clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ten Years Later, ‘Hotline Miami’ Remains a Queasy, Ultraviolent Classic

Dennaton’s classic shooter defined a generation of irreverent indie games while propelling publisher Devolver Digital to industry stardom

Devolver Digital/Ringer illustration

“Do you like hurting other people?” This is the provocative question posed to the player of Hotline Miami by, of all people, a dude wearing a chicken mask in the middle of a dream. Moments later, the player seemingly offers an answer by bludgeoning an unsuspecting goon into pixelated oblivion with a baseball bat before unleashing a spray of bullets through another cartoon foe’s body.

In the ultraviolent top-down shooter, which came out on PC a decade ago this month and helped propel publisher Devolver Digital to industry stardom, this question is directed toward two people: the protagonist (who has made a habit of homicide) and the player (who one would hope has not). Part of what makes Hotline Miami great is the way it revels in the queasy space between the feelings of the protagonist and that of the player—indeed, the way it mixes them up. The game is carnal in its virtual bloodlust, numerically and visually rewarding a varied approach to the act of killing in the form of points as pulsating club music soundtracks the wanton destruction. The more damage you do, the more points you earn, and the more the screen fills up with spurts of blood whose bright red hue evokes the schlockiest of ’70s slasher flicks. It feels so good—until, of course, it doesn’t. One of the game’s very best tricks is the silence it leaves at the end of a level. When the last enemy is dispatched, you must walk past the veritable mortuary that you’ve just created, lamenting not necessarily the loss of virtual life, but the quiet emptiness of the virtual space.

This cocktail of metafictional thrills, arcade violence, and arthouse visuals led Hotline Miami to become a gigantic indie success (to date, the game and its 2015 sequel have sold more than 5 million copies across several platforms), and judging by the slew of reviews it received at the time of its release, one of the most warmly regarded. “It’s pure, unadulterated nihilism with a candy-coated shell,” wrote Alex Navarro at Giant Bomb. “Hotline Miami is an immaculate super-violent top-down action game,” said Tom Bramwell of Eurogamer. In 2012, the game arrived as the blood-splattered yin to Journey’s meditative yang; if it didn’t stretch the boundaries of video gaming like Jenova Chen’s outward-looking, nonviolent classic, then it reflected the medium’s impulsive id back at itself (which would become a major theme of Devolver’s output). Hotline Miami shares just as strong a kinship with two big-budget shooters released in 2012, Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 3, games that explored similar ideas of player agency (or the lack thereof) in relation to on-screen violence. Ten years ago, then, the question “Do you like hurting other people?” was on the tip of many game maker’s tongues.

Video game critic Cameron Kunzelman remembers the early 2010s as a reflective period. By the time he was blogging at This Cage Is Worms as part of a new wave of critical intelligentsia, blockbuster games had found their formal footing. The third- or first-person shooter (taking place either in vast open-world environments or a linear set of levels) had become hegemonic in its popularity, and so too, Kunzelman asserts, had video games in wider pop culture. While titles such as Dear Esther mechanically deconstructed the medium many thought of as violent (spearheading a new genre called the walking simulator, by virtue of its focus on traversal rather than shooting), others like Hotline Miami sought to ask questions through story. “Once a media form hits a certain level of comfort, of genre standard, it becomes meta-reflexive,” Kunzelman says over Google Meet. “If you can’t go outward anymore, you have to consume inward.”

Chris Plante, the cofounder of video game and pop culture site Polygon, recalls the era in broadly similar terms. He cites a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that granted video games First Amendment protections like other forms of art and culture (indeed, CNN covered the news with the headline, “Supreme Court sees video games as art”). “I think people felt an opportunity to both depict and talk about violence in video games,” he says over Google Meet.

