This is not going to be a piece advocating any sweeping conclusions. It’s more a vaguely coherent overview of my thoughts and feelings about an extremely upsetting and controversial topic and its portrayal in media. So, yeah, it’s not going to be laugh-out-loud either.

So, if you’ve heard the recent news about Hotline Miami 2 you know why this is a difficult piece to write. If not, I will give a brief summary. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number is the sequel to the acclaimed ultraviolent puzzle-fighter of 2012. Last year Cara Ellison wrote about a demo which featured a scene with implied sexual assault[1]. Recently, Hotline Miami 2 was refused classification in Australia because of this scene, essentially meaning it will not receive a physical release[2] (or, at least, it will be severely limited.) In response, the publisher and developers (Devolver Digital and Dennaton Games respectively) criticised the classification report and released a video of the scene in question.

To begin, and I’m sad that I have to say this, but rape is bad. As in, it’s one of the most evil, most depraved, most unforgivable things a human can do. It is a horrific inversion of an act of intimacy and pleasure into what is effectively torture. There is no way that rape could ever ever EVER be positive in any way whatsoever. And, quite frankly, fuck you if you think otherwise.

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However, the portrayal of rape in media is a different topic. Obviously, rape can be portrayed incredibly badly, see Rape as Backstory on TV Tropes for example. For such a serious topic, writers can be inordinately fond of attempting to give women (and men) a “dark and mysterious past” by saying they were raped and then doing nothing to describe the actual trauma or importance of such an event. This is an accusation made against the recent Tomb Raider reboot, for example. On the other hand the portrayal of rape is vital to some stories. Boys Don’t Cry, for example, would lose much of its power if the film shied away from showing the oppression and horrors that Brandon went through. Then again, in Boys Don’t Cry the sexual assault is presented exclusively negatively. What happens when the representation is more cryptic or opaque? There is a value judgement to be made on whether rape is appropriate in a story, but I do not believe it is always a simple judgement to make.

Let’s have a look at another example: I Spit on Your Grave. It’s an exploitation film. Among the most exploitationist of exploitation films. It’s about a woman who is gang-raped and takes graphic revenge on the rapists. Penises are hacked off. I’m not going to talk about if it’s a good movie or not (I have not seen it) but the question of whether it’s misogynist or not is interesting. Julie Bindel, who protested against the movie when it was released, later wrote an article saying she felt she had been wrong: it is exploitative, but it is feminist[3]. The audience’s sympathies are supposed to with the victim. As the tagline went, “no jury in America would ever convict her.” For an alternative view, the New York Times said:

“Defenders of the film have argued that it’s actually pro-woman, due to the fact that the female lead wins in the end, which is sort of like saying that cockfights are pro-rooster because there’s always one left standing.”[4]

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My point is that even the most graphic and exploitative pieces of media can (but not always) still produce serious debate among those who are opposed to the actions they depict. Stories can include rape for a constructive plot reason, to add value to the narrative. It is an upsetting topic, but I think discussing it, disputing where the lines are, is a healthy part of our collective discourse.

Let’s look at a video game example. Silent Hill 2 is one of my favourite video games, and I’m not alone in that opinion. However, the game’s antagonist, Pyramid Head, is shown apparently raping other monsters in a highly-debated cutscene. The monsters are coded as female, and appear to represent the protagonist James Sunderland’s repressed sexaulity. Pyramid Head also seems to be based on an aspect of the protagonist’s personality, though I should make it clear that James himself is never shown to sexually assault anyone. Nevertheless, later events in the game (I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers) reveal that James Sunderland is not a nice man. Indeed, Silent Hill arguably does not want us to empathise with him. Does this mean that the game is irredeemable? I argue no, because it is a serious attempt to explore the psyche of a disturbed man. I think the presentation of the monsters is intended to make the player uncomfortable, to make them question what is going on.

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Now, let’s look at what the classification report said about Hotline Miami 2. This is a long quote, but worth printing.

“In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasized by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.”[2]

You can see the scene on YouTube here. The description above is actually misleading in a couple of ways:

  1. The protagonist does not “burst into what appears to be a movie set”: the protagonist is an actor on a movie set. The description implies that character is an outside force attacking a studio, when in fact all involved are simulating violence.
  2. It does not look like the character is “thrusting.” This was pointed out in Devolver Digital’s response as well. [2]

I have a few thoughts about the scene myself. It looks like a reference to a particular level in Hotline Miami 1 where Jacket (the protagonist) finds a badly injured woman imprisoned within the building he is attacking. He picks her up and carries her to his car. She then lives with him and it is implied that, over time, they develop a relationship. It is a humanising element: Jacket rescues the woman, he does not rape her.

