Hotline Miami 2, Sexual Assault and The Fetish

Posted by Martin Falder on 25th June, 2013

Content warning for graphic discussion of rape & sexual assault.


Hotline Miami 2 features a rape in the tutorial.

To some extent I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Jonatan Söderström’s most well-known output has always revolved around filth, degradation, violence and decay. Norrland, one of my favourite games, features bestiality, necrophilia, and self-mutilation, and ends with the graphic suicide of the protagonist. Even the art style itself invokes the found-footage aesthetic as applied to video games, wearing the hollowed-out skin of an old Atari game and coating every scene in a thick veneer of lo-fi filters which feel designed to induce a kind of violent nausea in the viewer. Hotline Miami was a parade of violence so extreme that many – including myself – interpreted it as a satirical deconstruction and reaction to the violence so often central to AAA titles. His work is rooted in the politics of radical transgression; it’s Viennese Actionism channelled through the familiar box full of old game cartridges in your loft; it’s Joel-Peter Witkin’s version of Smash TV.

The tutorial of the sequel sees you taking on the role of a pig-masked killer, wandering a house and executing its inhabitants.  So far, so Hotline Miami. Then, after beating the final girl to the ground, you’re instructed to hit the spacebar to finish her off. At this point, your avatar crouches over her as she desperately tries to crawl away, a hulking monster in a butcher’s uniform, and the game screen fades to black around you as his trousers drop, showing his bare ass.

It took me a moment to realise exactly what was happening. As we’ve said before, tackling the subject of rape in games is very different to tackling violence; for starters, we don’t live in a culture which constantly undermines the victims of murder, or which regularly suggests you could consent to being brutally killed by someone close to you. If this is a road you’re going to tread, it has to be done well, and I can think of barely a handful of games which do so.

A second later, a director calls cut and it’s revealed that you’re on the set of a slasher film. He walks up to the actors and gives them some pointers, advising the woman you just assaulted to be more ‘girly’ and ‘feminine’, while you’re supposed to be more brutal. To some extent, I see the gender commentary here, but it’s weak at best. Slasher movies are almost uniform in their misogyny and bigotry, and while there is value in depicting the way that lazy misogyny is consciously constructed behind the scenes, the line between deconstruction and sincere homage is razor thin. There is clearly a moral difference between criticising that genre and simply reproducing it in extremis for cheap kicks. At what point does the game cease to be about shovelling filth into your face for deconstructive purposes and begin to be about shovelling filth into your face for cheap shock value?

It was at roughly this point in my thought process that I began to re-evaluate my reaction to the original game. The politics of transgression without an honest structural criticism embedded in their excess are, as I was recently reminded by this excellent criticism of misogyny in industrial music, not really transgressive at all. If we’re talking about transgressive art, I would put Saw IV on one end of the scale and Sarah Kane’s Blasted on the other; both depict and linger on brutal mutilation and body horror, but the latter does so as a devastatingly powerful comment on genocide, misogyny, war, and gendered violence, whereas the former does so because it’s wringing out the ‘money shot’ of splattered gore and suffering in order to shock and titillate the audience. When Söderström shows a willingness to use sexual assault and rape as a moment of shock at the end of a five-minute tutorial without engaging with the implications of doing so then he crosses the line from transgressive satire to replication of the same repressive politics he’s attempting to ape.

Rather than recontextualising the tutorial as a wry satire of slasher films, I feel that moment recontextualises the previous game. The violence in Hotline Miami felt justified by the post-game walk back through the levels, and the ending which made clear that it was all, ultimately, futile and morally vapid. I’ve argued previously that the game rises above the already-impressive gameplay by constantly confronting the player with the horrific nature of the violence you’re committing. This demo we’ve witnessed, however, calls into question that idea by insinuating that it was actually predicated on shock value alone all along. What if the post-completion walk back through the carnage you caused is nothing more than a glorified killcam designed to shock while still reproducing and profiting from the violence it’s supposedly critiquing?

I’m reminded of Žižek’s description of Western Buddhism as the fetish which is “the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth.” As a game critic, my enjoyment of the transgressive violence in the game was made acceptable by the post-game condemnation of it. Rather than accepting the game for what it is – a piece of heavily problematic media with some enjoyable elements – I’ve focused in on the fetish which allowed me to enjoy the whole guilt-free. The lingering condemnation of the violence allowed me to feel separated from the violence itself so I could play without genuinely engaging with the intensely problematic nature of it.

