HM2 Wrong Number Script

May 13, 2022

THE BOTTOM LINE: Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number overflows...

—- cool text stuff cool text stuff cool text stuff cool text stuff {— deletion —} {>> comment <<} {++ addition ++} {== highlight ==} {~~ substitution ~> by this ~~}

Wrong Number: A Guided Tour

It's pronounced Dennat-tun, but I don't care. Best songs in the game: 4

Spoiler Warning






Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number was released in 2015, three years after Hotline 1. I played it the day it came out, since I’m a huge fan of the original, and like a lot of fans, I came away feeling let down by the game. It was a confused and confusing slog through 24 big, frustrating, slow levels with weaker characters than the last game. Critical reception at the time echoed this sentiment, although the game did review pretty well, and I think Chris Thursten's review in PC Gamer captured the Zeitgeist [^1] He's confused about basically everything Dennaton did with Wrong Number.

I think Wrong Number is a worthy sequel, but it is also deeply flawed in obvious and non-obvious ways. Wrong Number overflows with ideas and content, but not always in a good way.

More recently the game has been critically rehabilitated to some extent; there's no shortage of blog posts, discussions, and videos defending the game or, at least, defending its plot.

In this video I want to critique Wrong Number honestly. I’ll be analyzing Hotline Miami 2 on its own merits and comparing it extensively to the original to see what works, what doesn’t, and how the two games differ in philosophy and design. I've wanted to untangle my feelings about Wrong Number for six years now, so you'll have to forgive me if this video is a bit long.

{— I also want to mention that all my interpretations of Wrong Number are my own; I consulted the Hotline Miami wiki for general info, playthroughs by speedrunners and streamers, and some talks and interviews with the developers. I haven't read or watched any analyses of the game's story or mechanics, and I did a lot of original research using the source code of Hotline 1 and by experimenting with Wrong Number's mechanics. But we'll get to all that later. —}

I played the game with fresh eyes for the first time since 2015, and then played through it again to get S-ranks, and then played it a little more to get footage. My feelings about the game have evolved a lot over the course of replaying it and making this video. In my Hotline 1 review I waxed poetic about why I think Hotline Miami’s core is so great, so let’s get right into the details.

{== Good spot for an opening ==}

Differences in tone, title screen

This time around the title screen is more subdued; the music is calmer, and the title graphics and background don’t move around as much. Hotline 1’s title screen gives an impression of off-kilter forward motion; the title and options move in different directions and the options pulse like a neon sign. We’re always moving into the palm tree backdrop, always being pulled into the cocaine fever of violence. Wrong Number’s title screen feels like a hangover; we’re moving lazily past the city background rather than into it, and the foreground elements sway gently back and forth. It also takes place in 1991, a few years after the party, so to speak. {== The title screen background is a still of the nuke going off I think. Maybe bring this up later. ==}

In the tutorial, we reprise our role as the Pig Butcher in a film called Midnight Animal. This time around we play an actor being directed through the tutorial. This is cleverer than the abstract tutorial of the original, and it establishes movies, and media more broadly, as a motif. There's a short allusion to sexual violence at the end that got the game banned in Australia until 2019. According to the developers this sequence, which is never consummated, was included to communicate that the game will not be about that sort of thing. {== maybe clip the aMAZE thing instead of explaining ==}

Wrong Number makes it clear very quickly that it has something to say. Beside the statement on sexual violence, something Hotline 2 comes back to over and over is how violence is depicted in media, and how this effects its characters. While Hotline 1 was a more personal story, Wrong Number deals exhaustively with both the history and future of Jacket and Fifty Blessings.

The old infatuation with Drive has given way to a more sober and cynical view of the world, a 90s hangover from an 80s high. This attitude was shown in the title screen and you can feel it throughout the game. Colour palettes are usually more muted, and there's a greater focus on dialogue in the cutscenes, though it's as terse as ever.


Act 1

Wrong Number is organized into six acts, with four levels in each. For act 1, I'll go through each level and just take in the sights and sounds. {== Maybe a graphic for the first 4 levels? ==}

Down Under

When the game begins, we’re introduced to a group of characters called the Fans. They wear animal masks like Jacket, and are clearly inspired by the events of the first game. The club they hang out in has some nice details: they have a whole bunch of phones, there’s a Fifty Blessings insignia and a goat head on this table that implies a sort of cult-like devotion to the phone calls, and they’ve got all the masks from the first game. Both of the Hotline Miami games excel at packing their environments with these little details, and they let the game tell a fairly complex story without long scenes of dialogue.

In brief, The Fans are committing crimes in the hope that they'll start getting the phone calls.

{~~ Gameplay-wise, the ~> The ~~} first level picks up right where Hotline 1 left off, with some subtle changes. The level's colours are more muted like I mentioned already, the game tells you how large your combo is before it expires, and rooms are much larger than in the previous game. In Hotline 1 it was often possible to rush gunmen or knock them down with a thrown weapon, but Wrong Number has an abundance of firearmed enemies and an abundance of big rooms, so it incentivizes slowing down and baiting enemies into choke points or relying on guns yourself.

{— Rooms are generally bigger than before, and there are more enemies. These changes incentivize slowing down and baiting enemies, or relying heavily on guns, but it’s not a huge departure. The level kind of bridges the gap between the two games, and we’ll see more and more changes to the original formula as it goes on. —}

The music goes as hard as ever, and the track that plays here, Voyager, is a lot like a Hotline 1 song. Every level has its own song this time around, and music is used to embody each of the game's characters. Here it sets up the Fans as Jacket copycats. Playing as the Fans gives us the pointless, often contextless violence of Hotline 1 but stripped of its hallucinogenic aura.

Masks have been replaced with characters, who all have their own storylines and abilities. The mask system was an afterthought in the first game, and I think characters are a clever way to elevate and develop it. It also opens up the possibility of developing each character through their specific twist on the mechanics. The Fan you start with, Corey, has a dodge roll. Spacebar triggers a roll and makes Corey invincible to gunfire until you release space or the animation ends.

That seems to suggest that the character system will actually shake up the game, and while it is an interesting idea, Corey's dodge roll doesn't work well in practice. Rolls are meant for creating space and dodging oncoming attacks. They’re useful in a game like Enter the Gungeon because the projectiles you’re dodging are relatively slow and very easy to see. Gungeon enemies also have very predictable behaviour, so you can anticipate attacks and avoid rolling directly into a bullet.

Hotline Miami has neither of those things, so a roll is only useful if you need to go from a dangerous room into a safe one. That might seem like a pretty broad class of situations, but Wrong Number’s levels are packed with enemies and they have so many lines of sight that a dodge roll is basically never the right way to handle a situation. At best it incentivizes backtracking to safety. Since its usefulness is dictated by level design, it could be used as an interesting gimmick or a light puzzle. That would be fine if the level design ever accommodated it, but there is exactly one floor of one level where Corey’s mechanics are actually taken into consideration.


In the second level we take on the role of detective Manny Pardo. I can only describe him as a standard character, with a shotgun in his trunk and the ability to do incredibly slow executions with firearms. His music has some ominous tones bubbling under the synthwave veneer. Homicide is a solid level; the first floor guides the player toward a central room that provides safe-ish access to the other enemies, and the second floor has a number of small rooms adjacent to a long loading bay area. You get a safe view of the loading bay while working your way through the smaller rooms, so by the time you enter you're aware that there are threats outside of your immediate view.

More realistic level designs were a priority for Wrong Number, and Homicide executes that well. It depicts a more realistic environment while still remaining fun to play through.

Unfortunately, Pardo exposes a pretty big flaw in Wrong Number's design. Combos are important for getting high scores, and executions are so slow this time around that they’re basically off limits. Combos frequently expire during ground kill animations, and this turns knocking enemies over into more of a punishment than a strategy {== This is worth bringing up again ==}.

My charitable reading is that the intent was to have executions act as ebbs in the action, to create an effect like a parry in Dark Souls {== Pig Butcher stomp alongside a parry will probably convince people. ==}, a moment where everything stops immediately followed by a visceral, extra satisfying attack. The trouble is that Dark Souls is a slow, contemplative game about single combat, and Wrong Number is the complete opposite of that. Watching a combo expire during a long kill animation is extremely frustrating, and unless the design is trying to be hostile toward the player—-which the game doesn’t have thematic legs to justify—-the executions need to be rebalanced.

The interaction between combos and executions feels like it was just copied over from Hotline 1, where the much faster executions were a legitimate option. Ground kills should either pause the combo timer or give a large enough point bonus to offset an expired combo. As is, there's no reason to ever choose an execution over a normal kill.

