I started to think I might not be a good person around the hundredth time that I cut a stranger’s stomach open with a chainsaw.
Hey, whoa, relax! I’m referring to my experience playing the newly released Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, not some real-life murder spree. But I can’t fault you, the reader, for being confused. Any serious discussion of Hotline Miami 2’s content immediately calls to mind the disturbing truths of real-life violent crime. Indeed, Dennaton’s latest release unleashes a concentrated attack on the boundary between the player and the systemized violence of video games — an attack that should lead us to question why we continue to create, let alone play, such games — and how we can do so responsibly.
Why Are Games Obsessed With Violence?
Why is it that so many video games today utilize themes of violence in their gameplay mechanics? A large percentage of “AAA” games (funded by large publishers) focus on the defeat and subjugation of others. Most of the time, though not always, the player triumphs in the game by violently establishing his or her superiority over a similarly equipped or more powerful foe.
There is good reason for this style of forceful confrontation receiving such emphasis in modern game design. Setting the player up to fight a direct opponent provides a discernable motivation to perform actions that might otherwise seem repetitive, mechanical or abstract by providing the game an underlying goal. Meanwhile, the shell of artificiality that has the potential to accompany the rising difficulty of the game’s later levels is stripped away by the consistent introduction of stronger foes. Even the narrative of the game itself becomes simpler to design when the game is essentially set up as a giant confrontation — this is especially important for many AAA studios, some of whom who do not consider putting time into the narrative to be a high priority.
By the time a violent video game has concluded, the player of said game has “earned” the sensation of having risen to defeat someone or something, with victory seemingly attained through intangible skill and determination rather than pure mastery of mechanics. Since an ending that is driven by violence usually results in dramatic outcomes, there is also typically a sensation that the conclusion of the game was impactful — the player truly left a mark on the world, and any input into the game was not a waste of real-life time.
So we understand why violent video games are common — they’re a simple trick towards giving a player a sense of immersion and reward as power fantasy, and they make the designer’s job easier as well by allowing him or her to rely on established traditions and plot arcs.
It’s Okay, You’re Still a Good Person
Yet, there is still a level of dissonance here that must be appreciated. At the core of this style of video game design is the assumption that the player must frequently dispose of hundreds of enemies while progressing through the challenges the game throws at him or her. But real-life violence is shocking and horrifying in its brutality, and often, its wanton cruelty. To ask a non-sociopathic human being to commit violence upon innumerable others — and enjoy inflicting that violence — a game designer must find a way to justify to the player the actions they partake in on-screen.
How do you make a character who kills innumerable scores of other living beings remain sympathetic to the player controlling them? Video games have existed long enough for developers to have crafted an infinite web of different justifications for the context of their on-screen violence, some explanations more effective than others.
Many games, like the original Doom or some of the later Command and Conquer games, vilify their enemies to the point where even the lowliest minion seems irredeemably evil, making it seem like the player is doing the world a favor by eliminating them. Other games go so far as to remove any hint of personality from their enemies that might possibly humanize them, even going so far as to hide their faces behind masks — first person shooters like Half-Life 2 and F.E.A.R. are particularly fond of this trope, due to the relative brittleness of the fourth wall between player and character in that genre.
Often these two approaches are combined to create the perfect “crash dummy” — a faceless evil minion with no redeemable traits whose sole purpose is to be gunned down by the player in his or her pursuit of a goal. While these approaches are not always used to dehumanize victims of video game violence, the occasions where they are not used are rare. Usually, but not always, these exceptions to the rule of dehumanization are accompanied by an overriding sense of urgency that forces the player to dispatch lives in the service of a nobler goal, typically set up in a way that frames the player’s failure as a far more catastrophic alternative to taking lives.
These kind of game design tactics exist for a reason. They WORK. It does not take much at all to convince a human being that killing is justified when it is properly framed in the comfortable context of sugar-coated entertainment.
It is because Hotline Miami 2 constantly subverts these design expectations that its virtual orgy of death and destruction is so profoundly upsetting.
“Do You Enjoy Hurting Other People?”