In the ruling’s wake, a spate of divisive works appeared, none more polarizing than the military shooter Spec Ops: The Line, a game Plante remains firmly critical of: “I have no stomach for violent critique where the game makes you use white phosphorus on women and children and then tell you how bad you are.” By contrast, he enjoyed the sense of guilt Hotline Miami inspired. “It has more to say about our fascination with violence in games than the lion’s share of its competition,” Plante wrote in a glowing review of the game. “That the killing is fun made me feel all the worse.”

Now he emphasizes the punkish, independent origins of the pulpy shooter. “Before, it was left up to a game like Manhunt from Rockstar to push this boundary,” he says. One could also include the likes of Ken Levine, designer of the philosophical first-person shooter BioShock, and Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind Metal Gear Solid, in the pantheon of game makers with genuine claims to be thought of as provocateurs (the bar for which, in mainstream video games at least, is remarkably low). However, unlike Levine and Kojima, the two developers of Hotline Miami didn’t cut their teeth in the industry’s booming 1990s, and they didn’t have the backing of multimillion-dollar companies. Rather, Hotline Miami’s makers were relative outsiders tucked away in the city of Gothenburg, on Sweden’s southwest coast.

In the mid-aughts, Jonatan Soderstrom and Dennis Wedin, Hotline Miami’s creators, were early 20-somethings with a taste for the underground. Soderstrom lived at home with his parents and twin brother, while Wedin had recently moved from the small town of Vastervik to Sweden’s second-largest city. Each of them played in bands at a time when the country’s hardcore and indie music was a global force, thanks to the likes of Refused and the Hives. Wedin highlights the straight-edge component of this cultural milieu, where political activism and veganism collided with noisy rock music. Soderstrom, the quieter, more deadpan of the pair, reflects on the era in more personal terms: “I was hanging out with friends, drinking a lot of beer, trying my hardest not to work that much,” he recalls over a video call alongside Wedin.

In 2004, Soderstrom, an avid drawer as well as musician, downloaded a copy of GameMaker. By virtue of its visual drag-and-drop interface, GameMaker, first released in 1999, was part of a new generation of software that enabled novices without programming skills to make games. For Soderstrom, who figured it would be “too hard to learn how to program,” this was the perfect tool. He quickly became proficient, moving beyond its visual interface to learn programming, immersing himself in forums such as The Independent Gaming Source and reaching out to sites promoting the nascent indie scene. He received feedback: “‘Oh, this is not good enough. If you do this and that, maybe I can post about your games, too,’” he says. This pushed Soderstrom to become “more ambitious.” So did seeing what peers like Derek Yu, maker of the hit 2008 roguelike platformer Spelunky, were working on.

Jan Willem Nijman, another peer who eventually became good friends with Soderstrom (and went on to release his own string of indie hits, including Luftrausers, Minit, and Disc Room), remembers when the budding developer joined the same forum he was posting on. “We were all just teenagers making games with GameMaker,” Nijman says over Google Meet. “But his games were immediately really good. It felt kind of unfair. Everything he made was exciting and interesting, and coming from such a unique creative angle. In hindsight, I think his secret is that he has a really good media diet. He just likes to read and watch the weirdest stuff.”

This was no easy task growing up in Sweden during the 1990s, particularly when it came to violent movies, a big reference point for both Soderstrom and Wedin. This was the forbidden fruit of the pair’s youth. The country’s censorship policy was such that violent movies were watchable only in an essentially butchered (no pun intended) form. “I remember watching Evil Dead 2 and it made no sense because of the cuts,” Wedin says. “Of course, [the policy] had the opposite effect that was intended. People not wanting us to watch these movies made us want to watch them even more.” Wedin had older friends with brothers who were able to get hold of uncut versions of movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He says his father even joked about a friend holding possession of “real movies”—snuff films, in other words. For Wedin, this wasn’t scary or off-putting. Far from it, he says: “It made them even more magical and mysterious.”