There is actually an incentive for executions that I didn't even know about until researching for this video. You have two health points in Wrong Number, and getting shot takes away one. An execution refills your health to full. That's an interesting idea, but it's never communicated and most enemies are armed with shotguns or automatic weapons, so it rarely comes in handy and throwing a combo away feels bad no matter what. I didn't know about the health mechanic after forty hours of play and probably never would if it weren't for a video I found explaining it.

Hard News

Level 3 introduces another character, Jake, who is a member of Fifty Blessings and fits the radical nationalist stereotype much more explicitly than Jacket or Biker did. His apartment is filthy, he’s eating a TV dinner, and there’s a Confederate flag draped over his couch. He’s also got a karate belt on, which ties into one of the abilities he unlocks later. His story takes place in 1989, around the events of the first game.

Jake starts with his namesake mask, which grants killing throws. It’s not terribly useful, but they did give it a nod with the level design by putting some enemies in front of windows. Trying to use Jake’s ability exposes a couple issues with picking up weapons that I'll talk about in detail later on. Basically, there are times where Wrong Number will just not let you pick up a weapon. The precise controls were a strong point of the first game, and this glitch is one of the small ways that Wrong Number erodes that sense of control. Weapon pickup issues will get you killed many, many times and it never stops being annoying.

The level itself is a huge office complex littered with windows. For most players, this was probably the first time they were killed by an enemy they couldn’t see. The best way to beat the first floor is by securing the little hallway on the right and blind firing into the big room to take out whoever you can and to attract the attention of anybody who's left over. Killing a significant chunk of a floor by firing blindly feels like random chance, and it's inherently less satisfying than the kinetic, close-range battles of Hotline 1.

The second floor is better, and focuses on precise movement and timing to stay out of enemy sightlines. Or you can bait and clear enemies like the last floor. Jake has a short, post-level cutscene that establishes him as a guy who hates Russians, which we already knew.

Final Cut

In Scene 4 we learn that Midnight Animal, the movie in the tutorial, is heavily inspired by Jacket’s story from the first game. It reinterprets the relationship between Jacket and his girlfriend as something more sinister than Dennaton intended, and apparently this was something a lot of fans saw in the first game. In light of that, I think it’s interesting to cast Martin Brown as commentary on the fan interpretation of Hotline 1, an interpretation that the game casts off when Brown dies. In fact, a lot of Wrong Number's first half seems to be concerned with the way Hotline 1 was received. The Fans are interesting characters regardless, but for me, taking meta jabs at the audience tends to weaken the impact of a story rather than deepen it.

Final Cut was the first level that made me take a break. This time, the Pig Butcher is blasting his way through a police station, a reference to Assault from Hotline 1. This level, and many others are best played with a completely different playstyle from the first game, a fact that never really gets communicated. In Wrong Number, you really should be doing as little close-range combat as possible. The trouble is that the game doesn't tell you that.

In fact, it's perfectly possible to have an awful time in Wrong Number, painstakingly pulling enemies into melee range over and over. I did exactly that the first two times I played through it. You can still get B, A, and sometimes even S ranks by playing this way, so it kept me thinking that Wrong Number was just an extremely difficult game. The game tries very hard to distance itself from Hotline 1, so it's ironic that it doesn't establish that you're supposed to approach levels differently.

The way you're meant to play Scene 4 is very different.

{== montage ==}

So Act 1 was a mixed bag. There are clearly fresh ideas on offer, and the story is at least intriguing, but there have been some issues with the execution. I'll be talking about playstyles a lot as this video goes on, so it's worth pointing out that the game's problems apply no matter how you decide to play, but that they are felt much more acutely if you try to play Wrong Number by rushing into rooms and using melee like in Hotline 1.

Most of the new stuff is a net positive. The character system shows a lot of potential, and so does the focus on more realistic levels. It's great that every level gets its own song and that those songs are used to reinforce the characters. —-

Act 2 (Plot and Themes Outline)

{== Level: First Trial ==}

Wrong Number follows a huge cast of characters through a much more complex plot than Hotline 1. There are plenty of videos that piece together Wrong Number's story already, because it's pretty intricate as far as game stories go. I'll give you an outline for now, and discuss the more interesting points as the game goes along.

Wrong Number's scenes bounce between three separate periods before, during, and after the events of the first game. {== fade in a cool graphic ==} There are levels set during a 1985 Russian-American war in Hawaii, and during the events of Hotline 1 in 1989. Most of the game is set in 1991 and deals with the fallout of the other two periods. Each of the game's acts features the climax of one or multiple characters' stories. The game's 26 scenes are regular levels usually bookended with cutscenes, except for the first and last scenes, which are the tutorial and ending respectively.

In my first video I said that, thematically, Hotline Miami was exploring a tension that existed within itself, and within games in general. It was about the joy of violence and the awful reality of that violence, which the game was able to embody in its aesthetic and gameplay loop. The tension played itself out through Jacket, and the game was designed to immerse us in his struggle. It is an extremely focused game, and all of its core elements are knit tightly together.

Wrong Number has a sprawling cast and a story that spans the better part of a decade. Instead of exploring violence in itself, Wrong Number digs at the historical and personal roots of violence—it wants to know what drives people to kill. The idea is great: it provides space to build on the plot and themes of Hotline 1 and to twist the mechanics.

The aesthetic and mechanical core of Hotline 1 is largely preserved, but each part of the game is given a character-specific flavor through level design, music, and tweaks to the combat and movement. On paper, it's a perfect sequel.

First Trial, for example, stars a journalist named Evan who's writing a book about the killings in 1989. He's a pacifist, so he is limited to melee weapons, but he can extend a combo by unloading guns, and this opens up some genuinely interesting possibilities{== vague/awkward? ==}. The level is again meant to be a real place with ties to the plot, which is a big departure from Hotline 1's anonymous apartments. The music has a cerebral feel that fits Evan well; it lacks distortion and has kind of a searching melody.

Evan is one of the better articulated characters in the game. You really feel the difference in playstyle because it removes an existing element and replaces it with a fresh one. First Trial is full of corridors, and this incentivizes unloading guns while on the move to keep your combo going.

He pushes what Hotline Miami is able to express. There's a very deliberate restraint to playing as Evan that isn't normally present; if you go all out and start killing people Evan enters a berserk mode where he can use guns but gets fewer points. We can deduce a lot about Evan just from the design that surrounds him, and this captures the best of Hotline 1. He isn't making any kind of power play, but we know he is driven toward his goal—if he gets too angry he will go as far as killing people to get what he wants. Some of these things are also revealed explicitly in cutscenes, but we also feel them by playing the game.

{== Level: Moving Up ==}

{== Cut in beginning of A MAZE clip ==} Dennis Wedin, who is half of Dennaton, gave a talk about Wrong Number, and sequels in general that I found pretty illuminating [^2] He’s a fan of sequels as a way to build upon a game’s mechanical foundation, and he points to Wrong Number’s increased focus on gunplay, the attention payed to making the levels feel realistic, and the new character system as examples of a more ‘fleshed out’ Hotline Miami. The game's sequel status also manifests itself in the characters themselves.

The Fans, as you might have guessed, are stand-ins for the rabid fans of Hotline 1. They've got the phones, the masks, and the Fifty Blessings symbol. They own and display these things the way somebody might display Funko Pops, rather than treating them as dark secrets. They're looking for somebody to kill, and are depicted more as Jacket LARPers {== do the joke, chicken noise maybe ==} than hesitant assassins.

The game treats the Fans ambiguously—they're our main anchor for the first half of the game, but they're pretty clearly bad people. This level, Moving Up, ends with a girl terrified of the player's chosen Fan. It also draws a hard line if you try to take her against her will. {== boom ==}

In the talk, Wedin noted that when sequels to violent movies try to up the ante they often turn to depictions of sexual violence, and he said that Dennaton was not interested in going that route. This is what the scene in the tutorial was trying to communicate, and Moving Up ends on a similar note. This ending also accentuates how pointless the Fans' murders are, since the girl refers to the people you've just slaughtered as her friends. That's undercut a little bit by the fact that all of her friends have assault rifles and are more than happy to kill you on sight, but we have to assume that everybody in this universe is constantly armed.

Moving Up is the first time Tony is available as a character, and this time around he can't pick up any weapons. He's balanced much better than in Hotline 1, but is a terrible fit for the level. The final floor has three massive blind stretches with gunmen posted at the ends. If you don't play excruciatingly slowly, there's a good chance you'll be killed by an enemy you couldn't possibly see, let alone avoid.

There's another bit of inconsistency introduced if you play as Tony. He, and later on a character called the Son, have unique animations for unarmed dog kills. Most of the time the animation plays out very slowly but under some conditions a dog will die instantly. Tony's punches have a kind of lingering hitbox after they come out, and if you push that hitbox into a dog it dies instantly. It feels very finicky and unintended, though I am not totally sure.

