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.