Ever since they began hitting the market, video games have had a complex, troubling relationship with violence. The gaming industry has grown at a tremendous pace, as developers and console manufacturers strived to outdo themselves in terms of what they were able to display through games. And as hardware evolved to be able to render more advanced graphics, designers could create scenes that contained brutal, gorey violence. This naturally sparked a great deal of attention and controversy, and it’s raised much discussion on the effects violent video games have on players. But a question that rarely gets asked is: can a violent video game be seen as a critique on violence itself? Is there a game that doesn’t just let the player perform savage, bloody actions, but also criticize and satirize them for doing so? The answer is debatable, but I believe there is a series that qualifies. These games confuse and disturb the player with gruesome psychedelic violence, but in doing so, reveal a hidden depth that deconstructs its own concept and mocks the player for buying into it. This is Hotline Miami. Video games have come a long way in terms of what they can depict, but one thing that has remained constant throughout their history is violence. Even when games weren’t sophisticated enough to render graphic scenes, violence was still a core element of gameplay for developers to fall back on. Many early arcade games revolved around destroying hostile forces before they destroy you, solidifying combat as a major trope in video games. A part of why these games aren’t called violent, though, is their graphics. With the graphical fidelity possible at the time, you could only do so much when it came to visually representing actions and objects. Drawing complex figures and graphical effects was difficult, and it was easier to draw things simply and hope the audience will buy into it. And when you have shapes that vaguely resemble something attacking other vague shapes, it’s hard to get upset at what you’re looking at. But over time, as is natural, technology improves, and suddenly, artists were able to create sprites that actually looked like human beings and could perform more complicated actions without any ambiguity. And on top of that, it was now possible to easily create visual effects for blood and gore that looked, for all intents and purposes, real. This did not sit well with many people, partly because they were worried that players who exposed themselves to video game violence would imitate those acts in real life. Home consoles were resurging in popularity in the late 1980’s and 90’s and many popular games contained copious amounts of blood and violence. That made it easier to put violent video games in front of a player than ever before, especially since content rating boards like the ESRB and PEGI hadn’t been formed yet. Despite vocal opposition, protests, and legal action, video game violence didn’t go away — in fact, it only got more graphic as time went on as developers began designing games with an intentionally realistic look. As games began to experiment with dynamic in-engine cutscenes and writers created darker storylines, the violence level was turned up to reflect the more mature visual and narrative design. By the 2000’s, the brutal acts of violence once thought impossible to render were now commonplace — and for many gamers, expected. Developers always had a propensity towards over-the-top, cartoonish violence, but by this point, the violence was getting more extreme, much to the delight of fans and anger of concerned citizens. But it was also during this time where video games examined societal issues, weaving mature themes beyond gratuitous violence and sexual imagery into their narrative, and delivering social or political commentary on a wide range of issues — including video games themselves. Developers stepped into the realm of metafiction by having characters acknowledge or allude to their presence in video games or by critiquing games as an artistic medium. This included games that tackled the issue of video game violence and how it affects both the person playing the game and the game’s characters. Games discussed the impact that player agency had by crafting experiences where a player’s decisions had a noticeable effect on the outcome of events, including what happens when the player went down the aggressive path. And in 2012, Hotline Miami delivered its own critique on violence by showing the player that their choices matter more than they realize — even though they tell you the exact opposite.
that their choices matter more than they realize — even though they tell you the exact opposite. Hotline Miami was primarily designed and developed by two people: programmer Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström and artist Dennis Wedin, who eventually formed Dennaton Games during development. The game took inspiration from one of Söderström’s earlier games Super Carnage, a top-down shooter that featured the same graphic violence that the final product would become infamous for. While Söderström had been making free indie games for a long time, Dennaton wanted to release Hotline Miami commercially simply because the two needed money, so the team partnered with indie game publisher Devolver Digital to release the game in 2012. Dennaton was inspired by films like Drive and Kick-Ass, as well as the works of David Lynch, settling on an ultraviolent, psychedelic tone for the gameplay and story. The game takes place in Miami, Florida during the 1980’s, a time defined by violent drug wars that made the perfect backdrop for the game the developers wanted to make. While the pixel art became its own defining quality, the fuzzy scanlines and neon background are both evocative of 80’s films and TV shows. That holds true for the music as well, consisting of thumping, hard-hitting electronic tracks that match the intense action of the gameplay. None of the songs are actually from the 80’s, but they share an 80’s vibe that suggests the decade while creating a style all on its own. Hotline Miami is not only brutally violent, but brutally difficult as well. The gameplay centers around trial-and-error, as dying is a common occurrence that doesn’t send you back very far, encouraging the player to pick themselves up and try again. Players will repeatedly perform the same violent actions until they get it right, eventually desensitizing them to what they’re playing through. This is all a part of the game setting up its commentary on violence, as Hotline Miami provides graphic brutality and purposefully ensures the player gets used to it — all so that it can shock and disturb the player again. Hotline Miami’s main protagonist is a man known simply as Jacket, who, in April 1989, begins receiving strange phone calls instructing him to various addresses around Miami. These locations contain members of the Russian mafia, and while concealing his identity with animal masks, Jacket is tasked with eliminating the Russians with lethal