Soderstrom mentions gory, subversive films such as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome as big influences. You can see the DNA of these kinds of movies pulsing through both Hotline Miami and the vast body of titles he created before it, uploaded onto the internet for anyone to play as part of the flourishing “freeware” scene. Bruising, crunchy, and often beautifully abstract, games such as Protoganda: Strings, Mondo Agency, and Mondo Medicals catapulted Soderstrom to indie fame, paving the way for his Nuovo Award win at the 2010 Indie Games Festival. Boing Boing described puzzle game Tuning as perfectly encapsulating the rising star’s style: “At its core, it’s a game about little more than rolling a ball from point A to point B, but embellished by a series of steadily more perception-fucking filters that truly test your brain’s ability to process inputs.” In his awards “speech,” Soderstrom said nothing at all, standing on stage in silence for a few seconds before taking a drawn-out sip of water—a game maker who preferred to let his work do the talking.

What the freeware scene gave Soderstrom was an audience receptive to his confrontational work. “It was a lot of fun to make games that sort of provoked people a little bit,” he says. There was also a loose idea of economic solidarity underpinning his output. “I didn’t have a lot of money at the time,” Soderstrom continues. “[I liked the idea of] games as entertainment for people who didn’t have a lot of money … something they could enjoy for free.” Indeed, Nijman recalls Soderstrom being quite open about his precarious financial situation. “I remember he was always like, ‘I can’t pay rent, it’s really hard,’ but he was still always making games.”

Dennaton Games cofounders Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin
Dennaton Games

Hotline Miami has, of course, earned millions of dollars, its profit margins maximized by the fact that Soderstrom and Wedin developed the game in only a year. The pair, whose studio, Dennaton, is a portmanteau of their first names, had already struck up a working relationship on an interactive music video for Wedin’s band, Fucking Werewolf Asso, essentially a three-minute megamix of classic video game moments (there’s first-person action reminiscent of Doom and 2-D platformer-shooting that evokes Contra). Looking for another project to collaborate on, the pair trawled Soderstrom’s extensive archive of unfinished titles when they came across a top-down shooter called Super Carnage. Footage of the precursor is noticeably slower than Hotline Miami and lacks its unmistakable vaporwave style, but the same wonderful sense of legibility is already in effect. It’s nearly impossible not to innately grasp what is going on. You are a man with a weapon in a building filled with other weapon-toting men (and snarling dogs). The premise couldn’t be simpler: kill or be killed.

Andrew Parsons, head of production at Devolver, Hotline Miami’s publisher, emphasizes the clarity of its rat-a-tat gameplay in relation to its surreal, unreliably narrated narrative. “The mechanical component is about as far from ambiguous as you can get,” he says over Microsoft Teams. “It’s got a wonderful way of binding together two quite disparate things: an interesting, subtextual approach to narrative, and then this immediate, punch your face off, extremely accessible, extremely violent gameplay.”

If the game’s secret sauce is partly this meeting of legibility and ambiguity—shotgun blasts combined with Lynchian strangeness—then publisher Devolver Digital (which Parsons joined a year after Hotline Miami’s release) deserves credit for facilitating such a potent mix. It wasn’t Wedin’s or Soderstrom’s intention to include a story line or cutscenes in what they still conceived of as an arcade game. Instead, the duo began to incorporate such elements after Devolver asked if they wanted to “flesh the game out” and “make it more story-driven.”

“I remember when we decided that you were supposed to walk the whole way back to the car,” Wedin says. “The music is cut, the combos are over, the points on the screen aren’t there anymore. It’s just you and the bodies. That’s when it really clicked for us—the whole meta thing. … From that point on, I think it was very clear to us what kind of game we wanted to make.”

For Soderstrom, the game’s latent critique of violence alongside its celebration of such base pleasures reflected his own conflicted views of interactive on-screen violence. In questioning it as a viable form of entertainment, Soderstrom also sought to preemptively absolve his own conscience should the very worst kind of event occur—in a sense, distancing himself from his art. “We both wanted to make a really violent game because we enjoy violent movies,” he says. “But we started thinking what the possible consequences could be, even Columbine and Doom having some kind of weird relation. I didn’t want that on my conscience, to hear that something bad has happened, and it might be related to my game.”

