In which I (sort of) review Hotline Miami…
Violence is at the forefront of Hotline Miami, and even though I would like to argue that it isn’t, I can’t really do that. Each and every minute of the game is slathered with a fine grease of red stuff, and to make the case that it is a distraction would be a foolish thing.
I tried to write that article already. It was deleted, retyped, and then deleted again.
However, I don’t feel the violence in the same way that I think other people might. That is a strange distinction, I think, and maybe I’m not alone in it, but most people tend to talk very explicitly about how the violence in Hotline Miami affects them.
I’m not put off of by the gut-wrenching, head-smashing violence, partly because of the pixelated nature of it all, but I think it’s more because I was way too enthralled with the controls and the strategy and the music to be concerned by the blood.
Had the game been a thin veneer for violence, a thinly-veiled gimmick, then I would have put it down almost immediately. I’ve long since grown out of my need to be force-fed extreme material for the sheer enjoyment of it.
It wasn’t the violence against others that kept me playing Hotline Miami; it was the violence I inflicted upon myself that dragged me through all twenty-plus chapters of this pixelated action puzzle game. You diediediediediedie, and yet, the game is never really about dying, kind of like Stephen King’s books are not really about evil but about good triumphing over evil.
The point of Hotline Miami is to be successful, to inflict violence at the risk of one’s own life. It isn’t the stuff of Nobel Laureates, not even close, but even though the game is a neon light covered in blood and cocaine, it’s impossible to deny that there is something else there, too.
It even aspires to something higher - sort of - even if the purpose isn’t always clear. That the game never actually makes its intentions entirely known probably add more to the unseemly feeling of the text for most people. You can’t really defend this game if you don’t know what in the hell it is trying to say with the violence.
Or maybe the game isn’t about its message on violence at all.
But I digress.
In a game where you play as a character identified exclusively by his outerwear, you’d expect there’s not much characterization to be had, and maybe you’d be right, but rather than feel less for the character, I became utterly interested in who this violent, misguided, and largely silent protagonist was.
It becomes obvious early on that he is being manipulated through a series of surreal phone messages. That, or he doesn’t want to understand the truth of the message on the answering machine. Some of the phone calls sound pretty innocuous, and yet, the following scene ends with bodies strewn about an 8-bit landscape, covered in their own guts.
You could almost argue that surface meaning matters, that the literal meaning matters in any sort of text, especially one like Hotline Miami, and if that is the case, then I have misjudged the game entirely. I ignored the surface visuals for what lay beneath it. Game mechanics are nothing if not the gears that run the machine, and the handling in Hotline Miami is really what stands out.
But they aren’t the only thing that stands out.
If not for the soundtrack, which added to the surreality, I might have put it down earlier, but here I am trying to separate the game into parts again. Nothing in Hotline Miami works without the other things, which is great. It speaks to how cool the experience is that one element cannot stand alone, and though most games are constructed so that the parts do not stand alone, Hotline Miami, through its simplicity, is able to boil all of those parts into a single, segmented being. The violence and soundtrack and mechanics are like three animals feeding off of one another for survival, in other words.
But back to the gameplay.
I played my ‘Jacket’ a little bit more cautiously than I’m sure most people did, partly because I am abominable at the whole experience. It should give you hope that I’ll never become an assassin of any stripe, because I stumbled my way through large parts of the game. After so many dozen deaths in a given section, I managed to find myself getting lucky and then using that luck as an operating strategy for the rest of the level.
But I also played it somewhat safe and strategic because I liked watching the parts of the game coalesce. Seeing the mobsters’ particular paths meant I could Beautiful Mind it, putting together a battle plan before I stepped through the first door (or elevator or whatever).
I had to balance the benefits of a stealthy campaign with going full Tarantino on the fools walking around with knives, pipes, and shotguns. There is no substitute for being able to seamlessly traverse a level without being seen, but the one substitute is running roughshod through a level, relying on pure adrenaline to get you through. It is amazing.
Lucky breaks can be blissful experiences.
