Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho begins with a hundred pages of aggressively banal descriptions of 80s yuppie life. . Knowing the novel’s reputation before I picked it up, it was around page 50 that I wondered when Bateman would justify this tedious story and get down to murdering these irredeemable jerks.
And he does. The scenes go on for longer than I anticipate. They get a little rawer than I expect, but at least it’s a change of pace from watching Ellis figuratively hollow these characters out one word at a time.
Late in the novel, Bateman wakes up to a mutilated corpse of a prostitute on his coffee table. He compulsively stuffs her intestines into his mouth. It is not a long scene; it’s also a pretty gauche enactment of the consumerist critique that partially informs Ellis’ formal conceit. That moment encapsulates American Psycho, to me. It’s not the horror of the act, nor the critique it reflects; it is the reality that Bateman crossed some internal threshold I never knew I had and, by virtue of that impatient wish on page 50, I gave him license to take me into that abyss with him. I had no right to moral outrage, because I asked for this.
It’s a subjective thing, this experience I had. It was horrifying because the events of the novel were no longer external to me. It was something I was not just complicit in, but something unthinkable I felt I had participated in.
It is this feeling of participation in the unspeakably horrific that rises up at the end of every chapter of Hotline Miami, a video game that was released last October (developed by Dennaton Games and published by Devolver Digital.) Hotline Miami is frequently noted for its aesthetic parallels to the 2011 film Drive but I contend that it also has a more profound mechanical and philosophical debt to American Psycho. I bring up this particular parallel because it calls attention to two things that tend to be neglected in video game studies: that reading is itself a participatory act and that there are meta-procedural cultural contexts in which video games cannot help but exist.
Hotline Miami could be described as a top-down, action-oriented murder-puzzle. The player controls a retro-graphics rendered cipher clad in a varsity jacket and a variety of animal masks. Set in a hyper-violent alternate-history 1989, each “chapter” begins the same way: the (presumably male) player character receives a cryptic voicemail directing them to a location. Once they arrive, they must murder every single leisure-suited foe to a pulsing backdrop of psychedelic and discomfiting electronic music. Its gameplay mechanics bear a superficial likeness to the infamously difficult Super Meat Boy (2010) insofar as the avatar in Hotline Miami is extremely fragile – a single hit from any of their foes results in a sudden, bloody end. Death comes swiftly, but the game makes up for it by instantly respawning the player as soon as they hit ‘R’ after dying. The music works in concert with this fast-moving gameplay to reinforce its demand for focus and quick responses. By placing the threshold of success just beyond the grasp of a player that just knows the basics of the game and giving them controls and tools that work well enough to accomplish the task, the gameplay of Hotline Miami exists almost entirely in an exhausting state of “flow,” where the player is required to function at the peak of their abilities for a period of time until they have completed an objective.
Hotline Miami and American Psycho parallel one another by wallowing in a nihilistic moral abyss that all but begs the player/reader to ask themselves why they’re bothering with these works at all. Recently, this feeling has been heightened during the media response to the highly-publicized rash of shootings in the United States. I began writing this article shortly after Hotline Miami came out on October 23, 2012, nearly two months before the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December. The following description of my experience with the game appears horrific in retrospect, but I would contend that its gratuitousness is worth discussion rather than dismissal:
I burst through a door and lay two thugs out with one desperate punch. They slump against the wall and I mash their faces in with a pixelated foot. An assault rifle and a pipe slip across the bloody floor. The throbbing soundtrack demands I grab that rifle and add an arrhythmia of rat-a-tat-tats to the hyperactive symphony. I don’t. I snatch the pipe on my way back through the door, pirouette around the corner and send the next thug’s teeth sailing into the corner. I pivot too late and the dog has already lunged for my throat. My fingers clatter against the keyboard but I’m already dead.
Except I’m not. My avatar is dead. The assemblage of pixels that had recently responded to mouse clicks and the WASD keys is a red stain. I barely blink and hit ‘R’ and do it all over again. I try again and again until I defeat everyone on the floor, mouse sweaty in my palm, knuckles aching. I fall on my last foe; I grasp them by the shoulders and beat their head against the floor. Every mouse click is a sickening thunk. The top-down perspective wobbles drunkenly. My combatant’s head mercifully splits open. The music stops.
‘Do you like hurting other people?’
