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Blood and pixels on the beach: the story of ‘Hotline Miami’

Blood and pixels on the beach: the story of ‘Hotline Miami’


How one developer known for unique freeware is breaking into commercial games

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Hotline Miami
Hotline Miami

Jonatan Söderström — also known by the alias Cactus — is well-regarded in indie gaming circles for his rapid-fire development of an eclectic library of games. His creations include everything from a racing game filled with men who think they're cars to the psychedelic, IGF award winning puzzler Tuning. But despite their diversity, all of his games have had at least one thing in common: they're free to play. With the upcoming Hotline Miami, however, he's delving into the world of commercial releases for the first time. And he's bringing a friend along for the ride.

The action is brutal, difficult, and incredibly violent

Söderström has teamed up with Dennis Wedin — whom he previously worked with on the freeware game Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf — to form Dennaton Games, the two-person studio behind Hotline Miami. And though the game is destined to be sold, the team hasn't skimped when it comes to outlandish ideas. Set in 1980s Miami, the game is centered around a series of mysterious messages that are left on the main character's answering machine. Each message will send you to a different part of the city, and each time you reach your destination you'll be accosted by a violent gang of thugs that you'll need to dispatch. The action is brutal, difficult, and incredibly violent, inspired by films like Drive and Kick-Ass.

Things also take a turn for the surreal when you factor in the masks. These animal disguises not only add a bizarre element to the visuals, but provide the main character with unique abilities to aid in battle. Between these masks and Hotline Miami's premise, violence, and retro-yet-grungy visual style, the game is somewhat of a niche project. But it's also arguably Söderström's most approachable release so far — potentially making it just the game to bring his unique sensibilities to a wider audience.

"Last couple of times I tried making something commercial I got into a weird mindset where I tried to anticipate what the audience might want instead of just trying to make a great game," he says. "That went completely wrong for me, and I don't advise anyone to have that as a key consideration when doing game design. I do however think that you need to consider if your game will turn out marketable at all if you need the money, just not let it steer the direction your game's heading to any greater extent."

And sadly, money is a concern with the release of Hotline Miami. After years of making games and giving them away for free, releasing a commercial game was simply a way to help Söderström keep his head above water. "The reason we went this way with Hotline Miami was simply that I've been running out of money since February this year," he says. "I've had to live off of savings since then and now they're about to run out so I hope we can finish the game very soon."

"I just want enough so I can keep doing games with Jonatan."

His expectations are relatively modest, however, as he says he'll be happy if the game sells enough copies to fund a few more releases from Dennaton. Wedin has a similar mindset, saying that "I just want enough so I can keep doing games with Jonatan and don't have to worry too much about getting myself a new pair of shoes or a new skateboard."

Of course, there are aspects that could make it a somewhat difficult sell. In particular, the sheer level of violence on display can be startling. Killing someone in Hotline Miami is satisfying in a way because of how difficult it can be to successfully take out foes, but it can also be uncomfortable. This isn't a game about clean sniper shots or bloodless fist fights, it's the kind of violence that sticks with you. Killing doesn't always feel good.

"I've had some concerns with games that try to portray violence as a clean act that doesn't really have that much of an impact on the player," says Söderström. "I feel that in a way it's a little bit irresponsible to portray it as something stylish, cool, or funny when it's really not. So we tried our best to make it look discomforting."

It's also not the only aspect of the game designed to mess with players. The duo says that Hotline Miami's ending is "a bit bold," which by Söderström's standards could mean that players are in for a real surprise. As anyone who has played his short, disturbing game Norrland knows, Söderström isn't afraid to turn a seemingly shallow experience on its head at the very end. "I'm looking forward to seeing players discuss the game over the internet," says Wedin.

Even though the game is essentially an arcade experience, the pair says that it has layers for those interested in digging a bit deeper. That's not to say that there will be multitudes of cut-scenes or dialog to click through, but instead Wedin says that "we let the environment tell the story."

"The game's always felt like it's about a month away from completion."

Hotline Miami is destined for a PC release later this year, and Söderström says that there are plenty of ideas that didn't make it into the game. So many in fact, that depending on its success, fans can likely expect to see a sequel or extra content in the form of DLC sometime in the future. And outside of the world of Hotline Miami, Dennaton already has three additional projects planned. But for now the focus is on Hotline Miami — a game which has already received some praise, winning the "Most Fantastic Game to be Later Cited By the Mainstream Media As the Reason For a Mass Shooting" award at Fantastic Arcade in Austin — and while we don't have a firm release date, from the sounds of it the launch isn't too far off.

"The game's always felt like it's about a month away from completion," says Söderström, "and by now it's likely less than two weeks left so we haven't ever really been sweating about it."

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