The game itself doesn’t quite know how it wants you to play, either, which is a bonus. Of the various tips one receives, one states that weapons make no noise, while another tells you how playing Mister Yellow style will get you a better score. There is no right way to play the game, except whichever way you play it.
However, I will say the game rewards recklessness. You’ll get a higher score and better grade if you turn Punisher on everyone. The Time Bonus is not for the stealthy, and scoring players definitely gives the game some replay value, if you’re not tired of the game’s whole aesthetic by the end.
But, ultimately, scores and strategies don’t matter. Not even the violence. It’s the controls that really make Hotline Miami special. The game gets progressively more difficult, so if you don’t plan on getting better at the game, you at least have to perfect each level’s set of circumstances to be able to propel yourself forward to the next one.
This is something I found entrancing. If you think about it, this is the link to the older generation that really matters, not the throwback graphics. I sort of miss games that required playing through lots and lots of times in order to get better. The way the game immediate reloads means that you can pack months of practice into a few hours of gameplay. It’s actually kind of amazing. I’d be interested to know how Mario would feel if the game had been able to reload the way that Hotline Miami does. Take any platformer, really, and apply the quick respawn of HM to it, and it almost seems to improve the experience.
The narrative becomes too surreal for its own good, but I kind of like that it’s never actually laid out for you. The other thing is, I think it will stick with me for far longer precisely because it kept some of the cards hidden. The game never really lays out what’s happening, and the story isn’t really what matters, so I’m okay with it.
Overall, Hotline Miami is one of the top two or three 2012 gaming experiences I had in 2013. (I had to play catch-up on lots of games.) It is a nice companion piece to Mark of the Ninja, which I played concurrently and will be writing about in a future post.
Play Hotline Miami. Hurl yourself against the gun barrels of your enemies until you’re no longer having fun.
Jodie Holmes is kind of like Domino Harvey, if Domino Harvey were spliced with Carol Ann from Poltergeist.
David Cage seems to have learned lessons not from 2010 Quantic Dreams offering Heavy Rain but from Metal Gear Solid 4. What I expected to be a fairly straightforward narrative piece turned out to be something else entirely, and I’m thankful I didn’t spend too much time reading up on the game’s story.
First of all, Beyond: Two Souls is not necessarily just an interactive fiction the way that Heavy Rain was. There are plenty of pre-rendered cut scenes and QTEs throughout this 10 hour experience, but within the parameters of what is a fairly linear vision from writer / creator David Cage is also very distinctly a game.
That is not to denigrate what Quantic Dreams does whatsoever, but the difference in what kind of experience the two major releases offer are markedly different. Both ultimately serve story, but though Heavy Rain’s various sequences stray from the objective only to work as reinforcement, Beyond’s narrative aim is entirely character-driven and doesn’t mind going far afield of “the point” in order to give insight into the main character’s (Ellen Page’s) life.
It’s hard to discuss the game without going too much into specific spoiler-y material, so you’ll have to forgive me here. I’m just going to say what I have to say, and if it includes story spoilers, then it will.
But first, let’s take a step back.
The game looks amazing, even by the standards of Heavy Rain, so three years has made a difference. Quantic Dream is doing some amazing stuff with tech, so everyone who works there should be commended for that, and Beyond’s world is just one that is sometimes amazing to behold. The variety of environments - not just a rainy, dreary, Seven-ish city - are mindblowing, and though they don’t always feel connected, they are impressive nonetheless.
Which kind of leads indirectly to the acting. The acting, even beyond stars Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe, and Kadeem Hardison (what’s up!) is at least on par with a mid-level TV show, and though that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s hard to assess where acting SHOULD be in a game of this caliber. Considering the actors probably spent hours with MoCap equipment on them means the acting is absolutely amazing.
I haven’t really read reviews of Beyond, but I thought Ellen Page absolutely did carry the story, and I played the game through during a furious gaming weekend, so it had the potential to really become tedious, and for me, it didn’t. I thought she worked perfectly for the character the game was trying to sell to the audience, and even when I thought the story itself became somewhat un-compelling, I never thought the same for her as the protagonist.
