Hotline Miami (2012) is an utterly violent game enamored with the question of agency as well as gaming’s long-standing depictions of different kinds of aggression, and it has one of the most powerful soundtracks in the medium’s recent history. Not only did it aid spawning the now common inclusion of synthwave and retro-EDM tracks in indie productions, it also achieved a rare integration of music and play mostly reserved to ‘music games’. It did so mainly by means of rhythmical collage: your eyes dart, your hands move, establishing patterns in time, marking their passing with a punch, the firing of a gun, the crash of broken crystals and busted doors. Inspired by the movie Drive, it thrived in the retro with all its implications of nostalgic bad dreams, bringing in a diversity of artists with backgrounds in experimental music, EDM, synthwave, and videogame music, pushing the aesthetic to its limits.
The soundtrack begins with a sleight of hand: Sun Araw’s “Horse Steppin” drags like a tape lost in delay, an unintelligible groan strewn along a slow, slow rhythm. It is like falling into a sun-drenched abyss, a car spiraling out of control in the midst of a warm and quiet day. Everything moves at the pace of a desert dune, accumulating millennia of noise and sand that ultimately fade away into the distant light of a setting sun. Suddenly, at its end, comes the terrible neck-snapping movement of the crash in the form of M|O|O|N’s “Hydrogen”, hard techno drilling speed back into the surface of the hazy daydream, sweeping its uncertainty away with a beat that aims directly at the throat and doesn’t let go. The soundtrack dives straight towards the bottom, allowing no transition to ease us into a new flow, a mercilessness that permeates the whole album as the player commits ever-increasing acts of cruelty. The game’s controls, immediate and simple, replace mental comfort with a physical one, letting the player instinctually drive their avatar in compass to the contrasting rhythms of anguished thoughts, accelerated heartbeats, and a body relaxed.
This is the key to Hotline Miami, both in terms of gameplay and sound – riddled with rhythmic anxiety, this bodily electricity’s only outlet is a perfectly unhinged synthesis of dance and violence. The throwback 80’s aesthetic and the neon colors that seep from every frame of the player’s damaged perspective anchor its intensity not to the usual romantic fierceness of the red and the black, but to the more heterogeneous subtlety of a neon-pink sadism whose symbolism comes to be performed in the humid mass of the dancefloor instead of being confined behind closed doors. Just like the commonplace comparison of martial arts and dance or the concept of John Woo’s bullet ballet movies, each movement in the game is a corresponding aesthetic step in a future act of violence, and getting your character killed is not an interruption of the flow but one more beat within a steady, repetitive rhythm.
Mario composer Koji Kondo’s idea of videogame music meant integrating the pace of play with that of sound, leading to a full hand-eye-ear synchronization. While ‘immersion’ depends on a rationalized suspension of rationality itself, Kondo’s idea functions on a much more intuitive level, appealing to the bodily illusion of an experience of totality. Hotline Miami’s perfectly synchronized, passionate fascination with violence finds its roots, however, not in any Kondo game but in another production that equated the beat of a bat with the beat of a drum: Streets of Rage (1990). Yuzo Koshiro, the composer at the helm of the series, was among the first to purposefully introduce electronic dance music to videogames, making the exciting punch of house and techno into the driving force behind the colorful depiction of hand-to-hand gang warfare. “Go Straight”, commands the very first track of the second game, and once you get into the groove of its movements there’s no way to do differently.
Independently of its now meme-fied advice and its grim implications, Streets of Rage is uninterested in self-reflection, and its soundtrack never really gets disturbingly fixated upon the abyss like Hotline Miami does. A punch is a beat in Koshiro’s unified OST, but in the diverse sound-world of tracks by synthwave masters such as Perturbator along with weird experimental slowdowns by Sun Araw and the harsh relentlessness of EDM by the likes of M|O|O|N, a punch is more than just a beat. It is also a contradictory exercise in detachment and pleasure, like the trance that long dances produce in the mind, the repetition of a beat a tool of meditation, a bodily-produced groundlessness born from sweat and rapid flows of blood. Breaks in the beat are not a rest, but a transformation of the meditation into noise, like Coconuts’ sole track, “Silver Lights”, a psychedelic, grinding version of the lighter hiss in the Sun Araw tracks. Pieces like this make severe cracks in the sheer enjoyment of the violence, a clashing rhythm that provokes uncertainty, a pulse of disgust. As a soundtrack, Hotline Miami is essentially hostile to listeners, catchy and powerful but also noisy and muddied, the illusive totality it creates with the game a machine of alluring alienation, if only because abjection spills from the pleasurable crunch of bones.
Hotline Miami 2 (2015) is even longer, and even more varied than the first. Its tone is much more subdued – the EDM becomes part of a wider soundscape of ‘fire and powder’, less about the rhythms dictated by the punch and the rattle of machine guns and more about the breakdown in the aftermath, an agony underlined now by the withdrawal of pleasure, now by the withdrawal of disgust. With tracks like Magna’s “Divide” and Carpenter Brut’s “Le Perv”, among others, there’s still a sense of the first game’s elation with violent kinetics, with the energy that fires off muscle memory and with it a sweet, sweet comfort. And yet, the second game presents the player with bigger levels, more elaborate designs, more complex enemies that together constitute a uniquely baroque hell that denies that high of the first’s more classical layouts; the addictive quality of its predecessor’s violence gives way here to a more radical estrangement, like doing something that was once pleasurable out of routine, hollowed out from its original meaningfulness. In a way, it’s even more self-conscious than the first, and the soundtrack forever postpones the electric shocks of Hotline Miami’s contrasts and immediacy, making its rhythms congeal instead of clash, an overarching weariness that even at the soundtrack’s most explosive makes it slow.
The violence of HM’s music is staged primarily on two sides: the rhythmical aspects of performing imaginary acts of aggression, and its bodily implications, the heart-pumping patterns of adrenaline that result in a forceful mixture of pleasure and disgust. Furthermore, it’s drenched in an aesthetic that eludes the commonplace associations of violence with anger or pure instinct; just like we get to know the dancefloor and the movements of the people around us through the repetition (and minor variation) of beats, we get to know the levels of the game and the movements of its characters through the repetitive, rhythmical motions of fist and gunfights. The very structures of music and violence are equated in a way that Yuzo Koshiro first hinted at in Streets of Rage all the way back in 1990, but was perhaps best realized two decades later in a game best represented by a question posed in one of its most hallucinatory scenes: “do you like hurting other people?” This nihilism is usually framed under the spell of despair, but here under the shimmering neon-pink lighting and the desire-laden pulses of dance it is bound to the erotic, making the question itself a sadistic one that throws players straight into a hot, rave-like abyss. (David Murrieta Flores)