This article contains massive plot spoilers for both Hotline Miami games, so if you're yet to play them and don't want any of the story ruined, click away now.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number's story is a load of old ass. Well, that's certainly the consensus I heard when the press released its reviews of Dennaton's sequel last month. But upon further inspection, I have to frankly disagree and counter that it's a smart story that many people simply didn't understand. Sorry, internet.
Part of this confusion surrounds the game's application of the "unreliable narrator" plot mechanic. You might have seen this before in Christopher Nolan's 2000 film Memento, in which protagonist Guy Pearce suffers from short-term memory loss and, as such, forgets everything he learns each day. That includes his name and anything about who he is, or was, as a person. Literally everything.
That's not so good when he's trying to track down his wife's killer and piece together the mysterious circumstances of her death. Whenever he learns a vital piece of information he tattoos it onto his own body so he can quickly re-learn everything come the next morning. It's a smart concept, but thanks to Pearce's poor recollection, we really can't trust anything we see on screen. He's an unreliable source of information.
This mechanic is used often in Hotline Miami 2, which means its plot is a code to be deciphered, much like the story of Dark Souls or Bloodborne. It's much harder to digest than a straightforward tale about another tedious war against aliens, or some bollocks about assassins that slaps history in the face with a sloppy trout before gobbing in its eye. (Seriously Ubisoft, what's actually happening?)
Narrative satisfaction isn't given for free in Hotline's sequel. It must be earned by paying close attention to the crumb trail of clues peppered throughout its wonderfully garish scenery. You'll find it amid the blood splatters and burning neon of the acid house club scene, or the balmy jungles of war-torn Hawaii. Once you thread it altogether and achieve clarity, I promise you'll view it all in a new light.
But now, a little series history. The first Hotline Miami, set in 1989, features a man known only as "Jacket" receiving cryptic phone calls from the titular phone service, which lead him to a series of increasingly violent hitman jobs. The men in white suits you so carelessly kill in each stage are members of the Russian Mafia, and those behind the calls are an organization known as 50 Blessings.
It's clear Jacket has a few issues, as if his curb-stomping, eye-gouging antics weren't proof, but why is he so happy to kill people when ordered? It's because he's a former US military officer who is used to killing on demand, and he's still doing it because he suffered a horrendous case of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by a terrible event during his term of service. In Jacket's mind, he's still fighting a war.
How do we know this? Well, you'll notice between each of the first game's stages that Jacket sees the same man working in the pizza joint, local bar, and VHS store. He's known as "Beard," but you might know him as "The Soldier" from Hotline Miami 2's Hawaii stages.
Jacket and Beard are war buddies. They served together during a fictional war between the US and the USSR that, ultimately, America loses in 1985, hence the high volume of Russian mobsters occupying Miami in both games. We first see the comrades together outside their military barracks in Hotline 2, where war journalist and player-character Evan takes a Polaroid photo of the pair before they embark on a mission.
This is the same photo Jacket throws off the Russian kingpin's balcony at the very end of the first game. Why is Jacket so fond of that picture, and how does this tie into all the gruesome killing? Towards the end of Hotline 2, Beard and his spec ops team The Ghost Wolves go on a suicide mission to a Hawaiian power plant that has been seized by Russians. Before they leave their encampment, Beard's superior officer staggers drunk and demented out of a tent wearing a dead panther's head as a mask.
He condemns Russia and talks disturbing gibberish that apes the cryptic dialogue in the first Hotline Miami. The severed head is widely considered a precursor to the animal masks seen throughout the series, and it is heavily implied that Beard and Jacket's superior—distraught and embittered by America losing the war—established 50 Blessings as a way of sparking a new conflict with Russia.
This is confirmed during the first game's "true" ending, which is unlocked by hacking into the 50 Blessings computer. We see second playable character "Biker" confronting two of the organization's agents—which are cameos by Hotline creators Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin (the pair that make up Dennaton Games)—and they explain the group exists to break down peace talks between Russia and America.
These peace negotiations follow the war seen in Hotline Miami 2, and it is implied that both Jacket and Biker willingly signed up to 50 Blessings, which has cells all over the US. Anyone unhappy with Russia's occupation of America is free to apply and contribute by killing as many reds as possible. It's a rebel movement that monumentally backfires by the end of the second game.
During Beard's power plant raid in 1985, The Ghost Wolves are mostly wiped out as the facility enters meltdown. While fleeing the scene, the player encounters an injured soldier and carries them safely beyond the blast zone. The grunt is in fact Jacket who, indebted to Beard with his life, can't stop seeing him everywhere in the first game. Beard is already dead when we encounter him in the first Hotline Miami, though. Bad times.
In the second game, Beard returns to civilian life after being discharged from the military and finally realizes his dream of opening a convenience store in Los Angeles. In one scene, Beard goes about his work and notices a crowd gathering in front of his shop. He walks outside to see what's happening and is killed as a Russian nuke obliterates the city. This attack is what finally causes America to surrender and effectively end the war.
Except the war doesn't really end, at least not in the minds of Jacket, his demented superior officer, and other characters. When the player completes the first game and sees Jacket drawing deep from his cigarette after slaying the Mafia boss, he seems content, as if his own personal war is over. He avenged Beard's death, paid his life-debt to him, and can finally live in peace.
That peace is short-lived though, as years later Hotline Miami 2's grim and shocking final cutscene opens with 50 Blessings member Richter—who murdered Jacket's girlfriend in the first game—sitting in a Hawaiian beach hut with his sick mother as they watch television.
The broadcast is interrupted with a bulletin that says both the American and Russian presidents have been murdered by a former US Army general, heavily implied to be Beard and Jacket's superior and the founder of 50 Blessings. The slaying is seen as an act of war by the Soviets, who launch a barrage of nukes at America in retaliation.
We then see a massive shockwave vaporize Richter and his mother, before the scene cycles through other key characters. We see Jacket sitting in his jail cell after being put down by trial for all the murders in the first game, followed by disgraced detective Manny Pardo, obsessed journalist Evan, and the girlfriend of deranged film director Martin.
The nukes kill each of them, and a fake title screen for Hotline Miami 3 is shown with an apocalyptic America in the background. Söderström has no interest in developing a third game, as he told VICE earlier this year, so Dennaton just killed everyone off to put a full stop on the series. Check out the ending when you can. It's quite bold.
So there you go: It was all about a smack-down between America and Russia, but I'm sure few people worked out the finer points. I don't mean that as an insult at all, because these are fast-paced games where violence takes center stage. The text heavy cutscenes in Wrong Number seem to bog it all down, and were probably skipped or skim-read by the masses. It's understandable.
But if you take time to start a new playthrough and read the dialogue, you might just appreciate the Hotline Miami series in a brand new light. It's not all gore, combo chains, and pounding synth music, although that's obviously a big part of the game's appeal.
This is a story about being unable to let go of a difficult past and what happens when you allow old wounds to burn deeply to the point of obsession or, in some cases, madness. But ultimately, it's a tale of scarred, broken men struggling to adjust in a strange new world forged by their own defeat—too damaged to fit in, too bitter to let sleeping dogs lie. Sound familiar?
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