Still, one of Hotline’s great strengths is how playful, even prankish it is with such ideas compared to otherwise po-faced titles. Kunzelman puts it like this: “A game like Spec Ops: The Line says, ‘What if you looked the violence you do in shooter games in the face, and you discovered absolute and utter solemnity?’ Hotline Miami says, ‘Well, what if that was a bunch of horseshit? What if trying to think very seriously and solemnly about this mechanism you’re forced to engage with … in and of itself is a little bit silly?’ Then, weirdly enough, I think it pushes all the way through that to be, like, ‘Well, you’re still doing it. If this was a joke to begin with, we’re still here as part of this exploitation piece. We all know what we’re in it for.’”

In what’s likely a reflection of a wider taste for degeneracy, Hotline Miami was an immediate smash hit when it launched on October 23, 2012. Unlike decorous indies of the era such as Braid, it was the kind of game you raved about at a dive bar, not discussed at a dinner party. Nigel Lowrie, cofounder of Devolver Digital, vividly remembers launch night. He was sitting in a dark apartment in Austin, Texas, his laptop on the coffee table in his living room, as he hopped between calls with Soderstrom and Wedin and Steam, the digital store where the game was released. “I was just ripping cigarettes with nerves,” Lowrie recalls over Teams. “Then I’m watching it on Steam, which gives you semi-real-time data on downloads, and we’re talking thousands of people. I’m starting to read reviews and comments on the Steam forums and people are blown away. This is connecting with people. People care.”

Dave Crooks, the lead designer of critically acclaimed 2016 bullet hell dungeon crawler Enter the Gungeon, remembers devouring the game in one sitting. “The thing that comes to mind when I think about playing it is just how fucking stylish it was,” he says over a video call. “There were a few games made by very small indie teams that had gotten popular. Those were all good, but Hotline Miami was singular in that it was more strongly arcade, extremely violent, and just dripping with a sense of style that wasn’t really aping anything else.”

The story of Hotline Miami’s success is inextricable from that of its publisher, Devolver. On June 25, 2009, Devolver stealth-announced its formation in a press release for Serious Sam: The First Encounter HD, a high-definition remake of the 2001 wave-based shooter. In the three years before the release of Hotline Miami, Devolver published a further two Serious Sam HD remakes as well as a series of indie-developed spinoff games collectively titled The Serious Sam Indie Series. One of these was made by Vlambeer, a two-person game studio cofounded by Soderstrom’s aforementioned friend, Jan Willem Nijman. Alongside codeveloper Rami Ismail, Nijman pitched Devolver a turn-based RPG take on the over-the-top Serious Sam shooter series in a bid to “test” the company’s resolve for weirdness and its commitment to the idea of creative freedom. Devolver went for it.

Newly plugged in with Devolver, whose cofounders were scattered remotely across Austin and London, Nijman, who had been given an early version of Hotline Miami, sent the game to Lowrie without either Soderstrom’s or Wedin’s knowledge. Now Nijman mostly considers the move as “rude … a funny example of being a young kid.” He stresses the fact that he was still very much in the forum “bubble,” one that was practically opaque to outsiders but was very open and supportive on the inside. What Lowrie played was far from the finished article, lacking a lot of art, main characters, and enemies, but the core “gameplay loop was there,” he says. “It was really cool.”

Hotline Miami represented, if not a step up for the publisher (Serious Sam was already an established PC series at this time), then a step sideways. Certainly, it was a gamble: Lowrie describes the game as an “inflection point” for an organization still finding its feet. “We did not as a company have a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot to even pay ourselves for the most part,” he says. “But as modest as it may have been, we still invested in production and marketing. We did have costs.”

