Without Logic, Without Purpose — We Become Death

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Joshua Yearsley

About Joshua Yearsley

Joshua Yearsley is a conqueror of words and hates kludge in all its forms. In other words, he's a freelance editor and writer. He loves board games just a little too much and doesn’t get to play drums nearly as often as he’d like. His professional and personal doings can be found at Joshua Yearsley | Editor Extraordinaire.