{== Level: No Mercy ==}

Anyway, the next level reintroduces the Russian Mafia, and we actually get to play as a Russian enforcer on his last job. The hit doesn't tie into the larger plot—it's just a chop shop that has stopped paying the mafia—but it's a fun level that mostly avoids the trend of ridiculously big open spaces. Enemies still have many lines of sight and, as usual, you'll have a much better time if you use guns. The Henchman steals a duffel bag full of money from the place and leaves, sparing the life of one of the workers.

{== play cutscene until dream ==}

{~~ The last ~> Another ~~} major thematic piece of Wrong Number is Richard, who may fulfill a different role than he did in Hotline 1. In that game Richard was pretty clearly a manifestation of Jacket's coma dream that dispensed cryptic hints about the upcoming events of the story. At first blush, Wrong Number recasts Richard as a more general harbinger of death. He appears to characters before they die, warning them of their fates. If he's trying to help them nobody ever seems to heed his advice, so in practice Richard gives voice to each character's ultimate fate. He's a surreal character, a talking chicken mask {== put "he's the only mask with a moving mouth" ==} that can see the future.

Although he seems to be a distinct character with agency, I think Richard embodies each character's subconscious sense that something is about to go wrong. In this light he fulfills a very similar role to the first game, except instead of recounting what has already happened he confronts characters with their own doubts. When he appears to the Henchman he questions whether the path he's embarked on—one of a nebulous freedom—is a safe one, and he remarks that the Henchman's wife isn't part of his dream. This isn't information that was hidden from the Henchman, it's just something he hadn't explicitly thought about.

Whether Richard is his own character or not, he functions narratively in the same way: he communicates to us that each character knows, on some level, where their actions will lead them.

Wrong Number is ambiguous with whose perspective we're seeing at any given time. If Richard were a literal demon, that would be pretty silly, so I'm pretty sure presenting each character's inner doubts through him is purely stylistic.

{== show the wakeup bit, into... LEVEL: Execution ==}

The transition into level 8 is flawless, and it might be the best level in the game. It captures a real bar fairly well while remaining fun to play through. Turns out it's Wedin's favourite too. The enemy density is fairly low and it doesn't have many open spaces, so you can generally get through it without stopping to bait enemies.

{== mini-montage up to the torture bit ==}

I actually felt for the Henchman, and I think these two levels are a very well executed mini-tragedy. The end of his story did obliterate any good will I had for the Fans though.


Act 3: Climax (New Systems and New Problems)

Ambush is the first Hawaii level; these have a very unique atmosphere and are some of the most memorable parts of the game. We'll see later on that the Hawaiian war is really the nexus point of everything that happens in the series. The Fans, Jacket, Beard, and Evan are already present in this first cutscene, and reframing these characters as war veterans adds another dimension to the story. We can understand many characters' attitudes toward human life through their experiences during the war.

{== transition into a new montage for Hawaii 1. Talk during Into the Pit. ==}

The Soldier, who is the cashier guy from Hotline 1, is another well-executed character. He can't pick up or throw weapons at all, but he has a knife and a gun with limited ammo. This gives the impression that he's professional; he sticks with his service weapons and follows orders. Like with Evan, a familiar mechanic is removed and replaced with something that changes the flow of gameplay. My only gripe is technical: when you switch weapons there's a delay before you can switch back. This is a fine quirk, but it's not communicated well. There's no animation that makes the delay makes sense, so sometimes you can press the button and nothing happens, which is frustrating. A half-second animation of Beard switching weapons would fix it. The delay is something you get used to, so the problem sort of goes away as you get better at the game.

Mechanical Incentives and Received Mechanics

There's another, larger issue that Ambush highlights though. I know it's called Ambush, but a soldier has no incentive to recklessly storm a Soviet base and rack up a massive combo. The Colonel literally tells Beard to be careful before the level starts. We could charitably read Beard's actions as him giving in to the joy of violence, but this would clash with his level-headed character and the experiences of most real soldiers. Because we are incentivized to go fast, and Beard is not, the Hawaii levels create a dissonance between player and character that the more abstract events of Hotline 1 didn't.

{>> is this dumb? Seems to be asking a lot <<} In light of this, I don't think Wrong Number goes far enough in its own direction. It is comfortable changing up the setting and twisting the combat, but the Hawaii levels—and many others, honestly—would benefit from not being scored, or being scored on completely different criteria from the more reality-detached levels. If Wrong Number is trying to create a unique feel for each character, I think matching all of the mechanics to that character's attitude is important. As it stands, scoring is just kind of a received mechanic from Hotline 1.

If levels kept a sense of momentum as they did in Hotline 1, I think keeping the combo meter would be fine; we're in a war, it's a kill or be killed situation, we need to be fast. But the Hawaii levels were some of the slowest on my first playthrough, and I found myself going through them more like a stealth game. Beard being dropped in enemy territory with minimal gear has a vaguely MGS3 ring to it, and that could be an interesting concept, but since we still have a combo counter it's impossible to tell if the game wants us to play fast or slow.

Combo System: Guns Only Please

There are actually quite a few problems with Wrong Number that stem from its "received mechanics," and the next level brings them into relief. Dead Ahead, placed less than half way through the game, is the longest and, in my opinion, most difficult level. It features detective Pardo killing a bunch of Colombians. The level's relevance to the plot is tangential at best; a conflict between Russians and Colombians is a framing device for some later levels.

Pardo epitomizes the aimlessness of the 1991 levels. Not even Richard can really get a bead on him; there's a new game plus cutscene where all of the characters speak with Richard, and he addresses Pardo with confusion. His levels are completely irrelevant to the plot, and he appears at times as an actor in Midnight Animal, a cop frustrated by bureaucracy, and a serial killer. He is the Miami Mutilator that he's tracking down, if it's not obvious.

In his cutscenes, he frequently comes back to the idea that he does not control his own actions. This is literally true to an extent, since we play as him, but in cutscenes he excuses his own agency in a number of different ways. At the end of the game this comes to a head with him facing a ventriloquist dummy that identifies itself as his son. It clearly represents Pardo casting himself as someone forced to act against his own will.

Since Richard is a representation of character's doubts, he never meets with Pardo. Pardo avoids facing what he does by blaming all of his actions on others, so he doesn't really have the kinds of inner conflicts the other characters do. I think this is why he's opaque to Richard.

Pardo also appears as a kind of mirror or complement to Martin Brown; both are obsessed with their own portrayals in media. Brown acts in Midnight Animal because he wants to kill people; it is a way to live out a fantasy. Pardo projects the fantasy that he's in a movie onto his real violence. They embody the game's tendency to mix reality and fantasy and are, consequently, two of its most obscure characters.

I mentioned earlier that the combo system demands we ignore many of the game's mechanics, and Pardo's levels show that off. His ground kills are some of the slowest in the game, and like many of the characters he plays like a worse version of Jacket. Doing executions with guns is a new idea, and Pardo could be at least tolerable if Dennaton had tweaked the combo system to accommodate him. Ground kills leave you vulnerable, and the measly 200 point bonus from them isn't worth losing a combo over. The best move 99% of the time is to avoid executions.

Avoiding executions effectively means never hitting enemies with doors, thrown weapons, or punches. So the game is asking us to ignore most of its mechanics.

Weapon Pickup Issues

Even if you stick to only doing normal kills with guns, Wrong Number has some frustrating technical issues. {— Some are just changes for the worse, and some are very obvious, aggravating glitches. —} It's very difficult, for example, to pick up a weapon you want off the ground. Your character has a pick-up radius, and if a weapon is in that radius it's possible to pick it up. But if there are two eligible weapons the game needs to decide which one to default to. If there's a weapon you haven't picked up before, you'll get that one, but otherwise you'll get the one you threw first. So as a rule, you get whichever weapon you dropped the longest time ago.

In Hotline 1 it's pretty easy to get the weapon you want, so I thought there must be a different piece of code deciding which one to pick up. The actual Game Maker project files for Hotline Miami are available online, so I decided to take a look at how weapon pickups work. When you right click the game calls a script called Player Pickup 2. It checks if there's a weapon close to you and picks it up, or throws the weapon you're holding. It doesn't have any explicit way of dealing with multiple weapon options as far as I can tell, but I was surprised that in practice it behaves exactly like Wrong Number.

