The Last of Us II has released, unleashing its awful discourse into the world. One of the many things the game’s been criticized for is subjecting the player to violence, heavily pushing them to violence, and then going “huh, ain’t it fucked up to kill other people?” This has kinda led into some discourse about violence in games in general, which left me rolling my eyes because a lot of it ignores the specific contexts in which violence is presented and justified.
Inspired by the violence discourse, I decided to go back to look at the Hotline Miami series, the ultraviolent pixel twin-stick made by Dennation Games and published by Devolver Digital. If you personally knew me, you’d know that I was really into these games a few years back. Like, I haven’t played it to the extent of a speedrunner, but I’ve 100%ed both games on Steam and PS4. However, for the sake of this article, I’m just looking at Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, because I feel that it’s more interesting to write about – for better or for worse.
The original Hotline Miami presented itself as a fever dream of a catatonic man (dubbed Jacket), violence lost in the haze of thumping music. Richard – the personification of the chicken mask – judges Jacket’s actions and in a way, he’s questioning himself.
But in Wrong Number, Richard is just kind of a separate guy detached from his original context. He’s the Ghost of Violent Future going around to give cryptic messages to other people pursuing violent endeavors, which feels ridiculous in comparison to his role in the original game.
In general, Wrong Number feels very confused with regards to story and themes. There’s a bunch of plotlines tied in here of varying quality relating to the central idea of violence. It also drags down the story of the first game into a grounded reality, giving it a backstory while showing the fall-out of Jacket’s actions. I honestly think that it cheapens the original game, because it felt like it lost its surreal qualities on my second time around.
The backstory follows a war story, establishing that Jacket and his bearded friend that kept showing up in his dreams fought together against Russians in Hawaii. Its narrative on violence just doesn’t work here, because the context of a war is completely different from the context of some guy massacring gangsters. There isn’t any moral ambiguity, especially considering that the Russian enemies are cartoonishly evil and wind up nuking a city at the end of the storyline.
The actual takeaway from the war storyline is “war is hell,” which is punctuated by the group leader showing up wearing a skinned animal head on his face like a mask going all like “WE ARE ALL ANIMALS.” Come on.
However, that leads into another more effective narrative of violence, and it’s how violence is used as a tool of fascism. Said leader is heavily implied to create the 50 Blessings organization, a pro-American group that tries to rid the country of Russians and communism. On the surface, 50 Blessings is an enthusiast gathering of a bunch of Americans, when in reality, it’s your average fascist paramilitary group, employing mask wearing hitmen. Through the blood of Russians, 50 Blessings aims to put America back on top. However, instead of shooting up any normal Russian or leftist, the organization specifically targets the Russian mafia by putting hits out through coded messages. Its hitlist is laundered in a dog whistley way so that even people that know what 50 Blessings actually is would seem crazy calling them out. These Russian massacres could be shrugged off as gang wars, and if somebody sees through it, the theoretical response to that would be, “why would you care about a bunch of mobsters?”
And the one most enthusiastically championing the cause is Jake. Jake’s story is essentially more explanations for things in the first game that doesn’t need explaining, but he fits in as a representative of the antagonistic force. He’s the liberal stereotype of a white supremacist, being a fat white guy with an unkempt appearance with nothing but open rudeness toward his enemies while proudly displaying a Confederate flag in his home. Despite not actually knowing what 50 Blessings truly is until his death, he’s enthusiastic about massacring Russians and just kinda does so with little prompt.
However, Jake is in the minority in that he’s the only affiliated character whose political feelings are actually known. 50 Blessings is dedicated to keeping its mask on, to the point that the other people it recruits are in for other reasons. Jacket’s implied to have joined in the killing games for the sake of avenging his war buddy, while Biker (the final protagonist of the first game) loves killing for the sake of killing.
What makes Biker interesting though is that he actually has a distaste for the goals of 50 Blessings when he discovers what they actually are. Biker revels in violence but does not like what the violence actually achieves. In this instance, Biker is representative of a gamer that doesn’t understand the possible political undertones of a game’s story that becomes confronted with what it actually is. But unlike actual gamers, Biker hates it and he ollie-outies out of the story.