Hotline Miami doesn’t give you time to absorb details. You are always alert. Once you’ve murdered everyone in the building, the music stops. You finally see the bodies: hacked apart, limbs askew. You relax your fingers and see how the game has tensed them into claws.
Early in Hotline Miami, the player has a “boss” encounter with a character clad in a motorcycle helmet. After many, many attempts, the player may even beat this character. After that moment, the game becomes more unreliable as the between-mission sections become increasingly absurd and uncomfortable.
You go to a convenience store and the corpse of the Biker lies on the floor. Nobody acknowledges it. You can’t interact with it – why would you? Your work is already done. The clerk smiles and says, “None of this is real.” Flash of static and the body is gone.
You return to your apartment; a man in an animal mask sits on your couch. The woman you inexplicably “rescued” several chapters back is dead in the bathroom and the screen whorls in time with grimy music. You remember the opening sequence, where figures in animal masks ask you why you like hurting people, why you get so much enjoyment from this. You remember the end of the epilogue, that moment when the music first stopped: Your avatar rips the mask from his face and vomits, silently, in an alleyway. Then you get in the car.
American Psycho succeeds as a novel because it is under no moral obligation to depict the world as we so feverishly wish it was. Hotline Miami, however, does that and more. On the one hand, it enacts the holy grail of game design in that it creates an engaging system in which the player is perpetually engaged in a state of “flow,” where every success is hard-won and feels “earned.” It breaks that flow at a moment when the player should feel the most triumphant by interjecting with sudden spurts of meditative calm, where the attention-eroding excitement engendered in the music and combat mechanics is ripped away. The player has the opportunity to absorb the atrocities they’ve committed. This turn is echoed at a narrative level by the unreliable narration and direct communication with the player as characters demand that the player explain why they’re enjoying this so much.
Hotline Miami ends twice. The first ending comes when the varsity jacket clad player character confronts the head of the Russian mob. He’s an old man and offers no defence for his actions. He doesn’t know or care why the player is there. It’s one of the few murders in the game that is not directly committed by the player’s actions. Varsity Jacket then drops a cryptic photograph off the balcony and the credits roll.
This unlocks the Epilogue, which rewinds to an earlier point in time. The player takes control of the Biker from the first boss encounter. They cut a bloody swathe through a video arcade in search of the persons responsible for the voicemail messages. The player encounters Varsity Jacket in the same space that the first “boss encounter” took place, but this time the Biker (now controlled by the player) wins. Eventually, they confront two janitors (designed to resemble developers Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin) that are responsible for the voicemail messages. They offer two possible explanations, depending on how many collectable “secrets” the players have picked up over the course of the game (and whether they solved the “puzzle.”) If the player has not solved the boggle-style puzzle, the janitors simply say that they orchestrated all these killings because they were bored.
If the players solve the puzzle by collecting all the letters and spelling out “IWASBORNINTHEUSA,” the janitors claim that they act on behalf of a patriotic group called “50 Blessings” and wish to destabilize the “Ruso-American coalition.” It is implied that at least the Biker (and presumably the Varsity Jacket) were members of this organization and signed documents attesting that they were willing to die to protect their country. The player can then choose to kill the janitors or leave.
Both of these “explanations” sound a nihilistic note that lays bare how flimsy justifications for violence in video games actually are, and the second of the two seems to take explicit aim at the pro-American jingoism that animates the Call of Duty series.
The narrative nudges the player into asking questions, but that commentary would be far less interesting without its roots in the gameplay. Just as the white phosphorous section of Spec Ops: The Line forces the player to confront the effects of their actions, those actions are rendered empty as the player has no option to abstain. True, players have no choice but to kill to progress in Hotline Miami, it nevertheless enacts a more forceful critique of the “power fantasy” inherent in many violent games. It questions the boundary between the muscle-memory and twitch reactions needed to turn your avatar into a powerful killing machine and the affective feeling of being a powerful killing machine.
Every time the player searches for meaning in the processes of the game, Hotline Miami offers no hint of the interior life of its characters, no motivation beyond its own carefully honed combat mechanics. It is that same ambivalence that lies at the core of American Psycho, where the first-person narration is constructed in such a way that it elides all sense of motivation or purpose for Patrick Bateman as a character. He exists simply to satisfy a need for justification that comes from reading the book. In this way, both works bring to the surface a nerve cluster that ties in themes of masculinity, violence and the unthinkable. And then, with the reader/player’s participation, they press down on that cluster – all the while asking us if we’re having fun yet.