Spec Ops: The Line and Hotline Miami

So this installment of VideoDrone starts with two things I didn’t expect I’d ever write in a tumblr post — a warning on spoilers (maybe self-explanatory) and a trigger warning. The spoilers bit is, basically, if you’re looking to play either Hotline Miami or Spec Ops: The Line and you care about keeping the plot a secret, maybe save this one for later. In order to talk about these games I need to spoil, uh, everything. Sorry. In terms of content, both of these games are hyper violent, though (as we’ll see) in different ways. So if you’re upset by war, violence, blood, etc, this might be the one to skip. It’s also likely to be long, but I consider that, uhhhh, a selling point. More pictures. Anyway!

Welcome to Videodrone! Today I’m going to be thinking through player agency, videogames’ formal self-reflexivity, and the double bind of interactivity. Specifically I’m going to be considering two recent but very different games: Dennaton Games’ 2012 top-down retro-aesthetic shooter Hotline Miami and 2K Games’ Spec Ops: The Line. The games are fairly different from each other, especially in terms of the intentions behind their production. Hotline Miami is an indie-game to its core, with an 8-bit pixel style, Miami Vice color scheme, and simple-but-addictive gameplay, whereas Spec Ops is the final entry in a series that was produced by major production companies over two previous console generations, and clearly intended as a AAA title release with the requisite graphical sophistication, voice acting, and storyline polish. That said, despite their differences, the two games have an important similarity — they actively antagonize, critique, and disorient their players.

Hotline Miami begins its disorientation in its first moments, as your tutorial is conducted by a disheveled homeless man who plans to “teach you how to kill people.”

The tutorial is a good vision into the rest of the game, which is structured like a puzzle game that met a first-person shooter in the formative years of its teens. The goal of every level is to kill everyone else in the level, and the game incentivizes disregard for your character’s life. Each time you die, you’re quickly reloaded at a checkpoint, and have to try again to get further; aside from frustration, there’s no penalty for dying, no limit of lives, no lengthy loading screen. The game knows you’re going to die, a lot. And of course, you kill a lot, too, a fact that the shadowy masked figures that appear periodically in your apartment are quick to point out.

Mixed in is a kind of a love story, a sort of revenge tragedy, and the life and death of your character’s weird long-haired co-conspiring (?) friend who works at a 7–11, a video rental store, a pizza place, and a bar.

The game’s storyline is equal parts horrific and compelling, and worth experiencing in its totality, but the narrative for our purposes boils down to the central mystery of your motivation as a killer. Before each level you get a coded phone call — say, “We need an exterminator at 275 S. Pasadena” — and if you’re careful in your search, you can see a few clippings around your apartment that fill you in on the deaths of Russians throughout the city. These are the only clues you’re initially given as to why you’re randomly killing faceless thugs. Ultimately, you are betrayed by the group hiring you to do these killings, and as the world around your avatar degrades more and more, you head to the center of these killings and eliminate your boss, the ostensible voice behind the telephone, leading to a stoic end shot over the Miami lights.

The game then flashes back to another killer, different than your original avatar (but who met the avatar earlier in the game. More on that later). As you finish your story through this other character, you learn that the organization that has been sending you to kill all of these people so violently is just a couple of cleaners that have appeared sporadically throughout the game, on the margins of levels or outside of your apartment. They answer a few of your questions, but the answer to “Why kill all these Russians?” seems to simply be “Why not?”

The game hints at this eventuality enough — your video store friend remarks on the killings by saying “it’s like a movie” — and the Cold War backdrop of the mid-80s setting lends Hotline Miami to a Soviet Panic plotline. But the revelation of the two totally unimportant masterminds behind all of the killing in the game underscores the main point: everything has been a violent, bloody, waste of time. If it’s also fun, then that might be worse.

