Why are we having this conversation? - The Hotline Miami Soundtrack - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #174

Regular readers of this blog will know I have an occasional affinity for videogames, and regular readers of my twitter (you poor saps) will have noticed I have a specific affinity for top-down neon murder activity playset Hotline Miami. Those familiar with Hotline Miami will know that the music is a huge part of the game, and as music in videogames is an undervalued resource it seems important to discuss one of the few times they have got it right. In Hotline Miami the music is foregrounded and is a crucial component in the game feel, so this will be a discussion of Hotline Miami as well, because the music doesn’t exist in a vacuum within the game.

In Hotline Miami you are a nameless, faceless psychopath known only as Jacket who receives ambiguous calls on his answering machine before driving his DeLorean to a building, which seems to exist in the psychedelic void of eighties Miami; after donning a ghoulish animal mask he systematically makes his way through the building with the aim of reducing the population of the structure to zero, utilising all the weapons at his disposal. The action is viewed from above, your targets patrol the hallways armed with weapons, from baseball bats to military rifles, and their exploded skulls and spilled entrails are gorily depicted in the knowingly low-fi graphics. ‘Jacket’ uses speed and merciless violence to achieve his goals, as his opponents are as deadly to him as he is to them. The wash of flawlessly implemented game mechanics, incredible speed and the haze of up-tempo synth and flashing neon lights combines in a whirlwind of synaesthesia which can’t mask the sense of unease that builds throughout the game; partly through the distance the synaesthesia and the top-down camera provides on what are possibly the most violent scenes ever depicted in a videogame. The music is appropriately equipped with dips and troughs as well as euphoric highs, which punctuate the gameplay, dropping to a low-tempo and basic beat as ‘Jacket’ takes stock of the ocean of butchered corpses and sea of gore around him; or prepares at the door of a room to savage another half-dozen unsuspecting and heavily armed enemies.

A representative slice of the frenetic gory combat.
There is a little-used sister word to ‘psychedelic’, psychotomimetic, and I doubt a better use for it could be found. Drugs described as psychotomimetic ascribe properties of psychosis to their users, instead of altering consciousness and heightening sensory perception in the overwhelmingly positive way usually seen in ‘psychedelic’ drugs. As Jacket’s world spirals away from sanity, the few snatches of suspicious normality begin to implode, he sees horrific visions of mutilated corpses outside of his ‘missions’, and the outside world becomes increasingly unpopulated and hostile. The lilting ‘off’ music continues to blare, and the violence seems to increase in scale and brutality as Jacket’s story comes to an end as abrupt and senseless as his existence. But Istill return to Hotline Miami again and again, for the combination of music, mechanics and mirage; and the truly dehumanising synaesthesia as the three collide at incredible speed. The tracks all play like echoes of eighties synth hits. Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Two Tribes particularly) and many others will ghost across your imagination, but it doesn’t change the fundamental wrongness in the feel of these tracks, the audio equivalent of the cracked visual aesthetic the game deploys.

Knock knock... the reality-cracking non-combat sections of the game.
Hotline Miami is a spectacular independent game, and features one of the best soundtracks to a videogame I remember. What’s most important about it is not that these tracks are ‘good’ outside of the game, but that as they play outside of the context of the game they evoke memories of those images. The songs are varied, they serve different purposes in the game, be they celebratory or announcing failure, but they are miraculously unified, even more surprising because the artists involved are diverse. Without the game the songs lack purpose, and without the music, the video game would lose much of its overwhelming force. I advise you to check it out, it was amazingly cheap as part of the Humble Bundle 8 and you get a bunch of other critically acclaimed video games too (Little Inferno, the proper Dear Esther, Proteus and the sublime Thomas Was Alone). The soundtrack is streaming on Soundcloud and available from the individual artists. It’s so rare a videogame knows what to do with music without being overzealous, like Rez, or just ignoring it. Too often B-grade Hollywood orchestral warbles accompany the triple-A releases, celebrate a videogame utilising the power of music, and the power of games as a visionary new storytelling medium.

Left on your answerphone by Steven.

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