Pixel Theory Blog

A Reflection on Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number and the Nature of Violence in Entertainment

by Adi Stein




    I have no idea what just happened. I popped a few pills and all of a sudden the world went psychedelic. I turned on the sink and the water was overflowing. I grabbed a shotgun and the person next to me was dead. I walked through halls, killing men, bears, and men with bear heads. I finally escape the madness after fighting my way through a jungle and an enormous tiger. I’m on the roof just feet from the helipad when two creatures (they looked like bats but I cannot be 100% sure what they actually were) morph together and become a giant two headed swan-monster. One head dives at me, trying to rip me in half, but I crush its skull with the axe I’m suddenly wielding. The second head fires a barrage of projectiles at and I swiftly dodge them, run forward, and slam the axe down in between the eyes of the second head. The beast explodes and I run forward into oblivion as the golden gates ahead part ways and I cross a rainbow bridge, ending my time playing Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.

    I literally say to myself, out loud, “Wait. Is that the end?” What the hell? I mean, save for some final and very brief cutscenes following that level, that is the end of the game and it’s confusing as all get out. But it’s confusing and delirious in that stylish, over-the-top, hyper-violent, Hotline Miami way.

    For those who don’t know, Hotline Miami is a fairly new video game franchise that has already made significant waves in the industry thanks to its incredible style, phenomenal music, punishing difficulty, and excessive violence. The first game followed one man, Jacket, and his decent into bloody madness. Jacket receives a number of distressing phone calls telling him to go on various killing sprees across Miami in the early to mid-1980s. Throughout the game, you play as Jacket as he carries out each of these mass killings. 

    Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number takes place at various different points in time after the events of Hotline Miami. The game flashes back and forth between an intricate timeline and follows multiple characters as they cope with, investigate, copy, continue, and build upon Jacket’s rampages. The story is confusing and messy, leaving the player to piece things together and discover why these horrible characters are doing what they are doing and how it’s all connected. It’s a far more abstract and complex narrative than the one found in Hotline Miami and thus it requires far more of the players time and energy to piece together what’s going on and why.

    I’ve had to look over Wikipedia entries, FAQs, and guides to understand what truly went on in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, but ultimately I found the chronology of the game to be a well thought out bonus; something to enjoy but not the outstanding factor. It’s the moment to moment gameplay of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number that stands out. The controls are tight and precise, making sure that almost every death can be traced back to my own mistake, but what sticks with me the most are the visceral blood, violence, and gore that accompanies every beat of this game.

    Now, let me be clear about something for those who aren’t familiar with this franchise. The Hotline Miami games are not hyper realistic. They are not the next great step in intensely lifelike visuals in gaming; quite the opposite. These games are top down, pixilated, retro-styled games that rely more on aesthetic abstraction than anything else. That abstraction is as large part of what’s actually so disturbing. You can see red, pixelated blood and you can see severed heads rolling along the floor, but it’s just vague enough to allow you to project your own ideas and images onto what you’re seeing. This all combines to make for an intensely disturbing experience that is made all the more upsetting by how simply fun the whole thing is.

    You’re in a perpetual cycle of kill, move forward, die, start again, kill, move forward, get a little further, die, start again, and so on and so forth. Eventually, you actually become fairly desensitized to what you’re seeing and doing. The violence is just a means to the end of the level and the lives you’re ending matter less and less each time you have to start over. This exact desensitization, though, is what made my time with Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number all the more moving and thought provoking.

    All of the characters you play as live in this world of violence; a world that has been fundamentally changed by the killing sprees of the first game. Whether they’re trying to find out what happened, trying to recreate the murders in their own sick ways, or trying to make a film about the events, all of these characters are pushed to bloodshed by the news and media they have consumed. In this way, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number tells the ultimate story of how “violence begets violence.”

    Much like in our own world, filled with mass shootings and vindictive murderers, the world of Hotline Miami is influenced by the media its characters partake in. They see a murder and think, “I could do that” or “That looks like fun” or “Why on Earth would someone do that?” In a weird way, all of these ideas are connected. That curiosity is what drives innovation and experimentation, after all: we see what others do and we try to improve on it or, at the very least, reproduce it. We wash, rinse, and repeat time after time after time, trying to best our counterparts. Fortunately, for most of us that means getting a high score in a game or working efficiently at your job. But for the characters of this game, it’s a significantly darker sense of wonder.

    This sense of wonder, of morbid curiosity, paints an abstract and bloody image over the course of the game’s 26 scenes. Timelines and ideas overlap and blur, creating a confusing mess of drugs, gore, and destroyed lives. In the final moments of the game, we see brief scenes of the various characters we’ve played as. Some are working, some are weeping, and others are simply trying to understand what has happened, and that is exactly where I landed. 

    I couldn’t put the events of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number in the right order if held a gun to my head, but I can tell you with utmost certainty what the game is trying to say: In a world where violence is increasingly more acceptable, how to we break the loop, end the bloodshed, and find peace in our own lives?