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Hotline Miami’s ultra-violence has influenced games for a decade

A look back on the impact of Dennaton’s indie classic 10 years later

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A screenshot from the original Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami.
Image: Devolver Digital

I’ve been chatting with Suda51 for the past hour. The conversation hasn’t been about any of his past works but, instead, his favorite game. Among the many anecdotes Goichi Suda told me about meeting Dennis Wedin and Jonatan Söderström, creators of Hotline Miami, one in particular stood out. While the developers were on a press tour in Japan, Wedin asked him to sign his arm — then didn’t wash his arm for a couple of days until his tattoo artist could fill it in.

As the interview is coming to a close, Suda says that he’s got something to show me and asks if I can wait. It’s 11PM in Argentina and 11AM in Japan, and I’m watching the Grasshopper office on a Zoom call. Suda comes back wearing the jacket of Hotline Miami’s protagonist, which was a gift from publisher Devolver Digital, and shows me a framed drawing that Wedin did for him, putting it close to the webcam. In it, you can see Travis Touchdown, the face of No More Heroes, dressed as the protagonist of Dennaton Games’ debut game. There is a phrase at the top that says “No More Hotline Miami.”

I ask Suda if he plans to return Wedin the favor by getting a tattoo of his drawing. He laughs and turns around while patting his back, signaling it as the place for the tattoo. “Unfortunately in Japan if I had a big tattoo like that I wouldn’t be able to get in pools and saunas and stuff like that, so probably not,” Suda says.

October 23rd marked the 10th anniversary of the release of Hotline Miami. Back in 2012, people came into contact with the game’s three masked figures for the first time. They fought through gritty apartments, bashing and slashing in circles and restarting over and over until everyone in the room was dead. And then they did it again, all while the soundtrack kept them in a trance. After a few levels, beating down enemies became second nature. It was fun and gruesome in equal manner, sparking conversations about violence in video games that still echo to this day. It was an important moment in the industry — one that influenced other developers, inspiring them to start their careers regardless of team size or resources.

Hotline Miami came out seven or eight months before I decided I would try making indie games,” says Gabe Cuzzillo, a developer who worked on Ape Out alongside Matt Boch and Bennett Foddy. He and a few friends stayed up until 5AM eating a giant artichoke pizza and drinking beers while hot seating the game; whenever someone died, they’d pass the controller to the person next to them. “I think we got all the way to the end that night,” he says. “That was just really a peak experience for me.”

“It made game development feel like something I could do”

At the time, Cuzzillo was a sophomore in college and had been attending film school for some time. While he felt that making a movie was a 50-person project minimum, he was surprised to find out that Dennaton was a two-person team. That realization influenced him to learn GameMaker, the engine that Hotline Miami uses, and start making his way into a different career altogether. “It made game development feel like something I could do as a person who had never programmed or never really knew how computers work,” Cuzzillo adds.

A screenshot from the video game Ape Out.
Ape Out.
Image: Devolver Digital

Luc Wolthers, a designer and artist at Free Lives who’s worked on Gorn and is currently part of the development of Anger Foot, didn’t see video games as a viable venue in South Africa at the time. He recalls playing a demo of Hotline Miami during the A MAZE festival in Berlin and being enchanted. “I didn’t even think that I could have such a visceral experience to a game that felt so [approachable] to make,” he says.

Before this, Wolthers knew he wanted to be an animator but was aware of just a few companies making games in South Africa. The idea of indie games felt brand-new, with examples such as Braid and Fez leading the movement. “Braid and Fez felt very thoughtful,” he says, “and very kind of hard to make. But Hotline Miami felt really [approachable] and kind of cool-driven, and I thought, ‘This is something that I can get into way more easily and just sort of work my way through.’”

Back then, he only had access to GameMaker and couldn’t believe that some people had actually made a game with it. “It used to come on little CDs from a local magazine called Nag Magazine, so seeing that Hotline Miami was an actual full product honestly felt absurd. I was like no, people don’t make games in GameMaker and publish them; it’s like a toy,” Wolthers laughs.

