Hotline Miami (released today on Steam) is a dark and sordid 16-bit trip through 1989 South Florida and its seedy underbelly. It mixes a retro aesthetic with more violence than you’re used to (think last year’s cult hit Drive). It plays like earlier entries in the GTA series — but without the tedious driving between missions.
Devolver Digital and Dennaton Games want you to feel uncomfortable. If the thought of donning a creepy animal mask and bludgeoning people to death — all because the voices on your answering machine told you so — with anything from baseball bats and lead pipes to a briefcase or a shotgun makes you squeamish, they’ve done their job.
I recently chatted with Nigel Lowrie, publisher Devolver’s assistant vice-president of marketing and business development, about Hotline’s origins, Nathan Drake’s homicidal tendencies, and even how handsome Ryan Gosling is. Buckle up.
How did the developer come up with the tone for the game?
I don’t want to speak for [developer] Dennaton; Devolver is the publishing and promotional partner. We’ve gone over this in detail with them and established where they were coming from. Violence is taken haphazardly in video games now, you can pretty much shoot and do anything you want in a game and be as violent as you can be but you’re never held accountable or questioned why you’re doing these things. They wanted to really push the envelope a bit, not in a realistic sense but in just the actions you’re doing.
Through this game, this character you’re playing as, you as a gamer, and the character himself are never truly sure about why they’re committing these acts of violence, simply based on answering machine messages left in their apartment. [Dennaton] were heavily inspired by the movie Drive. The '80s vibe and the somewhat calm demeanor of the protagonist that’s prone to violent reactions was one inspiration. There’s a documentary called Cocaine Cowboys, that was another. That was the original name of the game, actually. That clash of neon and the music are all very reminiscent of the '80s South Beach, Miami cocaine scene.
Hotline Miami's launch trailer
Other games have gone there before, notably Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It seems like the 80s had a weird comeback in the early Aughts and then went away again. What was the decision to bring this game out now and go with that tone and feel?
There are things that have been done in that theme before, like Vice City; this was really more of something [Dennaton] really liked from an aesthetic standpoint. The original prototype of the game, by Denis Wedin, the artist, and Jonatan Söderström, the programmer and game designer I’ve seen was not so much of the neon and sparkles. Dennis was really drawn to that and really liked the aesthetic. He chose it as the setting for them to play out the story because it was one of those periods you could pick that was a very violent, almost lawless time, almost like medieval times.
So the aesthetic came first and the story came second, is that common?
I don’t know if it’s common, the story usually comes first and then the artist will have some interpretation on that and they’ll come to an agreement on it with design. What happened here is the type of game you’re playing — a fast-paced, trial-and-error, almost Super-Meat-Boy-type of action — was really what the aesthetic was built on. Story was kind of secondary. The original story was focused on the drug trade and cocaine cowboys. The name was changed because as the game evolved the team came up with a new story based on the idea of these answering machines; these hotlines people were calling and leaving these messages and the violence that came out of that.
It’s somewhat unusual that it evolved over time, but with a game like this it worked out well.
With the answering machine aspect, you’re kind of a contract killer. You could almost say it lends itself to the BioShock thing where you’re just doing as you’re told because the game’s playing you as a player of the game.
Let me ask, what makes you think you’re a contract killer? None of those people are asking you to kill anybody, correct?
That’s some of the mystery of it: At no point are these people telling you to kill anybody. They give you something to do or some sort of errand, there’s something you have to take care of. You go in there and actually are doing the violent acts yourself.
A woman was saying, “I have some rowdy boys that need to be dealt with.” It’s very veiled. But, back to Drive: Just how handsome is Ryan Gosling? (laughs)
He’s extremely handsome. If you take handsome on a scale of zero to ten, he’s all of those.
Are there Easter eggs? Like maybe a white jacket with a scorpion on it or anything?
Actually, there are a couple things laying around in the apartments that are direct nods to Drive. There're a couple jackets with designs on the back, that influence is laying around both in the main character’s apartment and some of the places you visit.
After the first kill, the character throws up. What’s that have to say about him?
It’s the first mission; the character isn’t necessarily excited about what he’s doing. This isn’t something he’s motivated himself to do, it’s something he has to do for one reason or another; he doesn’t agree with it. I’m glad you caught that because that was very intentionally placed there; he doesn’t randomly throw up throughout the game.
A normal person isn’t going to want to kill someone. I have an obsession with the mafia, but there’s a few reasons I could never join. For one, I’m not Italian. Two, I could never kill anyone; I couldn’t make my bones. Ever. So, I can see the vomiting aspect.
It’s one of those things. I’m playing violent games constantly, I’m a big fan of the Uncharted series; it’s funny because every time I finish one of those games he gets a relic. It’s an Indiana Jones-style game, but with a lot more killing! I know there’s opposition there, but you’ve killed thousands and thousands of people to get this relic that was taken. Indiana Jones killed where he had to, but Nathan Drake is literally mowing down army after army.
When you play something like Gears of War or Call of Duty it’s in a war setting, so it makes sense. With some of these games, you just killed a ton of people for some sort of glory. I think that’s one of the things Dennaton wanted to make sure [was addressed]; it plays out toward the latter half of the game as to what you’re really doing as a gamer yourself and what your motivation for that is.
You could almost say it’s a disconnect between Drake as a character and Drake as a character in a video game. He isn’t a sociopath, but he’s definitely a murderer for some ambiguous good.
Absolutely. People are trying to kill him, but at the same time, he got himself into these situations with the intent of stealing something or saving something. But, there’s a lot of bodies left when it’s over. It’s a weird juxtaposition when you have him joking around and he quips back and forth and there’s light-hearted humor but you go right back into mowing people down with machine guns.
What’s with picking a mask before each mission? There’s something inherently creepy about lifeless rubber masks, but adding an animal face like a rooster or horse just makes it that much worse.
The masks serve two purposes. One, they’re a neat way to vary the character. There’s a mechanic that changes the gameplay a bit; each one does something different. You’ll find them throughout the game; one level holds a frog mask that opens up your combo streak, giving you a longer time to gain these combos. The rooster — which you start your murder-spree with — does nothing. The wolf mask starts you with a knife every level, the elephant allows you to take one shot before dying. With the mole, all the lights go out and it’s this red-hued glowing thing; the enemies have a hard time seeing you, but you have a hard time seeing them as well. If you wear the dog mask, dogs won’t attack you. As you unlock them or find them, you’ll open up gameplay variety.
Why does the character wear the mask? Does it feed into his moral ambiguity?
At any point in this game, you will not see the character’s whole face. When he is shot he lies down, but you’ll never get an up-close shot of whom the character is. It plays into the whole feeling of being ashamed and not wanting to do these things. It’s a very clear line of hiding behind a mask to do the things you’re not happy about doing.