force. At first, the game falls into a cycle, as for every level, Jacket wakes up at his apartment, listens to a phone call, slaughters Russians at a specified address, and then travels somewhere to meet his friend known as Beard. Jacket will travel to either a convenience store, pizza place, video store, or bar, and oddly, Beard will always be working there, chatting with Jacket and offering him services for free. While on missions, the player is tasked with killing all enemies in the area, using weapons he finds inside to his advantage, and the level is only finished when every single person is dead. This is a classic progression system — defeat all of X to move on — represented as an extreme through the systematic murder of gangsters. On a technical standpoint, it’s no different than destroying objects to clear a stage, but the visual representation of accomplishing this goal is much more visceral, and the brutality of the virtual violence being depicted sets Hotline Miami apart aesthetically and emotionally. But despite what you may think upon seeing it for the first time, Hotline Miami is not a mindless bloodbath — in that it certainly is a bloodbath, but it’s one that has a purpose for being so. Hotline Miami intentionally attempts to desensitize the player to its violence,making the player fall into a routine where they don’t need to think about what a kill will look like; they only care about how to initiate it and how to proceed afterwards. When you see the same Russian gangsters get killed in similar manners, it becomes something you accept and it doesn’t bother you anymore. However, the game sets this up in order to knock it down, as at certain points, the game confronts both Jacket and the player and comments on the violence the two are committing. This is accomplished through the narrative, which blends together psychedelic imagery and metatextual storytelling that constantly blur the line between what is real and what is fake in the context of the game. We see this right at the beginning, when Jacket has a vision that he is confronted by three figures wearing animal masks, who all cryptically talk about Jacket and his actions.
wearing animal masks, who all cryptically talk about Jacket and his actions. These masks could represent parts of Jacket’s psyche, as while the horse mask Don Juan expresses sympathy towards Jacket even though he’s done terrible things, the owl mask Rasmus treats him with hostility, telling him to go away and not knowing who he is. The central figure is the chicken mask Richard, who tries to get Jacket to remember something and, in the process of doing so, reveals hidden aspects of Jacket’s personality. Richard asks Jacket if he enjoys hurting other people, and we can infer that the answer is, on a subconscious level at least, yes. Jacket collects newspaper clippings that detail his murder sprees, indicating that a part of him likes the attention his actions are giving him. We also learn that Jacket is a member of 50 Blessings, an organization that opposes the Russo-American Coalition, an alliance between the United States and Russia formed after a bloody war, which is what allowed the Russian mafia to gain power in America. Jacket apparently harbors anti-Russian beliefs, which is partly what fuels his continued slaughter of Russian gangsters — though Wrong Number sheds some more light on Jacket’s feelings towards the Russians. But it should be noted that Jacket’s desire for violence only extends to the Russians and those who stand in his way, as other times, he appears almost as a heroic figure. After his first mission, he kills a homeless man solely because he won’t let Jacket leave the area, and Jacket throws up afterwards, contrasting against his murder of the Russians which seems to leave no impact. And when he finds an abused girl in a Russian hideout who begs him to end her life, Jacket instead rescues her, and the girl stays at his apartment and the two eventually start a romance with each other. However, we can’t trust Jacket’s perspective completely, and the fight at the phone company with the Biker is a key example. When first playing this scene through Jacket’s eyes, the Biker is immediately hostile, and Jacket is the victor by murdering the Biker. But when playing as the Biker, he gives Jacket a chance to walk away before he attacks, and in this instance, the Biker ends up killing Jacket. So what really happened in that room? Wrong Number reveals that both Jacket and the Biker survived, so neither character’s versions of events are entirely truthful. A possible explanation to Jacket’s perspective comes once we learn where he really is during the events of Hotline Miami. At the end of Part Three, we see Jacket arriving home to find that a man in a rat mask has killed his girlfriend, and the rat mask promptly shoots Jacket, which finally triggers him to remember what’s happening. Jacket’s been in a coma for the entire game up to that point, and Jacket has been reliving his memories trying to piece everything together. Because we’re looking at Jacket’s memories, it’s safe to assume that Jacket is leaving details out, either because he didn’t know them or is intentionally misremembering them as a way of justifying what he’s done. That could be why Jacket sees the Biker as an immediate threat and why he constantly sees images of Beard, whose fate we learn of in Wrong Number. It may also be an indication that Jacket is disassociating himself from his violent actions, similar to how the player might disassociate themselves from what Jacket does because it’s not really them. But at some point, we need to accept that in some way, it is us. We can claim that we don’t enjoy the violence, but if that’s the case, why didn’t we stop playing? Is it because we were desensitized to what was happening, or were we having too much fun to stop and think about what we were doing? The animal masks are not only a fundamental gameplay mechanic, but also a clever analogy for the player’s unconscious (or conscious) masking of their own actions. We pretend to be other people, and we rationalize the actions we perform as them because “it’s just a game, the consequences don’t matter.” But the line between character and player is sometimes hard to define, and in Hotline Miami, it’s almost non-existent. Jacket is somewhat of an extension of ourselves, or perhaps a darker side of ourselves that we don’t want to admit is there, and the masks that visit him are the sides of us who know better warning us about the path of destruction we put ourselves on.
hotline miami puzzle are the sides of us who know better warning us about the path of destruction we put ourselves on.
