Learning about death by dying a lot
[I hold both Hotline Miami games in high regards as they are prime examples of doing a lot with so little in terms of gameplay. The games make you take an introspective look at yourself and question whether or not you may be a bad person because you enjoy a game that is about nothing but killing, all while only having five base enemy types. As stated in the comments below I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts on the series for a feature like this but with one fell swoop, Christopher Harper has said nearly everything I was trying to say while also relating their own personal experiences with the series and how it helped them grow. It’s long and personal but one of the best community blogs I’ve ever seen on the site. Also, Happy Belated Birthday! -Anthony]
Spoiler warning: This article discusses events taking place in both Hotline Miami titles, but especially the ending of 2. While many consider gameplay to be the primary hook for these titles, I highly recommend playing them as blind as possible for an ideal experience.
Note: If you are already intimately familiar with Hotline Miami 2 and would like to skip some pretext, start at “The End”.
The Hotline Miami series may be one of my all-time favorites, right up there with pre-Phantom Pain Metal Gear, Team Fortress 2 and the first two Paper Mario games. While their nail-biting difficulty and absurd challenge (especially in the latter stages of 2) can be a turn-off for some gamers, I’ve always found joy in games that push me to my limits as a player. Hotline Miami’s frenetic pace, excellent soundtrack and brutal, one-hit kill playstyle necessitates equal measures of cunning strategy and mechanical mastery. To get those coveted A+ and S-ranks in these titles, you need to be able to flawlessly run through these stages like a one-man army.
…but that’s not actually what I’m here to talk about. Today, I want to touch on the story behind these games and what I learned from it. We’ll brush over Hotline Miami, but the bulk of this article will be about Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
The philosophy behind Hotline Miami
The most iconic quote from the Hotline Miami series is “Do you like hurting other people?”. This is echoed in Wrong Number by the scene depicted in the screenshot above.
This question is central to the story of the first game. While there was an actual plot and lore running somewhere beneath Hotline Miami’s absurdity, its main focus was on establishing pretty much everything else. The retro aesthetic, the setting rooted in old-fashioned American decadence, the surreal cracks and uneasy shakiness in the world…all of this was ultimately to service a message. That message was “Isn’t it a little messed up that you’re enjoying this so much?“.
While this was a somewhat unique message at the time, it had been done a few times before and many times since. I doubt many people walked away from Hotline Miami with some greatly-shifted worldview on video game violence or any real lingering thought on what little of an actual plot it had.
While the plot revealed by combing through the true ending and hints strewn about the game does have some intrigue, it’s nowhere close to the main focus of the first game. The atmosphere and gameplay of Hotline Miami are unforgettable, but its actual plot is dreadfully forgettable. In his videos on the Hotline Miami series, YouTuber Errant Signal claims that Hotline Miami rejects players seeking plot and context by giving them an unsatisfying answer to their questions. When Hotline Miami 2 ramps up the lore aspect significantly and has an actual…plot, he expresses a feeling that Hotline Miami 2 was akin to a magician ruining a magic trick by showing you every bit and piece that made it work.
While I can’t say for certain how mainstream Errant Signal’s opinion here was, I have a feeling that the opinion expressed in his first video on the series had an impact on the duo of Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, the two developers making up Dennaton Games. This made Hotline Miami 2 a response, in many ways, to both its predecessor and its predecessor’s reception.
The actual philosophy behind the original Hotline Miami is difficult to ascertain. Is it a scathing critique of we violence-loving gamers? Is it intended as a Take That to players who wanted there to be real reasons and justifications for all the mindless violence? Was it just a fun game with an excuse plot?
It’s tough to answer those questions. All of those answers contradict each other but are each valid in their own ways.
Wrong Number, however, is much less vague about its themes and philosophy. Many of the playable characters in Hotline Miami 2 are motivated in some way by events that transpired during the first game and the impact it had on their world. A few aren’t directly motivated by the first game’s events and only serve to contextualize them with storylines that take place before or during the original game.
Wrong Number is a response to and an elaboration on Hotline Miami. It embraces the crazy alternate history lore established by the first game’s secret ending to tell an actual story this time around, with a few messages about death.
The characters and the one choice that mattered
There are many, many, playable characters in Wrong Number. They generally have more distinct skills and abilities than those offered by the first game (which were generally “Start With Weapon” or “Boost This Stat”) and have a more linear level design to compensate. Hotline Miami was a group of sandboxes that you could interact with as you wish, Wrong Number was a series of challenges tailored to the people you were playing as, with swift punishment for playing outside of those roles.
We won’t discuss all of those playable characters here. Instead, we’ll focus on the three who are most relevant to the messages this game is attempting to convey.
