Feedback is the most crucial components for nearly every game. In order for the gamer to be absorbed in the game, there has to be feedback for his or her actions. Mike Tyson’s Punch Out would be much less engaging if the characters did not recoil from your blows, or if your opponents didn’t start to show some signs of defeat over time.
Imagine spending days continuously trying to beat Mike Tyson, just for him to unceremoniously disappear upon defeat, leaving you with an empty ring. Most would be frustrated, why even bother playing if the game won’t make some sort of show of your achievement? The player is rewarded for successfully mastering the game’s mechanics, and the easiest way to do this is by having your opponent show damage. It isn’t necessary to go over the top with character reactions, but there should be some sort of indication for the player that he or she is succeeding. Death and violence are important not to encourage further violence, but to show progress.
Hotline Miami chooses to revel in this feedback and uses it to alienate the player. As a game, it is nasty, brutish, and short. If done successfully, each level only takes a few minutes, but it sticks with you. Bodies are visibly mutilated, blood splatter is everywhere, and since you die fairly quickly you can guarantee that you will have to kill the same enemies over and over again. Once again video games are being tested as a scapegoat for real world violence, so how does one of the most aggressive games manage to be so unashamedly visceral?
In my opinion, Hotline Miami does not encourage violence. Even being fully in control of the game, you can begin to feel nauseous from the whole experience. The level rotates back and forth as you play ever so slightly, with a dull background that is constantly changing colors. At best the soundtrack features typical club music, but at times it can be unnerving, as if it were composed for a David Lynch film. The only thing accompanying the music is the crunching of bones and the sounds of gunfire. Even the story becomes unsettling as your reality unwinds and you begin seeing things differently.
The gameplay itself is just as unnerving. Unlike other games where you can take on an army of aliens or police officers single-handedly, you are… human. One hit from anything will kill you, be it bullet or bat. The levels are designed to place you in narrow corridors with many options and many dangers, so you will die time and time again in pursuit of the most effective strategy. This can make you impatient and eventually snap, trying to run through the hallways swinging at everything, but more often than not this is the least successful route.
The game may have not had the same effect on the majority of gamers, but I felt uncomfortable with the whole experience. I do not mean to say it was a bad game, far from it. Every minute of Hotline Miami was tense, adrenaline-fueled, and mechanically very rewarding. However, Hotline Miami abused player feedback to the point where every single possible sense was overwhelmed. Ultimately it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Part of the reason this post is coming so late from me is because I had to convince myself to return to and finish the game.
The story and ending both have implications for gamers just blindly following orders, almost taunting the player for going along for the ride and doing whatever was commanded of them. While this meta-commentary is in no way mind-blowing, it leads me to believe the developers were very aware of their audience while crafting this game. They knew they could craft a game this visceral without concern, because ultimately it leaves the player unsure of his or her actions.