are the sides of us who know better warning us about the path of destruction we put ourselves on. But because Jacket never stops to think about who is sending him the phone calls and why, he prevented himself from learning the truth behind everything. Jacket is so caught up on murdering Russians that he lets the truth escape him constantly, 18300:13:05,585 –> 00:13:08,674and while he is satisfied after his crusade is over, the player undoubtedly still has questions they want answered. But while Jacket’s story leaves those questions unresolved, the game allows players to discover the truth — if they have the fortitude to do so. After Jacket’s story is over, the game lets you take control of the Biker, who’s also receiving phone calls but has grown bored and is looking for a way out while finding out who’s sending the calls and why. He’s begun ignoring missions either because he’s uninterested or he doesn’t want to deal with the heat, and these missions are then given to other operatives, including Jacket. The Biker’s story allows the player to figure out the truth behind everything, as his journey ultimately puts him in front of the bigger picture — that is, if the player can put the pieces together. In Jacket’s levels, the player can pick up puzzle pieces that spell out the phrase “I WAS BORN IN THE USA,” and if you do this before you reach the final stage, the Biker can hack into a computer to trigger an alternate ending. During the last level, the Biker enters the headquarters of the Janitors, the ones responsible for the phone calls, and if he hacked their computer, the Biker discovers their plans. It may seem odd that the Biker knows the password despite the puzzle pieces being picked up by Jacket, but it actually makes sense considering the game’s themes. The point of Jacket’s story is that he couldn’t find out the truth because he was too consumed by his enmity towards the Russians, and even if he has all the pieces in the right order, it doesn’t do him any good. But the player is the one putting the puzzle together, and the reward is for them, delivered through the Biker as a surrogate. However, if the player doesn’t hack the computer, then the Janitors refuse to talk, instead mocking the player for getting this far without figuring everything out and insinuating that you were just in it for the violence. And if the player isn’t dedicated enough to find all the pieces, that argument is hard to discredit. At the end of the day, Hotline Miami is a fun, adrenaline-pumping game with several hidden layers that players must make the effort to uncover. If you aren’t committed enough to look for those layers and you just care about the high-octane gameplay, then the violence is all you get; much like Jacket, you’ll never understand the bigger picture. But the answers are there if you can look beyond the gameplay and pay attention to details hidden in the background that hint at the deeper story. It’s all up to how you play the game and if you have the patience to put everything together, though even then, the answers are likely not the ones you want to hear. If the player hacks the computer in the final level, the Biker learns of the Janitors’ true nature, and this time, they lay out what’s been going on. The Janitors are members of 50 Blessings, the organization that Jacket, as well as the Biker and Richter the rat mask, joined in response to the increasing Russian influence in America. 50 Blessings masquerades as a peaceful organization lobbying against the Russo-American Coalition and Russian gangs, but in reality, they coerce their members into attacking mafia strongholds and slaughtering them. The Janitors are the leaders of the Miami phone call operation and while they call themselves patriots, their definition of patriotism is skewed beyond just having a love for their country. They see Russia as a major rival to the U.S. and a threat to their way of life, and to them, the only way to stop the Russians is to eradicate them. While the Janitors are only the tip of the iceberg, it isn’t said just how far-reaching 50 Blessings is and what power they have at their disposal. We know that they have allies in powerful places and have the resources necessary to manage several operatives committing high-profile crimes, and we can infer that 50 Blessings is able to find all the info they need on a person to bribe them into doing their dirty work. But their primary method of recruiting people to their cause is by simply telling them to do it. All it takes to get them to participate is to direct them to a building containing Russian mobsters and telling them that failure isn’t an option. 50 Blessings abuses the hatred of Russians and violent nature in its members to have them murder gangsters. They realized, correctly, that its members would slaughter the Russians if commanded to,
They realized, correctly, that its members would slaughter the Russians if commanded to, and we, the player, are just as much a victim of 50 Blessings’ schemes as the characters in the game. The game tells us to kill Russians, so that’s what we do. Even if we try to distance ourselves from what the characters do, they’re just the vessel for our own actions. They might have held the guns, but we pulled the trigger. We are forced to succumb to violence in order to see the game’s ending, and if we don’t give the game what it wants, it won’t proceed — much like how if the characters don’t comply with 50 Blessings, the organization will show them that there is no other way. Jacket and the Biker come across several bodies of people wearing masks, clearly other 50 Blessings members who died while attacking the Russians. We know that 50 Blessings has contingency plans in case their agents go rogue or learn more than they should, but because of the high risk involved in eliminating the Russian mafia, they expect their operatives will eventually die on the job. Many of their members have combat experience, which gives them a higher survival rate than others, but they’re still in a dangerous situation, and Jacket and the Biker are incredibly lucky to have lived this long. While Hotline Miami gave us small tidbits on why 50 Blessings tried to destroy the Russian mob, several important details were left deliberately unanswered so that a sequel could address them, and three years later, Dennaton gave players the closure they desperately needed. After the success of Hotline Miami, Dennaton released the sequel, Wrong Number, in 2015, delivering more of the brutal action players came to love and making it even bigger. Levels are much larger and contain more enemies, increasing the difficulty and putting the player in more intense situations. Dennaton also introduced a new set of characters players would control throughout the story, all of who play differently from each other and who were all affected in some way by the events of Hotline Miami. The developers knew they didn’t want to make any more sequels, so they answered many lingering questions while delivering more context for the first game’s events and wrapping up the overarching storyline. The game takes the confusing storytelling of the first game and dials it up to 11, as Wrong Number’s story is presented in a deliberately perplexing way. Not only do you constantly jump back and forth between characters, but sequences are told out of chronological order and the