The Soldier, also known as Beard, returns from the first game. His backstory as a soldier in an alternate-history war with Russia in Hawaii is revealed. His connection to Jacket is revealed as well: the two were brothers-in-arms, best friends forged in the hottest of flames. Unfortunately, Hotline Miami 2 also reveals why Beard is less of a person and more of a presence in the first game…
Because he’s dead. Prior to the events of Hotline Miami, Beard lived in San Francisco, which was destroyed in a Russian nuclear strike. This recontextualizes Jacket’s fever dreams in the first game, as well as his waking actions slaughtering hundreds of Russian Mafia members. The phone calls were an excuse. Jacket did like hurting other people, but especially those he felt he could blame for his grief.
Richter is one of the masked killers seen in the first game. He’s ordered to kill Jacket, but instead ends up killing Girlfriend and putting Jacket into a coma. When he next appears, he explains that he was only under orders, and attempts to beg Jacket for mercy. While the player can choose whether or not to kill Richter in the first game, Wrong Number reveals that Jacket spared him.
Over the phone, Richter tells his side of the story. This goes from just before the events of the first game, all the way to the present day of the second. He’s also one of the few characters who survives until the very end. More on that in a bit.
The Writer, or Evan Wright, is the third. His goal is to learn the full truth behind the events of both games and to reveal it all in a novel that he’s desperately working on. The process of writing this novel forces him into violent situations that he attempts to get through without resorting to the murder that every other playable character relishes in. Writing this novel also causes him to fall out with his wife.
Evan is the person on the other end of the phone. He listens to Richter’s story in its entirety and is finally given enough information to make a great breakthrough in his novel.
But when we finally see Evan hang up the phone, a look around his home reveals that his child’s bedroom is empty and his own is missing a lot. Letters from his wife are piled on the table, pleading him to call her and try to make things work. The player, on Evan’s behalf, can then choose: the book, or his family?
This is the only choice in the game that matters, the only one that changes the ending in any way. As someone writing for a living myself, who often struggles with finances and was in a very unstable situation because of it at the time I played this game…you can probably guess what choice I made.
It was the wrong one.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number has 26 playable stages, 27 if you count the super-short tutorial. These stages are often epic in scale, and some can take hours to overcome. It’s a significantly longer, more arduous journey than the one taken in the first game. In addition to the increased scale on the gameplay side, the scale on the story’s side has also been blown up. There are more, longer cutscenes than ever.
Wrong Number is a long and sometimes bitter journey.
For me, this journey was taken during a difficult time in my life. After escaping the abusive environment I’d been raised in to live with strangers on the Internet, I ended up in an “Out of the frying pan…” situation marked by living on grocery budgets of ~$20 a week and the ever-impending threat of homelessness or worse. I was 19 at the time. Hotline Miami 2 released 8 days after my 19th birthday, and 7 days after I initially arrived in Virginia. I was writing for pennies and in a desperate situation.
I won’t go into too much more detail here. Instead, I want to contextualize where I was in life when I experienced Wrong Number and its ending.
I played the game for hours into the night, losing sleep but pushing through in an insomniac trance. I don’t remember when I first saw the credits roll exactly, but I do remember those nights more clearly than anything else. And I remember Evan’s plight resonating with me, sympathizing with Richter and wishing that Beard had gotten the life he’d deserved.
After hours upon hours of playtime, sleepless nights upon sleepless nights, Hotline Miami 2’s endgame was upon me. Many of the characters that I had gotten to know over the course of the game had died. Richter and Evan were among the last still alive. Even Jacket was still alive, albeit imprisoned. Everyone else was either dead or holed up somewhere.
So, how did Wrong Number reward the efforts of myself and its characters? How did it choose to end the series?
With a nuclear strike. At least two missiles, one wiping out Hawaii, the other Miami. But likely more, much more, all around the United States. This didn’t happen because of anything the playable characters had done, and even if they had seen it coming chances are none of them could have done anything to stop it. At the culmination of all the time and effort people had put in, all the blood and tears…none of it mattered.
You Are The Blood, by The Castanets, started playing. I watched as Richter accepted his coming death with quiet dignity. I saw Evan hunched over a keyboard in a dark room, furiously typing away at his novel. Like me, he had made the wrong choice. Between the blaring of sirens and the final song of the series playing, Hotline Miami 2 transitioned between scenes of its last few living characters and what they were doing as death came to them. Jacket even showed up one last time, sitting quietly in his cell before the light washed over him.
I couldn’t do anything but stare in shock and awe. Then anger. Then sadness. Then…relief?
After the credits finished rolling, Wrong Number returned to its title screen. Hotline Miami 2’s title screen, on initial inspection, just looks like a windy day in Miami. With the context of the ending, however, the scene being depicted on the title screen is revealed to have been a Book End all along. The first thing you see in Hotline Miami 2 (its title screen) and the last thing you see in Hotline Miami 2 (the nukes falling) are one and the same.
