I started in on Hotline Miami yesterday. And now that I have, I feel I can state this without any presumption.
On the game’s webpage, there’s more than one testimonial blurb about how this is the game Rockstar always “thinks” they are making in Grand Theft Auto. I am sure they only mean that in the most joking of ways, but I think it bears talking about. If you are familiar with both GTA (specifically Vice City) and Hotline Miami, it is impossible not to think of one at the sight of the other.
But Hotline Miami and Vice City are very different games. They do different things.
These testimonials are mostly from people from within the gaming press, so I don’t think they’re completely ignorant of what I’m about to point out. Maybe they’re just really enthused about Hotline. It’s a good game. It’s fucking weird, like anyone who’s familiar with cactus’ work would expect. Good music, graphically interesting. But it’s no Vice City by any means. And that’s okay! It shouldn’t be compared to Vice City except in the most basic of “media about crime in Florida in the 80’s” ways.
Miami is sort of like a 2D top-down Hitman (a few comparisons to which were also made in their testimonials which I disagree less with). You die in one hit and you have to kill everyone on a map before the level ends. So it’s basically about balancing stealth with brazenness. It’s different in that you need to be stealthy in order to survive, but you are rewarded for being reckless, provided you live through your rash decisions.
I’m not sure what the premise is yet except that the protagonist’s animal masks seem to be talking to him and there’s a guy who works everywhere and gives you things for free. This is cactus, so I’m not going out of my way to think too hard on it so much as letting it unfold.
Vice City (and to a lesser degree, all GTA installments), on the other hand, is a satire. The entire world and the story of these games is built on making fun of the culture of the time period in which it is set. I think Vice City is the clearest example, probably because the developers were alive during that time, but it’s far enough in the past that they could see it in a clearer retrospect than, say, the early 2000’s of III or even the early 90’s of San Andreas. With those games, we get tastes of the way things was, but Vice City submerges itself in it’s time period from the first cutscene where the Liberty City mobsters discuss the Floridian drug market with fucking Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” playing in the background.
Vice City isn’t merely a game about crime in 80’s Florida. It’s about America as a whole in the 80’s. It’s about the conservatism that returned in full force in that decade. It’s about the myth of abundant wealth. It’s about how we ignored the poor and pretended everything was like Dynasty for everyone. It was about the silliness of thinking 8-bit videogames were destroying America’s youth. And more than anything, it’s about a subverted “American Dream” story where someone who doesn’t play by the rules makes it to the top.
So you’ll forgive me if I don’t quite think Rockstar aspires to make Hotline Miami. That’s just not what they’re trying to do.