Review: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Hotline Miami 2 is easily one of the most remarkable instances of creators trolling their own fan base. This game is notorious for not living up to the expectations set by its predecessor. Yet, I don’t believe that this game is a failure of game creation but instead has been deliberately constructed to be the way it is. To understand why we have to look at what came before HM2.
Hotline Miami is a hugely celebrated action game from 2012. It’s a simple and self-contained game. Split into several levels, you play as an on-demand hitman who goes to the places left on his answering machine and commits a massacre. These killing sprees make up the core gameplay loop. From a top-down view you move through the levels and kill dozens of people to an aggressive electronic soundtrack—beating them, slashing them, shooting them. The violence is visceral, blood goes everywhere, and feedback is immediate. It’s addicting.
However, when you’ve killed everyone, the music stops abruptly, and the game has you walking back through the level to your car—walking through the pools of blood and corpses you created. In this simple way, the game traps the player in addictive violence but then suddenly pauses and asks you to reflect on what you just did. The commentary on violent action games is obvious. And with, at the time, massively popular shooter series like Call of Duty and Battlefield loving to employ the trope of the Russian villain, the fact that the people you are killing are part of a Russian gang is probably not a coincidence. And I have to admit that killing people in this game is a tonne of fun. Hotline Miami triumphs in its simplicity.
It is then very unfortunate, that this game acquired a fandom that absolutely loved the violence and obsessed over the game’s obscure plot while closing their eyes to the game’s actual message. This is the group of people that Hotline Miami 2 seeks to troll.
Hotline Miami 2 is a sequel for the fans of the original game in the bluntest form. People liked the combat? We need bigger levels, more violence, and more play styles! People loved the obscure story? Let’s give them more characters, elaborate backstories for those from the original, and a non-linearly told story that’s gonna take some real puzzle-solving to crack! It’s designed to deliver the fans of the original an overdose of the same.
Explaining sequels like this as the result of lacking creativity or as a cynical cash grab might be tempting, but it’s just not the case here. The creators proved their creativity and game design abilities with the original Hotline Miami. And on top of that, the creative leads, Jonathan Söderström and Dennis Wedin didn’t change between the two projects. And lastly, there is significantly more effort put into this game than the predecessor, which is clear to see. It seems very unlikely then that this is just a way of cashing in for the devs.
The elimination of these possibilities and looking at the game’s contents make me believe it is trolling—an artistic statement on their relationship with their fandom.
Hotline Miami 2’s story is completely incomprehensible in the way it is told. And on top of that, once you partially decipher what is going on, the story is plainly ridiculous.
The game’s overall presentation isn’t very helpful in making the player understand what is going on. The whole experience is styled after movies. The game is split into “acts”, which are subdivided into “scenes”, which you select from a menu of VHS tapes. The multiple timelines in the narrative are jumped between by, of course, rewinding and fast-forwarding the tape. And to really mess with you within the game’s narrative, there is an actual movie being filmed. You act out some of its scenes, which are often indistinguishable from things that actually happen within the game world.
But somehow, it gets even more convoluted once the game introduces its backstory in act three. Apparently, the USA and USSR fought a war against each other on Hawaii. The conflict was brought to an end with a nuclear first strike by the Soviets. And this is why Russians are hated so much in this world. That’s certainly one way of addressing that question. If that sounds ridiculous to you, it should! It certainly does to me. It’s the point where you should realise that the creators are messing with you.
I would usually not feel comfortable just blankly calling an entire game trolling like this. It would be bad for criticism if just everything that is contradictory or seems ridiculous could be written off as mere trolling. So how is this game different?
