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Couchbound Criticism: Self-Help Hotline

One of the things about video games as a hobby is that it is seen as a waste of time, similar to sitting and watching television or movies. In the minds of detractors, it is a sedentary activity that, while fun, has little in the way of self improvement. Hotline Miami has become a notable exception for me. And that scares me a little.

If you like the concept this trailer puts forward and haven't seen much else about this game, go buy it. Seriously, do it now. At full price, it's $10 and it probably will be on sale for Christmas if you are feeling frugal. It has a pounding, Eighties throwback soundtrack that I listen to daily, and visuals that are the best approximation of a bad acid trip I have seen in a video game. But be careful. It changes you.
To say that a game has changed you is a strong compliment. Art's capacity to inform and change a person is the most important thing about it. We can all think of a piece of media that changed the way we think, about something small or about everything. But, as I said above, this game scared me just a little, enough to give me a shiver. Because it changed me into a frightening human being.

I have been seeing a lot of the marketing for Far Cry 3 lately, touting dark and violent subject matter. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out this promotional video, it spells it out pretty clearly.

Standard blockbuster action movie-esque game. The tone they seem to want is that you are a man stuck in the heart of darkness, surrounded by violent insanity, trying to fight your way out. Now, this is suitably edgy, and action packed enough to be entertaining, but it, like many of its big budget brethren, feels the need to give you a purpose for it all, a light at the end of the tunnel. It gives you a reason. And that is bullshit. It takes the teeth out of the violence if it has such lofty context, but that is how they make it palatable. It is intended to motivate you in the long term and make you feel like the good guy, while the explosions and killing are the short term incentive. Hotline is what happens when you take out that long term incentive, that reason. What you are left with is a serial murderer that is a joy to play as.

Hotline kept me playing and playing (I have completed the game 100% four times now since I got it day 1) because it is fast, fun, and brutal. Death is not a failure state so much as a temporary setback, like running out of ammunition in a First Person Shooter. Ran out of ammo/throat ripped out by attack dog? Hit R, keep killing. One hit, one kill leads to a lovely mixture of extreme caution and pants wetting audacity. I still remember the time I ran into a room and managed through luck and balls to beat them all to death with my bare hands. I was killed not three seconds later by a man with a knife. I hit R, and slit his throat with his own knife before I get to anybody else, just to show him.
You get into a rhythm with this game. Run in, die, restart, run in, die, restart, etc. You make plans, strategize, finding the path around the level that works. Everything happens so fast, death is made cheap. There is no dying speech, no grandiose cries of pain. In a split second, you (or they) go from living, running pixel men to quivering meat, bleeding on the floor. And as you figure out the optimal way to get through the level, and you build up that rush of adrenaline until your reflexes are as sharp as needles, you get deeper and deeper into it. Every man and dog blurs together, every attempt is just one R key away from the next, and it just keeps going and going and going and going and going and GOING AND GOING AND

The music stops. Nothing is moving. You are alone in a house filled with bodies. Some are full of holes, other slashed, some even cut into pieces. And you did all of it. You were the aggressor. You were the antagonist here, not them. There was no reason, just your own enjoyment. And the worst part is, the more you do it, the better you get.

When I started to play this game, It would take me quite a few attempts to beat a level. I was cautious, treating every kill like I was jumping a huge pit. Carefully line up my jump, get a good running start, deep breath, and GO. As I played, it got easier and easier. I got faster, more precise, more deadly. I would see a room of three men armed with shotguns, and no longer see a hazard. I saw targets. I got good at killing. This is the first and only time that a game has actually made me feel like I am getting better at killing. Not fighting, not shooting, not combat. At straight, unadulterated, violent murder. And I love it. It's my game of the year for sure. No other game has made me feel so good and so scared at the same time. You should play it too. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

All images used are from Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
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About Joe Fancypantsone of us since 9:46 AM on 07.03.2012

Joe is an aspiring game designer with an insatiable appetite for games and talking about them. He plays primarily PC games, but the occasional Wii or PS2 game creeps in when he has time. He is also a total Fire Emblem nut, but don't let him know I told you. He also enjoys reading, watching movies, circus arts, and stage combat. He has his own blog at https://chin-stroking.blogspot.com/