game often calls into question whether or not the events you’re seeing are actually happening. Because of that, it’s difficult to understand what’s happening on your first playthrough, since you need to rearrange events and notice small details to comprehend everything. But once you put those pieces together, you’ll have a picture of everything that these two games are leading up to — even if the picture isn’t pretty. The game begins on the set of a film called Midnight Animal, loosely based on Jacket’s exploits in the first game. The movie centers around a serial killer known as the Pig Butcher, who wears a pig mask and murders teenagers at the request of phone calls. Midnight Animal is a controversial film because of its subject matter and how the filmmakers are taking advantage of a massacre for entertainment, a criticism that echoes real-world films that base their story on real events. Since the truth of 50 Blessings was never made public, the filmmakers can’t connect the movie with the real reasons behind Jacket’s murder spree. Instead, they use it as a springboard for brutality and making a picture drenched in blood and guts to appeal to fans of schlocky horror movies. We see this when the director tells the actor playing the Pig Butcher, Martin Brown, to perform his character’s actions in a rough, realistic way, as well as telling the actress portraying the girlfriend to act scared and defenseless, or as he puts it, “more girly.” The director’s primary concern is making the violence look real at the cost of developing characters and stories. This is what leads to Wrong Number’s most controversial scene, as Martin’s first level depicts the Pig Butcher confronting the girl and raping her. The game makes it clear that this is not an actual rape, but this scene was intentionally added to make it stand out from the rest of the violence. When you play Hotline Miami, you get used to the constant gore that litters your screen, but during the rape scene, there is no blood — there’s only the motions of one character assaulting another. It’s a different kind of violence than what the player is used to, and that makes it all the more uncomfortable to watch. Rape is a terrible thing, and depicting it respectfully in fiction is incredibly difficult — but sometimes necessary. That’s why it’s important to view this scene in the proper context, as while it is unnerving, it has a purpose beyond just being visceral. Hotline Miami comments on how fiction uses violence for entertainment, and indicates that while the creators are the ones depicting the violence, the audience is, in some way, complicit by allowing themselves to enjoy it. It suggests a deeper problem than the often-repeated “violent media leads to violence,” since it doesn’t address the root of the issue — our societal obsession with violence as human beings. To that end, Martin’s story also explores how his role as the Pig Butcher is affecting himself, and reveals a dark secret to his character. During a dream sequence, Martin says he’s using the role to live out his violent fantasies and that he’s always wanted to gruesomely murder kids, though when the enigmatic Richard asks if Martin really enjoys violence, Martin hides behind the defense of “it’s just a movie.” The game wants us to believe that Martin is playing the Pig Butcher because he’s consumed by murderous desires and uses the film to express those desires without actually hurting people. We can view this literally, and assume that the violence depicted is fictional, but that Martin would commit these acts in real life if given the chance, but it’s also possible that he’s making up his relation to the film in his mind. We know that Midnight Animal is a real film in the Hotline Miami universe, but the game never directly confirms that Martin plays the Pig Butcher. Martin could be fantasizing about being an actor in Midnight Animal as he murders people in real life, perhaps to justify his actions in his head. Or maybe he is just an actor struggling to balance the violent nature of the Pig Butcher role and his own non-violent nature. Regardless of his mindset, the game indicates that by taking this role, he’s admitting that a part of him enjoys the simulated violence. Martin’s story can be viewed as a commentary on catharsis, which has been used many times to justify violence in video games. Proponents of the catharsis theory say that video game violence is a way for players to release their internalized violent emotions in a non-destructive way, which may very well be true. But in order for the catharsis defense to work, we need to accept that those emotions are inside us from the start. If we can’t acknowledge the evil in our heads, then eventually, it might kill us — as represented by Martin’s own death on set, when he is accidentally shot with live rounds during filming. In the end, Martin was destroyed by the violence he insisted on performing, and even if the violence is fake, the result is more real than anything. On Halloween 1991, a group of young adults wearing animal masks sits at a party at their hideout, bored out of their minds. The group, known as the Fans, drives out to a local shop that’s been taken over by a gang and viciously kills everybody inside. The Fans, true to their name, idolize Jacket and his murder spree, and have set up phones to hopefully receive calls of their own, unaware that 50 Blessings disbanded their phone call operation. They’ve adored Jacket since they first met him during the Russo-American War, and the masked killings only cemented their love for him. The Fans emulate Jacket by wearing animal masks, raiding criminal hideouts, and murdering everybody inside, hoping that they’ll be featured on the news if they keep committing these crimes. But the Fans’ ignorance of the situation behind Jacket’s killing spree forces them to take odd jobs from friends, which eventually leads to their deaths. They had no idea why Jacket did what he did; all they knew was that he killed criminals while wearing animal masks, and to the Fans, that was so inspiring that they followed in his footsteps. The Fans resemble video game players who become dangerously attached to characters they play as and the gruesome acts they commit. It’s been said that people who play violent video games are more likely to become violent themselves. We won’t discuss the legitimacy of that argument here, but the Fans are undoubtedly a commentary on this issue, especially as Hotline Miami is a violent game and Dennaton may have felt the need to defend themselves. But the Fans aren’t portrayed sympathetically, which is important to note. The Fans are oblivious to the broader consequences of what Jacket did, only copying him because they feel they have nothing better to do. We don’t know much about their lives, but they might not have positive role models to guide them, and cling to Jacket as a messianic figure. And since they’re veterans, they might feel isolated from the rest of society, or feel the need to kill because they