During the same festival, five years before he got hired at Free Lives, he also got to play Broforce for the first time. Back then, the studio came into contact with Devolver Digital after seeing it was the publisher working with Dennaton. While Free Lives had considered other partners, it was the tone of Devolver and its growing portfolio that made it seem like it’d be a good fit brand-wise.

In some cases, word of mouth helped to establish the long relationships that Devolver still has with certain studios to this day, including Free Lives. It was Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer who told the publisher about Cactus, the alias of Söderström, and the prototype for this game called Cocaine Cowboys (in reference to a documentary about the early ’80s drug scene in Miami). Ever since, Dennaton has returned the favor, as was the case with Le Cartel Studio, the makers of Mother Russia Bleeds and Heave Ho.

A screenshot from the video game Mother Russia Bleeds.
Mother Russia Bleeds.
Image: Devolver Digital

After playing Hotline Miami, Frédéric Coispeau and Alexandre Muttoni got together to blend a similar artistic style with a beat-’em-up game. They worked on the prototype for six months and then made a Twitter account and shared a trailer with the world. People kept mentioning the clear influences, and the social media buzz eventually got the attention of Dennaton.

“They liked the game, tweeted at us, and after that talked to Devolver and Devolver contacted us, so we owe Dennis big time,” Coispeau says. After signing with the publisher, Wedin stayed in touch during development, with the studio sharing builds and showing him backgrounds and character designs. Muttoni met him in person a few times as well, including at a concert in which Wedin played with his band, called Fucking Werewolf Asso, in France. “Le Cartel doesn’t really exist without Hotline Miami.”

“Le Cartel doesn’t really exist without Hotline Miami.”

One More Level, the studio behind God’s Trigger and Ghostrunner, shares a similar sentiment. Radosław Ratusznik and Marcin Kluzek originally met at game studio Bloober Team while working on a title for the launch of the PlayStation Vita. Ratusznik then started at One More Level in 2014, with Kluzek joining a year later. During that time, the studio began working on God’s Trigger, a project born from the desire to make its own take on a Hotline Miami-style game.

Ratusznik recalls a thorough examination of Hotline’s level design, studying what made those apartment hallways and corners work so well with a fast-paced gameplay loop in mind. “I played both of the games a couple times and I screenshotted every level and analyzed every layout to get what makes those games tick and try to apply it to God’s Trigger,” Kluzek says. “That was a really engaging experience.”

Early on in development, the team decided that it wanted to make a game that felt more approachable than Hotline Miami. For this, the presence of checkpoints, powers, and special abilities for the characters as well as a co-op mode played a big part. For the latter, Ratusznik thought that Hotline Miami 2 was going to have co-op based on the first trailer of the game. But since it didn’t, the studio took matters into its own hands.

“We thought, well, we’re gonna have to produce the Hotline Miami co-op ourselves,” he says. “It was a huge challenge to be honest; now I know why they didn’t decide to do co-op for the game. When you have this game and you can die so fast with one single mistake even in co-op, it’s a problem, but there are some benefits from that.” In the end, this led to the addition of a revive mechanic to put your co-op partner back on their feet, which helped to alleviate the newly found frustration.

Alongside the aforementioned games, many other studios took inspiration from Hotline Miami to varying degrees. Ruiner, My Friend Pedro, Katana Zero, Furi, and Superhot are a few that iterated on that foundation. Whether it was the popularity of synthwave (both in terms of soundtracks and aesthetics), faster gameplay loops where restarting takes a microsecond, or the pressure of dying in one hit, these elements lingered and evolved over time.

“It’s cool to see that a lot of people are inspired,“ Wedin says. “We had a lot of people writing to us that started doing video games through that level editor of Hotline Miami 2. It’s cool to help them out in those first steps and help them move on and maybe go to school or move on to GameMaker or stuff like that.”

The team mentions that it’s been busy working on its new game, which has been a mystery since the release of the sequel aside from some background teasers and, thus, hasn’t had the time to play many of the games that it inspired. Wedin is particularly proud of the influence on The Last of Us Part II.