Visually the game is stunning. I don’t think anyone has problems with that. The controls, however, are difficult to master - and I never really got the hang of them - because it’s hard to get a sense of spatial awareness, especially when controlling the “ghost-y person” (to quote Doctor Sleep) Aidan. Going through walls and rising up to view the surrounding environment is cool, but if you’re bad with the control scheme - and believe me, I was - then you’ll struggle with the controls until you don’t. Though I got sort of accustomed to them beyond the halfway point, I never felt like I was proficient with the mechanics at any point in the game. I sort of drunkenly swayed around when controlling Aiden (pronounced eye-den), but luckily most of the commands tied to him do not have to be completed in a timely fashion, so it was never really an issue.
Not only that, but some of the controller commands, too, aren’t entirely clear, so sometimes you might slip up due to confusion rather than slowness. The “momentum” cues are a nice touch, but they are also sometimes confusing. The idea is, you’re supposed to move the right thumbstick in the direction Jodie’s momentum is going when punching or jumping or avoiding something.
In the split seconds you are given (in slow motion), it is easy for you to misinterpret the cue and therefore make a mistake. The good thing is, most of the momentum mistakes are not fatal but merely punitive. You might get punched a few times, but a single mistake does not determine whether or not you win some form of combat or not.
I don’t think they’re good controls, but I’m not sure they’re entirely broken, either. Last time around, people complained about being able to see the gears working under the surface, the weird story shortcomings and the problematic simplicity of the QTEs. This time around, it could be easy to harp on the controls, because even though the QTEs are generally much more smooth in the experience, they still lack something fundamental, it seems.
Still, Beyond feels like a step toward more of a traditional gaming experience. There is more gamey-ness involved here - driving and other things - which simply did not exist in Heavy Rain. (Side note: I have not played Indigo Prophecy.)
As mentioned above, there appears to be some influence from Hideo Kojima in this game, because even though plenty of the game feels like a giant pre-rendered cinematic, other parts are quite video game-y. Parts of it definitely reminded me of Metal Gear Solid, and though the controls are never that tight, there’s some pretty intense stealth here. It’s definitely done better in other games, but the fact that it is here at all bears mentioning.
The game doesn’t vary controls very much, but the variety of environments and experiences makes it feel that way. It becomes Metal Gear for a while, and then it’s Red Dead, only to then become Alan Wake. It does not live within strict confines, and yet it has a distinct and unalterable path.
Unlike with the last game, which felt varied even though it wasn’t, not really, this game seems to be less opaque with where it wants you to go. There are some variations, but I doubt that you’ll spend all that much time agonizing over individual decisions the same way you did with Heavy Rain.
And that might be the game’s biggest problem (although the controls come close). It is too readily compared to Heavy Rain, which is unfair. I think Heavy Rain took a lot of people by surprise, and they couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it, so they took the default position of liking it. (Plenty of people hated it, I know.)
But Beyond: Two Souls isn’t merely a refinement of the previous game. It takes some chances - with story, with controls, with the possibilities for emotional resonance - and it doesn’t fit neatly within a genre, so it is probably unpopular with large swaths of the gaming public. However, I think it will be fondly remembered and may fall into the “cult classic” camp, if enough people continue to play it.
However, even though I have read that there are 23 possible endings, I’m satisfied with the one I earned, so I don’t really have any inkling to play it again, unlike with Heavy Rain, where I did a bit of save-tweaking so that I could get the ending I wanted, or at least prevent myself from getting the worst ending.
It does present an interesting issue, though, with player choice. You know that, ultimately, your choices don’t matter all that much, but they still seem to matter more than the choices you make in, say, The Walking Dead, both of which seem (to me) to tell stories differently but in similarly interesting ways.
Still, Beyond takes a nonlinear path, so it is not a straight line from the beginning to the end. And even though I think the story of the first game is stronger, the narrative sense of Beyond is much better. The story choices feel more subtle in a lot of places, and perhaps because we kind of got to see how the gears were grinding beneath the skin of Heavy Rain, the choices in Beyond: Two Souls feel way less binary.
