflict and fragmented identity. The realization that his deeds hold no enduring significance plunges him into disillusionment as he transitions into hospital gown attire, and the boundaries between reality and fantasy blur further. The act of decapitation within his own home serves as a symbolic break from reality, signaling his descent into profound mental turmoil.

The scene shifts into focus once more. The once vibrant soundtrack now carries a soft, melancholic tone. Weeks have slipped by as we see the protagonist awakening once more in the sterile confines of the hospital room. As he lies in the unyielding grip of the bed, snatches of conversation penetrate his foggy recovery. Bleak words from the attending doctor confirm his worst fears—his girlfriend succumbed to her grievous injuries. Meanwhile, the culprit now languishes in the cold custody of law enforcement.

Confronting the Truth

The protagonist’s resolve steels; his purpose sharpens with newfound clarity. With cautious determination, he struggles to sit up. Each movement brings a wave of dizziness. Mindful of surveillance, he navigates the treacherous path to mobility. Slipping away from the vigilant eyes of hospital staff, he orchestrates a stealthy escape from the institution that vowed to mend him. Returning to what once served as his sanctuary, he discovers it now stands as a monument to his shattered world. The wreckage of his beloved car taunts him from the driveway, a haunting reminder of his irreparable loss lingering in the air.

The comforting chatter has vanished, replaced by an eerie silence that screams louder than words. Despite the recent trauma, the primal thirst for vengeance sharpens the protagonist’s focus. He embarks on a mission stripped of disorienting hallucinations. The once orderly police station now transforms into a crucible of reckoning. Here, he confronts the embodiment of his torment. Through relentless interrogation, he extracts the vital information he seeks: the whereabouts of the mastermind behind the massacre.

With practiced efficiency, he slips away from the police station. Its distinctive lobby becomes the setting for the next phase of his plan. Foreboding corridors stretch out like gateways into darkness. Here, he regains a semblance of control. Guards fall to his determination as he ascends the stairs, a predator closing in on its prey. Gunfire erupts in a chaotic symphony, each bullet marking a grim punctuation in the unfolding drama. A reluctant survivor becomes the keeper of crucial secrets amidst the turmoil.

As the climax culminates in the protagonist eliminating the final member of the clandestine organization behind the ominous phone calls, victory quickly gives way to a haunting encounter. A frail figure in a wheelchair appears—a voice hauntingly familiar, echoing the recurring nightmare that has plagued the protagonist. Both men share a palpable awareness of impending tragedy. A discordant narrative tension emerges as the protagonist abruptly silences the man before he can fully convey his message. With swift action, he takes the man’s life. Retreating to find solace, he reflects quietly on the balcony, cigarette in hand.

The rolling credits only deepen players’ bewilderment. The identities of the masked figure and the man in the wheelchair remain unknown. The reasons behind the phone calls, the origins of the static electricity, and the scattered bodies all dissolve into unanswered mysteries. Even the allegiances and motives of the protagonists hang unresolved. The enigmatic conclusion offers no tidy resolutions, leaving players to grapple with a fragmented narrative.

However, a final twist emerges after the credits conclude. Instead of returning to the main menu, the game displays the date of the last mission played. Initially innocuous, this detail takes on a startling significance as the date rapidly rewinds, transporting players back to a pivotal moment—before the protagonist’s demise, before the heartbreaking loss of his girlfriend, and before he descended into unsettling hallucinations.

Players wrestle with the new character identity, eventually realizing they are the motorcyclist killed at the telephone company. This revelation is compounded by recurring phone calls, suggesting a cyclic nature to the events. Unlike the protagonist, each iteration of the motorcyclist displays rebellious traits, opting to investigate the origins of the calls rather than obeying vague directives. The gameplay evolves subtly, maintaining core mechanics but distinguishing itself through the motorcyclist’s preference for a brutal weapon: a pair of meat cleavers. While missions remain action-packed, they possess a deceptive simplicity in their execution.

Players begin to dread an inevitable collision with the protagonist, sensing a tragic confrontation looming ahead. Their fears materialize as final clues steer the motorcyclist back to the telephone company, the very place of death in the previous cycle. As the motorcyclist edges closer to uncovering the truth, the protagonist launches a vicious assault. The player now controls the motorcyclist and braces for the familiar struggle, but the motorcyclist reverses the roles. Armed with insights into the protagonist’s weapon choices, the player prepares to counter with precise knife strikes, aiming to change the course of this recurring nightmare.

Violence as Entertainment

Hotline Miami deliberately avoids neat resolutions, resisting the urge to justify the protagonist’s brutal deeds. Violence reigns unchecked, devoid of any understandable purpose beyond its shocking presence. Players are left to confront the moral gray area of their actions. On one side, the violence seems pointless, a string of hollow acts. Yet, on the other, the game subtly invites a form of release through its gameplay, possibly offering satisfaction as players eliminate Miami’s fictional inhabitants.

The game’s primary focus isn’t on weaving a narrative tapestry but on delivering a gripping audiovisual experience and engaging gameplay. Both visually striking and audibly compelling, the intense action purposefully overshadows any cohesive storyline. It revolves around repeated acts of violence, each seemingly devoid of a deeper purpose. Ironic twists and unresolved storylines accentuate this stark contrast between meticulously crafted gameplay and a narrative structure that feels disjointed, draining the narrative of any potential significance.

As the credits roll and the motorcycle-riding character departs Miami, leaving the player to inhabit this fictional realm, any sense of consequences feels neutralized, leaving behind an emptiness. The enduring impact rests solely on the hardcore gameplay experience, powerful. There’s only one disruption to this dynamic: when the unarmed protagonist desperately attempts to flee from the hospital. This brief moment of powerlessness underscores the effectiveness and immersion of the carefully designed sequence of actions.

Gamified Violence

The game narrative design purposefully strips away any facade of being more than just a successful commercial product. It maintains a self-awareness that subtly acknowledges the fleeting nature of consumerism. Drawing inspiration from iconic media tropes, motifs, and stylistic elements of the 1980s, it doesn’t resort to parody, critique, or straightforward homage. Instead, it reimagines these older cultural artifacts through a lens of consumerist nostalgia. Similarly, while the game touches upon themes of madness and the allure of luxury consumption—common in what some might call “empty fiction”—it refrains from fully exploring or challenging these themes by its conclusion.

The intentional ambiguity of Hotline Miami stretches towards broader interpretations, undermining its thematic elements while highlighting player engagement through challenging and rewarding gameplay. Amidst the erosion of meaning, the game’s meta-awareness—the experience of playing itself—stands as the lone survivor. What persists is the intense gameplay experience, which not only questions the portrayal of violence but also exposes gaming as a consumptive act.

Sensory overload and intricate gameplay mechanics ultimately overshadow any potential for yawning significance. It aligns with the game’s exploration of the nexus between violence and consumption. Through this exploration, Hotline Miami makes statements about the allure of participating in gamified extreme violence—tempting, satisfying, yet ultimately hollow.

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