“They created these puzzles [around] the enemies, which felt a bit like the apartments of Hotline Miami 1 in a sense, and how they’re doing the violence, how they have bursts of really gory stuff and do calm cutscenes [afterward],” he explains. “It just felt like there’s something there that kinda came from them playing Hotline Miami. And that was really cool to see. We inspired a AAA game. Because I feel like indies always inspire other indies, and you can see influences from game to game, but it’s not that often that you can see it in a AAA game I think.”

A screenshot of Hotline Miami running on a PlayStation Vita in The Last of Us.
Hotline Miami in The Last of Us.
Image: Devolver Digital

While some games added Easter eggs referencing Hotline Miami, The Last of Us Part II was much more overt. During a PlayStation State of Play showcase, Naughty Dog showed a scene where protagonist Ellie sneaks up on a guard who is playing Dennaton’s game on a PlayStation Vita. The particularity is that the player can’t see the screen until the sequence is over, but the song coming out from the console — the emblematic “Hydrogen” by M.O.O.N. — clearly pinpoints where the soundtrack is from.

In an interview with Eurogamer, Naughty Dog’s co-president Neil Druckmann, who worked as creative director on the game, said that he saw the cameo as an opportunity to do a “meta-statement about the kind of narrative we’re after.” Naughty Dog worked with Dennaton on the Easter egg, which led to that moment in the game.

The Last of Us Part II and Hotline Miami also share similarities when it comes to gameplay. Shortly after TLOU launched, it was common to see users such as SunhiLegend on Twitter sharing killing montages set in the game, clearing entire rooms of enemies in a fashion that seemed akin to completing levels in Hotline Miami while maintaining a combo, a trademark of the game’s score system.

“I’ve always felt more comfortable on smaller teams”

“I had the same thing when I started playing,” Wedin tells me. “After a while, when you get to the first bigger area, it felt like I could play it kind of like Hotline Miami, which was really cool — trying to figure out the pattern that enemies were moving in and just trying to kill them quickly and in one swift move.” I reached out to Naughty Dog to hear its thoughts on the similarities between the games, both thematically and mechanically, but it declined to participate in this piece.

A year before The Last of Us Part II’s release, there was another peculiar cameo in Travis Strikes Again from Grasshopper. As Suda tells me, it was the culmination of years of getting to meet not only Dennaton but also Devolver.

Suda took interest in Hotline Miami after seeing footage of it on social media and immediately felt that there was something special about it. During that time, Grasshopper was collaborating on projects with companies such as EA and Warner Bros. for games like Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw. In a way, Hotline Miami rekindled a spark for Suda, reminding him of the importance and value of working with just a handful of people. “When I first started up Grasshopper, I always had a preference and sort of a tendency to work with smaller teams, so even if we’re working with bigger companies on a bigger project, I’ve always felt more comfortable on smaller teams. So that was sort of an extra little piece of stimulation for me,” he says.

Over time, he found out that the team was a fan of Grasshopper’s work as well, and after a number of failed attempts, he finally got a chance to talk to them during a promotional tour in Japan for the release of Hotline Miami Collected Edition.

A screenshot of Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes.
Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes.
Image: Grasshopper Manufacture

“After that, we met up at other game events in the United States and stuff. I went to go meet them in Gothenburg in Sweden where they live and work. We just got along really well, talking about each other’s games, kinda just complimenting each other on stuff and having similar interests and whatnot. Ever since we met for the first time in Japan, we’ve had a really good relationship, basically just full-on friends at this point,” Suda tells me.

For anyone who’s been following Devolver closely during the past few years, this relationship isn’t exactly a surprise. In the first trailer for Travis Strikes Again, the protagonist is playing Hotline Miami inside a van. That same year, Suda himself appeared for a few seconds during Devolver’s E3 2017 press conference. Ever since, he’s had other cameos in subsequent conferences, showing himself playing No More Heroes III prior to release and gaining a much more starring role in 2022’s showcase.

This friendship resulted in the in-game collaboration in Travis Strikes Again where Travis interacts with a Hotline Miami arcade cabinet and gets to chat with some familiar characters. Originally, Grasshopper wanted Travis to go into the world of Hotline Miami, creating a “full-on level” with the same art style for the occasion. But due to budgetary and scheduling reasons, it felt it wouldn’t be able to do the game justice and ended up scaling it back.

