Interpreting Hotline Miami
Upon concluding my first play-through of Hotline Miami, I found myself left wanting, as if the game had reached an abrupt finale without really divulging any of the information I had sought. I wasn’t particularly good at the game, but I did reach its end relatively unscathed, a single ‘A+’ rating under my belt as I took the reins of ‘Biker’ for the games epilogue.
But as the credits rolled for a second time with more of the oblique plot attempting to unfurl at my feet, there was still a lingering feeling of annoyance. Despite everything, it felt as though I had been denied a touch of closure. Although I was standing ankle-deep in the digitized gore of Hotline Miami’s chaotic world of violence, I still wanted more substance to the accentuate the slaughter. What I got was a rather strong message to the contrary. Hotline Miami’s plot, its narrative, is perhaps only as strong as you want it to be.
Firstly, let’s assume that the Hotline Miami story is confluent. Let’s assume that it was meant to be interpreted as such and that the games conclusion will bring forth all of the answers we seek. From my perspective, here’s how Hotline Miami plays out.
You play as ‘Jacket’, an assassin contracted to an assassination agency who does exactly as he’s told. As your phone rings, you’re given a veiled message detailing your objectives for the upcoming hit. Thusly, you depart into the night, mask on, and set out to work. For the first half of the game, this is all that happens. You get a call, you’re relayed information and you act based on that information. Nothing more, nothing less.
The turning point in the game comes when Jacket comes face to face with Biker, another assassin from the agency who Jacket believes is in direct opposition to his goals. The two fight, with Jacket triumphing and killing Biker. Up until this point, the Hotline Miami narrative had all been told from the perspective of Jacket, but although his story does continue indefinitely as the game progresses, it’s here that Jacket’s tale ends chronologically.
At this point, you advance through the game concluding Jacket’s pursuits as he successfully hunts down and kills those he believes he has been instructed to deal with. Jacket successfully defeats all in front of him, and this in-turn wraps up his own personal story. However, as I will explain next, Jacket’s story may have actually ended in his death, rather than his lucid, hollow victory over the aggressors that he was faced with.
Reverting back to the stand-off between Biker and Jacket at the phone-company, we’re now in control of Biker, and we successfully manage to kill Jacket with little effort. This is the true timeline, and this is the true fate of Jacket. Up until now, we’ve been content to simply sit idly by and receive instructions through obtuse phone messages, interpret them as we see fit, and act based on what we’ve come to understand, all without uttering a single world. Conversely, Biker is all talk as he tries to get answers regarding his own problems that stem from the assassination agency not leaving him alone.
Biker gets what he’s looking for and locates the true culprits of the entire endeavour that reside in a sewer cistern. Here, the two characters facing Biker break the fourth-wall, speaking through Biker to the player, lambasting them for their love of violence without consequence. Biker then fittingly kills them both, ending his affiliation with the agency, before riding off into the night a free man.
With the credits now rolling for a second and final time, it’s perhaps a little easier to analyse the games events. For the bulk of the game, Hotline Miami has no narrative. For eleven of the nineteen chapters, you slowly but surely become attuned to the games mechanics, happily chaining together combos and high-scores as you progressively advance towards the vague goal of killing ‘the boss’. This of course happens, with Jacket defeating both of his final aggressors in a hectic series of battles. But there’s something a little off about that fight that doesn’t sit particularly well. Jacket doesn’t actually kill the final boss, rather the boss takes his own life, whilst an even more revered kingpin allows Jacket to kill him, denying us the very same sense of completion that has accompanied each and every reading of the ‘Chapter Complete’ splash-text. After this rather muted conclusion, it’s back to Biker, where we’re given a similarly sketchy finale, and yet one that, at least partly, quelled my desire for an end of credits scene preceded by the answers to all of my questions.
It’s at this point that I opted to negate the Hotline Miami plot altogether. Was it confusing for the sake of being confusing, or was I simply not understanding it as well as I thought? As my aforementioned explanation will tell you, I at least could ply my own meaning to the games events regardless of whether or not my interpretation was the ‘right’ one.
Hotline Miami is a game of two halves. Some would say that the cut-off point between ‘Act One’ and ‘Act Two’ is the rather trippy hospital level, others the transition between Jacket and Biker. Really, both halves of the game are decidedly similar, with the Jacket portion leaning towards and unstructured, violent romp, and the Biker portion attempting to sate the need for a semblance of narrative that myself and others like me felt was a necessity. In reality, the fourth-wall breaking conclusion to the Biker story and the somewhat hallucinogenic close to the Jacket story are ultimately two different ways of stating the very same message; that Hotline Miami, and all games really, are just vessels for the personal experience, regardless of whether or not they have the structured walls of a cohesive narrative to prop them up.
In this case, Jacket represents the chaos and the amorphous assault on the game at hand, an assault that neither needs nor asks for direction. Biker however, with his talkative nature and dialogue options represents the opposite; structure, and even if that structure isn’t particularly rewarding, it is structure nonetheless.
Here then we have two opposing viewpoints of game design colliding, creating a rather messy endpoint that again, doesn’t really provide a definitive answer. But does it really need one, and is this the message that the developers are trying to convey? Can a game really subsist entirely ‘off-road’ without its wheels ever touching the tarmac, or is game design a process of rigidity and already established norms that we simply cannot shake?
I think now, more than ever, it’s important to remember just what a game actually is. Earlier in the article I labelled them ‘vessels for the personal experience’, and boiled down to their very essence, that may be true. What Hotline Miami has taught me, in its awkward, indirect and rather confusing manner, is that for as long as you enjoyed the ride, the final destination doesn’t really need to make sense. As I was playing as Jacket, I was evolving into a killing machine, and that evolution continued even as I murdered Jacket as Biker. As I was playing a faceless, mute protagonist I was still enjoying myself the very same amount as when I was playing a verbal one. And as I was playing a perhaps conflicted, insane and schizophrenic assassin one moment and an anxious bloody-butcher the next, I was still ultimately on the same path to completion.
Hotline Miami remains but a blank canvas, tarnished by only a single droplet of blood. There’s space for the ‘story’ to evolve and there’s definitely room for you to theorize your very own elucidation, but whether there’s a plot or not, whether there’s method to the madness or whether you’re just a sprite inside a rectangle inside a fluctuating gradient of colours, you’re still killing, and you’re still having a great time doing so.
Although who knows, maybe I’m just reading too much into things…