Many people, myself included, have complained about weapon pickups being significantly more frustrating in Wrong Number, but it's the same system. The actual problem is a lot more subtle; it stems from the physics of dropped weapons. In Hotline 1 weapons behave very randomly when they're dropped or thrown. There's a pretty pronounced, random bounce when a weapon hits a wall, and they go flying when you knock an enemy down. In Wrong Number this got toned way down, and weapon bouncing is totally deterministic. {== do a demo in both games ==}

It adds a bit more realism, but combine this new behaviour with some glitchy collisions and an emphasis on choke-points and what you get are piles of five to ten weapons that require a long, awkward pause to pull a fresh gun out of. Since there are no more random bounces, all the weapons you throw out of the pile will make a fresh clump somewhere else.

You could argue that this adds a strategic element to the game, but in practice you can't really avoid killing enemies in choke-points and I've never seen anyone intentionally separate enemies to make weapon pickups easier.

Not only is it a huge pain to get the weapon you want, but sometimes pickups just don't work. If a weapon is near a wall there's a good chance that you just won't be able to pick it up without awkwardly flailing around it for a few seconds. {== demo ==} I've never noticed this glitch in Hotline 1, but even if it is in that game the weapon bouncing would make it a lot more tolerable. In Wrong Number, thrown weapons end up next to walls most of the time, so there's always some doubt as to whether you'll be able to pick it up or if you'll get killed by no fault of your own instead.

Hotline Miami is an uncompromisingly difficult precision shooter, and these issues put an infuriating layer of randomness over the whole thing. Pickups are a little finicky in Hotline 1, but you can get a feel for how the system works. In Hotline 2 practically every time I pick up a weapon I have to be prepared to mash right mouse in case I need to convince the game that I want it badly enough. Hotline Miami needs a set of clear, reliable mechanics for its gameplay to be satisfying. A lot of this review comes down to my feelings about the game but this glitch is totally unacceptable, and it's disappointing to see it still in the game after six years. I don't know if it's been patched in console versions of the game, but the Steam release is still broken.

{== Death Wish ==}

Dead Ahead was kind of an arbitrary difficulty spike, but it set us up for a real climax with the Fans. For the first half of the game, the Fans are sort of set up as the main characters; they have the most levels, and they weave in and out of the other characters’ stories. Death Wish is another long, difficult level that has us play as each of the Fans in turn. It also features the best song in the game, Roller Mobster.

{== you know it ==}

{== for this part: weave between montage and speech.==}

The music does a lot to keep the momentum going, but Death Wish has all the usual hallmarks of Wrong Number’s level design, and it’s four screens long. Again, if you aren’t a high-level player the whole thing slows down to a crawl of baiting and clearing out enemies. There are many, many opportunities to be killed from offscreen and, while I think Dennaton tried to design each screen around its respective character, the unpredictable enemy AI makes all the little character-specific set pieces pretty unreliable.

All the Fans' abilities are very action movie, and they reinforce that their ultimate goal is "feeling cool." Mark has duel machine guns he can hold out to the sides. There’s a pretty obvious spot to use his ability but it will get you killed more often than not; you have to clear every other enemy before doing the cool thing, which feels like more trouble than it’s worth. Corey's floor is meant to use the dodge roll, but I've rarely seen it work for anyone other than speedrunners.

Tony’s screen is the best of the four. Ranged combat is off the table so the level is much tighter and balanced around melee combat, which is a breath of fresh air.

The last floor features Alex & Ash, who once again shake up Wrong Number’s formula in a unique and fun way. Alex and Ash are, as you might guess, two characters. Alex wields a chainsaw, and Ash wields a gun. You control the former while the latter follows. You need to know roughly where Ash is to aim shots, but only Alex has a hitbox. Ash also finds new guns on his own, which sidesteps the weapon pickup issue. It doesn’t make all the game’s long corridors go away, but Alex and Ash are one of Wrong Number's best-executed ideas. Their screen is unfortunately the worst part of Death Wish.

They aren't deep characters, but their bond to one another is communicated by the mechanics. It's obvious that they act in lockstep, and complement one another, because by taking control of Alex we also influence Ash. This is communicated as you play through their screen, and the dramatic moment at the end of the level is much more impactful because of it.

{== ow.wav ==}


Act 4: Falling (Themes, in detail)

Evan & Secret Levels Thematic Analysis

{== play Evan cutscene up to Richard ==}

Evan's encounter with Richard solidifies that he is a reflection of each character's own doubts, rather than a distinct character with agency. Richard's appearance, as Jacket in a chicken mask, suggests that Jacket's image haunts each character; as I've said, the game's events still revolve around Jacket, and each character is somehow invested in his story.

Richard takes the face of Evan's wife trying to dissuade him from working on his book about Fifty Blessings. The stakes of his story aren't life and death, but rather a trade off between his work and his family. Evan is fiercely dedicated to this book, and the game communicates this mechanically with his enraged state. His sprite in this state is reminiscent of Rambo, which hearkens back to his time in the war.

We could also read Evan's plotline as kind of a meta-commentary like the Fans or the Pig Butcher, wherein Evan is an interpreter of Hotline Miami, but the meta elements don't really build toward a point, so I don't think that's a theory worth entertaining.

In any case, Evan's inner conflict is made more explicit in two secret scenes that he can access.

The Abyss sees Evan infiltrating an abandoned Fifty Blessings HQ. Unlocking the level requires you to go through Jake's final level which features the active Fifty Blessing Headquarters back in 1989. {== play cutscene, maybe note that it's a few levels after Subway ==} In 1991, Evan walks in on a whole bunch of masked people hanging out in front of a Fifty Blessings symbol. {== Abyss dialogue ==} They could be a bunch of squatters that think Evan is a landlord, but I think there's something more surreal going on.

The level's title is probably a reference to that famous quote {== Wilhelm Friedrich "Locke" Nietzsche, "Don't look too close in a dark hole or you might fall in" ==} and Evan's rage mode tells us he has a hidden tendency toward violence. The game seems to be saying that Evan's search for the truth—his probing the abyss—is pushing that part of him closer to the surface. The game alludes to his personal investment in the story he's trying to cover, but leaves room for ambiguity, which is in the spirit of the game's plot. It actually does a great job creating a sort of false perspective, where we can imagine a much deeper story for Evan than what is ever revealed.

There's a secret encounter with Biker that Evan can also find at the end of scene 13. It doesn't say a lot but features another surreal scene of all but one of the game's character's hanging out at a place called Hank's bar, which is probably run by one of the members of Beard's squad from 1985. {== on-screen?: Barnes uses the codename Hank over the radio at one point ==} The scene raises the question of whose perspective Wrong Number is seen from; the Bar of Broken Heroes isn't a literal place, but it's also clearly not a hallucination. At risk of turning this into a Game Theory video, I think the bar scene realizes Evan's inner state; the book he's writing is meant to unify these disparate but connected people into a single narrative. The bar as a metaphor brings all of these characters into contact with one another whereas violence tears them apart {== this is how I read what Richard says to Evan in the table cutscene ==}. The only major character who is not present is one who Evan meets later, in Act 5.

The Actual Level

Anyway, scene 13 features the best song in the game but also shows off one of its worst design habits. I've probably said 1000 times already that Wrong Number focuses a lot on making levels that evoke real places, and one of the ways that manifests itself is in the game's relatively muted colour palettes. Subway looks boring. It is the most generic possible representation of a metro station, lacking any interesting posters fallen to the ground, mosaic art in the tiles, or really any character at all.

Having these monotone levels as a palette cleanser every once in a while would be welcomed, but there are loads of levels like this in the game. The second screen of Homicide, Hard News, the police station levels, most of the Hawaii levels, the Abyss, Demolition, and Blood Money are all just huge planes of grey or beige. They're not bad in and of themselves, but there's far too many of them and they clash with the aesthetic of the music, UI, and gameplay.

Hotline 1's levels were very samey, but this also meant they had a consistent aesthetic through-line that was tied into the game's themes. I understand the urge to make levels more realistic, since Wrong Number has an actual plot, but I think a better balance could have been struck to keep each level visually interesting. The game's cutscenes are overflowing with little pieces of environmental storytelling, and the Henchman's level has some really nice details that I think set it apart, but many of the levels are just boring to look at.

Evan's scenes are redeemed by how differently they play from the regular ones. Subway was built for a melee character. It focuses on waiting for the right cycles and baiting enemies out, and there are some interesting ideas like these one-way barricades and a stealth section {== show it ==}. Wrong Number is a very long game and I think more ideas like this could give levels an identity and shake things up a little bit. {== Also, if you're playing for a big combo you can just fail the stealth section and easily clear the screen. ==}

Hawaii Story/Themes

The Hawaii storyline is one of Wrong Number's greatest successes, but it's interspersed with some of the worst levels in the game. I'll be talking about Wrong Number's level design more in Act 5, but for now let's just say the Hawaii levels are its lowest points.