Why is this reference here? In an interview, one of the developers commented that:

“The idea for the opening Pig Butcher scene came from a friend who played the original Hotline Miami and saw it as a horror game. That isn’t really how we see it, but we thought it was pretty cool. We wanted to explore the idea that people can see the game different ways – what it’s all about.”

and

“Also, it’s a bit of commentary to some people saying the first game was just exploitation. Adding violence because it sells. That was upsetting because we worked really hard with the story even if it’s really vague and unclear. We focused a lot on that and how it should support the violence. It should be something supporting it – not just selling it.”

Incidentally, that’s what I thought the original Hotline Miami was: a horror game. Playing it made me feel physically sick. But I don’t say this to degrade the game. It’s about madness, ultraviolence, and our relationship with both as players. The story is dreamlike, contradictory, disturbing and gripping. In common with criticism of I Spit on Your Grave, I see it as violent, but not morally reprehensible, even though it contains morally reprehensible acts. Of course, I do not know exactly what the developers intended Hotline Miami to be, but that is my opinion.

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When I first heard that the Hotline Miami 2 demo contained a graphic rape scene I was shocked. If it treated sexual assault in the same lurid tones as the first game it could easily become tasteless. Or rather, unforgivably tasteless. My excitement for the sequel turned into anxiety that a talented game studio could produce a misogynistic and indefensible piece of work.

Seeing the scene in question on YouTube has turned that feeling more into a kind of cautious optimism. Let’s look at what happens, interspersed with my reactions as a viewer. The protagonist character bursts in, reminiscent of the original game. He violently kills the baddies. “As expected.” Then he hits the woman. “Wait, what?” Then he gets on top of her. The screen turns black, with the two people highlighted in red. “WHAT?” He takes down his trousers. “THIS IS NOT THE GAME I WANTED!”

I’m guessing that this reaction is what is intended. Highlighting the implied rape, leaving nothing else on screen, forces you to pay attention. It’s like the screen is replicating the shock in the minds of the viewer.

Then, “CUT!” It was all just a movie. The rape never happened. This is a portrayal of somebody’s interpretation of the original game. Perhaps it’s about that exploitation angle, showing what would happen if they truly wanted to merely shock us. Interestingly, the music cues at this point remain ambiguous, unnerving. I’m still shocked, but I want to know where the game is going with this.

Indeed, there are many directions the game could go. Will it criticise people who enjoyed the violence of the original game, or those who hated the violence? Is the actor a hero or a villain, or both? What about the woman, what are her thoughts on the in-game movie? The developers do say that there will be playable female characters in Hotline Miami 2. Is the sexual violence appropriate in the context of the whole game? Perhaps the game will critique its own portrayal of rape?

Or it could just be violent, stupid and sexist. I don’t know. I don’t have any firm conclusions to draw here. In the video there is an option to skip “scenes that allude to sexual violence.” This does suggest that Dennaton games is conscious of audience reactions, and care about how their game is viewed. This is encouraging, but it is important to note that the video mentions “scenes” plural. That implies that there is at least one other section with sexual violence. I suppose we’ll have to talk about that when we play the full release. I hope that Hotline Miami 2 will turn out to be a good game. I really hope they don’t screw up.

[1] Unfortunately the original link to Ellison’s piece just results in a 404.

[2] http://www.destructoid.com/hotline-miami-2-refused-classification-in-australia-286233.phtml

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jan/19/wrong-about-spit-on-your-grave

[4] http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/i_spit_on_your_grave/reviews/

  • It’s hard to take a screenshot that awards points for mass murder as anything but confronting people with the underbelly of our own mass insanity. What does it mean to claim to be a fan of this kind of game as a game, and not simply social commentary? Surely there are better things to while away your life doing than seriously playing this game? Whether intentional or not it’s probably subversive. I can see it changing peoples attitudes about violence in games after having played it on accident. But why celebrate it as anything other than that?

    Rape, murder, it’s like Apocalypse Now, once you are that far off into the landscape of human depravity morality ceases to be a word having any meaning. I think it’s interesting that as games have moved to more and more realistic depiction of murderous human conflicts the old mainstay of points has all but disappeared from the territory. We know it’s tasteless but WE do it anyway! That’s pretty much our culture in a nutshell. The new pope of late has been very on point. Say what you will that damn pope speaks with authority and we’d be far worse off without that office being put to sublime use.