Launch night aside, Lowrie’s abiding memory of the time is being invited to IGN’s game of the year showcase at the outlet’s San Francisco studio. Having set up a stand for the cameras, Lowrie looked around at the competition, only to see Mass Effect 3 and Halo 4. “It was fucking mind-blowing,” he says. “That validated everything that maybe we thought was possible. That two guys making a really interesting game in Sweden, with very little money from us and themselves, that wasn’t a sequel, are sitting there with these titans of the game industry.”

The rest is video game history. Devolver’s continued rise has been, at least from the outside, one of the smoothest in all of video games. During a decade in which blockbuster game publishers have tied themselves in knots attempting to keep pace with their competition, increasingly pivoting to live-service games, maintaining a slavish dedication to labor-intensive, hyper-realistic graphics, acquiring studios and dissolving them, and overseeing workplace cultures that incubated sexism and all manner of toxic practices, Devolver has maintained, if not an entirely wholesome reputation (copious amounts of alcohol were a staple of its early trade shows) then one of unerring respect. Of all things, it is notable for its essential competency, stepping with increasing confidence into the publishing void left by former giants like Midway and THQ, both of which went defunct in the early 2010s. What Hotline Miami and many of Devolver’s subsequent titles were able to do, says Parsons, was undercut the games produced by such companies, not only in terms of “value” but “design bravery.”

Devolver’s success has spurred many to ponder the commonalities among Devolver-published titles and try to pinpoint the publisher’s house style, should one exist. “The cliché is, ‘It’s X with more violence,’” Plante says. “The modern equivalent is Cult of the Lamb. It’s Animal Crossing but a cult, and you make people eat shit, but it’s cute.” However, as Plante makes clear, Devolver publishes much more than that. “They do take swings that are completely contradictory to their house style,” he continues. “They are not an A24-type of brand yet.” Indeed, Hotline Miami is nothing like the quiet, painterly platforming of Gris, or indeed the online-multiplayer slapstick fun of Fall Guys. The catalog encompasses city-builders, 2-D and 3-D shooters, platformers, medieval strategy games, and cyberpunk adventure titles. Not every game looks subversive, but there is almost always a wrinkle, a turn that undercuts its ostensible familiarity. Take the 2-D horror of Carrion, which has you playing not as a human outrunning a monster but as the flesh-eating monster itself.

When it comes to Devolver itself, Jay Armstrong, cofounder of Massive Monster, the studio behind Devolver’s latest hit, Cult of the Lamb, refers to the company as “punk rock but they have a lot of money. They’re like, ‘If you need more money, we’ll give it to you. … We’re edgy, but we don’t live on the edge.’” The characterization is perhaps best illustrated by the company’s infamous annual showcases, which are now more accurately described as big-budget, meta-reflexive comedy skits interspersed with trailers of upcoming games (rather than the dry presentations that Nintendo or Sony offers). Of course, their fans tune in for the actual game footage, but if the comments are anything to go by (“I swear Devolver can release a Blu ray box set of their conferences and I’d immediately buy it,” reads one), you get the impression they’re just as interested in Devolver’s perspective, its constant ribbing of the seemingly bone-headed corporate mainstream. The irony is that Devolver has essentially become the mainstream itself, at least for a certain strain of highly produced indie games. On November 4, 2021, the company went public on the London Stock Exchange with a valuation of $950 million. Sony and Chinese technology company NetEase were among its initial investors.

It’s difficult to make the case that Devolver being floated on the London Stock Exchange is a “punk” move, but where other publishers of a similar size are being gobbled up, their executives opting for lucrative payouts, the founders of Devolver appear to be more content going it alone. “We wanted to make sure that everyone that works here, from wherever they started with equity, could capitalize on that. … We wanted to begin expanding, maybe acquire some of the teams that we were wanting to work with,” Lowrie says, referring to the publisher’s purchase of Enter the Gungeon studio Dodge Roll and Reigns developer Nerial, among others. “We didn’t necessarily want to be acquired. We wanted to be able to maintain the control that we have.”