Picking up from this critique of fun, Spec Ops: The Line starts like a typical AAA title, in a generic desert spot outside of Dubai, a ghost city after a massively destructive sandstorm. You’re in command of a troop of special ops US soldiers, and your mission is to run recon on Dubai, looking for the lost Colonel Konrad. As your team wanders further into Dubai, they discover that Konrad is not the only survivor; in fact, many soldiers of Konrad’s “Damned 33rd” and Dubaian citizens are still alive. They are also under an increasingly brutal martial law enforced by Konrad and The Radioman, an embedded reporter turned voice of the occupation. Your team decides to find Konrad and evacuate the city. And yes, before we go any further, yes, the whole plot of this game is an homage to Joseph Conrad’s (GET IT????) Heart of Darkness. I’m not honestly sure if that’s more helpful than hurtful overall, but the game certainly plays the card to the hilt.

In any case, your mission starts to go pear shaped quickly, though unlike most testosterone-driven military shooters, you are at fault for most if not all of the atrocities committed in game. This begins when your squad is “forced” to use white phosphorous on an enemy stronghold and, in the process, unknowing, you burn 47 Dubaians alive. From this point, the game begins to shift into a surreal series of barely connected events, with your character going into hellish fugues, stealing water with the CIA, and even referring to the circularity of the game as you finally reach the action point from which you “flashback” from at the beginning of the game.

In the end, your squad dies, largely because your character is unwilling to abandon the mission, and when you finally reach Konrad, he is painting an image of the dead 47 people, and chastises you for causing so much damage.

As you walk behind his painting, you discover his body, dead by his own hand, and beginning to decay. Konrad reappears and tells you that the whole scenario, all of his messages, and indeed the entire motivation of the mission has been in your character’s, Captain Walker’s head. That you pushed ahead and killed the American soldiers of the 33rd, the Dubaians, and your own squadmates because you wanted to be “something you never were: a hero.” Flashbacks reveal that your mission parameters said nothing about pushing into Dubai, that every instance of “hearing” Konrad was a lie, that the mission was a failure. You then have the option to shoot yourself or Konrad, leading to either death or evacuation, respectively. The choice doesn’t matter much; the damage is already done.

And so, we see motivation come up again — Hotline Miami is interested in your motivations as a killer, while Spec Ops is interested in your motivations as a soldier (though perhaps the two end up looking fairly similar for these games’ purposes). And each game is also concerned with your motivation as a player. As the rooster mask in Hotline Miami asks, “Do you enjoy hurting people?” This question, the masked man tells you, is crucial to deciphering what’s happening to you.

And while Spec Ops generally uses its loading screens to give its player tips for playing the game, it subs in troubling barbs to the player here and there: “You are still a good person”; “Can you remember why you came here?”; “So you feel like a hero yet?”; and “This is all your fault.” As the game goes on, the game becomes more explicit, drawing far more damning and often more abstract, personal critiques that only apply to the player, not Walker:

“Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas simultaneously.”

“The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn’t real, so why should you care?”

“How many Americans have you killed today?”

“If [your squadmate] Lugo were still alive, he would likely suffer from PTSD. So, really, he’s the lucky one.” And finally,

“To kill for yourself is murder. To kill for your government is heroic. To kill for entertainment is harmless.”

(Not too far off from the justifications of the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, for what it’s worth).

This line juxtaposed as it is above on Captain Walker in Konrad’s old coat emphasizes the mediations that Spec Ops and Hotline Miami are so interested in drawing out. How they draw these mediations out differs in ways I’ll get to in a moment, but it seems worth noting that both of these games, despite their incredible violence, are ultimately critical of you as a player for entertaining them. The artist Joseph Delappe’s dead in iraq performs a similar political maneuver, as he appeared in the multiplayer sections of America’s Army, the propaganda game released by the US Army, and spammed the chat function with the names of dead soldiers. But the added elegance of Spec Ops and Hotline Miami is that you reinscribe the problematic actions of the game with your own choices. As Konrad points out to Walker, he could have walked away; as your victims all too often point out to your avatar, Jacket, inHotline Miami, you don’t have to do this.

And so as Walker becomes Konrad — just as we might argue Marlowe becomes Kurtz — and as Jacket continues to kill despite the increasing chaos and violence of his world, the player becomes increasingly complicit. We could stop, too, but due to plot or compulsion or just the relaxation of the game itself, we keep going. But if we enjoy hurting people, why? Each game offers a different answer.