I’m going to recommend the game, even though it received some middling reviews. I enjoyed it as much as I would a strong season of television. In a resonant story, there have to be peaks and valleys, and even though some of the valleys drop a bit lower than I’d have expected, it still works as a beautiful, somewhat different gaming experience.
We begin this episode in a diner, with Todd regailing his two minions with tales of the train heist. After a quick trip to the head, they drive into New Mexico. [break]
When we come back, Hank is in the interrogation room with Pinkman. He tries to lure Jesse by saying he might be able to get his charges thrown out, and he surmises that Jesse and Walt aren’t getting along. Jesse’s response? “Eat me.” Hank tries to hone in on the discontent element, and it seems to be working, because Jesse’s eyes tear up.
However, that’s when Saul intrudes and threatens a lawsuit. After a brief exchange, we cut to Walt on the phone with him. When he hangs up, we hear Walt Jr. come in, and they discuss his dad’s curious whereabouts - “you were out late last night” - before he goes into the bathroom and puts foundation under his eyes. Junior says Aunt Marie asked him over “to fix some computer thing” and wants him to stay for dinner.
Walt sits him down and says that he passed out and hit his eye. He then tells him that he has “a spot” on his lung, and he’s on chemo. He assures him not to worry, to stay positive.
We cut to Marie and Hank, wherein he reveals that he didn’t tell his colleagues about the situation with Walt. Then we move on to Hank and Skyler. He sits down and films a confession. [break]
We come back to Skyler and Walt meeting Hank and Marie for dinner. Hank asks if he’s come to confess. His response: “There’s nothing to confess.” They discuss custody of Walt, Jr., and Walt asks them to leave the kids out of it.
Marie pleads with Skyler, but she defends their actions. She says that there is nothing else, that it was “in the past.” Walt puts the “cancer” situation on top of it, but Hank isn’t buying it. Marie offers that he kills himself. Walt and Skyler get up, but they leave the confession with Hank and Marie.
Cut to: Hank and Marie watch, slack-jawed, as Walt offers a false confession, saying that Hank used his chemistry skills to build a meth empire. He builds a convincing case. Once it’s done, Hank says it’s a threat, and Marie says he should “get ahead of it” by telling his colleagues. They discuss the medical bill money Walt and Skyler used to pay for Hanks’ recovery.
Meanwhile, Saul and Pinkman are in the desert. Saul looks agitated. Walt meets them shortly thereafter. Walt, paranoid, checks the Cadillac and then shows him a doo-hickey that will find radio signals, to prevent bugging. Walt discusses what Pinkman knows with Pinkman. He tells them that he thinks Hank didn’t tell anyone about what he knows. Walt has Saul take a walk and then suggests that Jesse get out of town, get a new identity. He gives a long pitch to Jesse, but Jesse realizes he’s being worked. He pushes back, laying bare the idea that if Jesse doesn’t leave then Walt will kill him “like [he] killed Mike.” Walt hugs him, and though Jesse fights it, he lets himself be hugged. He breaks down.
[I missed this part.]
Jesse is in Saul’s room, while Saul talks to someone about getting a new identity. Saul pulls out stacks of cash while Jesse sparks a joint, and then Saul yells at him and makes him hand it over. Saul gives him a Hello Kitty phone for emergencies and tells him to wait. Jesse suggests starting a new life in Alaska and then exeunts.
Cut to Jesse waiting on the side of the highway. He pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, and this makes him react strangely. The van pulls up, but he doesn’t get in. He walks away, and the van disappears. [break]
Jesse shows up to Saul’s office and punches him in the face a few times. Saul tries to pull a gun but Jesse gets it. They discuss the poisoned ricin cigarette. Saul claims ignorance in the matter, saying he was pushed by Walt. He calls Walt.
