Hotline Miami and America’s narrative of masculinity and violence

Hotline Miami, an indie top-down shooter PC game by Dennaton Games that came out in October and found its way onto many a Best Games of 2012 list (including the Phoenix's), has a twist ending that you have seen before. You have seen it in Fight Club, and in the first Call of Duty: Black Ops game. In some ways, you have felt it shake you to your core in every game that asks you to kill someone. The twist is that You Did It. The game asked you to do it, but you're the one who did what the game commanded.

In Hotline Miami, you killed hundreds. It might feel like thousands, depending on how many times you played and replayed the levels. The game desensitized you and forced you to calculate each of these kills from a distant vantage point. The bouncy dance beats and splashy, neon-colored levels help to distance you from the violence. The retro pixelated aesthetic helps, too. Nothing seems real here.

The screens at the end of each level tally up a score. But you do not "win" Hotline Miami. You only are confronted by what you have done. The end of the game points out your complicity with chilling clarity.

This disturbing narrative of anxious masculinity occurs in Fight Club as well, perhaps most famously. Edward Norton's character awakens the animal within himself and, eventually, within all the men around him. Every man, according to this story, is on the breaking point; men are violent inherently, and it is all they can do to keep that violence under wraps. Men can use that violence for Good - by "protecting" women, kittens, cookies, or any other objects that they "own." But this "protection" also requires men to use their violence for Evil: by destroying.

One might only destroy other men, of course, men who pose threats, men who are "reasonable" targets. But an ominous thread runs through this narrative: what if men loosed their alleged inherent power elsewhere - specifically, at women? What if a man finds that he can't help but kidnap, rape, or kill some unsuspecting lady bystander, what with his uncontrollable urges and all? She'd better hope she gets rescued in time by one of the Good Guys . . . and she'd better hope that Good Guy doesn't go Bad.

This narrative pops up not only in Fight Club but in almost every super-popular video game of the past few decades. Even Mario games tell a tale of failing to protect the precious object that is Princess Peach, of fighting with other forces of masculinity (from the levels' protruding pipes and anthropomorphized bombs and bullets, to Bowser himself) and either avoiding or destroying the dangers of the world to protect his damsel. But why is Peach better off with Mario, or with anyone else? The game doesn't want you to ask this question, because the story is not about Peach. Peach is a fire flower. Peach is a mushroom. Peach is just another Important Thing that Mario must grab before it rolls off the screen, before someone else grabs it first, before the game is lost.

Characters like Mario enact a childish, simplified version of the same events that transpire in Hotline Miami. This is why the twist ending should not surprise you. You have seen this story before.

You play as Jacket. That's a fan-given name inspired by the character's varsity jacket, as this hero does not have a name, much like Edward Norton in Fight Club. You are a hit man. At some mysterious point before the game begins, Jacket signed up for this career choice (just as you, the player, at some mysterious point before the game began, decided to download it). Jacket gets answering-machine messages that instruct him to go to certain areas and do unremarkable chores like picking up food or making repairs. But these messages are a code. The secret code behind every message is: go to this location and kill every last person there. Put on an animal mask, one of the many that you own, so that no one will recognize you. Murder every person you can find in these buildings, in tactical order, with slick precision. Don't ask why. Just do it.

And you, the player, will do it. It will even be fun.

At first, the game has no female characters. There are only men, almost all of whom are armed, all of whom look nigh identical to one another, and all of whom will kill you on sight if you don't kill them first. Eventually, though, you will meet a woman. This woman is a prostitute. You have killed everyone before her, you have destroyed the building around her, but you will not touch her. When you try to leave, she begs you to take her with you. And you do, picking her up in your arms like a princess or a bride, carrying her through corpses of men you have killed and over the threshold of the doorway. It's the only option the game provides.

This woman becomes your girlfriend . . . or perhaps your prisoner. Does she have Stockholm syndrome? Does she know you are a murderer for hire? Is she afraid of you? Who knows?

