"I wanna just explore art. That is my mission in life."
Niklas Åkerblad, aka El Huervo, has been creating all his life. He went to school for it, sure, but it's not like a formal education necessarily mattered. "I mostly did what was expected of me at art college," the Gothenburg-based artist and musician tells me, over email. "I enjoyed playing video games and drawing weird characters instead. Then I studied computer game art in college, but I did mostly the same there. Drank lots of beer."
It was in 2010 that Åkerblad's life was taken in a new direction, one that'd ultimately lead to his work being seen by millions across the world. Hotline Miami, by Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin (under the banner of Dennaton Games), was a couple of years shy of completion, but the core concept was blossoming. "I met Jonatan at No More Sweden, a sort of game jam thing, in 2010," Niklas says. "We didn't really hang out at the thing much, but on the way back home on the train he showed how to eat instant noodles raw, and that was kind of the deal breaker for me. I like classy moves like that."
Soon enough, Niklas was hanging out with the pair. "They started doing (entirely out-of-its-mind indie game-cum-music video nightmare) Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf. Dennis thought I was like some kinda Zen person back then. Which I'm not, but it was flattering." The Dennaton pair took such a shine to Niklas that it's not just his art – and music, as El Huervo – that's in the original Hotline Miami and its 2015 sequel, Wrong Number. The character of Beard, that's him, plastered all over the art for the second game.
"They basically had their mind set on everything after fiddling around with a prototype, so there wasn't much I could do except hang around sometimes and cook nutrient-rich food – I can't survive on tofu and fish sticks. Obviously that must've done something, because after hearing my song "Daisuke" they decided to put me in the game. And it was real honourable like, because Beard is the coolest character, I think. He's the only ray of 'hope' for (the original game's protagonist) Jacket."
But Dennis and Jonatan didn't immediately ask Niklas to provide what would become some seriously iconic imagery for their game. "They wanted a cover in a VHS kinda style, and initially looked for artists online," he recalls. "But I thought I should do it, so they ultimately left it in my hands. It was cool because all the characters just existed from a top-down perspective in super low-res sprites, so aside from verbal things like 'sleazy Russians' and 'pig mask', I could do whatever with it. That's how the 'B' on Jacket's, uh, jacket came to be. I just figured he had some random American football jacket with a team's logo. Like the Boston Bruins. Which, I found out, was a hockey team. Goes to show how much I know about sports."
Niklas also took inspiration from older video games, from an era when stylised graphics were the norm, with realistic character design a good few console generations away from being realised.
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"The cover was supposed to fill in the blanks that come from the obvious abstraction of 8bit-ish graphics. Just like back in the old days. Strider on the Mega Drive has a real Aryan-looking dude on the cover. Like he's Lawrence of Arabia. It's super cheesy, and he's waving his sword in an awful pose. But in the game he looks like some manga dude, onion-shaped brown hair blowing in the wind, and drawing his sword faster than any Kurosawa samurai could ever dream of. I find that kinda stuff interesting. It creates a dissonance in the player.
"So, I actually tried to do the characters the total opposite of how I saw them in the game. And be as generic as I could with the posing, like they did back in the 1980s (which is when the game's set). Also, I figured nobody would try to copy the style in their own fan art if I did it this way. Obviously, it would suck if everybody tried to copy the cover, and not follow their own visions. Nobody wants to copy the cheesy white guy on the Strider cover. You wanna draw manga-hero Strider, being bad ass."
As El Huervo, Niklas is an essential part of the sound of Hotline Miami, with three tracks on the game's soundtrack, beside contributions from artists including Sun Araw, Jasper Byrne and Scattle. "Dennis said 'it all came together' when they put "Daisuke" in the game. And with the track "Turf", I was just being inspired by what the guys were doing, and wanted to honour it. They thought the song would be perfect for the last boss battle. (Spoiler link.) It was just one of those moments when the various elements all click together."
Wrong Number received a triple-vinyl soundtrack release as part of its special edition, via iam8bit, with Niklas providing the artwork. "I tried to incorporate the feel of the music in the second game's triple-sleeve 12". I could have just gone all "Daisuke" and "Rust" over it, but that would have been too murky; plus I always felt the more disco stuff is what most players identify with. Now we have a Kickstarter though, for a triple-sleeve 12" soundtrack for the first game, and for that the colours and motifs have gone more spiritual, as well as subtler."
As Niklas says, there's currently a Kickstarter running for a triple-vinyl release of the Hotline Miami soundtrack. With well over three weeks to go, it's already smashed its target of £40,000, which is evidence enough of the massive attraction of owning these sounds on a physical format. Of course, it helps that the release will come with bonus tracks and all-new sleeve art, depicting Jacket in a state of mid-obliteration.
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"I wanted the new art to be more low key and spiritual. The idea was to kill Jacket, and I wanted to place him in sort of a calm limbo. To me that is what "Daisuke" is: the calm limbo."
Niklas isn't simply an artist for hire whenever a new Hotline project comes up – he's worked on sleeves for his own material, and considers the cover and art book of his Vandereer album (as seen, and heard, on Bandcamp) to be "a fucking monument for me". Doing Hotline Miami didn't hurt getting commissions from other games-makers, too.
"I gotta say, I think Hotline has been invaluable for whatever attention I've gained. At least for that push that helps when trying to get your mental masturbations attention. I've actually done other games, like else Heart.Break() and Kometen. Those have helped me reach out. But, of course, if your face is on the top page of Steam for a week, that also tends to help." Mission successful, you might say.
Stream the Hotline Miami soundtrack below (minus the new bonus tracks)
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