It’s 10:30 p.m. and my three-year-old daughter is still awake, two hours past her bedtime.
“Can I have a yogurt drink?” she coos from her bed.
We just brushed her teeth.
I walk back to her room from the kitchen with the strawberry yogurt drink. Standing by her bed, I peel off the foil and hand her the bottle, intent on licking the lid to taste the tiny bit of yogurt stuck there.
“Can I have that?” she asks.
“Sure,” I whimper, and reluctantly hand it to her.
This is a microcosm of my life. My last shitty, minuscule bit of personal pleasure yanked from my withered fingers by a person who can’t even read.
That’s not to say my wife and daughter aren’t the best things in my life. They absolutely are. But things like video games, and any length of time to myself, have been sacrificed to the wonderful and grueling everyday minutiae of raising a human.
It is with this in mind that I reluctantly committed to playing a video game for the first time in many years. Hotline Miami is a 2D top-down action game featuring a protagonist who must make his way through 15 levels while brutally murdering everyone he comes across. I downloaded it onto my old work laptop, a battered Dell used only to stream kids’ shows. The last game I played on a computer was Wolfenstein 3D. What have I agreed to?
Home from my soul-crushing office job at 7:00 p.m., it’s dinner and bath-time for baby, then jammies and teeth-brushing and story-time, then fighting for an hour to get her to sleep. This is followed by dishes and kitties’ litter boxes, then laundry and lunch for tomorrow. It’s 11:00 p.m. by the time I flip open my laptop at the desk of my home office, and I’m mad at the game already.
The graphics are chunky and dated. Tinny, retro electronica pulses from my laptop speakers, which I rush to turn down. A tyrant slumbers in the next room, for God’s sake, does this game, with its strident audio, have no regard for my struggles?! A disembodied head with dark skin and disheveled yellow hair informs me that he’s going to teach me to kill people. Sweet. “You’ll be using basic WASD controls,” he tells me in block text. Great, I’m fucked already.
Oh okay, W goes forward and D and A to the sides. This takes me a minute to get used to.
I’m piloting a cluster of pixels representing a man, possibly wearing a white suit, and donning some sort of animal mask. I move him forward into a narrow hallway and two other pixel clusters rush me. Instantly I’m dead on the floor, lying in a pool of my own blood. Fuck.
I respawn in the same place, approaching the thugs’ line of sight more carefully this time. Again they rush me and obliterate my head with a lead pipe. Dead.
After a few tries I’m able to lock on to the first guy and punch him when he runs towards me. Somehow my next punch connects to the second guy. Luck. Now they’re both on the ground, and the disembodied head—my murder Sherpa—tells me to press a button to kneel over their unconscious bodies and bash their heads against the concrete floor until their skulls explode, blood spurting everywhere. My Sherpa is pleased, and I’m allowed to begin the game.
At the beginning of chapter 1, I walk through the rooms of my nameless character’s apartment to an answering machine. It informs me that a shipment of cookies has arrived. I walk down a flight of stairs and out the front door to find a box with a rooster mask and instructions: travel to a specific location and kill everyone in the building. There’s an ominous implication that my character is being watched, my hand forced. I get enough of that in my real life, so I decide that I’ll do the mission of my own volition… not because some box ordered me to.
It takes over an hour to clear the first stage. Walk through a door, blown away by a shotgun. Fuck. Turn a corner, slashed by a knife. Fuck! Stand in one place too long, mauled by a dog. FUUUCK!
Success requires a thousand deaths. By the time I kill the last guy and the words ‘Stage Clear’ flash across the screen, I feel more frustration and rage than actual satisfaction. A fucking hour spent figuring out the precise sequence of movements and attacks needed to reach the other side of this building full of pixelated psychopaths. Sneaking up on the first guy while his back is turned, punching him to the ground and then straddling him to smash his head. Picking up his discarded baseball bat and bashing the next guy’s face with it. Popping open a door just a bit and hiding around the corner until the two guys inside the room come running out to see what the commotion is, then beating both of them to death with the bat. Grabbing one of their guns and throwing open the last door to spray the room with bullets. Surely by now you get the gist of Hotline Miami.
The story unfolds by way of bizarre little clips I’m shown between missions. Upon completing each chapter, I hop into a car and drive to a different store. The same bearded clerk is behind the counter of all of these establishments, and he seems to be a friend or admirer of mine. He offers words of encouragement and respect, and gives me free stuff that I grab before driving back to my apartment. A new message always awaits me there on my answering machine. They’re all varyingly innocent euphemisms for “go to this place and kill everyone there.”
As I move through the missions, these interludes become increasingly surreal. A girl that I found at the end of one chapter is in my apartment now, lying on my bed before one mission and soaking in the bathtub before the next. Three mysterious figures wearing a rooster mask, a horse mask, and an owl mask sit on my couch lecturing me about my poor life choices and alluding to some imminent doom. At one point I find the bearded clerk inexplicably dead on the floor of his establishment, the counter now manned by some bald dude who hates me and offers me nothing. And it only gets weirder from there.
The game’s flashy neon aesthetic screams 1980s Miami, and I quite like the music. It’s stuff I might listen to outside of the game, but I find myself turning it down to almost inaudible levels when my rage boils over after a series of failures. This happens every time I play.
The first few nights, playing felt like a chore. Despite this, the hours spent with Hotline Miami seemed to fly by. As I slowly made my way through the game, I found myself progressively less reluctant. Yes I was tired and drained. Yes I just wanted to get in bed after a long day at work before I would be forced to wake up the next morning and do it all over again. And yes being killed over and over still had me venomously cursing under my breath, forcing myself to breathe deeply so as to avoid punching a fucking hole in the wall… but on some level, I had begun to grasp the appeal of the whole thing, if only from a distance.
Maybe I’ve just reached the point in life where I want my entertainment easy and unchallenging. Maybe I’ve grown into a joyless man-boy whose heart has aged out of video games. Or maybe Hotline Miami is just really fucking difficult, designed to induce rage. Either way, I do plan on finishing it.
Maybe just a quick chapter tonight, even.
“Can I play that?” she coos from the doorway.