While I can see how the Hawaii cutscenes that contextualize Hotline 1 could be interpreted as fan-service {— , since Beard being a cashier hearkens back to the first game, —} I think they succeeds in fleshing out the first game's story without cheapening it. Since both games are based around the same loop of awful violence and usually-banal cutscenes, we get a kind of window into how Jacket sees the world. His experience in Hawaii patterns his future, and we see that in his coma dream he inserts Beard into every cashier role because his time in Hawaii weighs so heavily on him. The "real person" Jacket is more like Travis Bickle than the Driver. This was a latent idea in the first game but the Hawaii story makes it very clear that Jacket's actions were motivated by some sort of trauma from the war.

There's an {~~ dualism ~> ambiguity ~~} inherent to Hotline Miami that I've had trouble expressing but I think this is the key to it: to understand what the game is saying you have to kind of look through it rather than at it. Hotline Miami is, in every possible sense, played from the killer's perspective. It points toward the truth but rarely makes it explicit; Jacket imagines himself as the Driver and immerses himself in a fake, synthwave world because that is how he can rationalize what he's doing. The game is played in third person: its violence is not directly experienced, and this is echoed in Jacket's mask-wearing that creates a gap between him and his actions.

We could, and many people have, spun this idea into a critique of video game violence. There's a case to be made for that, but Wrong Number shows that Dennaton had a clear focus on Hotline's plot and world so I've been focusing on how the game's form communicates its characters.

Beard himself isn't as fleshed out as Jacket; he's a reliable, loyal, and level-headed soldier who generally does as he's told. He is able to integrate what he's doing in something like a healthy way, so he's sort of the opposite of Jacket. It's clear that the two are friends, and we learn in the first Hawaii level that the photo from the end of Hotline 1 is a picture of them.

{== Stronghold ending ==}

The next Hawaii mission reveals more history. It also features the best song in the game.

{== Casualties ==}

The Colonel's monologue is the clearest explanation of what Hotline Miami is trying to communicate. The Colonel is depicted as a generally caring person; he's attached to his squad and is hesitant about sending them into combat. He has some clear doubts about the war and his role in it, but with this sequence something seems to break or change in him. He etches what will be the Fifty Blessings logo into a panther skin that he wears as a mask, so it's very likely that he was the originator of Fifty Blessings.

Violence in Hotline Miami is obviously connected to the animal masks that Fifty Blessings members wear. For those that wear masks, violence is also something that is imposed on them from outside; Jacket and Richter are reluctantly folded into Fifty Blessings, and the Colonel is troubled by the war. Of course the Colonel's monologue is about violent acts reducing people to animals, but it also suggests that structures which incentivize violence are animalizing: like the chain of command in a war, or the Fifty Blessings organization.

The game's depiction of what we might call systemic violence is very subtle and true-to-life: it seems at first like Wrong Number deals with the actions of many individuals, but upon reflection we see that the violence in Hawaii is the nexus for all of the future violence that plays out in the series.

Wrong Number applies its critique even to depictions of violence: its universe punishes Martin Brown for acting in Midnight Animal, while Pardo and the Fans are heavily influenced by media coverage of Jacket's crimes. Even Jake can be seen as influenced by an anti-Russian zeitgeist; we know very little about him but he seems the type to adopt a media scapegoat rather than arrive at hating Russians from some intellectual process. No offense to him.

Wrong Number is framed as a movie, and it freely blurs the line between reality and fantasy. That new game plus cutscene I talked about ends with Richard watching the movie that is Hotline Miami 2. It brings the agency of each character into question, and suggests that they are all condemned to their fates by the structure of their world and of the game itself. The movie motif is a good way to communicate this because, obviously, movies are set in stone while games change a little bit every time we play them.

I like the way Wrong Number handles violence, especially in contrast to the non-explanations we see in the real world. We see mass killings pinned on any number of cultural pariahs, usually a radical ideology, mental illness, or guns themselves. These explanations have shades of truth to them, but they allow violence to be explained away as something aberrant and isolated, and ignore the much messier truth that mental illness and hatred don't just come from nowhere. They arise from conditions within society that people can't necessarily see or control.

The game questions its characters' free will precisely because their world has turned them into violent animals: you can't really say an animal has free will, at least not the way we do. One character manages to escape this, and we'll talk about him later.

Wrong Number does necessarily simplify things, compacting the whole story into the fallout of Jacket's actions. But by understanding Jacket, which I think we do by now, we can understand the whole spectrum of forces that he represents.

The Colonel also points out, much like the end of Hotline 1 does, that violence is fun and cathartic. This is clearly directed at the first-time player, who Dennaton know very well has no idea what's going on in the story. The player is just given a series of guiding arrows and a set of mechanical possibilities, and then they kill without really knowing why. It isn't so much a criticism of the player as a call to attention, encouraging them to reflect on the experience.

Hawaii's role as the source of the game's violence extends even further; the purple panthers appear at the end of Hotline 1, and the plants which grow in Hawaii share a colour scheme with the Russian Mafia's new drug, suggesting it's made from the plant. The mafia is starting a war with this drug, and both times we see people use it end in bloodshed. The Fifty Blessings phone calls mimic the coded language that the soldiers use.

{== Casualties Ending ==}

But Wrong Number Doesn't Transcend

So the game's plot is extremely well thought-out, timely, and tastefully delivered. The question is whether or not Wrong Number is able to translate all of its good ideas into a game. In my review of Amnesia Rebirth I said that themes and plot had to flow through the gameplay, but that's imprecise. Games have art and writing that exist kind of separately from the mechanics, but ideally every element supports every other. Cruelty Squad, for example, is a consummate assault on the senses, with art, music, and writing that is fascinating on its own, but it works as a game precisely because its mechanics allow us to inhabit the world it imagines, a world made up of that art, music, and writing.

You'll have to forgive me for being so nebulous about this, but I think a comparison with movies can at least give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Stalker is an absolutely fantastic achievement in film-making. Moving images are what set films apart from other media, obviously, and in my view the greatest works of a medium are those that use what is unique to it. A great film communicates to us not just by showing something, but by moving and changing what is shown.

The characters in Stalker are perpetually on edge, out of their depth, and overwhelmed by an ominous sense of possibility. They venture into a place called the Zone, where their guide says strange and terrible things often happen. It looks like Russian countryside, but the possibility and the mystery associated with the Zone defamiliarizes it for the characters.

For Stalker to do this idea justice, the images on screen need to become for the audience what the Zone is for the characters. Tarkovsky uses these lingering shots that move over mud with garbage sunken into it to create a miraculous effect where you just have no idea what you're looking at. He uses the motion of the camera to make the ground beneath our feet alien to us. These shots totally communicate what the characters are going through and create, at least for me, a deep empathy for them.

The film supports and contextualizes these images with its plot and musical choices, and those are indispensable, but what sticks with me are those moments where I'm transported to the Zone, and those moments deepen the impact of everything else.

Great games have moments in them that are difficult to pin down where every element is in perfect harmony and the game is able to speak to the player's soul. Meeting Looks to the Moon for the first time after the hours of oppressively difficult traversal through Rain World was the first time a game made me cry. Moments like this don't arise from visuals and music and plot and gameplay considered in isolation, but from the way they are bound together by the mechanics and the player's experience of them.

When I say everything flows through gameplay, I mean that for a game to really work, it has to relate all of its elements back to what the player is actually doing. A really simple example of this is when your attacks sync up with the music. The gameplay—pressing an attack button—is bringing order and context to these other elements—the animations and music. I should point out that neither part of the equation is lesser—sounds and visuals are very important to the way a game feels—but the player's interaction, the gameplay, is what puts everything in motion.

Game Sucks

Wrong Number never reached the point of fully immersing me, and there are broadly two reasons for this. First, its gameplay is not varied enough to communicate the motivations and desires of different characters. Everybody comes off as similar to Jacket because they engage with the game's world in the same way. As I've already said, characters like Evan fare better than Pardo or Jake because they do have distinct, memorable playstyles. The Hawaii levels also try to do something new, which I appreciate, but it leads into the other big problem: Wrong Number has too many points of friction between the player and the game.


Act 5: Intermission (Level Design)

{== NUKE GOES OFF ==}: Yeah, we'll get to that.

I've already discussed the glitches and my own technical complaints, but if we're talking about friction I can't avoid getting into Wrong Number's level design, because that is really where it falls apart.

In Act 5 we return to Evan's story, as he's interviewing Richter, the rat mask guy from Hotline 1, about his involvement in Fifty Blessings. I'm going to let the story play out as I discuss the game's level design, but in summary Richter is a good man who is caring for his ailing mother until a series of threatening phone calls and a torched car bring him into Fifty Blessings. I get the impression that he's teetering on the edge of poverty. Act 5 shows Richter's progression from reluctant vigilante to skilled killer.