Besides the ridiculousness of the setting, and specific story moments that attempt a critical commentary on Hotline Miami’s fandom, the creators themselves don’t seem to have much respect for their own work on this game. The most obvious point would be how, at the end, the entire world is destroyed. Everything was told and set up for nothing, it appears. But there is an even clearer indicator. The game’s acts in chronological order are called: Exposition, Rising, Climax, Falling, Intermission and Catastrophe. Except for Intermission, these are exactly the generic names for the acts in the five-act structure of a drama. In fact, it’s so generic, here is an illustration of this structure I found on Wikipedia:
(Credit: SinjoroFoster. Public domain.)
While, clearly, a lot of writing effort went into this game, it’s not presented with a lot of heart. Combined with story moments that seemingly only exist to frustrate and confuse those that actually want to engage with the story, I think the case for this game being trolling is very straightforward. However, some moments do make sense if we understand them as commentary on the trolled audience. This goes for both the people that uncritically enjoyed the original‘s violence and those that obsessed over lore so much they missed the game’s actual point.
Hotline Miami 2 features a long list of characters that you play as. A lot, if not all, of these characters, are a meta-commentary on the game’s fandom. It highlights different nasty elements of that group.
The most obvious meta-commentary lies with a group of people that took inspiration from the player character in the original Hotline Miami for their streaks of mass murder. Like him, they wear different animal masks, but here they do all the time, unlike in HM, where they were only put on directly before a massacre. And just in case you didn’t get it, the game refers to this group as “The Fans” in its Achievements.
The Fans, unsurprisingly, kill for fun. Their final killing spree happens at the end of act three. Here you play as each one wiping out a floor of the building while an aggressive house track plays in the background. This is where all the people who The Fans represent get what they want. Except, at the end of the level, they all unceremoniously die. While the original game ends with some moral ambiguity, as the main character exacts his revenge on the mafia and triumphantly lights a cigarette, there is no justification or glory here.
Another character that loves the violence he’s enacting is a literal neo-Nazi. With the original‘s hints of ultra-nationalism (if you refuse to engage with metaphor), it’s not surprising that it appealed to a certain audience. You’re introduced to him as he shaves his head in the bathroom, and the moment you go into his living room, you immediately notice the flag of the Confederacy that is lying on his sofa like a blanket. After you are done carrying out his hateful killing, he tries to get a tattoo to celebrate the occasion but fails because he didn’t schedule an appointment. Here the creators are telling their Nazi fans to piss off, by showing them someone they can identify with and having him be a sad and pathetic loser.
Meta-commentary of the game extends beyond just commenting on the killing, however. Hotline Miami 2 starts out with a scene of sexual assault, where a murdering creep goes after a woman he thinks is his girlfriend. Initially, this looks like senseless provocation, but there’s more to it. You see, this scene is part of a film being filmed within the game’s narrative, which was inspired by the happenings of Hotline Miami. The actress, playing the victim in this scene, has a strong resemblance with a woman the main character in HM saves from the mafia. Actually, there is no clear indication that he is saving her. It might just as well have been a kidnapping. Either way, the woman lives with the main character from there on out. It’s not hard to imagine that this decision wasn’t entirely enthusiastic, or even a choice at all, considering the main character is a serial killer.
The movie plot in HM2 is a commentary on how not a lot of people got that you weren’t exactly a knight in shining armour in the original game. In a later scene, the creep is arrested because the woman reported him to the police. In the following level, you murder your way through the police station to where she is being interviewed. On entering the room, she shoots you and screams: “I am not your fucking girlfriend!” It’s clear what is being said here. And, again, just in case you didn’t get it, in the first level, where you play as one of the Fans, you are tasked with bringing the sister of another Fan home from a gang. You do what you do best—murder your way through to her—but she doesn’t want to go with you. You just murdered all her friends. Distressed and with a gun in her hands, she tells you to leave her and go. If you don’t listen and get closer, she shoots you, and you have to do the floor all over again. You get punished for not having learned your lesson.