enjoyed it so much during the war. But they don’t realize that they’re headed down a road that leads to nowhere before it’s too late. These characters are young and restless, so it’s no surprise that they act impulsive, but that impulsiveness inevitably leads to their demise. They fall into the same trap as Jacket, as because they never think about their actions, they constantly put themselves in life-threatening danger. But while Jacket managed to somewhat come out on top, the Fans aren’t so lucky, and they’re systematically taken out when they storm a Russian building after receiving the phone call they’ve been waiting for. It’s ironic, then, that the one thing the Fans wanted was the catalyst for their deaths, but in the end, the blame can only be placed on themselves. In late 1991, Miami police detective Manny Pardo shows up at the crime scene of a murder performed by the Miami Mutilator, a serial killer who morbidly butchers his victims after killing them. Manny has been working the Miami Mutilator case for some time, lamenting that the murders are tragic but that the press will be happy. When not visiting crime scenes, Manny infiltrates criminal headquarters, taking down members of local gangs and cartels single-handedly. Manny, at first, is the closest thing you could call the main hero in Wrong Number, as we assume he’s clearing out gang hideouts because it’s his job, as though he is mercilessly eliminating criminals, Manny does have a duty to protect the citizens of Miami. As the game goes on, however, the player is shown several details that indicate a much darker side to Manny that makes him possibly the most vile character in the game. Manny apparently has a history of inappropriate conduct, which is supported by him busting into criminal buildings by himself and killing everyone instead of arresting them. And throughout the game, we see him doing shady things that implicate him as a dirty cop, such as planting evidence at Alex’s house and allowing his friend Evan access to classified police details. Manny also murders Tony when he attempts to surrender, believing he’s just looking for attention and killing him to deny him that. It’s also all but confirmed that Manny himself is the Miami Mutilator and is using his work as a detective to cover up his crimes. Not only does he visit every crime scene, giving him the opportunity to steal evidence, but his missions show he has no qualms about murdering people. Manny also kidnaps a young adult and ties him up in the back of his car, and this kid, named Jack, later becomes one of the Mutilator’s victims. His final level involves him dreaming about committing a massacre at a police station after they find out his secret, and it ends with him getting shot before Manny wakes up in a disoriented state. And on a meta level, his name is a reference to Manuel Pardo, a real-life serial killer and former police officer who operated in Florida in 1986. Throughout his campaign, Manny often sees flashes of camera operators and movie crews, as if he believes he’s being filmed. A lot of people use this to connect Manny to Martin Brown, and a popular theory is that they are the same person, but I think this just represents that Manny is looking for attention and uses his serial killings to gain notoriety. A lot of this is only implied, though, and while the evidence strongly indicates that Manny is guilty, we never receive direct confirmation. Manny’s scenario is a big mystery, since we can infer his true nature but aren’t given a solid explanation as to how much of what we see is real. Much like Jacket, we can’t fully trust Manny’s perspective because a lot of it could be distorted by how he perceives his own actions. That leaves us with the question: who exactly is Manny Pardo and what exactly is he guilty of? Is he nothing more than a sociopath using his position as a detective to participate in bloody murders, or is he just a cop going to extreme measures to take criminals down being framed as a serial killer? The storytelling makes it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion on who Manny is, and when Richard talks to him, he doesn’t know why Manny does what he does, and Manny refuses to provide him with an answer. We have to make the judgment call ourselves, and while it’s easy to write Manny off as guilty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize since in some ways, we’re complicit in Manny’s crimes too. In April 1989, we meet Jake, a large, boorish man who, judging by the Confederate flag in his apartment and his intense hatred of Russians, is a patriot in all the worst ways. Like Jacket and the Biker, he receives phone calls instructing him to clear out Russian buildings, though he actively responds to the calls — at first with hostility, but later with gleeful acceptance. Jake’s campaign is interesting because it seems, at first, to not be very relevant to the overall story. While Jacket finds Jake’s corpse in Hotline Miami, Jake himself doesn’t interact with any other major character and his story is disconnected from most of the narrative. And even though he eventually learns the truth behind the game’s events, he’s killed before that knowledge serves him any purpose. Many first-time players disregarded Jake as a throwaway character, but it’s what he represents that makes him important. Jake is exactly the kind of person 50 Blessings was appealing to: a man who strives for an America free from what he sees as their Russian oppressors. We never see Jake stop to think about his actions and their ramifications; he just knows that disobeying the phone calls means bad business and that by complying with their orders, the Russians will be wounded. And when he figures out that 50 Blessings is responsible, he’s ecstatic because he wants to help them achieve their goal of American supremacy. In Jake’s final level, after he’s figured out 50 Blessings’ scheme, he dies either at the hands of the Russians interrogating him or the 50 Blessings manager silencing him to prevent him from revealing their secrets. Either way, Jake remains steadfast in his resolve to serve 50 Blessings and help them put America quote-unquote back on the right track. It’s assumed that every 50 Blessings member harbors anti-Russian sentiments, and Jake represents this to the extreme, justifying his jingoistic, ultranationalist views by hiding behind the shield of patriotism. He claims to have America’s best interests at heart, but in reality, he is so resentful of Russian immigrants and criminals that he has no problem eradicating them violently. If Jake never connected the dots behind 50 Blessings, he could have been their perfect agent, as he would’ve continued to follow along until the end. But he failed to realize that what he knew made him a threat to the organization before it was too late, and he took that knowledge to the grave. He was blinded not only by his enthusiasm, but by his twisted love for his country and hatred of foreign invaders, and in the end, he was destroyed by the very