- Hotline Miami
He looks up at me, eyes wreathed by blueberry-bush bulges. A foam of blood mixes with spittle in the corner of his mouth, feeding a trickling brook that winds down his chin.
I have beaten him to within an inch of his life.
With great effort he parts his lips, exposing his newly toothless void. Words tumble out, those sounds pleading with me to let him live. The music cuts out. I have to go through with this. It’s what needs to be done; it’s what would have been done; it’s what should be done.
Tightening my grip on the lead pipe, I throw my body into it and cave his skull in. I strike him again—and again, and again and again. I lose track of it all, and soon there is more of him on me than left on him. Level complete.
- The Controller
Like many, I’ve come to think of the game as the quintessential interactive art form. Part and parcel with any interactive experience is the push-and-pull of control. My sense of mastery stems from my ability to control the game, with the game challenging me to exert greater control over it with every increase in difficulty. The score ticker, the perfect combo, the across-the-map headshot: these are all reflections of my mastery and examples of my control.
Even games with narrative foci contain elements of control. It’s nigh impossible to find role-playing game PR that doesn’t exclaim: Your choices matter! We care about these choices because we want to impact the game world. We want control, or at least the perception of control.
Violence is one of the strongest forms of control, if not the strongest. What could be a more powerful means of control than determining whether somebody lives or dies? Because of this relationship, many games use violence as their main focus. Mark of the Ninja and Hotline Miami are recent exemplars of how violence can be tweaked to produce very different experiences.
A sense of erotic power pervades the violence of both games. In Mark, murder can only be described as a mindful experience, in the most Buddhist sense of the word. Time seems to slow and everything extraneous cuts out, leaving room only for the kill. Opposed, Hotline treats each kill as another beat in the dance of its drunken, raging soundtrack. If murder in Mark is like embracing a lover, then in Hotline it is like a quickie fuck in an airport bathroom.
- Mark of the Ninja
My mentor instructs me that I’m ready to kill. I test the cold steel in my hand; it feels like an old friend. I find my target, taking a long drag off of a cigarette under a flickering ceiling light, swaying from a silent wind. I give no thought to whether he deserves this—his death will be quick. I crawl up through the trapdoor and catch my victim unawares.
I silently slide my blade into his back, slipping through flesh, fat, muscle, and viscera. I feel him change, and I know he feels changed. Once erect, his stature begins to curl like a wilting flower. He groans a sad groan.
His body slumps into mine after what seems like an eternity but what I know is only a moment. I remove the blade in one smooth motion and guide his fall to the floor with my free hand. A clean kill—no worries, friend. Time to move on.
- The Controlled
Both Mark and Hotline start as power fantasies. You face off against mobsters in slick, white Scarface suits, and against faceless, boot-in-the-face goons who wear perpetual grimaces. You’re fighting the good fight, at least in somebody’s eyes. But in time this balance shifts. Both games strip away your sense of control, your security, and even your trust in reality. Mark’s toxic ink drives you to see ghosts of the past down every corridor and the faces of ancient beasts swimming in the wallpaper. Your few close relations in Hotline, if they ever existed outside of your broken mind, end up in pools of their own blood.
A certain kind of logic exists in most games that center on violence. In Mario, Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach. Thus, at least in a Hammurabian sense, Mario’s use of violence is justified. Even in a game like Duke Nukem, where the violence is much more vulgar and seemingly senseless, there is logic: Evil space pigs are trying to take over the Earth—fuck them!
The logic of Hotline or Mark is recursive and muddled, though. In Mark, you must kill. Why? Because you have sworn to. Why? That’s not relevant. In Hotline, it’s even less clear. You must kill. Why? Because it was suggested to you—kind of. To play both of these games, you must accept that you have no say. They demand that you submit and simply follow the road already marked and paved, regardless of the outcome. As the rooster-masked man in Hotline states rather matter-of-factly: “I’m sure you know by now, that this won’t end well. Soon you will be all alone. But that’s okay…What you do from here on, won’t serve any purpose.” We, the players, are powerless.
The violent eroticism in these games is a trick, a trick used to convince us that we are powerful when we are quite the opposite. This isn’t Mass Effect where I can (and do) impose my vision of Commander Shepard on the character. These games are bizarro role-playing games, where the role plays us, not vice versa. They tempt us to lose our sense of self, to allow the power relationship to flip, to become submissive.
We could ask these games the question, “Why do we deserve life while our enemies deserve suffering and inevitable death?” The answer would be the same from both Hotline and Mark: It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t care. “Do you like hurting people?” the rooster-masked man asks. A rhetorical question—of course you do. The killing is obvious. It is a foregone conclusion. It just is. You are Meursault on the beach, bathed in the reddish glare of the setting sun; you’ll live (and die) in a world that makes little sense, and you’ll kill the Arab for no particular reason.