The early 2010s were an extremely chaotic time for the gaming industry. While AAA titles were finding themselves under scrutiny due to shady business practices and formulaic releases, the indie scene was absolutely flourishing with the rise of digital distribution. Surprisingly popular titles like Limbo and Minecraft proved that gamers were hungry for new and innovative experiences even if their production budgets weren’t comparable to the GDP of a small country.
This explosion of indie success stories led to more developers taking risks and publishing their own little experiments, resulting in even more creative titles. In some ways, this wave of unorthodox game design culminated in 2012, a year that gifted us with classics like Fez and Journey, as well as one of my all-time favorite pieces of interactive media.
I vividly remember melting inside my room during a then-unprecedented South American heatwave when I first stumbled upon Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami. At the time, I was just recovering from my first run-in with depression and wasn’t actually all that excited about trying out a new game. Of course, it didn’t take long to realize that there was something special about this ultra-violent throwback, and I ended up playing the entire thing in a single sitting, starting a yearly tradition.
Even a decade later, no indie game has come close to leaving a lasting impression on me as Hotline Miami did. Hell, even Dennaton’s underrated sequel couldn’t quite live up to the original, and that’s why I’d like to explore the brilliance behind this masterful murder simulator and why it remains a landmark in gaming and interactive storytelling. So rev up your pixelated DeLoreans and grab your favorite animal mask, because we’re going for a ride.
The story behind Hotline Miami actually begins way back in 2004, when Jonatan Soderstrom began working on a simple action game inspired by hyper-violent media like Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and Rockstar’s original Grand Theft Auto. While the aptly named Super Carnage was technically never finished, its single level of top-down mayhem was a hit among Game Maker aficionados, though the game was infamous for being nearly impossible to beat. In fact, issues with the title’s bloodthirsty AI led Jonatan to abandon the project for over half a decade.
In late 2011, Jonatan teamed up with Dennis Wedin in order to try their luck at becoming professional game developers. Recognizing the potential in Super Carnage, Dennis suggested that the duo flesh out the title’s simple yet addicting formula and come up with a fresh story and setting.
Inspirations were plenty, with the team borrowing elements from all sorts of media when crafting the lo-fi world of what would become Hotline Miami. Neo-Noir thrillers like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive provided the template for the nameless protagonist (the iconic Scorpion jacket even made it into the game as an Easter egg), while edgy super-hero stories like Kick-Ass once again inspired context for the game’s morally ambiguous vigilantism. The game’s infamous animal masks were also inspired by a combination of both super-hero and slasher villain tropes.
Ultimately, it was Billy Corben’s hit 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys that provided the story with a time and a place, with the name also serving as the game’s working title during early stages of development. Having decided on a nostalgic dive into the violent underbelly of 1980s Miami, the developers soon realized that their fun little experiment would somehow have to justify players committing brutal mass murder. In a stroke of genius, the duo decided to incorporate this ethical dilemma into the narrative itself.
During the course of the game, a nameless protagonist would receive cryptic phone calls and then show up at mafia hangouts to kill everyone inside. Rinse and repeat. One could even argue that Hotline Miami was attempting to program players like victims of the MK Ultra conspiracy theories that inform part of the game’s rich backstory. However, the title would also interrupt these bursts of violence with surreal moments of introspection, creating a kind of ritual as players engage in massive bloodbaths and then attempt to return to a “normal” life.
This addicting cycle is a perfect example of the unique narrative opportunities offered by video games. This beautiful marriage of story and gameplay allowed players to reflect on the impact of the protagonist’s actions in a way that could never happen in another medium. Much like a Hideo Kojima production, the game also cleverly breaks the fourth wall as it goes on to question both the player’s enjoyment of these pixelated deaths as well as the gaming industry’s long-lasting love affair with virtual violence.
These meta elements are actually justified by the protagonist’s rapidly deteriorating mental state, as it’s eventually revealed that the iconic “Jacket” (as he was nicknamed by fans) has been in a coma during most of the game, only remembering a distorted version of events. Even after he wakes up, it’s clear that Jacket’s point of view is questionable at best, and the game’s bizarre double climax doesn’t actually bother to clear things up.
Despite the intentionally obtuse narrative (which was clearly influenced by the work of David Lynch), the story is still somehow emotionally satisfying. This is mostly due to moments of subtle character development scattered in between levels. This makes sense, as many of the more human elements of the game had real-world influences. The “girlfriend” subplot was inspired by Wedin’s own personal experiences with relationships and depression, and even the fan-favorite character of Beard was based on Swedish artist El Huervo.
Of course, there’s no discussing Hotline Miami without bringing up its game-changing soundtrack, so I have to address how the title almost single-handedly spawned a new generation of Synthwave music. The Dennaton team originally assembled the game’s now-iconic soundscape after scouring Bandcamp for unknown electronic musicians. They eventually assembled a rag-tag team of extremely talented artists that would maintain mainstream popularity long after contributing to the game’s success.
Featuring absolute bangers by artists like M|O|O|N, Perturbator and Scattle, Hotline Miami’s soundtrack ended up becoming just as influential as the game itself, even among non-gamers. Even so, the emblematic sounds of HM are essential in setting up this high-octane experience, with the music encouraging players to “free the beast” and then forcing them to reckon with what they’ve done once the level is finally clear.
This musicality ends up affecting gameplay, with players finding their rhythm as they kill and die over and over again. The sequel actually takes this concept to the next level, featuring even more intense music and challenging level design, but getting into that would require a whole other article. That being said, it should be noted that often-maligned Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is a worthy follow-up to a classic game, even if its status as a non-conformist anti-sequel keeps it from reaching the same popularity.
I could discuss Hotline Miami’s several balancing issues and that irritating final boss level, but these minor annoyances are meaningless when you consider the big picture. An orgy of sights, sounds and satisfying gameplay, the game’s biggest strength is its ability to change your thought process while playing it, and that’s why I think it’s one of the defining moments of interactive art during the 2010s.
Encouraging players to meticulously plan brutal homicides and then forcing them to consider the horror of what they’ve done without ruining any of the fun, it should come as no surprise that this legendary title is still worth revisiting 10 years later. From launching Devolver Digital into rock-star status among game publishers to inspiring countless videos, songs and even other games, Hotline Miami is a shining example of the power of indie gaming.
While I admit that it’s technically not a horror game, Hotline Miami is definitely bloody and often disgusting, so I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this retro gem is still a must-play for horror fans 10 years later.