And then we have the guy that fridged Jacket’s girlfriend in the first game, Ritcher. He’s one of the playable characters in Wrong Number and it’s very much a thing of, “hey, your enemies are people too,” kinda thing, all TLOU2 style except not bad. While a villain in the first game, Ritcher’s played as a sympathetic figure in Wrong Number in that he was coerced into working on 50 Blessings’ behalf, using him as a tool divorced from their cause and trying to get him killed when he’s no longer useful.
Going along with the “your enemies are people, too” thing, we have the son of the mob leader from the previous game, who’s trying to reclaim the territory picked up by the Columbian mafia in the wake of Jacket’s rampage as a parallel to the actual drug wars. He’s unmistakably the shade of violence that says violence and crime is cool, because he just kinda does gang war stuff and robberies. Richard shows up to be like, “oh, you’re going to wind up dying like your father,” but him scolding him through this way is vastly undermined by the fact that everyone dies anyway.
In fact, most of Richard’s appearances is him warning people that their love of violence will lead them to their deaths. But due to a 50 Blessings’ caused nuclear war at the end of the game, everyone dies regardless. With the actions of everyone, good or bad, rendered futile, Richard preaching at people just comes off as stupid.
But anyway, let’s talk about the Fans. They are the game’s opening characters and they’re, well, fans of Jacket. They’re the kinda people that watched Goodfellas and thought, “dang, it’s good to be a gangster,” and go out to cause their own massacres of criminals. The Fans take Richard’s memetic question of, “do you like hurting other people?” and say, “yes, we do.”
I actually think the Fans have the most fitting storyline out of all the characters. Besides being a reasonable continuation of the events of the first game, they act as a subversion of how things went for Jacket. They go to a pizza shop like how Jacket visits the dream version of his friend, but the interaction is very impersonal, reflecting how they don’t have any personal reason for going on violent rampages. They slaughter a house full of people and try to rescue a girl like Jacket did, but she’s not a victim and was in fact a friend to the people they killed – she’ll even shoot your character if you dare approach her for the sake of the violent rescue fantasy. And finally, while Jacket rots in jail, they’re all slaughtered by the aforementioned mafia leader – and it’s not even a revenge killing like Jacket’s, because the mafia leader’s high as hell and is killing indiscriminately, at that point. They lived for pointless violence and died in pointless violence – a fitting contrast to the protagonists that came before.
And finally, there’s the set of characters that looks at the violence that Jacket perpetuated and glorify it in one way or another.
Evan is a journalist trying to write a sensationalist book on Jacket’s killings. Interestingly, he does not kill people, as his whole gimmick forbids him from using guns and bladed weapons in favor of non-lethally incapacitating enemies. Evan can accidentally kill people, however, and in doing so, it triggers a sorta rage mode where he becomes willing to intentionally kill. In this rage mode though, he earns far less points, so the game’s scoring system essentially punishes you for taking the path the rest of the characters take. Like the Fans, he’s an answer to the first game’s glamorization of killing, but in his case, he’s fascinated by the act but refuses to do so himself. On a meta level, he’s the gamer that loves violent games but recognizes and rejects the acts within them.
Jacket’s actions are further glamorized through a slasher film called Midnight Animal, starring Martin. In one segment, he expresses his desire to kill people and he’s clearly laundering those feelings through a movie, in a way representing players that use violent games to vent. Honestly? Just cut out all his levels. He’s a completely extraneous character in the narrative besides what he represents.
And finally we arrive at the bastard cop, Manny Pardo (above). He’s a detective that shows up to kill criminals whilst moonlighting as the serial killer he’s investigating, jealous of the attention that Jacket has over his own killings. I honestly don’t know what he represents. In fact, the opening of the Hard Mode has Richard directly addressing him, saying that he has no idea what this man’s about. Kinda sucks for a game to openly acknowledge that it has no idea what it’s doing with one of its characters, you know.
In our current moment though, Manny is fascinating as an unflinching depiction of a cop. He’s intended to be a representation of Manuel Pardo, a cop that proudly targeted drug dealers in his killings. However, players today can see so much more in him. Manny has unique executions where he uses an equipped gun to kill downed enemies, he breaks into a woman’s house to hit on her and plant evidence, he shoots one of the Fans when he tries to surrender to him and tries to claim it was for self-defense, – he’s a shining example of police brutality. He’s the Golden State Killer, he’s one of the many cops in recent memory that shot and killed somebody, etc. Really, the only way he can be more of a cop would be if he had ties to 50 Blessings.
