You hear the phrase “power fantasy” being thrown around a lot nowadays, and it’s very apt when it comes to video games. After all, everyone daydreams about being a superhero: that guy with the ability to do something no one else can do. You want to be able to fly by defying physics or fight like a god damn whirlwind of fists and/or fury or turn back into a robot from a car, and doing so in a video game is the next viable step up from simply thinking about it. You get to visualize it and interact with it, poke and prod at an abstraction of your fantasies.
But most of those games devolve into turning those dreams into a utility for getting from point A to point B. Your ability to teleport is no longer something to revel in but just something to get you past a bunch of guards. Bullet time goes from a circus display of lead death to a tool that gets you past a particular battle and into the next room. That power fantasy of being all-powerful and able to overcome any odds has been reduced to being a repairman; open your toolbox and fix a problem.
That’s where Dennaton’s Hotline Miami differs. Much like XCOM and DayZ, Hotline Miami is more about being outmatched and overpowered only to use your wits to come out ahead. These games force you to dig deep and discover whatever it is that makes you special and use that to beat odds that not only lean heavily against you but slap you in the face first so you learn some respect. It isn’t about opening up a chest of known and discrete tools but rather using whatever indescribable nuance and intuition you can offer as a human being capable of critical thought and analysis. It taps into what makes you human more than what you wish made you superhuman.
Maybe that’s because you will die in Hotline Miami. And I mean a lot. Over the course of a single minute, you’re likely to die roughly five or six times, maybe less if you’ve almost figured out a level since it’s a cumulative process. You see, there are only checkpoints at each floor of a building, and a building may be multiple floors, so each slab of rooms must be cleared out perfectly before moving on to the next one. Yes, perfectly. Did I forget to mention you die in one hit? Did I mention you die a lot?
But everyone dies in one hit. Well, minus a few select boss-type characters, but they will eventually go down in one hit given the right incentive (read: the right weapon). It’s a very fair game in that respect; even just one pellet can take you down, but the same goes for all those henchmen milling about in the foyer. One shotgun blast and you can clear them all out, but a single stray pellet from a bad guy across the room can end your record-setting run. And there are usually about seven or eight guys on any given floor that can ruin it for you.
Your advantage is that they don’t know you’re there. In ways, this is more of a stealth game than the recently released (and worth playing) Dishonored. In most cases, Dishonored became more of an experiment in pulling and pushing a bunch of interacting systems and AI routines and less about sneaking around. Hotline Miami takes the stealth of roaming around unfamiliar territory while remaining undetected, distills it down to its puzzle roots, and speeds it up to one notch past nausea-inducing. In that way, it deviates the most from the power fantasy. It’s no longer about using your powers to get to the end of the line; it’s now all about using your lack of powers to make the ride all it can be.
It’s a bit like pachinko in that way. While it’s a relief to reach the bottom of a pachinko game (and a celebration or a frustration depending on the outcome), it’s the tumbling around on the way down that is the fun. Each pin you hit, each left-or-right split, each pause makes that run unique and a little nerve-wracking. You are here for the ride to the bottom. The destination is simply a consequence of your success.
That ancillary tone to the end as you gather up and utilize the means comes across in the pulpy story. It’s almost whimsical—an odd juxtaposition given how macabre the rest of the game is—but also reinforces the journey-over-the-finish-line theme. It’s fun and entertaining and can occasionally make you go “huh, how about that,” but by and large it serves to fill in the blanks between your murder-fest shenanigans. Just ask any recreational hunter or psychotic serial killer: it’s not about the kill but about the chase.
Power fantasies concern themselves with the end of the story. They put the conclusion at the end of a sidewalk and you just have to get there. Anyone with even the smallest bit of desire can do it. Fantasies of being weak and overpowered only to overcome and win are fundamentally different. There is no path before you, only a dark forest, insurmountable walls, and broken bridges. It’s a wide open expanse of hazards that will force you to think and react in ways you didn’t know you could, in ways that only you could think and react. So maybe every once in a while, stop fantasizing about flying and start fantasizing about failing. It’s more fun that way.