I guess I’d tried to unconsciously shut out Mattie Brice’s excellent critique of the way ‘satirical’ games like HM and Spec Ops: The Line criticise only up to the point where it becomes uncomfortable, rather than to the point where it actively challenges our perception of the world. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree; more that I wanted to continue to enjoy the privilege of enjoying these games despite their problematic nature. I absolutely still think there’s a place for satire as a vehicle for social change, but her line about critique turning to torture porn really resonates strongly with the use of rape in HM2. It was transgression for transgression’s sake, which isn’t actually transgressive at all; it was a white cis man putting a rape in his game because it’ll get people talking about the game, not because it’ll get people talking about rape.

It would be pre-emptive of me to write the game off entirely based on a ten minute demo on the show floor of a games convention. Between this version and the final release there may be a hundred changes, and that whole sequence may be altered or even gone by the time it comes out. That said, the decision to put this particular build and that particular moment on show at a major expo can’t be ignored. I love the gameplay of Hotline Miami and I desperately want to play more, but I don’t think I can in good conscience stand by some of my previous praise for the game after seeing something like that. It’s not okay and I’m doubly not okay with it being on the main floor of Rezzed, a show designed around inclusiveness.

16 Responses to “Hotline Miami 2, Sexual Assault and The Fetish”

  1. Jordan says:

    Only vaguely related, but the game was also playable for anyone, and I’m almost certain quite a few tiny children also played this exact build. Eeesh.

  2. Portside says:

    You’ve got no problem with brutal mass murder, but the second there’s a single pretend rape for a camera, you’re freaking out?

    Rape bad, mass murder ok?

    I’m sorry, but if we can’t show a fraction of a second of feigned rape in a game, we *definitely* should be showing people getting blown apart, beaten to death, gutted, dismembered, beheaded and disemboweled.

    • Martin says:

      That’s part of what I was trying to say. I’m not really okay with games about people getting blown apart unless they have something to say. Check the Blasted comparison; that play is more shocking and violent than anything I’ve ever read, and yet that violence is absolutely necessary in order to shock the audience from complacency and make a statement on war.

      I’m not sure that, in light of this new information, the violence in Hotline is justified or excusable; it seems to just be torture porn.

  3. 00000000000000 says:

    Your assessment of the first game is completely off. The developers have been very open with what they were trying to say with it. Watch/listen to this:
    and then come back.

    • Martin says:

      I will absolutely listen to that, but I’m unlikely to be swayed by what they intended. It’s what they actually produced that matters, and a critical reading of that can’t simply defer to the creator’s intent, otherwise criticism suddenly becomes incredibly boring.

      • Chris Remo says:

        I have fairly conflicted feelings about HM and I’m not entirely sure what my opinion is (for similar reasons as you describe) so I’m not trying to make any kind of implicit assertion here, but it seems that if you aren’t willing to be convinced by the designers’ statements on their intention outside the context of the game, why are you then using your impression of a scene from the sequel to the game to recontextualize your opinion on the first game? If you hold that the work speaks for itself, shouldn’t you apply that across the board? To allow the second game to contextualize your interpretation of the first, wouldn’t that demand an assumption that the creators are operating with the same worldview or intention as they were when they developed the first? Otherwise it seems you’re not comparing like to like.

        It also seems that since you were willing to let the end of the first game inform your reading of its early events, shouldn’t you extend the same benefit of the doubt to the second? (Maybe the answer is actually “no”; I’m kind of just thinking aloud here I guess.)

        I go back and forth on “death of the author” so I’m also not trying to push any critical agenda here, just reacting to what seems like a bit of a conflict between the framework of thought you present in the main piece and in this comment.

        • Chris Remo says:

          Oh and just as a followup: I haven’t seen the Hotline Miami 2 footage in question. And, to reiterate, I don’t mean any of this as a covert HM1 defense. I’m too ambivalent about the game to be confident in pushing a strong opinion about the game itself.

          • Martin says:

            My stance on the death of the author is always more focused on ignoring the author’s intent as authority over a product rather than ignoring the author & their body of work entirely. To provide a comparison, trying to analyse Lesbian Spider Queens of Mars without knowing anything about anna anthropy’s interest in sadism & game design wouldn’t make a lot of sense, but if she made a game about kicking the crap out of poor people and insisted she meant it to be a revolutionary dating sim then pretty clearly I’d ignore that. I guess to some extent that’s a symptom of the post-modern – and especially the internet – age; an author’s identity and their politics are a distinct part of the art, and a shift in my perception of them can cast their work in a new light.

            Another recent example would be Jason Rohrer’s Castle Doctrine and the controversy surrounding that. If that game was being made by someone who wasn’t absolutely entrenched in libertarian politics then I think people might’ve been more willing to give it the benefit of the doubt regarding the uncomfortably right-wing message.