Ten years later, the developers I spoke to remember Hotline Miami fondly as a game that inspired them as individual creators. Whether it is because of a particular element that stood out to them or the success of a two-person team, they all had plenty to share about how the industry is now compared to that time — reflecting on their past works and looking at what comes next.

Free Lives’ Evan Greenwood recalls the quiet moments and the way the game chose to show instead of tell its story. A particular example is the woman that the player rescues in one of the early levels who then shows up in the apartment of the protagonist. There isn’t a message or conversation about it. From that moment on, you can see her sleeping on the couch or taking a bath. “No one has ever managed to do it like Hotline Miami,” Greenwood says. “I think the influence of it extends from just games. There’s a lot of things I see today and think the people behind this must have played and taken notes from Hotline Miami.”

Anger Foot comes from a place of influence as well (to the point where the developers called it “Hotline Amsterdam” at first), aiming for the same kind of intensity and grunginess. Almost a year and a half later, the project has gained its own identity, but “a lot of it just got that original inspiration still in it,” Wolthers says.

A screenshot from the video game Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Image: Devolver Digital

A clear difference is wanting to portray violence as frivolous fun as opposed to trying to make a statement on it, as Hotline Miami did back then. To Wolthers, the game invited some serious reflections on violence and who is participating in it, whereas Anger Foot wants you to play with a toy box. Having characters designed as abstract representations of human beings, like a walking middle finger or someone with a mushroom head, also helps with the distinction in identity.  

“Since then, we’ve had games like The Last of Us Part II and the new God of War, games that want you to take a moment and think about all the violence while encouraging and promoting it,” Wolthers says. The problem, as he argues, is that when that same violence is fun for the player, the implicitness of trying to make the player feel guilty falls flat. “You’re giving me a hammer and a nail, and then you’re kinda like, ‘I can’t believe you put that nail into that plank of wood.’ And it’s like, well, what else was I supposed to do? You’ve given me everything I needed to perform this task and then you’re, after the fact, saying ‘ah, what a lamentable thing.’ [In Anger Foot] we don’t wanna punish people for participating in the exact systems we designed people to play within.”

To Le Cartel, Hotline Miami gave the team an idea of how much violence and gore it could put in Mother Russia Bleeds, realizing that there was an audience for that. “It was always a good example of how you could put some deep ambiance without being realistic,” says Muttoni. Looking back, he says that sometimes he really wants to make a new Mother Russia Bleeds because he “evolved a lot from that time and I can’t watch it anymore,” referring to the art style, saying that he’d like to show people what he can do now.

For the team at One More Level, Hotline Miami’s influence can be seen in the mechanical side of games like God’s Trigger and Ghostrunner. It had to find ways to not break a player’s flow — especially while working on a game with a first-person view following one with a top-down perspective. Legibility as well as elements such as the instant restart were crucial.

“You’re in this dance of death with the enemies with a rain of bullets and you have to survive because one single shot can kill you,” Ratusznik says. “And it’s amazing that it builds so much tension in the gameplay, and I think that’s why so many people love this kind of game.”

A screenshot from the video game Ghostrunner.
Image: 505 Games

Cuzzillo, on the other hand, is following up Ape Out with a completely different project, with an eye on cultivating a healthier way of approaching the job. “It’s impossible to look at that game as divorced from that period of my life, which was really tumultuous and like me trying to figure out how to be an adult, graduate college, and figure out what being a person meant,” he tells me. “I feel like I was so identified with the game, what everybody said about the game they were saying about me, which is obviously unhealthy. I guess I look back at it fondly in a certain way, and I like it, but it’s a very complicated relationship.”

Cuzzillo’s lesson is one that Dennaton has been following during the development of its new game. “It’s hard to focus when the world is falling apart,” Wedin says. “I mean we’ve been doing good. We try not to work as much as we did in Hotline Miami 1 and 2, trying to have more normal working hours.”

“It’s hard to focus when the world is falling apart.”