He has a bad place in the narrative, but Manny Pardo is ultimately Hotline Miami‘s most well realized depiction of an aspect of violence: the violence of the police.
Looking back through all this, Wrong Number feels very unfocused in its narrative. Some of the characters acting as meta responses to the first game’s basic views on violence is good, but it gets lost in all the weeds. Furthermore, while I do like the presence of 50 Blessings, it is effectively sidelined for most of the game until the very end, which kinda robs the game of a good primary antagonist.
In fact, ultimately, the closest thing to a primary antagonist are still Russians, from the war days to the white suited gangsters, which validates 50 Blessings somewhat. And you know, you can’t, under any circumstances, gotta hand it to them.
But anyway, it doesn’t really matter since everyone dies at the end to something they had no control over. Cool.
But hey, we’re around 1800 words deep and you’re probably fuming about me focusing on all this story stuff. So, how does Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number stack up gameplay wise?
Due to the game switching between multiple characters, the first game’s mask system is mostly dropped, which is actually a good thing since 3/4ths of those masks are just kinda there. Some levels still present different playstyles, like choosing which of the Fans you want to play in a level and Jake upholding the first game’s system with his snake masks. These playstyles are mainly balanced except for Tony the Fan – his gameplay style of punching enemies to death rules conceptually, but it’s extremely impractical in a game where most enemies are armed with guns and wandering around large levels.
Which leads me into one of the biggest criticisms I have of the game. The first game, for the most part, had very compact levels. In fact, you can see how compact they are with the models shown off in the level select screen. You can rush into a small room to kill everyone inside with a knife then pop into the hallway to fire shots to keep the action going.
In Wrong Number, large spaces are ridiculously commonplace. For comparison, here’s the second main level from the first game and two images of the first level of the second game. Right from the get-go, things get big. The rooms are big, the hallways are big, just so much space for enemies to wander around and get shot in. Fuck kinda building is this, anyway?
The large open spaces are a problem for multiple reasons. For one thing, it gives enemies a lot of space to position themselves, so it becomes easier to miss shots. As an extension, armed enemies have a lot of places to shoot from. Additionally, because of this, melee combat is way less viable; you can take down armed enemies with a bat if you’re quick enough in small spaces, but in larger ones you’re better off chucking your weapon to stun them (or you could get a chance for a kill, if it’s a knife). Since Tony can’t pick up weapons at all, either, he becomes the worst character to use by a mile as a result (along with the mob leader’s Dirty Hands playstyle). Also, as shown in the video above, your screen may not scroll far enough to see some enemies. Fuck that bank.
You can try to just memorize where enemy placements are, but some enemies, instead of being stationary or having a set route, wander around randomly. This was present in the first game, but it becomes a bigger problem with the emphasis on space. So hey, don’t be surprised if you get shot from out of nowhere by a guy that just kinda wanders in.
With the lack of a mask that extends combo duration, getting high ranks feels more demanding. But that’s hardly a problem for me because trying to get a good combo going was the most satisfying part of the game. In replaying the levels, I kinda build this map in my head of how to progress through the level efficiently. Figuring out what rooms to hide in to bait out kills while still getting out to continue the combo, figuring out the optimal way to progress through an open-ended level, etc, is stuff you’ll learn trying to play. No matter how long it takes, it’s always possible to get an A+ or S rank.
When enemy movements and weapon spawns agree with you, you can carve out a satisfying bloody path through levels. Except when you’re Evan. He’s honestly my favorite character to use because I like that he has a unique gimmick fitting his demeanor and the sound of him emptying guns to extend his combo feels satisfying.
If you’re foolishly going for all achievements like I did, you’ll have to play Hard Mode. The Hard Mode just sucks. I love picking up a gun to just have its ammo halved, that’s not artificial difficulty at all.