ideals he held so dearly. During Jacket’s trial in 1991, a man in the courthouse thinks something doesn’t add up: if the Russian mafia was responsible for the phone calls, as Jacket believes, then why would they target themselves? That man, Evan Wright, is working on a book about the masked murders and wants to learn the real reasons behind the attacks against the Russians. He goes to great lengths to write the book, as he asks his friend Detective Pardo for leads at the risk of his job, invades a Russian bathhouse to speak to a high-ranking mob member, and neglects his family in favor of research. To his credit, Evan does get close on numerous occasions to discovering the truth behind the killings, but due to the circumstances of his encounters, he can’t figure it out. He meets the Biker, who went into hiding in the desert after Hotline Miami, spiraling into alcoholism, and either can’t remember what he learned about 50 Blessings, or never discovered their plans in the first place. And Evan will recover the 50 Blessings floppy disk from Jake’s belongings if he took it, which contains the address of a seemingly abandoned office. This office appears to double as a bomb shelter, and Evan discovers a bunch of people inside sitting around a 50 Blessings logo with animal masks on. This could represent 50 Blessings’ ultimate plan: to survive the impending nuclear war that their campaign against the Russians will bring and reshape America in the fallout. This truth is standing right in front of Evan, but because of the animosity the animal masks show him, he isn’t able to discern the full picture. Evan makes constant sacrifices in order to get his book made, and this suggests a connection to the players trying to grasp the full sense of what’s going on in the game. Just like a curious player, Evan puts himself in harm’s way to scrutinize over every detail and make sure no lead is left unchecked, and finding the answer becomes a sort of fascination for him. However, the consequences of Evan’s constant attention to the book are substantial, as by the end, he’s on the verge of losing his family after his wife and kids leave him. The player is forced to choose whether or not Evan spends the remainder of his time finishing the book or reconnecting with his family, and while the ending shows that this choice comes too late to save Evan from his fate, it at least allows the players to help Evan to enjoy his last few days. While Evan does confront enemies in his levels, he can do so in a stealthy manner rather than full on murdering them. Evan will simply knock out his enemies and unload any guns he picks up, and you can finish all of Evan’s levels without killing anybody. But that doesn’t mean that Evan is incapable of violence, because if he’s pushed too far, he will let his inner rage take over and slaughter his enemies just like the rest. Evan has spent so long studying these murders that when he finds himself in a similar situation, he can’t help but take the same course of action. The game doesn’t encourage one playstyle over the other, meaning that playing stealthily and playing violently are both equally valid. The game gives you plenty of opportunities to keep your combo going if you play stealthily, and you’re never required to go berserk — it just makes the levels a little easier. Really, then, the only thing stopping you from playing violently is yourself. Do you want to try and complete these stages without killing anybody or give in to the violence to beat the level faster? You’re making a moral decision when you play as Evan, as you have the opportunity to avoid murdering anybody if you’re willing to stick it out. The game doesn’t punish you for taking either approach, so whether or not Evan devolves to the same level as these other characters is in your hands. Evan is willing to stoop that low because he’ll do anything to finish his story, even at the cost of his personal safety and the safety of others — all to discover a truth that he can never understand. In late 1991, the Russian mafia, now led by the Son of the leader from Hotline Miami, is attempting to rebuild their empire after Jacket nearly wiped them out. The Son’s right-hand man, known as the Henchman, has grown tired of his criminal life and wants to leave, which the Son permits him to after completing one last job for him. At first, the Henchman appears to be more noble than the others, as he questions the necessity of the violence the Son wants to commit and acts more cautiously, fearing that he’s getting too old to be risking his life. The reason why he wants out is because he has a girlfriend at home and he seems to want to escape his mafia ties and start a new life with her. However, as his story progresses, we learn that he perhaps isn’t as loyal as he says he is. After completing his last job, he takes a bag full of money for himself, and even though he knows that he should give it to the Son, he’s too blinded by his greed and his dreams of starting over to care about the person who’s been supporting him for years. Later, the Henchman is dreaming of driving away from Miami in a brand new car with his bag of money in tow, but Richard appears to him and mentions that he’s forgotten about his girlfriend. It seems that given the opportunity, the Henchman would leave the girl behind because with the money he now has, he doesn’t need her. And his girlfriend has the same idea, as when he wakes up, he finds that she’s fled with the money, causing him to fall into a drug-induced stupor. The Henchman didn’t care about redeeming himself for his actions; all he wants is to escape, to be free of everything that’s tormenting him. But it isn’t that simple. He isn’t able to flee from his past, and his sins ultimately catch up to him in the form of a brutal execution courtesy of the Fans. As much as we try to bury the things we’ve done in the past and forget about them, sooner or later, the ramifications of our actions will bubble over and haunt us again. But the Henchman is not the only one who tries to escape from what he’s done, and while the Henchman fails in this regard, others prove that leaving your past behind is possible — if you leave it properly. In March 1985 in Honolulu, Hawaii, we meet a unit of soldiers known as the Ghost Wolves which consists of Daniels, Barnes, Jacket, and Beard. The Ghost Wolves are a Special Forces team that’s gained recognition during the Russo-American War for performing dangerous operations. The team is led by the Colonel, who bemoans the fact that the Ghost Wolves are sent on impossible missions and hopes that the squad won’t get killed. Beard performs his duties as a soldier with the rest of the Ghost Wolves in hopes that one day, the war will end and he’ll be shipped home. Beard’s scenario is the most tragic because he is not a violent person, and if he has any violent tendencies within him, he never lets them overtake him. He was a soldier, and he did his job well, even saving Jacket’s life after an explosion, but he leaves that life