“I think we’re doing more focused work now that we have an office,” Söderström says. “Even if we spend less time each day, we get a lot more done. And the game is quite big and more ambitious than Hotline Miami 2.” Wedin adds that, back then, they could work 10 to 12 hours daily on Hotline Miami, but maybe two or three of those hours were actually work being done, and the rest were slow and unfocused.

Not having internet in the office also helps, as Dennaton is off the grid. The reception is bad, so the team stays fairly offline most of the time. “We have a small USB stick that I pass graphics to Jonatan with,” Wedin tells me. “We used to have a Dropbox, but it got hacked. It had a bunch of new graphics of the new game and the person was trying to sell them on Reddit, and people got really, really upset and were slamming them, so they eventually vanished.”

The dynamic between the team, however, remains pretty much the same. The biggest difference is that, since the game is much bigger, the team is always busy with something, so they’re not discussing the project quite as much as they did with Hotline Miami. “Where we’re at right now, a lot of the gameplay is kinda set in stone, so it’s more finishing the levels and finishing the story and fleshing out everything,” Wedin says.

Even though Dennaton has been working on the game for a while, the success of Hotline Miami has led to a more relaxed work routine. They even took a month off in which Wedin played through all Dark Souls games for the first time, creating the same character in each so it felt like the same person going on an adventure, while Söderström gave him directions when needed.

The current artistic freedom of Dennaton is something that Nigel Lowrie, co-founder of Devolver Digital, takes pride in. “The fact that with that success they can now kind of sit back for years and slowly work with no kind of commercial or artistic pressure on them and make whatever they want, I think it’s really cool. I think that’s one of my favorite things about this job.” Lowrie mentions that Devolver doesn’t have formal arrangements with the studio — their timeline is dictated by whenever Dennaton is ready to share something. “They don’t feel the pressure to beat that, and now, they’re just making art for art’s sake in a lot of ways,” he says.

In that vein, I ask if this is something that resonates with indie developers that don’t have Hotline Miami’s success. “No, it doesn’t, right? Everyone out there wants to just get to that point [where] they can take a little bit of pressure off. What’s there is that is possible — for two people in Valencia, or South Africa, or wherever, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

A screenshot from Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Image: Devolver Digital

Even though success on the scale of Hotline Miami is far from guaranteed when making an indie game, it’s the developer’s spirit that still resonates with most. Regardless of how much the industry has and continues to change over time, Dennaton is still remembered as a two-person team that left an outsized impact on the industry.

“It’s always nice to hear that someone was inspired to create something.”

“[Nowadays indie games] are much bigger undertakings; they’re much more ambitious, and I think all of that is amazing. But Hotline Miami really had this garage band feeling to it, and that’s what I fell in love with,” Wolthers says. “I hope that other people had that experience with this — that anyone can do it as long as you have an idea and some ambition.”

While the team continues to work on their new project, the developers I spoke to shared sentiments about their wish to see Hotline Miami 3 one day. Dennaton has said that the series was a chapter closed, and it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change anytime soon. That said, despite having the phrase framed in his office, Suda likes to remain hopeful that “No More Hotline Miami” isn’t the last word.

“Recently, even stuff like The Matrix and Top Gun, after like 30-something years, came back, and I don’t think anybody expected Tom Cruise to return and make another movie, but here we are,” he says. “I myself said that No More Heroes 3 would be the end of the series and we were finished there. But to be honest, even I don’t know if that’s gonna end up being true. At some point, I might go back and do another one. I’m thinking the guys at Dennaton, they’re probably thinking the same thing.”

“It’s always nice to hear that someone was inspired to create something,” Söderström says.

“Yeah, it’s really hard to discuss this because we’re Swedish. We’re taught from a very young age to not be proud of our work and talk about it,” Wedin laughs. “It just makes me happy where we’re at now after 10 years. It’s really cool. And seeing that all of this positive stuff came out of it, both for us as people and our lives but also stuff that we inspired others to do and gave them energy or like the idea that they could do this as well, yeah, trying to put some positive in all of this.”

Correction October 26th, 4:00PM ET: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Nag Magazine. We regret the error.