Finally, the game’s story is a massive middle finger to those that obsessed over the original game’s lore while disregarding any of the game’s use of metaphor and allegory. This goes beyond the back story about the hot war between the USA and USSR being totally ridiculous. While the game gives these people a hugely convoluted story to unravel, it is all for nothing in the end. The game finishes in an outright nuclear war between the superpowers, using their capacity for mutually assured destruction to reduce the game world to ash.
Over the credits, you watch as every character that was introduced in the series (and is still alive) dying in a nuclear blast—one after the other. Did you have fun putting all the puzzle pieces together? Well, it’s gone now.
The final image you see of the game is the fictional start screen of “Hotline Miami 3”. In the background, you can see the ruins of the Floridian city. Of course, there is no narrative comeback from an ending like this. It’s not supposed to be an exciting teaser for another instalment in the Hotline Miami series. Instead, what it is doing is asking a question. You’ve just played through the sequel to Hotline Miami. How does the idea of another sequel make you feel?
(Credit: Dennaton Games. Fair use.)
There is a mean-spiritedness to this all. The game uses metaphor and allegory to make fun of and comment on the people who didn’t get that about the original. Pulling the story into the ridiculous and referencing characters from the original isn’t going to make them realise anything—it will all just seem like an even greater puzzle to unravel. While those who get it laugh at them, they do in-depth theory crafting for a game that showed them the finger, but, of course, they didn’t recognise it as such. And looking at the wiki articles and lore videos made for this game, it seems like that’s exactly what happened. Hotline Miami 2 could have tried to communicate how many got the original wrong but instead reads much more like the self-indulgent product of pure spite.
The gameplay in this game is not all that interesting because, except for some superficial additions, it is largely unaltered from the original. The music still stops abruptly after you are finished killing everyone. It’s still the same trial and error per level. You step-by-step uncover the best strategy for getting through it consistently with the twist that the enemies have slightly different weapons on every attempt, so you always have to improvise somewhat.
While the story is fully developed with a clear through-line of what it is doing, the gameplay makes Hotline Miami 2 feel a lot more like the misguided sequel that many people think it is. The game now features a wide cast of characters—each with their own unique traits. And further, new enemy types. But what really sticks out is the difficulty.
The game is immediately more difficult than its predecessor. While the first level in Hotline Miami featured only goons with melee weapons to get you accustomed to how the game plays in a manageable way, in Hotline Miami 2, the first enemy in the first proper level has a gun. And not just the one. There are many more of them with wide-open spaces and corridors for you to get shot from off-screen. The difficulty escalates more quickly too. In level three, you can already not trust walls and corners anymore because there are windows everywhere for you to get shot through.
The primary factor in Hotline Miami 2’s higher difficulty are the much larger levels. Because as there are more things, more things vary and can go wrong. Beyond that, the levels are so big that enemies triggered by a gunshot can take up to 15-20 seconds to get to you from areas of the floor you weren’t even looking at, catching you off guard.
But ultimately, this is tame in comparison to the story. It’s a somewhat more difficult and frustrating version of the original with some easy additions that one would expect from a sequel. The ridiculous tones of the story really don’t shine through here. The gameplay would have been the prime place to further the meta-commentary already present. But for whatever reason, this aspect of Hotline Miami stays relatively untouched. The core gameplay sections just being more frustrating is a huge missed opportunity. Despite being harder, it’s nothing you couldn’t get accustomed to. With enough trial and error, you will be able to triumph over this game’s difficulty. And that’s the problem: the gameplay does not challange this way of engagement. It could have been a great way to complement the messaging of the story with the core component of Hotline Miami, the violence. But instead, it settles for, arguably, giving the fans it set out to troll precisely what they wanted.
Hotline Miami 2 is a very fascinating game. The trolling aspects make for intriguing creator-fandom dynamics, but the game being unwilling to touch its own gameplay for that purpose undercuts it significantly. The primary interactive component of HM2 being a more-frustrating-but-nothing-more experience is very disappointing.
The game’s trolling has some great isolated high points, but, in my opinion, the game didn’t go nearly far enough.