A friend of mine declared 2012’s “Hotline Miami,” a mercilessly gory, 8-bit “Drive” tribute about an unnamed, animal-mask-wearing man (dubbed “Jacket” by fans) as he wipes out the mob in an alternate universe where Russia won the Cold War, a video game that “makes you feel bad for playing it.”
The severed limbs, exposed guts, and exaggerated spurts and pools of blood were purposefully unsettling and unlike other games which justified violent content as the only option for desperate characters, “Hotline Miami” indicts the player’s participation through surrealistic storytelling and the subtle escalation of gory specifics—enemy facial expressions are more pained and agonized than usual and characters twitch, crawl, and beg as they die. Midway through “Hotline Miami,” main character Jacket begins hallucinating his previous victims’ mangled bodies and later on, a series of brief, dreamlike interludes—in which Jacket interacts with three masked figures that represent parts of his psyche—make it clear that Jacket is an isolated and violent man. The finger-pointing from game to player is most obvious during these hallucinations, but like the best pulp art, “Hotline Miami” works best when it doesn’t worry about subtlety anymore.
The new sequel, “Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number,” is even more hyperviolent than the original while its narrative comments on the first game’s cult popularity, raising the stakes for confounding gamers’ interest in violent games. Set before and after the events of “Hotline Miami,” the number of playable characters expands and includes a group of vigilantes influenced by Jacket and a soldier fighting Russian troops in Hawaii. Many of these new characters are visited by Richard, one of the masked figures from the first game, who offers cryptic warnings about the scope and context of their actions, to which they are all tragically oblivious. It’s an ambitious, meta-gaming experience.
The game is also very hard. The PC version of the game requires the WASD keys, the mouse, and both mouse buttons, which can be a steep learning curve, and the overall level design has issues, too. Many levels are too big for the player’s sight line, and getting sniped by gun-toting enemies offscreen is common enough to be irritating. Speaking of, your character will die a lot. Every level requires the player to kill (or non-lethally dispatch) every enemy present, and it’s one-shot-one-kill rules for everybody. The game play relies alternately on stealth and recklessness, so the pace is fast (and assisted by a pounding, retro synth soundtrack) and brutally efficient. And although you get unlimited starts, this also means witnessing the same characters get disemboweled over and over, which contributes further to the violent gamer critique.
In some ways, “Hotline Miami 2” reaches beyond itself: Nonlinear plots are still a hard sell in gaming, and the complexity of the controls and level design make an already challenging game even harder. That said, these flaws come from genuine attempts to try something different, and this tougher sequel, proves Hotline Miami to be a series that challenges gamers’ skills as well as their moral compass.