Intro to Level Design Critique

{++ IMPORTANT: measure & compare walk speeds with HM1 ++}

I spent a lot of time trying to pin down the problems I had with Wrong Number. The whole thing felt generally sluggish to me, so I thought there must be some changes to movement or combat that slowed the game down. But every test I performed showed little to no change. People have suggested that characters walk slow, or have a turning speed, or have slow animations, but basically none of that is true. There are small variations in attack animations but I don't think that's the problem.

Just like the weapon pickup mechanic, there's lot more nuance than I was expecting. But these aren't just my weird theories, I've heard tons of people theorize about why Wrong Number feels the way it does, so I think it's still worth investigating.

The weapon pickup glitch slows the game down a lot at times, but the big change between Hotline 1 and 2 is the level design. Hotline Miami's levels are such a perfect canvas for its moment-to-moment gameplay that their design is pretty much invisible; it's like they designed themselves. They show a perfect understanding of what is possible and satisfying within the bounds of the game, and the game is great precisely because the level design gets out of the way and lets Hotline Miami's mechanical excellence be the focus.

Unlike Hotline 1, each of Wrong Number's levels is important to the story it's trying to communicate, so I think trying to make levels feel like real places was a good decision for the sequel and could have elevated it...

Point 1: Doesn't Guide Weapon Choices

...but I still prefer the first game's design. Hotline 1's levels are a great deal easier than Wrong Number's, but I actually don't think Wrong Number's levels are hard enough—or rather, they're not the right kind of difficult. Even if I don't agree with it, Wrong Number does have an intent with its gameplay: it wants you to use guns, and the developers have said exactly that. The trouble is that the game never insists that you actually do it.

I mean this in the sense that Mario games insist you don't fall into pits; if you do you get booted to the beginning of the level. Death isn't really a major punishment in Hotline Miami, so there needs to be some other mechanism for punishing this kind of play.

I have a few potential solutions: either make the game near-impossible for melee players, to really get the message across; or force players to use guns in the early levels. Melee weapons could break, or just be super rare. I think they tried to make guns appealing with Pardo, but the other two early-game characters Corey and Jake are both mechanically agnostic when it comes to guns; there are ways to use their abilities with or without them.

The second level with the Fans is when we unlock Tony, so most players will try him out. It seems like the developer's intent was that we play Moving Up as Tony. If we assume that's true, it tells us that, even in levels with long corridors, open spaces, and many lines of sight melee is not only a viable strategy, but an intended one. This comes off as sloppy, unclear design and I think Tony should have been paired with a level that was good for him. {== on screen: like I said if the game is communicating to us badly on purpose it's still annoying and not supported thematically. ==}

Dennaton could also tweak the scoring system to push players to try guns. My initial playthrough for this video got a lot of A-ranks, and I didn't use guns all that much. In fact, my lowest grade was a C, and I only got that three times. I barely used any guns back in 2015, and got similarly high scores. The grades go all the way down to F [^3] so I was able to consistently do better than average by playing the game wrong. In Hotline 1, guns aren't great for scores or speed, and Wrong Number never tells us that that has changed. It is painful and slow to use melee weapons, but never to such an extent that you have to quit using them.

But lack of communication aside, is focusing the game around guns a good idea? Hotline Miami was pretty simple to begin with, but Wrong Number either removes or disincentives players from using most of its mechanics. Hostage taking is gone, which is fine by me, but ground kills are almost always a bad idea and, in turn, knocking people down with weapons or doors is also a bad idea. Wrong Number is significantly longer than Hotline 1 and, because of the significant focus on firearms and the significantly slower ground kills, it's also significantly more repetitive.

Wrong Number has all the pieces of a great game, and a character with slow executions and a firearm focus would be a good addition to the roster. But that is the dominant playstyle, and the lack of distinct character mechanics undercuts the whole concept of having different characters. The character system was meant to improve upon the masks of Hotline 1, which were a last-minute addition, and when there's an actual idea on offer it's great. But far too many of the characters are just some guy, especially on a first playthrough when you don't understand the story. Ironically, it makes the character mechanics feel more like an afterthought than the masks were.

Many fans of the first game missed the mask system, and I think that a big part of that is how many of the characters are half-baked.

Point 2: White Cursor White Floor (More Bugs &c.)

Small annoyances are a common theme with Wrong Number, and I think this one little issue epitomizes the game's problem with received mechanics. Your cursor is white, and some levels have white or nearly white floors that make it very difficult to see where you're aiming. If that's a design choice, it appears at random times throughout the game with no justification, and creates friction between the world we're supposed to be immersed in and a UI element. That interaction doesn't support the themes, and the game hides information in a much more organic way by making levels dark {== show that Son level ==}.

Three obvious solutions are to make white areas of flooring very small, have a special white floor cursor, or have the cursor be an inverted version of whatever is behind it. I'm sure those latter two have their own issues, so I would just avoid white flooring whenever possible. It was a good decision to use Wrong Number to build on Hotline 1's foundation, but it seems like Dennaton weren't willing to acknowledge the limits of that foundation, and weren't willing to change it either.

It is such an obvious and easy-to-fix problem that I can't help but just call it a mistake. All they needed to do was notice that the cursor is hard to see, and make some floor textures a little darker.

In principle, Hotline 1 did share the cursor problem, but it was much less pronounced since levels were smaller, and Hotline 1 is easier anyway so it never really came up. The same is true of the game's glitchy AI. I highlighted this a couple of times in my first video, but there is some jank with enemy pathing, sometimes you can't hit enemies if they're in doors or on top of you, and wandering enemies can sometimes get stuck. {== Do I have footage of the dog fountain? ==}

Wrong Number has big levels and dying due to glitches is extra-frustrating because a death sets you back so far. The game demands more of the player than ever before but isn't willing to improve its systems to meet those demands.

There are some new enemy types this time around that I do like, and they basically cover every possible threat you could have in a game like Hotline. There are enemies you can only kill with melee, and there are big guys with guns. Sadly, they only appear in a few levels each. They don't feel gimmicky or annoying, and the melee-only enemies bring some welcomed variety to the game.

Point 3: Length (Temporal Size)

Another aspect of Wrong Number that made it feel like a slog for me was that I thought I was dying significantly more than in the first game. I recorded a whole bunch of statistics on my playthroughs of both games and while they're not super scientific they do reflect my experience. This chart represents the amount of time I spent dying, winning, in story sequences, and in menus in Hotline 1. Time spent dying is any gameplay that results in a death, and time spent winning is any gameplay that results in me making progress. I spent around half of my time dying, a quarter winning, and a quarter in cutscenes or Jacket's apartment.

In my head I imagined that measuring Wrong Number would show a huge percentage of deaths and cutscenes, and barely any winning. And I was wrong again. In terms of ratios, Hotline 1 and 2 are basically the same. But in absolute terms, Wrong Number is a much longer game with much longer levels. A median Hotline 1 level takes around three and a half minutes to complete, while the median Hotline 2 level takes seven and a half.

This isn't necessarily a problem, but a big part of what makes Wrong Number frustrating is the time it takes to complete a level. Obviously the gameplay is compelling in and of itself, but in Hotline Miami, and most games for that matter, satisfaction comes from completing a screen or level because those are markers of progress. Adding longer screens increase the stakes of play. In Hotline 1 you never get the sense that you stand to lose anything by dying. You're meant to just try over and over, letting a strategy develop over time. Each screen is relatively short, taking a minute or two at most to complete.

Wrong Number has bigger screens with more enemies, and dying at the end of them feels like a genuine setback. And since this is Hotline Miami, you will die many times. I don't think it's necessarily bad to try to make the game more tense, but this is another decision that pushes the player to slow down and bait enemies. These incentives run up against the game's scoring system, which incentivizes the player to go fast, and this creates even more frustration. You're not only forced to slow down but you're losing points because of it too.

Point 4: Size (Spatial Size)

{++ Maybe bring up the big screen in Hot & Heavy, and later HM1 levels in general? Hot & Heavy footage: HM1b-03.mp4 @ 7:40 ++}

I think making some levels longer is a good idea, but the game would benefit by having levels with many smaller screens rather than a few massive ones.

The absolute size of levels introduces another small annoyance. This is going to sound niche but it comes up quite a bit when I'm playing. If you fire at somebody who is offscreen on a big level, it is sometimes impossible to know if you killed them. The game's background lights up every time you get a kill, but in some levels the backdrop is completely hidden by the level, and this can lead to situations where you don't know if you killed somebody.