Spec Ops seems to suggest that the desire to be a hero — the escapism of the videogame that can be tied to the moral clarity of Walker and the Delta Squad — is the real crisis in the videogame form. In this way, we can understand Spec Ops to be politicizing the issue as well, since the squad’s desires are always overrided by the need to “follow orders.” Lugo, when he discovers the dead Dubaians, embodies this when he says to your other squadmate Adams, “He made us into murderers!”

To murder, the game tells us, is done for yourself, and to kill for your country is “heroic”; to follow orders falls somewhere in between. And as the squad follows orders, so must you. You’re given certain choices — I didn’t kill any of the citizens I could avoid, not that there’s a real morality in pixels — but mostly you’re given the illusion of choice. Even killing Walker in the last moments of the game is a reversible choice, replayable to get the “good” endings, including one where Walker takes on the mantel of Konrad completely.

So we as players follow orders, the same way the soldiers follow orders. And while the pixels indeed do not carry any ethical significance — there is of course a difference between a murder simulator and a murder — the easy unthinking compliance of the player is under serious critique here. Especially as your mission is revealed to have no valuable outcome — aside from the “good” of hiding the US’ complicity in killing Dubaians — the fervor to kill and complete mission objectives is immediately put in a different light (not to mention the various “achievements” for headshots, kills, etc.). In other words, by deconstructing the mediation between soldiers and killers, Spec Ops produces a Brechtian anti-imperialist text as well as a compelling case for the fact that the mediation between the player and their avatar is troublingly thin as well.

In Hotline Miami, we’re faced with this problem early, as the homeless man teaching us to kill tells us that when it comes to downed enemies, you “have to finish them off.” This sets the tone for the action in the game — enemies can be unarmed, surrendering, or begging for their lives, and you are required, by the rules of the game, to kill them anyway. This, combined with the wisdom of the masked men in your apartment — “Knowing oneself means acknowledging one’s actions” — points to a hyper-awareness of player complicity from the start.

This complicity is doubly inscribed by the gore in the game, which is dramatic even in its pixelated form. As pointed out by my good friend @aritruscan on twitter, there’s a reason that the game has you walk through all of your chaos after each level ends. And, after each level ends, the catchy synthwave that’s been pushing you along ends as well, replaced with a humming tuneless thrum, a quiet awareness of the violence by Jacket, the player, or both. But this awareness is less a politics than a formal comment on the game genre itself — it’s ultimately without a concrete purpose, without a clear meaning or endgoal. In the last estimation, you just have a lot of dead (digital) bodies and some time spent getting an inconsequential object.

The cleaners in charge of the operation help determine this feeling of formal self-reflexivity. While Spec Ops mobilizes its self-critique through the nebulously authoritative figure of militarized orders, Hotline Miami focuses on orders as a purely technical problem. A game needs an objective, or else we could not know if we’d won or lost; even a high score is a sort of brass ring. And Hotline Miami provides objectives (kill everyone), high scores (kill everyone quickly and creatively), and incentives (more masks for Jacket to wear to his crimes). And while some of these masks initially serve a purpose in game — one gives you more ammo, one more strength — as you go on, they become more and more frivolous — one translates all cutscenes into French, and one increases the level of gore in game.

As the cleaners say, then, the game is about enjoying yourself — nothing more or less. The anguished avatars looking for revenge or meaning aren’t going to find any. And if you didn’t enjoy yourself (I did, but also put this way, I guess I didn’t?) then it was totally pointless. The point was to kill people, the game tells us: if you don’t like hurting people, then why did you like the game at all?

So, Spec Ops reads then as a military/social critique mobilized through a videogame, while Hotline Miami is strictly about what we can get out of videogame interaction (that is to say, not much!). But outside of their strict critiques, I think there’s something more going on here. Each game deals strictly with the limits of its forms, both in terms of narrative as described above and in terms of technical limitations. For instance, in Hotline Miami, your friend at the 7–11 tells you that “This…all of this is not really happening.” In the corner of the room, a man lies dying.

