In this three part series, I discuss the not-so-obvious merits of games with anticlimactic endings. Yesterday, I reflected on Firewatch and how it’s deliberately unsatisfying conclusion was used to reflect the emotions of its central characters. Today, we delve into the frustratingly bland ending of one of my favourite games, Hotline Miami.

The cult favourite’s unsatisfying conclusion was also intentional, but differing from Firewatch’s, it’s used to question the player’s motives for playing — and relishing — the brutally violent game in the first place.

Jacket receives strange phone calls disguised as instructions for him to go to a location and kill everybody there. The force behind the phone calls — and Jacket’s willingness to obey them — remains intangible. After his girlfriend is murdered, and an attempt is made on Jacket’s life, he tracks down who he believes is responsible for the calls and kills them. Jacket has dealt his revenge, and lights up a cigarette. He doesn’t care to ask any more questions. But the player does.

Unexpectedly, we continue as Biker, another operative who is more interested in answers than vigilante justice. At the end of Biker’s crusade, we find two familiar faces who are orchestrating the mayhem — a couple of grimy janitors. They’re stand-ins for the game’s developers. In a paper-thin fourth wall demolishment, they interrogate the player directly, condescendingly mocking us for willingly participating in the game’s ultra-violence without knowing why. Turns out they just made the calls for kicks. There is no reason. But didn’t you have fun doing it?

Hotline’s ending seems to suggest that narrative and story are irrelevant when compared to the meat of the gameplay. The thrill of the game’s bloodthirsty combat and addictive death/restart loop are far more engaging than any narrative that could be attached to it. But if that’s the case, why do we care that the ending is so lacklustre? Well, maybe not everyone does, and the game acknowledges that in an interesting way.

Jacket and Biker represent two different types of players. Biker represents those for whom gameplay and senseless violence isn’t enough. They need context and reason for their actions. They want to know that there will be some payoff for overcoming a game’s obstacles, something that makes it all worthwhile. Biker asks questions, investigates, and calls bullshit on the insipid answers he receives. Jacket, on the other hand, represents those that don’t give a fuck about context or story. He’s a silent participant in the chaos, and he doesn’t question why. The orders are waiting for him on his answering machine and he blindly follows them, for no other reasons than that they’ve been given, and he wants to. Jacket, like the players he represents, doesn’t need a reason to crack skulls open. He just needs a crowbar.

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This ending is likely the first players will get, but it isn’t the only one. While the second ending may seem equally mundane on the surface, it makes a deeper commentary on the nature of video game violence and the players role in it.

The “true” ending can be found by collecting all the letters found in each level. The letters form a password, allowing access to a computer which reveals the janitor’s intentions to eradicate the Russian mafia from the USA. A generic motive introduced in the final moments of the game, the revelation is even more banal and exasperating than there not being a reason at all. But a line from one of the janitors reveals an interesting philosophy about player agency: “All you gotta do to get people to do what you want them to is make them think there’ll be consequences if they don’t.”

Hotline’s unconventional meta-ending critiques video game violence and the motivations of the player perpetrating it. Does a completely arbitrary reason for violence make it more easily justifiable? Is the violence more gratuitous because there is no reason? It’s a smart commentary on how the player can be compelled to commit violence in a game with or without the flimsiest of narrative conceits.

We’re so used to being given the right reason to do bad things in games. Joel from The Last of Us is a shining example. As well a being brutally violent, he emotionally manipulates Ellie with his dishonesty. But it’s totally fine because everything he does is to protect her, so he’s still The Good Guy. We aren’t afforded excuses in Hotline, and it makes the player feel manipulated and a little dirty. But because of the way its ending probes notions of player agency, Hotline made me question whether a motive matters at all.

We don’t need a reason to commit violence in games, all we need is to be presented with the opportunity. Maybe, like the game suggests, we do just like hurting other people.

Join us tomorrow for the final discussion of anticlimactic endings, where I’ll be analysing the silent exposition found in the bleak ending of Limbo.

About The Author

As an Australian, Simon enjoys paying slightly more for games, and occasionally isn't allowed to have the really naughty ones. When he isn't writing about video games, he studies journalism so he can actually one day be good at it. He also experienced an existential crisis after writing in the third person.

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