Walt shows up at the car wash and speaks with Skyler. Skyler is suspicious of Walt’s inane babbling. He unlocks the Coke machine and pulls a gun from underneath the refrigeration unit. He leaves under the auspices of picking up a prescription.
Cut to Jesse showing up at Walt’s house. He grabs a gas can from the trunk and douses Walt’s house in gasoline. [End of Show]
The episode starts with someone skateboarding in a pool. It is revealed to be Walter White’s home, after plenty of time has passed with no one living in it.
Walt appears, bearded and bespectacled. He opens the trunk, and there’s an assault rifle in there. He pulls a tire iron and proceeds to the house. This is a version of the man who has been running from something; however, he doesn’t look afraid whatsoever.
The house is empty, destroyed. HEISENBERG is spray painted in bold letters on the wall. He peers at the skateboarding teenagers through a crack in the wall. He pulls some change from his pocket and undoes a wall socket. He pulls a small vial from the socket and heads outside.
A neighbor sees him and looks frightened. She drops a bag of groceries. “Hi, Carol,” he says, and then a hard cut.
After the commercial break, we come back to the house when it was not soiled by whatever has happened. Hank emerged from the bathroom, Whitman in tow, and it is obvious he knows.
He goes back out to the main room, and he’s sweating from the knowledge that he knows Walt is Heisenberg. He goes out to the porch, where the family is hanging out, and stares oddly at Walt.
It is a very satisfying moment.
Walt has a brief discussion with Hank and tells him to “feel better.” There is a gut-wrenching moment where he waves with the baby and tells Hank goodbye.
He greets the neighbor from the first segment.
Hank and Marie are driving home, and the music builds. Hank’s vision gets blurry as the music draws up, drowning out Marie’s yammering.
He wrecks, as he has one of the same episodes he had from the first few seasons of the show. He and Marie argue, and he tells her not to tell Skylar.
He opens up a file from what appears to be the Heisenberg file. He checks one handwriting against another, and the revelation sinks in.
We cut to the car wash, where Walt and Skylar have an awkward moment. They have a discussion about air fresheners.
Then, he pulls her aside and explains his plan for laundering their money. He says they should buy more car washes. She seems responsive but only says that she’ll think about it.
Skylar speaks to the lady who is his contact for distribution. She says that the last shipment of meth was only 68%, and she demands that he come back to the business. He rebuffs her, telling her that it is not his problem. He’s left the biz and doesn’t want to make meth anymore.
Skylar asks about the woman, because she is driving a rental car, and “who would wash a rental?” Skylar tells her to go, and she does…hurriedly.
Back from the break, and Hank says he’s not going in to work. Instead, he’s had all the Heisenberg files brought to him. There is a pretty intense montage as Hank sorts through all of the evidence.
Cut to Jesse, who looks miserable. Skinny Pete and Badger are smoking pot and talking about Star Trek. Jesse gets up, leaves the room, and when he returns, he’s carrying a bag.
He goes to Saul Goodman’s office and defiantly smokes, promptly getting a meeting with the criminal lawyer. He’s brought five million with him, and he wants to send it to two very specific people, Drew Sharp (the kid who got shot last season) and Mike’s granddaughter.
Saul tries to dissuade him unsuccessfully. Saul uses a burn phone to call Walt to tell him about the money, and Walt tells him that he will handle it. Drew is getting treatment for what appears to be a reappearance of his cancer.
Jesse watches a cockroach skitter across a disgusting table, while someone knocks at the door. It’s Walt, carrying two bags of money, presumably. Walt admits to being wrong about taking his share of the money, and he tries to give it to him, but Jesse isn’t having it. He is despondent beyond words.
Walt brings up Drew Sharp specifically. He brings up the fact that they’re both out of the meth biz. Walt has been out for a month, and he’s trying to convince Jesse of the importance for them to live ordinary, decent lives, but even he doesn’t seem convinced of it.
When Walt asks about why Jesse’s giving Kaylee money, Jesse implies Mike’s dead, and Walt denies killing him, even though that’s not the truth. Jesse doesn’t believe him, and yet Walt tries to convince him, nevertheless. He says, “Mike’s fine, wherever he is.”
