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Gullfires Over Leningrad: Hotline Miami's Alternate History

"I was intrigued by the exchange in one of the opening scenes where the Warden says to Snake 'You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn't you?'  It turns out to be just a throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot."

--William Gibson, on his using John Carpenter's Escape from New York to help birth the entire cyberpunk genre in Neuromancer

Cold War Alternate Histories and Natural Worldbuilding in Media about Societies

One of Hotline Miami's more undervalued aspects is it's handling of its alternate history in which the Cold War heats up for some years before leaving an awkward, shaky bureaucracy in its wake.  From the many negative critiques of the story one might infer Hotline Miami features longwinded cutscenes full of unnatural dialogue drawing an awkward amount of analogies and giving an implausible amount of exposition, driving players just there for the gameplay up the wall.  This type of thing is very common in more popular Cold War inspired alternate histories such as Metal Gear Solid 4, which features an infamously skewed cutscene to gameplay ratio effectively shutting out players disinterested in the specifics of what's going on and why.  Alarmingly Hotline Miami 2 has an entire Act labeled Exposition, so momentarily the fear seems grounded.

However, the Fans' history as part of some hot Cold War is neither verbally given nor heavily hinted at in this act.  Conversations rarely exceed 7 terse and colloquial sentences.  It's clear the group is tight knit and capable of clearing out buildings, and they do own some kevlar vests and seemingly military grade equipment, but just as much they seem to be aimlessly improvising young adults making do with what they can get in a pseudo-gang with slight vigilante goals.  This blur of traits establishes them as distinct entities from the war and the player almost certainly envisions a past for them that doesn't include (or rule out) military experience.  It becomes clear that the "exposition" is neither verbal nor excessive, merely meaning that the player is introduced to the general personalities and behaviors of the characters the game will be about.

Something perhaps not highlighted by the Gibson quote above is both Escape from New York and Neuromancer's narrative technique of having the setting be glimpsed by individual people within it, leaving the audience to piece it together from a limited perspecitve.  Neuromancer is never even given a year to date it, and its narration is limited to the drug-addled thoughts of Case, a 20-something aimless criminal as he slowly breaks into things that are out of his depth, basically Biker to the letter.  Case also uses a bludgeoning weapon and is trying to get answers for who wants him dead.  Neuromancer also features as a leading character a violent former US Army Colonel with a history of being betrayed by his superiors in a war against Russia.  This Colonel is Case's main connection to a view of the world too broad and abstract for him to really comprehend (Biker: I have no interest in politics...).  The book ends with a final assault on the mansion of a wealthy world-weary European criminal resigned to death , who the main characters shoot through the head.  These may not be conscious homages, but what they are is natural ways to introduce very similar themes in similar 1980s-related settings about very similar types of people.  The idea that people are generally short sighted and lashing out against a miserable, tradition-obsessed elite is just general 1980's societal sentiments.

It's notable that Neuromancer has explicitly inspired several video games, namely the two System Shock games and, by extension, the Bioshock series.  All of these games take place in secluded societal bubbles used to express some kind of very explicit cultural commentary.  However, unlike other works referenced so far, this commentary is focussed entirely on pre-Cold War issues in all cases.  System Shock has some hints of megacorporations, but mostly it's about German scientists run amok on ships named after Nazi scientists, a post-World War II topic.  Bioshock rewinds the social commentary even further, bashing already-unpopular early 20th century political theorists and slavery as it was seen in the US south 150 years ago, issues that are relatively irrelevant to the modern day.  At best, these works are 1960's focussed commentaries on social integration in the US without any black people ever showing up.  In addition another popular alternate history franchise, Fallout, is entirely focussed on the 1950's.  

In stark contrast, Carpenter, Gibson, and Dennaton all set things much closer to the present and focus on sentiments actually seen in modern day people.  Urban decay and hatred for political angling that few people really understand are how modern issues actually present themselves, and generally video games outside the Hotline Miami series seem to have little concept of this.  The Hotline franchise seems genuinely concerned that we empathize with all the people in it on top of that, the music always striving to make the audience feel what the player character is feeling, even when that player character is a mass murderer.  Hard News reads like a disgruntled laid off worker relieved that his conspiracy theories about secret organizations controlling the media actually have some ground in fact.  It's also the premise of John Carpenter's They Live.

Another thing perhaps not expressed in the quote is Carpenter and Gibson's large interest in using urban decay in their settings.  Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (Chapter 13 Assault on the precinct in Hotline Miami 1) features subtle hints at the state society is in inside the movie, without characterizing itself as science fiction like his Escape movies (HM is similarly not characterized as sci fi).  Gangs are strange, diverse and ritualistic entities that are seemingly endless in number, and police stations are grossly understaffed and strained.  Precinct 13 has some Jacket's apartment-style story telling where the main character, Bishop, sees a dart board in the abandoned precinct surrounded by missed darts lodged in the walls around it.  He sighs, hinting at a past experience with some police stray bullets, but like a Hotline Miami game his apparent experience goes otherwise undetailed, and is merely another subtle way of establishing both Bishop's character and the setting.  The opening scene to AP13 is a context-less massacre of gangsters by police men.

Most works referenced this far, Hotline Miami included, feature short sighted protagonists with an incomplete picture of the world and a love of adrenaline highs reacting to globalization.  The scoreboards for both Hotline Miami games are the only time you actually get to see the full skyline of the city, the player finally being allowed to appreciate the world they're in as distinct from a small gelatinous void.  The Russians are seen by most player characters as bizzare usurpers with no individuality, and the Russo-American Coalition , though painted by some characters as evil and oppressive, is never actually characterized as discriminating against or oppressing anyone.  The series culminates in a failure to use the vast global power of nukes, instead using them to reset the setting to zero as seen in the apocalyptic ending to Escape from L.A.

The fact that societal connections are rarely ever actually drawn by Hotline Miami players and critics is alarming.  The tendency is to get swept up in the sensationalist topic of how much violence the games have in them, which is actually often a thinly veiled attempt to get the game censored to better fit and coddle the insullated notions of both video gamers and censors.  The notion that Tony just wants to bust heads and argues against rescue missions is essentially foreign to both gamers and censors, though it's an extremely simple and likely characterization of what a person with his tendecies would be like.  Many media heroes analogous to Tony, Batman's Batman and Dexter's Dexter for example, have elaborate moral codes that effectively negate the consequences of how they act, washes their hands of what they're doing and makes them more palatable to an insullated audience of suburban moralists to make that audience genuinely view these criminals as heroes.

A huge emphasis is placed on entertainment's connection to culture and political climates in both Neuromancer and Hotline Miami.  A resort in Neuromancer recreationally uses the gullfires previously used by the Colonel in that book's war against Russia, and Hotline Miami's origin for the 1989 killings features a warzone where Beard clears out a Russian-controlled resort.  Jacket is seen sunbathing and there's surf boards nearby.  Beard's levels also resemble the video game Contra, which was slightly based on real Cold War incidents in the 80's.  Jacket is shown to use an NES between his masked killings, arcade machines are featured in many Russian hang outs.  Technology being warped to fit the people who use it is a hugely noticeable trend and it almost feels like the game is actively trying to make the player notice their own connection to it all in as many ways as possible outside explicitly preaching it.  This respect for showing instead of telling is really lost on a lot of the gaming culture.

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