            In terms of not judging the game before release, I will most likely buy and play the heck out of this game either way, in honesty. Like I say in the last paragraph, they might change it and put in something smart and subversive. I’d love that! I’m just upset that this is what they decided to show at Rezzed and wanted to react to that as directly as possible, because it definitely altered my perception of both the developers and the game itself.

  4. Xakkun says:

    Did no one else realize that the girl you “rape” in the tutorial level was the prostitute you take home and care for in the first game? It’s a comment on how movie makers will twist the facts to fit whatever will sell; within the game’s universe, the first game’s events were reality.

    Am I also the only one who realized that this is a stark contrast to the brutal beating and murder of a guy who was drugged and clearly showed regret for whatever wrongdoings he’d done. Much bloodier and violent than anything that was shown in HM1, and yet all anyone has spoken out against as far as “inappropriate content” is the implied rape of a character in a movie whose actors are characters in a video game.

  5. Joe Webb (@joewebbuk) says:

    Bioshock never made people all-out reject every subsequent game with linear go-here kill-this missions. Commentary might make something seem more arty but I don’t think it ever really challenges the fact that killing people is part of what makes the game.

    I’m not 100% sure whether I think this particular thing in HM2 should’ve been “out of bounds” but Rezzed seems like the wrong time and place for it by a long shot. Given what’s going on in games in general at the moment, this will just be read as a historically-specifical backlash text for years to come.

  6. […] making a film) which was not really appropriate on a show floor with children present. Indeed, as Martin over at Oh No! Videogames! has pointed out, one can’t help but question whether the developers may have deliberately included the scene […]

  7. Locust says:

    Have you seen this video? It’s on the controversy and I think it makes a compelling argument: it’s not just using rape because “it’s shocking”, it’s using it to draw a parallel between itself as a sequel (fans who missed the point of the first one want it BIGGER and BETTER and GORIER) and exploitation films that thrive off of making a buck from depicting misogyny, rape, and other wretched things simply for people to enjoy watching simulations of for no other reason than morbid curiosity or sick enjoyment.

    • Joe Webb (@joewebbuk) says:

      I think Martin has already addressed this whole line of argument in his response to “00000000000000” but the bottom line is a difference between the author’s intended meaning and how some (if not most) of the audience will take it. It’s a bit ideologically dodgy to sell a media product designed as a critique of media’s use of shocking imagery while still capitalizing on it in the same way. The bottom line is that this line of argument will only be valid when women start making their own games depicting male on female violence. Until then, the perceived double standard is entirely valid because the majority of men have been on the receiving end of male on male violence at some point in their lives but have not been female victims (or potential victims) of rape.

    • Martin says:

      That video makes use of a bunch of classic dishonest debate tactics which I see over and over in relation to issues like this:
      1. I’m not opposed to any depiction of rape or violence in media, I’m opposed to exploitative ones which rely on the ‘cheap thrill’ of shock rather than actually tackling the subject.
      2. I am opposed to excessive violence in video games on the whole, although again, some games tackle the subject of violence more maturely than others. As I say in the article, I originally read Hotline Miami as an example of a mature treatment of excessive violence, but this sequence has caused me to question that.
      3. The use of words like ‘demanding’ or ‘entitled’ w/r/t abuse survivors asking someone not to make money off something which is not only harmful to them personally but to society’s view of them as people is pretty gently caressing gross, and they have every right to ask that he not do it.

      I love transgressive art and media which pushes boundaries, but here it seems like the point he’s making is ‘sequels are always bloodier and more violent and gross,’ and he’s doing it by making a sequel that is more bloody and violent and gross. It’s not smart or layered and it’s not really saying anything; you can’t parody something if you literally are that thing.

  8. brat-sampson says:

    Am reminded a lot of the movie Man Bites Dog. It’s a great film and for the most part plays through the darkly humorous construct of a documentary about a serial killer. They talk with him and follow him as he disposes of bodies, kills others and discusses his familial relations in an amusing way.

    Then there’s a rape scene.

    It’s brutal, they’re all drunk and it shocks the viewer totally out of their comfort zone, and not only that, it makes them question what the gently caress such a zone was ever doing in their head in the first p[lace. From then the film retains its previous pace, but the feeling of the watcher is forever altered.

    Whether putting this ‘twist’ into the tutorial is a good move or not I’ve no idea, but either way it may at least make for a more conscientious play through..

  9. Shirley says:

    Thank you. That’s all really, I just want you to know that I really appreciate your considered argument, and your thoughtfulness. Thank you.

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