More Masks, More Deviants: Understanding Our Role in ‘Hotline Miami’

In the game’s title is the very seed of Hotline Miami‘s consideration of the medium of video games’ relationship to violence. The unnamed protagonist of the game begins most missions in the game in his apartment. By listening to a message on his answering machine (the “hotline” of the game’s title), he is given a goal to achieve over the course of that level.

Of course, the irony of the importance of the hotline in guiding what you will do is that the mission objectives given are always false. Since the player is actually being charged to execute everyone occupying the location that he will be sent to, the messages are always “coded” as a charge to accomplish some other task: fix faulty plumbing, pick up a package, make a delivery.

For the gamer, the familiarity of the idea that a game frequently instructs the player to achieve a seemingly varied set of goals that essentially always boil down to accomplishing such goals in the same manner every time (by massacring anyone who gets in your way) is pretty inescapable. If I am sent to “pick up a package” in a Grand Theft Auto game that usually means that I will be murdering a whole lot of people on the way there and back again. Heck, if I am sent to pick up some chicken at a drive-thru in a Grand Theft Auto Game, I know that this will only be accomplished by murdering everything that gets in the way of that goal. Even family-friendly Mario, tasked with saving a princess, is going to be committing Goomba genocide on his way to fulfilling this act of consummation.

However, it isn’t merely the aping of the structural conventions of goal-driven gaming that is the biggest indictment of gaming’s casual relationship to violence. Instead, Hotline Miami seems to take a page from Suda51’s playbook by interrogating the player’s own falsification of identity in order to justify his own often deviant relationship to the content of a game.

I have written before about the manner in which Suda51’s Killer7 interests itself in the distancing effect that is created between the player and the game through the use of personae (”The Mask of the Deviant: Understanding Our Role in Killer7, PopMatters, 10 July 2009). In Killer7, the player adopts the role of Harman Smith, a wheelchair bound contract killer. However, Harman himself rarely takes part in the dirty work that he has been contracted to accomplish. Instead, through the further adoption of the role of “killer” (or in this case “killers”), Harman, who seemingly should be less capable of accomplishing such physical goals because of his handicap, is able to carry out his tasks by “being someone else.”

Thus, the Killer7 personae serve as masks for Harman to don but also as a kind of virtual enhancement of Harman himself. Again, this notion that one constantly adopt various roles, various faces in order to become more capable, more competent killers should be one familiar to the gamer himself. Despite my own failures and humiliations in P.E. classes over the course of a lifetime of schooling, I have been the Batman, been Agent 47, been Dan Smith, some of the most physically accomplished killers, pugilists, and shooters ever and meted out a lot of virtual punishment from behind the safety of those masks. These personae make more of me and, perhaps, less of me at the same time.

Like Killer7, one of the dominant images of Hotline Miami is the mask. The protagonist is confronted in dreamlike sequences by a group of men, masked as animals, who bait both him and the player with the question, “Do you like hurting people?” These men, of course, wear the same feral masks that the player himself will wear while on his missions, dehumanizing and simplifying the identity of protagonist and player into an id-driven creature meant only to solve the game’s series of “murder puzzles,” the combat here largely driven by the ferocious speed at which it is necessary to execute every enemy in as efficient and as efficacious a manner as possible. And it is a pleasure to do so.

The adoption of the role of the predator speaks to the role of the gamer in many of the most popular examples of the medium (Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto, etc., etc., etc.), but it also speaks to the distancing effect that strategy and tactics have in obfuscating our intentions in playing such games.

Since each of the masks provides a different bonus or different advantage for the level in which it is worn (quiet gunshots, more powerful melee skills, additional ammo, etc.) playing more and more roles of the killer allows the player to vary his approach to the mission, to better approach murder and mayhem given the situation and the circumstances. In doing so, we forget that the mask is signaling something about our nature when we don it, that we casually adopt the role of predator, and begin to think merely pragmatically, coldly strategizing how to best accomplish a massacre, not considering what playing the role of a mass murderer means.

Fellow PopMatters blogger Mark Filipowich recently charged Hotline Miami as an example of the inelegance of video games in satirizing their subject matter (”The Inelegance of the Video Game Satire”, PopMatters, 4 December 2012), and he certainly isn’t wrong that Hotline Miami is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in representing a sense of what video game violence looks like. That being said, it does do what other media are incapable of doing when attempting to deconstruct violence. Like Killer7, because of the interactive quality of the medium, it is often more clearly capable of interrogating not just the conventions of the medium itself but at turning its questions about media representation back on the audience, the player themselves, someone, perhaps, also complicit in the existence of such media representations of violence.

If Hotline Miami adopts such violence in order to make its point, isn’t it the consumer of games like Hotline Miami, the ones most in need of considering why they wear these masks in the first place? The game is admittedly a pleasure to play, but it is also one whose tone and mood makes me queasy every time that I fire it up again. Wondering how pleasure and nausea might arise from the same experience seems capable of provoking some reconsideration of what we like doing and some self evaluation as to why we might like doing it.