The first way in which Hotline Miami 2 assaults your relationship with it is that it insists on constantly shifting your focus between different characters. Rarely do you find yourself playing the same character for more than one level in a row.
Other reviewers have noted that they felt this consistent switch-off disrupted the narrative and rendered the storyline unintelligible, but I’m of the opinion that such disorientation is largely the point. Each of these characters approaches the violence in the game in radically different ways from all of the rest, and the constant perspective shifting never gives you time to get comfortable with any one viewpoint. By the time you’ve completed one level, you’re off to the next to control someone new, who has an entirely different reason for killing people — and after this has happened to you six or seven times, you no longer feel quite sure why these individuals are even doing exactly what they are doing — let alone if they’re even in the right.
There is a clear result. By forcing on you a haze of many different perspectives, Hotline Miami 2 prevents you from building an internal narrative that would justify the murders you commit on-screen.
Let’s add insult to injury. Once you start getting deep into the game, it becomes readily apparent that roughly half of the cast is in fact only perpetrating violence for the sake of violence.
One set of characters, the Fans, only go on “levels” because they find killing people to be fun. One of the other characters, Manny, turns out to be a serial killer interested solely in gaining attention — and the “actor”, Martin Brown, is a would-be rapist and child murderer whose grip on reality is so loose you can’t even tell if he’s dreaming or actually committing his crimes. Each of these individuals and the fact that they are included as playable characters totally and completely subverts the expected level of designer-player trust that is usually implicit in a violent video game.
Every level you play makes you complicit with the agenda of the characters. You’re there helping the Fans kill people to get their rocks off — helping Manny go on serial murder sprees and Martin Brown abduct women. You in turn, are perpetrating violence, and the game rubs it in by refusing to provide a comfortable justification for your own actions. Even the supposedly safe veneer of the fourth wall is removed very early into the game: specifically, when Martin justifies his brutal fantasies with the piercing line “It’s just a film.” The implication is that he’s participating in entertainment, so his depravities are sanctioned and harmless. But are you okay with justifying your own entertainment with such clinical detachment?
If you can justify committing a virtual rape, and committing virtual murder, with absolutely no other justification available to you other than “It’s just a game” — where does the boundary end? How can you justify it in one setting, and not in another? Why is it okay to hurt people that aren’t real? What does this say about you? About us? About players, and about video games?
When it all finally ends, and the game concludes, the entire cast of surviving characters has been vaporized on a bleak, nihilistic note of nuclear annihilation. This wiping of the slate is the final condemnation of the player. The game ends, and so does the game’s world. There is no further continuation of the adventure. The violence the characters perpetrated, that you perpetrated, means nothing. The only difference between you, and them, is that you still have to find a way to live with yourself when it’s all over.
Dennaton clearly had a statement to make, and I think they’ve made it loud and clear. We need to reconsider how we’re using violence as a theme in video games.
The View From Here
As a developer for a game that is in the same genre as Hotline Miami 2, Armour On The Wastes, I’ve found it especially difficult to grapple with the issue of video game violence in recent weeks. Tellingly, I’ve never even considered the main theme of Armour On The Wastes to revolve around matters of violence in the first place, despite the gameplay focusing on vehicular combat. In fact, I’ve been far more interested in using our game to explore how corporate obligation stacks up against personal interest, and to investigate feelings of isolation and confinement.
But the uncomfortable reality of the situation, as I realized, is that though our game may explore different themes than Hotline Miami 2, it is also still a work that builds its core mechanics on player-inflicted violence. Armour on the Wastes, is at its core still essentially a shooter game that has the potential, if handled improperly to glorify something tragic and unnecessary. And perhaps understandably, this realization leaves me uncomfortable and wondering if perhaps my next project might not take a different approach after all.
Yet I do not foresee that violence in video games is something that will ever fully disappear — and nor perhaps, should it. Games are challenges, and the most interesting of challenges require opponents. We also need games that continue to explore themes of violence in thoughtful ways, to broaden our perspectives as a community and as human beings. But Hotline Miami 2 suggests that we still need to closely examine just how deeply down the rabbit hole we want to go when conflating something that is so foul and devastating with our entertainment.