That small point sidesteps the larger issue of getting shot from offscreen. It is usually hypothetically possible to avoid being killed from offscreen—the game will show you an enemy a while before you have to face them. But in Hotline Miami all the enemies look the same, and they move to new places if they see or hear you, so players can't be sure where a specific enemy will be a few seconds from now. You can't be sure somebody who starts the level at the end of a hallway will still be there later on.

So, in practice you'll get killed by off-screen enemies fairly often, or you'll find yourself backtracking to get a safe view of the enemy before facing them. Backtracking through an empty level is profoundly unsatisfying while the game is still playing intense music and running a timer on you, and getting killed by an offscreen enemy feels unfair even if it technically isn't.

It seems that screens are designed this way on purpose; windows, huge rooms, and long wide hallways abound in most levels. I've watched a lot of people play through Wrong Number, and most of them just seem kind of confused and alienated by most of it. The level design exacerbates all of the existing gameplay issues and, as I've said, they push players toward carefully baiting and clearing every level rather than having any fun.

The larger levels also don't work well with the game's visuals. {== Show hallway in Demolition ==} One of the best things about Hotline's levels is that they're packed with little details, but Wrong Number has many long stretches of repetitive floor texture. It's not that there should be arbitrary objects sitting around in the bank, but that these rooms are just way too big.

The third floor of Stronghold is so huge and repetitive that it's difficult to even know where you are at any given time.

Sometimes the scale of a level doesn't even match the characters and objects in it; the size of this hallway for example {== Demolition Hallway ==} doesn't make any sense.

Richter's Levels, Specifically Release

I kind of glossed over it, but Act 5 has some great levels. First Blood and House Call are informed more by Hotline 1's design, but they have elements that feel sort of puzzle-y as well. Richter's story is about him coming to terms with and eventually kind of embracing what he's doing, and including some puzzles gives the impression that he's still learning the ropes.

{++ Point of comparison: the opening of HM1's Deadline. HM1b-03 @ 20:20 ++}

Puzzle might be the wrong word, but Richter's levels have little set pieces that call attention back to the moment to moment gameplay rather than the greater strategic thinking the player is probably doing. In First Blood for example you need to get a gun and quickly kill a bunch of people that run at you, and in the second floor of Demolition you have to quickly throw a weapon to dispatch a guy pointing a pistol at you.

The intended strategy is obvious, so these situations draw our minds to the execution. It's meant to emulate the process of doing something for the first time; you're following steps instead of looking at the situation as a whole. In First Blood Richter sees the gun and the six enemies with pipes and bats, and the solution is to knock the gunman down, pick up his weapon, and kill the melee guys. It's like following the instructions to put a table together versus making one from lumber. In the first case, you're following definite instructions, and thinking about what screws go where using what tool; while in the latter case you're conceiving of the whole design and how to realize it with all of the tools in your arsenal.

The music has a slow intro and an arpeggiated melody, which reinforces Richter's reluctance and then the "discrete steps" of the level.

This is also a good time to applaud the VHS covers that were created for each level. They appear when you go into the level select menu and reinforce the movie motif. Many of them are straightforward references but they're a great addition that shows the amount of love put into Wrong Number. First Blood's cover shows a rat skewered with a green umbrella, which probably represents the events in Hawaii rippling out to consume Richter. {== on screen: I have heard it may be a chicken. In that case, idk. ==}

As Richter's levels go on, these puzzle-y elements recede until he's on the same footing as the other characters. He comes to look at violence like the cops and soldiers do, and his final level is, consequently, a return to the game's usual design.

Despite the earlier success, Richter's story culminates in another long, frustrating, and overwhelmingly grey level. Richter is caught and sent to prison, where he encounters the janitors from Hotline 1. {== play it ==} It's likely that they orchestrated the chaos to follow, either to free Richter or kill him off. Since the janitors are literally the developers of the game, and Richter escapes, they are probably trying to free him, and when they say his time is up they're referring to the nuke.

Anyway, Release sees Richter escape the prison in the chaos of a riot. It begins with a boss fight on par with the forgettable Phone Hom level in Hotline 1. Next Richter fights through a few screens of prison guards, dons a guard uniform, then fights through a few screens of prisoners.

This tells us Richter has come to view violence amorally: he kills to survive, and although he never really loses himself, he's definitely less reluctant to murder people than he was four levels ago. Richter doesn't have any kind of twisted morality; he acts purely as an animal reacting to threats, with no allegiance to the guards or fellow prisoners.

That's an interesting character arc, but I think Wrong Number fumbles with Richter's story; I said earlier that the game was trying to dig at the causes of violence, and instead of depicting Richter as somebody driven into killing by poverty and then fully dehumanized by the prison system, he joins Fifty Blessings because they threaten him, and then he loses his scruples over the course of the three hits he does for them. He's less conflicted than Jacket was.

Poverty drives crime in real life, so I find it odd that the game would shy away here when it explores war in such detail.


Act 6: Catastrophe (The Son, Structural Issues)

Introduction to the Son

The final levels of the game focus on a character named the Son. The Son is the son of the father, the final boss of Hotline 1. Jacket destroyed the Russian mafia at the end of the first game [^4] and the Son's levels are about restoring that old glory.

{== show Act 6 opening cutscene ==}

This cutscene gives some context to the Henchman's story as well; his priorities diverge from the Son's and he senses the danger he's getting into by going to war with the Colombians.

We can't really learn anything more about the game by looking at individual levels. There are some design ideas I like: Seizure uses darkness to increase the difficulty in a way that doesn't come off as cheap. Enemies are much harder to see and it makes the level more interesting in terms of both style and gameplay. Hotline 1 featured darkness in a way that didn't really effect {~~ affect?? ~~} gameplay, {== HM1 level Push It, HM1b-02 @ 16:09 ==} so I think this is a clear improvement. {— The level Blood Money is set in a bank, which feels fresh despite the white cursor white floor problem. —}

The Son's abilities are the same as the Fans', with some inconsequential changes. His dodge roll form starts with a katana, which is pretty much useless for reasons I've already explained. The Son is the kind of character who fits well with the bombastic music and combo meter, so despite their weak design his levels don't clash with the game's themes.

Structural Problems

The Fans are the Game's Best Idea (and they get merced)

Wrong Number stretches the Hotline Miami formula extremely thin, and it really starts to grate as we approach the end. I think the game is absolutely too long, but it also has a really strange structure that makes the entire second half feel like an epilogue.

The Fans are Wrong Number's best idea, and they die half way through the game. We experience the game's opening moments as the Fans, and most players probably got a feel for the game with Corey as their avatar. They aren't good people but for better or worse the Fans act as a surrogate for the player. We spend a lot of time with them and their experience is the closest match to ours, which is appropriate given their name.

They also weave in and out of other characters' stories, which helps to tie the game's sprawling cast together and give its world some kind of cohesion. When they die in level 12 it feels like a definite climax; you play as each Fan in turn through one of the hardest levels in the game. The actual structure of the game contrasts with this, since the climax happens less than half way through. {== in terms of playtime ==}

Wrong Number goes a long way to stress that its violence is a pointless waste of life, and I think the aimlessness of the second half of the game is meant to represent this. You could argue that it's just too smart and avant-garde for me, but even if the game is structured the way it is on purpose, it isn't compelling. What the game needs to do is communicate that these piles and piles of bodies are accumulating for no reason, not simply add bodies to that pile for twelve levels too many.

So What's Left?

Left without the Fans as main characters, Evan kind of takes over, but it's a role he mostly plays in cutscenes. He only gets one level after the Fans die, and then reappears later to frame Richter's levels. That would be great if Wrong Number were a book, but in terms of the actual game we're left without an anchor; there's no central character that unifies everything, and it leaves the game just staggering around tying up loose ends from Hotline 1.

The gameplay itself doesn't really undergo any changes; there are some permutations on it like the darkness in Seizure, but these are gimmicks that don't really provide us any thematic direction like Evan's playstyle did. After the initial ramp up the difficulty jumps all over the place so it doesn't provide any structure or momentum that way either. The overwhelming focus on guns flattens the whole experience; framing devices change over the course of the game but what you're doing is just shooting and peeking around corners.

Hotline 1 was repetitive, and it focused on a single character, but it didn't outstay its welcome. It had enough little gimmicks and minibosses that it could sustain itself over it's short playtime, and it had two big switches in framing from the anonymous coma-dream apartments to real hospitals and police stations, and then to Biker's perspective. The levels are compact and short so the whole game just flows.

A Few Little Things

Before we get to the end, I want to talk about a few smaller points that didn't fit anywhere else.

Wrong Number has a level editor. It's not the greatest thing in the world—it was released way after the game came out and it's pretty awkward to use—but it is powerful for people who know what they're doing. A level editor is a perfect fit for Hotline Miami, and it has allowed the game's community to stay active for the last six years. Dennaton didn't have to go out of their way to make it, and I think it's representative of how much love was put into Wrong Number in spite of its problems.