Cut to the Whites at dinner, and Skylar announces that Hank’s not feeling better, so bowling’s off the next night. Walt excuses himself from the table and goes to the bathroom to throw up. He pulls a bottle of pills from underneath the sink and then yarks. That’s when he notices that the Whitman book is gone. (Hank had taken it with him earlier in the episode.) He then searches for his copy of Leaves of Grass in the house, asking Skylar about it before bed.
While in bed, Walt asks about Hank, and Skylar admits that he hasn’t been to work all week, which sets Walt’s mind to working. He goes out in the middle of the night - in his pjs, BTW - and begins checking under the car for something. He pulls what appears to be a bug from underneath the car. Cut to commercial.
When we get back from the break, a homeless man wanders over to Jesse sleeping in a car. Jesse ends up giving him a bundle of money, with tears in his eyes. The guilt of all he’s done is obviously getting to him. He then drives through a neighborhood, tossing money out the window as he goes.
Meanwhile, Hank is briefing two agents (in his garage) over something related to the Heisenberg case, when Walt pulls up. Hank hurriedly tries to hid the materials he’d been viewing while Walt chats up the other two agents. They talk baseball for a moment before Hank shoos them away.
Walt feigns interest in Hank’s sickness, and he comments on the boxes of stuff in Hank’s garage. He is about to leave, but Walt returns and shows the GPS tracker to Hank, asking him outright about it. He even mentions Gus.
Hank closes the garage door and punches Walt in the face. He goes through all of the things Walt has done. Walt denies it, but Hank says he’ll put Walt “under the jail.” Walt says that his cancer is back, and Hank tells him to rot. Walt tells him that he’s dying and will never see the inside of a jail cell. He’s just the owner of a car wash and that’s all he is, he says. Walt refuses the pow-wow that Hank offers, and Hank tells him he doesn’t even know who Walt is anymore.
The episode ends with an oblique threat from Walt and an awkward stand-off in the garage.
COMMENTARY: So they didn’t waste any time getting started. The show has already tossed a lot of balls in the air, ones that make predicting the end of the season nigh upon impossible. We’ve got Walt’s cancer, Jesse’s erratic behavior, and Hank’s discovery of his secret. This can play out in any number of ways, but we also have a small little tidbit from the beginning of the show. Whenever Walt went back to the house, what he retrieved (I think) was a vial of ricin, which he would presumably use to kill someone. Since he doesn’t seem altogether concerned by the appearance of his neighbor, it would seem that he is working on his endgame in the flash forward. The timeline shift implies that it’s not cancer he is bothered by, it’s someone else. Jesse? Hank? Skylar? Who knows?
The other seemingly random tendril in this episode is the distributor woman who shows up at the car wash. This plants the seed that he might potentially get back into the business, though he professes he’s out. Walt is not one to ignore a golden opportunity, so maybe that’s where he begins to lean; however, he’s got plenty else to worry about at the moment, especially since A FEDERAL OFFICER KNOWS THAT HE IS HEISENBERG.
To his credit, Hank maintains the sense of morality that has guided him throughout all five seasons. He doesn’t let the fact that he figures Walt out cloud his moral vision whatsoever. He even tells Walt that he’ll put him “under the jail” if he can, and there’s no doubt he would. The threat Walt gives him at the end feels sort of weak, but who knows what he’s capable of, at this point.
Now, on to Jesse. Jesse always seems to operate like a junkie. He binges on something bad and then wakes up to a horrific and guilt-inducing hangover. He’s done it time and time again, throughout the series, so this turn should be no surprise. He has engaged in some pretty heinous activity, and so he probably should feel bad, but who knows if this is a temporary moment of clarity or the real change he needs to move on with his life. Him throwing money randomly out of a car window seems to show that he doesn’t care about the money, that he only wants some kind of absolution, but it could also mean that he thinks it’s what he should do. He might even relapse (on making meth) before the end of the season, but that, too, would be a very sad ending for Jesse.