Hotline Miami Preview: Beneath the Neon

We ring up the developers behind Rezzed's Game of Show on their own personal hotline.

If you haven't seen any of the trailers for PC indie action game (or "top down f***-'em-up", as EG's own Jeffrey Matulef described it) Hotline: Miami, you're in for a treat. Go take a peek.

What you're looking at is one part puzzle to two parts twitch combat and two parts hyperviolence. Shake over ice, strain into a highball glass, and watch as a bullet enters the drink from off-camera, shredding your hand. You are dead. Restart level, try again.

Each chapter in Hotline: Miami is a building packed with bad people and attack dogs. They're carrying knives, bats and many, many guns. That is to say, the people are carrying these things, not the dogs. Though that wouldn't be totally out of place in Hotline: Miami's world.

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It's like a dance, except you have to kill the other dancers and every step is you throwing a fire axe down a hallway. OK it's nothing like a dance.

Up against these people is you: The worst person (or are you?). In scenes developers Dennaton Games have admitted were massively inspired by 2011 movie Drive, your mission is to slip through these laughably well-defended levels like a shiv past panicked fingers. With nothing more complicated than the WASD keys and your mouse, you'll throw axes and break heads against walls. You'll dive behind doors, take human shields and clear whole rooms with a single shotgun shell.

It's impossible to play Hotline: Miami and not channel Ryan Gosling, simply because the game demands you think fast and move even quicker than you think.

Failing to do so means instant death. Subscribing to the Super Meat Boy or Spelunky school of hard knocks delivered to the genitals, dying in Hotline: Miami is as easy as catching a single punch to the guts. Restarting a level is as quick as a maddened punch of the R key.

The level I'm on now begins with you running into a lobby, slapping a silenced pistol out of someone's hand and using it to shoot the no less than five men who immediately run at you. Attempting this, you'll be stomaching a restart every five seconds, for minutes on end.

But here's how moreish Hotline: Miami is. After typing the above paragraph, I stopped writing for a quick fight with that same sodding level. Every second of the game is loaded with either tension, anguish or joy, seconds which are packed tightly into each level like bullets into a magazine.

Your reward for actually finishing these levels is a story as bleak yet awesome as a wank on the moon. Which is no surprise, because this is a Cactus game.

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The more people you kill, the more the screen wobbles. If that sounds nauseating, that's because it's nauseating.

Cactus, AKA Swedish indie developer Jonatan Söderström, has been bombing the PC indie scene with gritty, glitzy, quirky freeware for some five years. These titles range from Adult Swim's Hot Throttle, a racing game about men who earnestly believe they are cars, to the horrific Norrland, which was created for a Swedish youth culture centre and highlights the ostracism Sweden subjects its northernmost people to. In between letting you drink heavily and punch deers.

All of Cactus' games are linked by a certain darkness, and Hotline: Miami, his first ever commercial game, would seem to be the man at the height of his powers. Our preview build is missing the game's closing chapters, but there's a definite sense of your character not so much telling a story as dropping through it like a heavy stone down a deep well. Themes of guilt and loss lurk behind the game's recurring imagery of rubber masks.

Oh yeah, I didn't mention the masks. Before each level, you choose any one of two dozen animal masks to wear for your killing spree, ranging from Tony the tiger to Jake the snake. Each changes the game ever-so-slightly.

We called up developers Dennaton Games on their own hotline to ask a few questions, starting with why Jonatan's palette is so exclusively ominous.

"I think disturbing things raise a will to understand what you're being given," he explains, with an eloquence that weaves through the beer the devs were enjoying before I called. "If it's not disturbing it's easy to not think about it. So in a way, it's trying to get people to think about what they're playing.

"I guess we're trying to get people to react to the violence, in a way... A lot of people are laughing when they're killing people in our game, but it's not explicitly for that purpose."

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I was born in 1986. Were the '80s like this? All the time? I hope so.

I ask if it's a love story. Simultaneously, I hear Jonatan say no, as Dennis Wedin, the artist and second half of Dennaton Games, says yes. The two laugh.

"I think Jonatan and me have very different ideas of what this game is about," says Dennis. "For me it's a love story, and for him... well, what is it for you?"

Jonatan hesitates. "I don't really want to talk about that. I want people to get a chance to tell their own interpretation."

I mention that Jonathan Blow never dared to clarify what Braid was about.

"I kinda wanna do that too," says Jonatan. "But at the same time, I think it's a story worth telling, so I'm just gonna let people talk about it for a while. And if no-one says anything interesting then I'm gonna start talking."

As we keep chatting, the miraculously cheap'n'cheerful origin of Hotline: Miami starts to reveal itself. Not only is it Jonatan's first commercial game (made because he's finally decided he needs some money), it's Dennis' first game ever. I asked if Dennis ever dabbled in pixel art before. His response: "No?" That is, not counting the pair's first ever project together- a sort of playable music video for Dennis' band called "KEYBOARD DRUMSET F***ING WEREWOLF".

But that's just the start. Hotline: Miami is based on a prototype Jonatan never completed because he had no idea how to do pathfinding. I'm listening to him talk about how Hotline: Miami, which won Game of Show at Rezzed this year, is actually built in the $39.99 software package GameMaker for no reason other than because it's faster.

"We don't want to sit for three years with a game," he says. "I mean, we really like Hotline: Miami and it's by far the game that I enjoy the most that I've made, but I wouldn't want to spend three years perfecting it. It seems like a better choice to use GameMaker and have... sort of a social life?"

It's a can-do attitude that might irritate some, but much stronger is the sense that here is a pair of adorable underdogs, working smarter, not harder, than anyone else. The music in Hotline: Miami is a case in point. It's perfect, a blend of sleazy surfer garage bands and excitable 80s synth. It could be the best indie game soundtrack since VVVVVV, and for the most part, it didn't cost Dennaton a cent.

More on Hotline Miami

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The greasy, 1980s-computer-dipped-in-water scanlines from Cactus's Norrland make a welcome return.

"We wanted to bridge the indie game community with the indie music scene a little bit more," says Jonatan. "It feels like indie games are a little bit boring right now, with people doing the same stuff over and over, with the same kind of music for their games. So we wanted to reach out to real artists and find songs that we really like and then put them in the game."

I ask him if making a commercial game is different from making freeware.

"No?" says Jonatan, sounding slightly perplexed. "We haven't really considered it. Maybe... maybe adding a tutorial and help messages. I guess that's the most commercial thing about the game."

Dennis voices a single other commercial element. "Trying to make it not as difficult. It was even worse in the beginning."

"It's still a f***ing difficult game," says Jonatan.

"It's still difficult," agrees Dennis.

"I told you!" comes a voice from far away. It's their musician, Niklas. "You can't have a TUTORIAL for a piece of ART."

The three laugh. They tell me the game will release in early or mid-September, and before I can even ask, they tell me they're planning on a demo.

As we say our goodbyes I'm left with a sense that I've just had a brush with something the games industry could do with a lot more of. Honest-to-God, unforced playfulness.

There's an oddly prevalent idea within game development that all games journalists secretly want to be working on the design side. For the very first time, I think that might not be so bad after all.

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