Hotline Miami and The Great Fake Difficulty

Hotline Miami Difficulty

NOTE: This article was originally published on Substance TV. I think the statute of limitations on those have expired, so I want to repost some of the material I feel deserves a second shot on Theology Gaming. Also, I’ll add some stuff to make it more appropriate.Think of them as “Director’s Cuts”.

“Because this people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,
14 Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous;
And the wisdom of their wise men will perish,
And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.”

Isaiah 29

Indie games aren’t usually my forte. I find them to be cheap knock-offs, and though they tend to try something different mechanically or stylistic, it’s not as if I would go back and play them again. They exist only for the moment, not for all time, minor experiments on the way to greatness. I’m not trying to be down on indie developers. I feel, though, that their product lacks that extra bit of polish and objectivity that would lead to a fuller, mechanically sound, and infinitely more enjoyable game – in other words, self-indulgence trumps game design. On the recommendation of a friend, I finally bought Hotline Miami to see if it was truly wonderful as the major outlets seem to think.

In its own way, it’s rather exemplary. Taking the super-violent 1980s vibe of the film Drive and mixing it with a combination of stealth, Smash TV, and one hit deaths, Hotline Miami strikes its own flavor within a crowded genre of indie hopefuls. The game controls from a top down view that gives you a modicum of spatial awareness. Holding Shift allows you to look around and examine your surroundings. Left click attacks and right click picks up weapons. The space bar exists solely for the time when you’ve knocked an enemy out, yet haven’t kill him – this will perform an execution move, similar to Ninja Gaiden II’s Obliteration techniques (though they don’t make you invincible). There’s a variety of weapons, but they boil down to melee and ranged (the knife doing both roles at the same time). Lastly, the mouse cursor aims your weapon or fists.

Hotline Miami encourages the player to be as silent as a human murdering machine can. You die in one hit, and thus you need a perfect blend of stealth, speed, and accuracy to make it through most levels. Melee weapons don’t make loud noises, but guns certainly will alert most other guards in the vicinity. Enemy gunfire does not cause any reaction from fellow enemies, for whatever reason, but yours will cause a rain of trouble. Given your fragility, most fights revolve around quick decisions and split second thoughts when things go wrong. In many ways, puzzle elements make their way into the mix – how do I approach a room? Do I open the door and throw a pipe, leading another thug out of the room? Or do I go in with pipe swinging and hope to catch both of them off guard? You can’t just run at a guy with a shotgun, just like in real life!

You’re not forced to play fast, or well, or anything of the sort – by nature, you’ll start to understand the flow of the combat, what the controls do, and how to efficiently kill everything in each level without also dying yourself. There’s a scoring system, although for the life of me I can’t figure out how it actually calculates your score. Apparently playing fast and loose presents the best strategy overall.

And the game gives you ample opportunity to experiment in its virtual murder sandbox – every floor of a building gives you an unlimited number of retries. I believe this was implemented because the pace of the game demands it. Hotline Miami’s a FAST game that doesn’t give you much room for error. See a guard with a shotgun looking at you? Expect to die instantaneously. Miss with your weapon throw, fist, or gun? You will die.

Hotline Miami Difficulty

This highlights one of the game’s greater problem: aiming. You aim with the mouse cursor with both melee and ranged weapons. I can’t tell you how many times I threw an object or shot a gun, only to find myself dead because I missed by a hair. This goes for melee weapons as well – if you’re not facing the right direction when you attack, prepare to miss. WITH YOUR FISTS. Who knows why this design decision was made, but it makes a big impact.  The graphical style, though quite endearing and appropriately trippy, also skews your aim and timing JUST ENOUGH to throw you off; I can’t really get used to the way it wobbles the screen akimbo at all times. A mouse cursor gives you TOO much accuracy – in a tense situation, your aim’s bound to be off a bit, thus causing your death. In that sense, the controls don’t hold up to stressful circumstances.

What’s worse, given the puzzle-lite approach to levels, exists in the subtle variations between levels. Sometimes, guard routes will completely change, meaning tactics that once worked will screw up your carefully developed that took countless attempts to bolster. It’s mildly infuriating to find a weapon you hoped to be in a spot is no longer there, or a guard with a gun who patrols a certain way never comes close to the door again. Sometimes, an action that would kill a guard fails to kill him – you return to the room and get blasted with a shotgun because you couldn’t tell whether he was alive or dead. That’s especially a problem when you have a pile of corpses on top of each other. I suppose the Zombieland “double tap” rule applies here.

Slight randomization’s fine, but when that randomization actively prevents progress, that’s the real problem. Hotline Miami still relies on good planning, so any variation on this breakneck speed can’t possibly help the player in any way. You could certainly become good enough with the controls to react well to every situation, but it’s highly likely you will also need to retry. Hence, we can see that the quick restarts were part of the design, and seem to cover a number of flaws all at once.

In this sense, the “difficulty” Hotline Miami forces the player to overcome isn’t genuinely designed or significantly satisfying; instead, it’s a cop-out from the developer that they made a game without accurate controls, clear boundaries, and competent AI.

Randomization, then, becomes a crutch for the rest of the game’s design, and the other elements attempt to rectify this problem to little avail. This has become a bit of a trend from the indie games I have played – the controls are never as accurate as you’d like, the levels aren’t that interesting all by themselves, and they create difficulty through random elements you can’t necessarily predict. Super Meat Boy, for example, places you in difficult situations yet it also gives you slippery jump controls. They’re functional, surely, but winning always feels like a string of lucky decisions and the game’s physics going your way. The same goes for Cave Story’s floaty jump-pack controls, or Super Hexagon’s odd wiggly cursor and randomized levels (which make high scores almost irrelevant – you’re not even playing the same level someone else did), or Symphony’s horrible mouse-based controls for a shmup. Spelunky’s “rogue-like” designation (though I disagree with this) also fits neatly into these categories.

Their main problem, then, is that their difficulty doesn’t come from clever design, or a care for the player’s inclinations, or forcing the player to use their skills in heretofore unseen ways; rather, they just blindside you with nearly impossible stages, levels, and otherwise. Then, they give you an infinite retry button to expose the lack of careful balance. I could, for example, rush into Hotline Miami’s stages over and over again, swinging wildly until I happened upon the most beneficial circumstance to myself. That sometimes I win by sheer luck doesn’t make me feel good at all; it makes it feel like coincidence, not skill, led to my victory. Hotline Miami’s especially egregious on this point – it wants to be a top down shooter, a stealth-action game, and a “meaningful” game, but it doesn’t do any of these well. Because of this, the under-cooked elements never make the player comfortable and able to overcome the challenges of the game with full confidence in their abilities. It relies on cheap deaths, faulty detection, and player inaccuracy for its difficulty.

I’m sure everyone has heard about the “meaning” of Hotline Miami as a commentary on video game violence – it makes you feel bad about doing it. If I were to be honest, all I felt was frustration that this game isn’t as good as it could be! The concept has so much potential and allows for a lot of great ideas, but the game ruins the execution. It eschews true difficulty for fake difficulty, and that’s never a good thing.

It’s no wonder so many people were hoodwinked: with no historical perspective, no venue of comparison, and no regard for the commands of good game design, would you expect anything else? Hotline Miami’s difficulty is all words and fluff, not truly satisfying riches. Spend you time on something else.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.