A big part of Hotline Miami is getting high scores. I spent a decent amount of time trying to get S-ranks for footage and for fun, and there are a number of small annoyances when you're trying to go back and play old levels. There's a very slow fade when you enter the continue screen, which adds a few unnecessary seconds if you don't want to blindly navigate the menu. Within the level selector, you have to select an act and then a scene, then choose to skip the opening cutscene. I understand why levels are grouped by act, but I find it frustrating that the default option isn't to skip the opening.

Most players are only going to go through the story a few times, while players that like the game will be entering that level select screen hundreds of times. They don't need to be reminded of the game's structure and they don't want to watch the cutscenes again. I know it's a really small thing but I found the slow fade and having to select to skip the cutscene frustrating when I was jumping between levels. It was such a pain that I tried to find a mod for it, but to no avail.

7. Apocalypse (Conclusion)

It's appropriate that Wrong Number ends with the Son trying to recapture a spirit from the past. Like the Son will live forever in his father's shadow, Wrong Number with all of its twists and explanations never overcomes the immense weight of its predecessor.

The game has its moments, and it's a sequel that doesn't misunderstand the original. It ends with a beautiful boss fight against the Fans. It's the best one in the series by far, and one of the most memorable parts of the game.

I'm going to talk about the nuke and what it represents, because somebody will give me shit if I don't prove that I understand it, but it feels absolutely ridiculous to drop a nuclear bomb in the fourth act of a six act story. In Act 4, we only see Beard's death but it's easy to infer that all of the characters are dead. The nuke accentuates once again that the events of the game are ultimately pointless, and we're stuck playing the remaining nine levels even though we know the outcome doesn't matter.

In its proper place at the end of the game, I think nuclear war is a perfect ending and the game's final sequence is actually quite beautiful. Violence begets violence, and nuclear war is the final ripple from the events in Hawaii. We can assume that the general who assassinates the presidents of the U.S. and Russia is the colonel from Hawaii, the same guy who started Fifty Blessings.

The final moments of each character's life are interspersed with the credits and the only track in the game that prominently features singing. It might be the best song in the game {== cut this sentence off, joke ==}. By killing off each of its multi-faceted characters, Wrong Number resists any kind of moralistic interpretation—the series points toward an animal that lies dormant in everybody, good or bad, and it ultimately treats everyone the same.

Despite that, the game isn't fatalistic. There's no good time to be obliterated by a nuclear bomb, but the point is how characters used their lives. Pardo cowers alone in his apartment and Jacket languishes in prison, aimless as ever. They die as they lived. This suggests that the game's characters are locked into their fates by nature: Pardo's life was going to be like this, nuke or not, but the game escapes this fatalism through Evan.

Violence turns people into animals, and its no coincidence that the only pacifist in the game is able to alter his own fate. Evan can quit writing the book and die happily with his family or die alone at his typewriter. He above everybody else manages to remain a human being.

While working on this video I came around on a lot of what Dennaton wanted to do with Wrong Number, but the inescapable fact is that it never quite works. There are too many points of friction with the frustrating levels, the glitches, most of the characters, and a whole bunch of mechanics that clash with the themes and with each other for Wrong Number to add up to anything. It flares up at times into something great, but dies just as quickly.

I think Hotline Miami was more finely tuned than anyone knew at the time. That's kind of a condescending thing to say about Dennaton, but despite their earnest attempts Wrong Number just never manages to meet the standard that the first game set. For spans of a few rooms it almost gets there, but it's a game so uncomfortable with the confines of its own mechanics that it can't really use them to communicate anything. It's not content to just be Hotline Miami again, but it doesn't know how to be anything else either.

Wrong Number's story is at once about the concrete causes and effects of violence in its universe and ours, about what mediated depictions of violence do to people, about the idea of Hotline Miami versus the real thing, about game sequels, and about the lives of its own sprawling cast. It is a game struggling against its own nature and legacy.

So too with the design: there's a constant struggle between what Wrong Number wants to say and what it is. There's always a tension in the level design between compelling gameplay and creating a realistic place. The character system promises variety but is hampered by a massive roster that makes it feel like you're just playing as the same guy in different masks. The game demands extraordinary reflexes but its structure tells us very clearly that there are no stakes {== boom ==}. It struggles to build a deep, serious story on top of a game that's about killing people the best way and getting a high score.

What Wrong Number really needed was focus; it could say what it needs to say much more effectively by cutting down the number of characters and levels and developing what's left into something that's immediately compelling the way Hotline 1 was. Because a lot of the time, it's almost there. According to interviews, Wedin and Soderstrom had basically plotted out the whole story before the first game released, and it seems like that idea of Wrong Number eventually came into conflict with the sort of game that it was.

Hotline Miami is great because it explores its own internal contradictions. Wrong Number is struggling between games as art and games as toys. It's a clever story wrapped over a big, sharp series of mistakes. It feels like it doesn't want to be a game, too good for itself and certainly too good for its misunderstanding audience. If you take the skin off, and consider just the story, it's amazing. But if you look at it as a whole, the gameplay is this alien thing that occasionally "cuts through;" there's no mingling, no greater whole that the game aspires to or achieves.

The idea that a game needs a balance between gameplay and story is based on a false dichotomy, but Wrong Number is constantly in tension between what it is and what it wants to say.

I wanted to interpret Wrong Number for myself, but I did read one analysis on the Hotline Miami wiki, and I pulled from it a little bit over the course of the video. I don't want to call the guy out, but what I got from it probably isn't what he intended. It's a great post, but to explain Wrong Number he has to turn it into a movie, and completely ignore what it is as a game. It's what you would get if this video was just about Wrong Number's cutscenes. It's good, but it ignores the game right in front of us, instead looking at some ideal game with an identical story.

The same person wrote a post about Wrong Number being received poorly because its dumb gamer audience didn't "get" it. I dislike the wider gaming community as much as the next guy, and the author is partially right, but again they only focus on the story as distinct from the game itself. I know I'm very stubborn about this point, but if you have to talk about the story this way, the game failed. Game design is all about bringing the player's experience and the developer's intent into harmony, and with Hotline Miami 2 that never happens. For the game to be good, you have to remove the player.

The game tells you to go fast but you can't, and it's immensely frustrating. The game has to communicate diverse characters with homogenous mechanics, and it works maybe twice. The problem with Wrong Number isn't that people missed its multi-layered genius, it's that it builds up so much ill will over the course of a playthrough that most people were angrily mashing through all the cutscenes.

I think this ties into the eternal question: are games—at their core—too dumb to tell complex, "deep" stories? A lot of people believe that games are just toys, and I doubt Hotline Miami will change anyone's opinion either way. Obviously I can't predict what games will do in the future, but I can speak from experience. I started writing my Rain World video literally as soon as I finished the game, because when something changes your life you can't just sit there.

We can untangle themes and plot points all day, but art is about communicating experiences, and life is so multi-faceted that high art escapes description. Any medium is capable of being art, but games differ because the way they're experienced isn't set in stone. They are something you have to enter into a relationship with, and your experience won't be like anyone else's. The experience of a game is created both by the player and the developer, and both are essential to it.

We have to face the fact that, for most players, Wrong Number failed to communicate its themes clearly, and this fact is closely tied to its design problems. Only now, six years on, are we starting to see people click with Hotline Miami 2, but they're not doing it by playing it. Wrong Number is a cryptic game, and that makes it ripe for exploitation by the content machine. I think the most cutting thing I can say about Wrong Number is that it is most fun if you just watch a video explaining the story. {== possible joke: do the 80% scale thing with an earlier part of HM2:AGT ==}

The problem isn't that the game is cryptic, it's that the themes and plot barely relate to the gameplay. Hotline 1 is so tightly designed that players got a feel for what it was saying even if they didn't really pay attention to it. I know this is a weird distinction to make, but Hotline 1 communicated to players while Wrong Number just speaks at them.

This is all to say that despite its plot Wrong Number is not the video game equivalent of Citizen Kane. I don't know if that's a meaningful thing to ask of a game; the ways we interact with games don't lend themselves well to traditional stories. But I have to respect Wrong Number for trying to say something, and for being willing to alienate players. It is an uncompromising vision that was lovingly crafted, and we need more of those if games are ever going to be something more than toys. I've only been so hard on it because Hotline Miami, the original, was a glimpse at something perfect.

They added physics to decapitated heads, which is pretty cool.

Credits text

The video's over!

Thanks for watching!


[^1]: 2015 PC Gamer review

[^2]: Wedin A MAZE talk

[^3]: Score grades

[^4]: See Seizure intro cutscene.