It's like sticking in an old VHS with bad tracking, scan lines and white noise all accompanied by foreboding, hazy surf music. Sit and watch it for too long and you start to feel nauseous as the title bobs lazily in a screen saturated in a cocktail of pinks, blues and oranges. Press 'start' and bust a couple of strangers' heads open with a bat and that nausea becomes too much as you watch your character vomit all over the concrete. The nameless character is committing graphics acts of violence for no apparent reason other than someone told him to. But then you're no better are you, the player, bursting someone's nose open with a lead pipe just because the game told you to.
So, Hotline Miami is a violent game, right? The short answer is: yes. Hotline Miami is as violent and graphic as say, Condemned: Criminal Origins or Hitman Absolution but it goes beyond being merely a violent video game. Firstly Hotline Miami's presentation instantly sets it apart from other titles. It plays with style by offering a more warped view of the sunny 1980s. Whereas GTA Vice City romanticises and parodies the era, Hotline Miami distorts and shapes it into something far more sinister and brutal. The narrative is told in that Lynchean manner in which the lead role is displaced throughout the game. The feeling of alienation from the environment is increased by not having a map; the player simply starts in their flat, listens to a recorded message, gets in the Dolorian and appears at the destination. The player visits a number of recurring environments and starts to witness a deterioration in the city as something more chaotic takes over. Identities are hidden (including your own) through the use of animals masks, recalling those worn in The Wicker Man. Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is quite clearly the key influence on the game (Refn's is credited at the end of the game), both stylistically and narratively. It's well worth watching the film to get a feel for what the game was going for. Rather different to film, however, is how Hotline Miami develops the narrative into something more disjointed and unnerving creating an atmosphere that suits the violence.
The other thing that sets Hotline Miami apart from other violent video games is that it's not merely a violent video game but a video game about violence. Whereas games like Mortal Kombat want the player to simply enjoy the gruesome brutalities, Hotline Miami is making us explicitly aware of them, getting us to question our own cooperation and involvement with the action. But the game isn't a distanced analysis of violence; you have to play it to see what it's trying to say about it. This becomes one of Hotline Miami's moments of genius.† The player starts the game disengaged from the action, in that it's too easy to become immersed. But increasing difficulty coupled with a frenetic pace and quick respawns turns the game into a emotional experience. Dying in Super Meat Boy, say, is frustrating but only to the extent that you want to try again and succeed. In Hotline Miami, however, difficulty and challenge has a face, or rather, a bald head. As your anger bubbles and erupts you start playing differently, and oddly enough, better. Hotline Miami, wants to you to react, to lose it so that instead of playing stealthily, you burst through doors and slit throats, drill temples and unleash 12-gauge flurries on unsuspecting urinators. You want revenge on that guy that kept shooting you before you could take cover. The game is a reflection of the player. Do you leave the Russian mobsters crawling on the floor, or do you take pleasure in razor wiring his neck. The game denies the player the privilege of neutrality. It knows that you'll cooperate and, worryingly, enjoy yourself. Why else would you have played the game?