This ending was impactful to me. While I knew Hotline Miami could be unconventional, I certainly hadn’t come in expecting anything like that. Hotline Miami had culminated nihilistically, nothing had mattered. Nothing could have been done. Everyone was always going to die, no matter what they did, due to forces out of their control. At least, that’s what I took from it at the time, and what I think most other people took from it.
But this isn’t the lesson I ended up taking away from Hotline Miami 2. To understand that, we need to talk about the dream.
The End II: The Dream
I’m 21 now, and I was 19 when I finished Hotline Miami 2. Abuse and trauma weren’t all I was hoping to escape when I left my hometown, however. I was also escaping heartbreak. I’d been through a great deal of stupid teenage relationships in my life at this point, but there was one with a girl we’ll call…Soap.
Go ahead, make the jokes. I know you want to.
Soap and I connected in mid-2014, shortly after I’d made my first real step toward recovery and was starting to be something like the person I wanted to be. I fell for her so fast, and until the beginning of 2015- shortly before my 18th birthday I had never been happier. Not only had I found someone who seemed perfect for me, but she was also a lifeline…a way for me to escape my environment forever. But we were young and stupid, especially me.
Especially me. Look at that hair! And that PS Eye camera quality!
Our actions, mostly mine, ended up destroying it so badly that even over a full year and another relationship later…I still wasn’t over it. I was still miserable, constantly so. And due to the aforementioned “out of the frying pan” situation…things had only gotten worse. This heartbreak and despair permeated throughout me and was an important part of my Hotline Miami 2 experience.
Weeks after I witnessed the ending to Hotline Miami 2, I had a dream. I dreamt I was back home, laying in the grass, staring up at a clear blue sky. I was alone but relaxed. Happy.
I heard a familiar sound of sirens. My eyes were flooded with an explosion of blinding white light. Knowing what was happening, I said “I love you” to someone who wasn’t there. Someone who wouldn’t return the feeling. Just so I could hold onto that feeling as I died.
Then I woke up.
I realized what had happened. I now knew what I would do if faced with certain death. The first the only thing I could think of was holding onto a shadow of a feeling of a love I’d lost a long time ago.
The revelation shook me. I booted up Hotline Miami 2 again, started my Hard Mode run. It took even longer than my first, but eventually, I reached that key point with Evan again…and I made the right choice this time. I made Evan choose his family. When I saw the ending again, he wouldn’t be alone he’d be sharing dinner and laughing with the people he loved and cared about the most.
Hotline Miami 2 had taught me a lot now. That death was inevitable, and it could come washing over you at any moment. That, if faced with it, I wouldn’t react with denial or anger. I’d face it with acceptance and hold onto what little light I had left in me back then.
But it hadn’t taught me that none of it mattered. If anything, my dream made me realize that it mattered more. Of course everyone is going to die that’s a brutal fact of life we all have to learn eventually. But that doesn’t mean that our choices don’t matter. Death isn’t just about loss and pain. It’s about love, it’s about what feelings you hold onto as you leave this world.
I resolved then that I couldn’t be left holding onto her, or the past, anymore. When my time comes, I need to be happy. I have to be.
The End III: Parting Words
Some crazy things happened after that. I don’t have the time to get into them here. But I will tell you that things are better now. I’m not writing for pennies. I live in my own apartment. After all those years of genuine despair, I’m finally in a place where I can start to move on from it all. It’s a work in progress.
Emphasis on progress. I’m not stopping until I’m more hair than human.
Early in 2016, my mentor died. She walked me through my early stages of development as a writer, helped make everything possible. She’s the reason I can write, and in the cases of projects like my webserial, she’s the reason I still do. She taught me another lesson about death, about valuing the time you spend with people. About making sure that you never leave anything unsaid. Fortunately, I do think she knew the difference she made in my life, so that’s not a weight I’m carrying. I’m coping with that loss.
I turn 22 on March 2nd, 2018. That’s not very long from when you’re reading. Maybe it’s already happened. As my life is finally completely under my control, I’m just starting to learn how much it all matters, how quickly it can all be taken away, and how important it is that I make the most of it. That’s why I’m writing this. Writers write, and that is what I enjoy doing.
But not in solitude. Which is why I’m sharing this with you and whoever else is reading this. Part of me hopes the world sees it. Another part of me hopes that no one ever sees how freaking sappy I am. I just wrote over 3000 words about Hotline Miami 2 and personal heartbreak and death and projected it to the whole wide world, where anyone can see it.
But if you’re reading this, there’s no turning back now. I’ve bared a part of my soul to you.
And I did it while talking about video games.