Arguably no company has played a larger role in commercializing indie games over the past decade than Devolver. According to Parsons, the current environment that Devolver helped shape is one in which “budgets are much bigger” and there is a much higher “perceived quality bar.” Parsons says he wants to “believe that if you’ve got a copy of GameMaker, and you’ve made hundreds of games, as Jonathan had before making Hotline Miami, that will give you the ability to make something that is good.” He also stresses there are now many game makers “vying for the same space.” In the highly competitive world of indie, a nebulous term that has been stretched to the breaking point in recent years, publishers such as Devolver (and its prestige-powerhouse counterpart Annapurna Interactive) have never been more important, be that for their increasingly deep pockets to fund production, their industry experience, their marketing chops, or simply their connections with platform holders.

There is something bittersweet about this new reality, which evokes the fate of New Hollywood in the 1970s and independent film in the 1990s. On the one hand, a professionalized sector filled with viable indie gaming careers is nothing to sniff at. On the other, as Plante says: “The dream is gone. It’s now harder than ever to be truly independent, to be entirely outside of the system. The means are still there to self-publish on Steam and, but it’s harder. If you want to self-publish through one of the consoles, good luck advocating for yourself when there are 50 other games being released every week. It does seem like the large indie publishers, I don’t think intentionally but inevitably, edged out those smaller solo creators.”

It can also be difficult to compete with the wealth of design expertise that a company such as Devolver now possesses. While each of the developers interviewed stressed the publisher’s “hands-off” approach to feedback and creative direction, there are mechanisms in place to remedy any creative issues that crop up during development. “Everyone at Devolver is very, very entrenched in games,” Crooks says. “They’re playing the games, and they care. And if they notice something that they feel is developing into a concern or a rough edge about how they think the game might be received, they’ll organize to get feedback. I’ve often been asked to give feedback on other Devolver projects, where I’ll play it and just write three pages of my thoughts, the things I’m concerned about, and the various things I like. … I know firsthand, it’s extremely easy to get tunnel vision when you’re making a game, and just having the opportunity to put eyeballs on something somebody said about your game might illuminate something.”

This brings us back to the narrative of Hotline Miami, an element requested by Devolver but ultimately told in a style entirely of Soderstrom and Wedin’s making. While the pair has made much of Drive’s and David Lynch’s influence on the game, it feels more in conversation with Cronenberg’s run of movies between 1977 and ’83, beginning with Rabid and ending with The Dead Zone. Across those six years, Cronenberg produced six movies, including Scanners and Videodrome. Not every detail was labored over in this rapid-fire handful of pictures; not every idea was unpacked to its fullest degree. Images and emotions simply hung in their atmospheres. This is reminiscent of Hotline Miami’s central question: “Do you like hurting other people?” The game offers no satisfying answer. It is an idea tossed anarchically into the game and left to fester in the player’s mind. As Kunzelman points out, there’s “a little bit of trickster in there.”

This is certainly part of Hotline Miami’s enduring appeal. So too is a story full of uncertainty, which extends most famously to the unspecified names of its main characters (fans have dubbed them Jacket and the Biker). This vagueness is of Hotline Miami’s smartest moves: It leaves enough space for players to create their own lore and meaning, thus ensuring that the game flourished and unfolded in their dreams and nightmares for days, months, and even years after they had finished playing it.

“I remember the Steam forums were really great when we released the game,” Wedin says toward the end of our call. “There were a couple of threads discussing the story and all these different ideas as to what it was about. It was great seeing what people came up with, stuff that we had never thought of. That’s when we decided to never tell our version of the story. It didn’t need a definitive one. It’s much more fun to have all these crazy ideas floating around.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.

Video Games

‘Zelda,’ Not ‘Mario,’ Is the Real Star of Nintendo

Sound Only

Reviewing ‘The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’

The Ringer-Verse

‘The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’ Instant Reactions

View all stories in Video Games