Immediately, the screen glitches out, and returns to the 7–11 as it was except without the body. Everything, even including the bloodstain, remains, but the body is gone and your friend does not seem to recall your previous conversation.

Jacket also encounters the helmeted second avatar earlier in the game, and kills him as he breaks into the phone bank to discover more about the operation. When you take over as Helmet, the tables are turned and you kill Jacket before you go on t complete the narrative arc of the game. If this sounds confounding, it totally is — there is no explanation as to how these timelines could be coterminous, and neither timeline is privileged, though the narrative of the game is mostly (despite time rewinding) linear. The ecstasy and anxiety of creation that we saw with the cleaners-cum-programmers appears again — “didn’t you have fun?” — in this revision of the game’s arc to add closure. Hotline Miami simply decides to change its narrative because it can — rewriting the data because, ultimately, it isn’t real at all.

Similarly, in Spec Ops, you begin the game flying in a helicopter, shooting down other copters before ultimately crashing in the desert of Dubai. The game then flashes back to Delta Squad entering the “dead” city well before the crash. This is a fairly standard narrative strategy, introducing the promise of high action before it actually comes, allowing a sense of foreboding without needing to spell it out. But after you reach the helicopter point in the real game — perhaps the second turning point, after the fire bombing of the innocent Dubaians — Walker has a break with reality, stammering that “this all happened already.” He snaps back into the mission, but it’s the one break with reality unexplained by his delusions of heroic grandeur. It is literally a self-reference to the narrative necessities of the videogame form, not reality.

And so both of these moments break totally from the reality that they’ve constructed. As we’ve seen above, this reality is extremely important to the overall critiques of player agency that these games set up, so breaking it shouldn’t be explained away as “experimental” play. Instead, I think it reflects what Denis Diderot said of Claude Manet’s art, that, to be kind to you readers and paraphrase, it is antagonistic to its reader, prickly and not allowing the easy digestion that other art provides. Now Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line are both remarkable videogames, but they are not Manet; still, we can take the Diderotian point as instructive. These games, in pointing to their seams, their constructedness, are challenging their readers to make sense of them as videogames as opposed to experiences in the world as such. Put differently, both games show us through their intentional glitches that the game is not meant to be indexical to the world, but that it is some different representation, created to be like the world, but to be different in other ways as well. To put it a third way, the game is meant to be interpreted.

And the only way that videogames might be truly interpretable, which is to say antagonistic is to call out their player. The interactivity of the player has been made much of in videogame criticism — it’s meant to be a utopian solution to the reader-author divide in literature, a way to enable the reader to take authorial agency from the author, destabilizing interpretation as such. What these games seem to say is “Well, not exactly.” By problematizing interactivity itself — making the very idea of a choice deeply distasteful, impossible, or tragic-by-definition — these games create their own formal self-critique. Not only is this a crucial moment in any form’s commitment to the sphere of aesthetics, but beyond that, it proves that videogames have a coherent and consistent medium specificity.

In short, a videogame whether independent, big budgeted, top-down, or fully 3-D demands similar things from its player. And in these demands, videogames create formal qualities that define the medium. These qualities, however, remain invisible, tacitly accepted until explicitly challenged in the uncomfortable pleasures of games like Hotline Miami and Spec Ops: The Line. To end on the grandiose, these games are blueprints to the construction of a videogame medium as such, disconnected from market pressures and the reception of its audience.

In other words, if games are going to be art, they might start by looking like this.

PS: I realized after writing this whole piece that there’s a lot to say about the mechanics of these games, particularly Hotline Miami, which encourages violence both through incentives and sheer survival. Half of the violence in the game is predicated on making it through a level alive, such that shooting twelve men seems like an obstacle as opposed to an action. Obviously, this is common in most games, and working out the distinctiveness of these two is probably outside of the bounds here. Sooner or later, I’ll focus primarily on mechanics and we can figure it out together then.

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