Throughout the game, everyone (gangs, the cops, the SWAT team) is hunting you down. As well they should be. You are a remorseless mass murderer. Eventually, your girlfriend becomes collateral damage.

Her death seems to be an event intended to make the player feel as though they have failed. This was a woman that you, for whatever reason, decided to protect. It's not clear why - perhaps the only reason needed is, Because She Is A Woman. A woman whose sole purpose in the game is to be taken in by you and owned and objectified and killed and used as a plot device to give your character a "reason" to keep fighting . . . never mind how many murders he committed before she even showed up to "justify" them.

The only reason this works is because Hotline Miami doesn't seem to want you to believe you are a hero. Hotline Miami wants you to hate yourself.


The game's secret ending offers some further clarification on this point. (It's worth noting, given how much of this game appears to be critical of America's brand of anxious masculinity, that the secret code you use to get this ending is "I Was Born in the USA.") The end of the game introduces you to two janitors who identify themselves as "patriots" and refer to their actions an "experiment"; their recruitment of hit men for seemingly random murder missions is actually part of a mysterious pro-America terrorist plot. The pair plans to create similar operations worldwide.

These two janitors intentionally resemble the game's developers (who are Swedish, not American, by the way). Their answers for the player will not satisfy most people. Why have they created this game? Why have you played it? Why have you committed all of these murders? Well, it was something to do. (If you don't have the secret code at the game's end, the janitors will simply say they created their murder rings out of boredom.) Do you want a lengthier explanation for why you did this? The answer is America. Are you still confused? You should be, because this is terrible, and none of these justifications should satisfy you. This game concludes with you killing these two janitors and riding a motorcycle off into the sunset.

At the end of the first Black Ops game, as well, you discover that much of the game was not real and that your character had been brainwashed and tricked into committing horrific murders and betrayals. Fight Club and Hotline Miami echo this theme. Who is responsible for this horrific violence? We want to believe that the protagonist isn't. If it's a video game, then we are him, we have been him all along. We don't want to find out that we are the murderer . . . even though, on some level, we know we are, because we were there. But we did all of those murders "rightly," we think? We don't know anymore. But we have participated in the story. And, outside of the game, we have participated in a narrative that equates masculinity with violence.

As a shooter fan who happens to also be a woman, I often find myself feeling alienated by the masculine-centric narrative on display in all of these games. But that alienation allows me to see this particular form of social brainwashing from an outsider's angle.

The brainwashing goes deep here. It happens in real life, not just in these fictions. To what extent have we internalized the narrative? We need not look far to see this view of masculinity in American society - as an unstoppable, uncontrollable force of power and violence. Why do we agree with this supposition in so many of our stories? Why do we accept violence as the "natural" way that men behave?

In Hotline Miami, you have only one person that you are supposed to protect, and you fail. But, remember, you are the person of which she should be most afraid. You are the person who has killed the most - the person who has "protected" her the most. You are Monster and Man.

I don't buy this. I don't buy this, and neither should men or women or anyone. Why, why would we normalize a narrative that anyone is inherently violent? By normalizing violence as supposedly "natural" behavior, especially from men, we make it harder for people to seek help and identify what is and isn't okay. Often, games present men in particular as embodying a supposedly uncontrollable urge to commit violence, and this is a gender norm that I can only hope male gamers begin to see and reject in the future.

I often talk about wanting to see games that tell different kinds of stories. Stories about the way gender roles exist in our society now, but also stories about how our society might change, stories about different kinds of "good" and "bad" people and about in-between people. Hotline Miami tells the story of where we are now, and it is a sad story. It is a story that needs telling. But it is also a story that I hope we don't have to keep telling and retelling. Eventually, these "wake-up call" games need to actually wake something up.

You can always reject the narrative. You can't, within the rules of Hotline Miami, decide what Jacket does, beyond the options provided. But the rules of the game should be different, out here. The story can be changed.

This blog post has been slightly altered from its 12/17/2012 version to incorporate further detail.

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