behind him when his tour is over. Every other character lets their fixation on violence take over them, and if they try to stop it from happening, they aren’t successful. But Beard is. He leaves behind his actions in Hawaii and moves on to a quiet, peaceful life where he doesn’t have to fight anymore. Beard dreams of opening up a convenience store when he gets shipped home and just relaxing all day, getting away from the chaos of the war. That dream became a reality, and Beard adjusts back to civilized life comfortably, even staying in touch with Jacket after the two are discharged. And yet… in the end, the violence of the world around him has grown to cataclysmic heights, and Beard is caught in the crossfire as the Russians drop a nuclear bomb on San Francisco. Even though Beard came out of the war without losing his grip on reality, because the rest of the world refused to do the same, he becomes a victim of their insanity and brutality. Through this story, we also gain insights on the events of Hotline Miami. We learn that Beard died years before Jacket began receiving phone calls, and can assume that his presence in Jacket’s coma dreams symbolizes Jacket’s grief over the loss of his friend. It’s likely that Beard’s death is what caused Jacket to join 50 Blessings and what motivated him to comply with the phone calls. And though Beard probably wouldn’t have wanted him to do what he does, Jacket sees his actions partly as retribution for the death of his friend. We also see the origins of 50 Blessings through the Colonel, as it’s implied that he is the founder of the organization. The Colonel repeatedly laments how America sends its citizens to die in a conflict they aren’t even winning, and he frequently drinks while on duty. After San Francisco, the U.S. and Russia end the war and start the Russo-American Coalition, which may have cemented the Colonel’s view that the war that had claimed so many American lives was pointless. In addition, the 50 Blessings logo is painted in his room, the Ghost Wolves use coded radio messages with similar language to the phone calls, and the Colonel wears the skin of a panther when he rants about war, much like how the 50 Blessings members wear masks. The war has brought the worst out in the Colonel, fueling his resentment and hatred of Russians and planting the seeds in his head for 50 Blessings’ terrorist activities. Beard’s story critiques how war, advertently or otherwise, feeds into the prejudice many people have towards foreign countries and their citizens. Thanks to their participation in the war, the Colonel and Jacket go on a crusade to destroy the Russians before they taint America any further. But Beard didn’t care about any of that. He seems to harbor no grudge towards Russia after he went home, which makes his death in the San Francisco bombing all the more heartbreaking. Beard and San Francisco serve as a grim reminder of the cost of war and violence, both on a global and personal level. We can justify our anger and aggression towards others all we want, but if we don’t step back and stop ourselves from going over the edge, then someone will pay the price — and it will be paid in blood. Another returning Hotline Miami character is Richter, the rat masked man who killed Jacket’s girlfriend. Through his conversations with Evan, we get the full story of what he was doing during Hotline Miami and see another side of his character. We first see him in April 1989 living with his mother in Miami, taking care of her because of an illness that has rendered her partially immobile. Richter begins receiving calls from 50 Blessings and initially ignores them, but after they threaten his mom, he follows their orders to keep her safe. Richter’s story doesn’t provide more info on 50 Blessings or the world of Hotline Miami at large, instead giving us a look into Richter’s personal life and exploring the reasons why he did what he did. In Hotline Miami, we saw Richter’s actions through Jacket’s point-of-view, which explains why Richter was so hostile to Jacket in his coma dream. Jacket saw him as an aggressive force because he murdered Jacket’s girlfriend, but in reality, Richter isn’t a vindictive person, and his motivation extends beyond a hatred of Russians or a pent-up need to kill. While he likely has anti-Russian sentiments, he only begins attacking the mafia when coerced to do so in order to protect his mother. Wrong Number paints Richter in a more compassionate light, showing that he cares deeply about his mother and will do anything to keep her safe. Even after Richter escapes from prison, he wants Evan to provide him with a plane ticket for his mom to join him so he can keep taking care of her. Richter is portrayed as a man forced into violence by circumstances beyond his control, and while he is capable of violence, his reasons for complying are noble and understandable. But that doesn’t absolve Richter of his actions, and after escaping from prison, he flees rather than stay to face the consequences. It’s possible that Richter is too ashamed of his involvement to face justice, and while he leaves his violent past behind him, he also isn’t able to fully redeem himself before time runs out. And as we soon find out, Richter has much less time than he realizes. For the final chapter, players take control of the Son as he attempts to bring the mafia back to the top of the criminal underworld. Under the Son’s leadership, the mafia has developed a highly addictive drug that the Son predicts will give them the edge they need to rise up the ranks. The Son is not just a figurehead leader, though, as he actively involves himself in the gang’s activities. He wipes out the headquarters of the Colombian cartel and participates in a massive bank robbery with several of his men. The Son is exactly the kind of protagonist you expect to play as in a violent shooter game like Hotline Miami. He’s inherited a mafia empire from his father and wants to see his criminal enterprise be the top dog. In a broad sense, the Son is the bad guy, and if he was present in Hotline Miami, he no doubt would have taken a more antagonistic role. Even though this story is played from his perspective, shifting him into the role as protagonist, we still see elements of a villainous person inside him. There’s his criminal activities and role in the Russian mafia, but the Son is also shown at several instances to be a threatening, belligerent person. He has no respect for his enemies and will stop at nothing to see them destroyed, even if he has to put himself in suicidal situations. The Son is not a person you want to find yourself fighting against which, again, makes him the perfect character for a game like Hotline Miami. But if you’re on his good side, then the Son is not malevolent at all — in fact, he shows elements of compassion and loyalty to the people he trusts. We see this in his relationship with the Henchman, as the Son wants to take care of him, giving him gifts for his service to the mafia and respecting his wishes