Presentation wise, Wrong Number is much stronger than its predecessor. Hotline Miami used various synthwave tracks from different artists for its soundtrack to give an energetic 80’s feel to all the violence. While the first game had a handful of tracks, the second game’s soundtrack is massive, with each level having its own unique track to establish its identity. Decade Dance carries a horror vibe to accompany the slasher film level, Le Perv lends a frantic, dramatic flair to the prison level that ends the stories of Ritcher and Evan, etc. The soundtrack is by far the strongest suit of Wrong Number and it becomes easy to forget that some of the levels kinda suck with the energy it brings.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, looking back years later, feels all over the place. It does the sequel thing of aiming to be bigger than its predecessor, but in doing so, it creates a bunch of plot threads that don’t fully come together, saying a lot about violence but not really focusing on one aspect of it. In being bigger, it also makes its levels bigger, which they really shouldn’t have. There’s still fun to be had and there’s some interesting things in there, but, from a “game” standpoint, I prefer the first Hotline Miami, even if its message is “we live in a society” level.
I mean, since the games tend to be bundled together and go on sale for cheap nowadays, there’s no reason not to play it if you get the first game. But also, if the soundtrack’s your selling point, you should honestly just buy the soundtrack.
[…] where you play as a masked person going out to massacre people. No, I’m not talking about a Hotline Miami game. Huh, what? No, I already did My Friend, Pedro. Hm. I’m starting to notice a theme here. […]
That was… Interesting, even if a little generic look on a game. I understand your points, and your general outlook on gameplay and game’s theme makes sense (with possible exclusion of Pardo being the representation of violent cop, not that I disagree with the idea, it’s just that he a little… detached from it, I guess? He feels like more cynical play on main characters from 90’s police movies, with him being lone wolf, taking down whole boats of mafia dudes and all? Not really opposing ideas, but for me they don’t really mesh together all that well with me.)
I’m not gonna dwell too much on levels being too open or places not making sense – in my belief places from HM1 were equally as unrealistic (do you remember bathroom hallway? I remember bathroom hallway. I miss bathroom hallway) and because of how easy the first game is (really, like half of it is incredibly easy and the main enemy is controls that are really hard to get used to on your first go, which results in most of the deaths anyway) it’s hard for me to find it as engaging as the second, despite completing it more than 4 times already, and the whole “openness” of it is while something that takes a while getting used to, goes away pretty quickly once you start actively use shift to look farther (not saying that it completely removes a problem, but it helps A LOT in 90% of the cases).
Yeah, and also about hard mode – you’re completely right about it being unfair with some of it’s mechanics, but at thee same time calling something an “artificial” in a difficulty in a videogame? Not really a good choice of words here I feel like, since pretty much everything about any difficulty in any videogame is artificial and the only thing that change it is how much are we ready to lower our suspension of disbelief.
As for the thematic aspect of it… Let me just start by saying that I’m of the believe that art shouldn’t try to “say things” as it’s primary goal. Yeah, i know that sounds dumb, but in my eyes the entire point of art is to convey *emotion* before an idea, which is of course can be done at the same time – some emotions and meaning we find in said emotions can be going hand-in-hand with each other. But at thee same time I think just making people feel a certain way is – in itself – a good enough thing, which is why HM1 as an “experience™” is still probably better than HM2, but also, in a way, the reason why I like HM2’s ending. Think about it like this – you spend the entire game going through violent actions with this edgy rooster ghost laughing at you for how wrong your actions are… and then the nuke comes. It feels unfair, and wrong, like something you have no control over, Richard even goes back to you and – in his own way – tries to tell you that it’s okay and Richter gets it – of course he does – but he also knows it’s just doesn’t matter. In the end even the people who probably didn’t deserve it bite the thousands off microscopic radiation-inducig bullets, even thee ones who were left with no real choice (Beard). And it’s sad, it is depressing, but also kinda realistic, after all – how could these characters change something that this much out off their control? They can’t. And I like it this way. Why? Well, I guess it’s because sometimes putting theme before the story can do as much harm as it does good (seriously, think about how every single horror game these days have to be about some deep inner problem of the player character to thee point where events themselves loose all sort off meaning? Thee last one that did good it in my recent memory was Soma and that was 5 whole years ago) and seeing something that was made with story taking this particular choice was quite nice and emotional in its own way.
Also I can’t really dislike HM2 after playing things from workshop that people made for it, seriously recommend giving it a look, there’s some seriously impressive stuff out there ! (Personal recommendation to look at Hunter Saga, Real Human Being and Pig Fingers)