to leave the life. The Son is not just a ruthless killer; he also knows the importance of supporting the people close to him, which is a quality of a good leader. But we also get a look into the Son’s self-doubts, as when Richard confronts him in the bank vault, the Son sees him as his father and grandfather. This scene informs us that the Son just wants to make his father happy, though the vision of his father tells him that that doesn’t matter. It’s likely that the Son has been a criminal all his life and doesn’t have any motivations outside crafting his drug empire and impressing his family. The Son’s fear isn’t that the Russian mafia will one day be taken down or that his lifestyle will get him killed, but rather that what he does won’t be enough to cast aside his own feelings of doubt. He puts himself in harm’s way in order to bring the mafia back because that’s what he believes is the only way to make himself feel happy. But while he manages to pull off an impressive rise back to power, he can’t find the happiness he was looking for. When he believes the Henchman is ignoring him, not knowing his phone was stolen by the Fans, the Son gets so upset that he swallows a boatload of the Russian drug, which sends him into a wild hallucination. In this state, the Son can’t distinguish the difference between friend and foe, as the Russians appear to him in demonic forms and the Fans (who are raiding his headquarters) resemble giant animals based on their masks. He accomplished the impossible, but it wasn’t enough to bring his family and friend back, and in the midst of drowning his sorrows, he becomes swallowed by his inability to have what he wants. The level ends with the Son walking onto a rainbow bridge on the top of the building, where in reality, he’s walked off his building and falls to his death. All the Son wanted was to preserve his family legacy and reclaim the mafia’s former glory, and it was his pursuit of that that led him to his fate. But those obsessions only fueled his lack of confidence in himself, and his never-say-die attitude put him on a wave of destruction that would end in his doom, and before he had the chance to set things right, it was too late as he was already falling. When the game ends, we see Richter watching TV when it switches to a news broadcast that reveals the American and Russian presidents were assassinated in a coup d’état presumably led by the Colonel. Richard appears and informs Ricther that he can’t escape his sins and that time is running out for everyone, and Richter, realizing there’s nothing he can do, accepts his fate. With that, a blinding white flash envelopes the screen, and Richter and his mother are killed in a nuclear explosion, and as the credits roll, we see the surviving characters are all wiped out by the devastation. This ending may feel sudden and poorly built up at first glance, and you might think that the payoff wasn’t worth it if the characters just end up dying alongside (presumably) the rest of the U.S. It makes the rest of the adventure feel pointless, but that was intentional on the part of the developers, because for these characters, it is pointless. They may not realize it, but their fates are already set in stone before the game even begins, and nothing they do will alter their course. It seems to be a pretty nihilistic ending, but that conclusion doesn’t take into account the whole picture behind the game, and when you consider what the game is trying to tell you, that theory falls apart. It’s too easy to dismiss this ending as meaning that nothing mattered, because there is a large choice made that does have an impact — the strongest impact of anything you see in the game. But in order to explain that, we need to examine the Table Sequence. When you start a new game in Wrong Number after beating it, you’re shown a cutscene where Richard sits at a table with all of the protagonists from the game, berating them for trying to play the game again. This scene solidifies the game’s themes of violence leading to devastation and the inability of those who give in to violence to save themselves. None of these characters are able to prevent what’s happening, because those who learn the truth are silenced, and those who don’t aren’t able to put the pieces together before it’s too late, and none of them have the knowledge to prevent catastrophe. But we do. We can figure out what 50 Blessings is planning, we can learn what’s going on through examining character interactions and making observations, and we can consider every detail the game gives us. And yet… we can’t stop it. No matter the actions we take, no matter how much we understand, the bombs will always fall. We can play as many times as we want and do whatever we want with these characters, but every time, the world will end in nuclear devastation. The simple act of playing a video game seems so unimportant, but in Hotline Miami, it means everything. By choosing to progress through the game, we are continuing to advance the deadly cycle that inevitably leads to destruction. Ultimately, then, we carry the burden of responsibility. It’s impossible for these characters to prevent annihilation; only we have that power, and the only way we can do that is to stop playing. But we can’t stop playing. Many of us can’t accept that there’s no way to come out triumphantly. It’s human nature to work towards the best ending possible, but in Hotline Miami, every action eventually leads down the same road. We want an ending where everything turns out okay, but the game refuses us that pleasure. We can’t save the world and the characters; we can only stop the events by stepping away completely. The game ends in destruction… or it doesn’t end at all. The choice is ours. Hotline Miami’s violence may seem to just be another in a long line of gory video games appealing to young players, and while this may be true, that’s only looking at the surface. If you go beyond the visuals and gameplay and peel back the details hidden in the story, the virtual blood and guts takes on a second meaning as a representation of violence in both video games and the real world. Violence is a major part of our history as humans and in the history of gaming, and denying that they aren’t a crucial aspect of either is ignorant. But that doesn’t mean we have to just accept it and move on, because then we would be blind to the effects that violence has on society. We don’t need to be against hyperviolent video games designed to look and feel as real and barbaric as possible, but we do need to be aware of what developers are depicting and what we’re playing. We need to ask why we play games that let us perform these acts of violence that resemble real-world brutality more and more as video games evolve. Whether we realize it or not, we’re complicit in the actions games allow us to commit, and while we shouldn’t be punished for making that decision, the decision needs to be acknowledged. That’s the only way we can stop ourselves if we realize we’re going too far.