When Gothenburg-based developers Dennaton Games, aka Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, revealed their first title to the world in October 2012, they couldn't have imagined how it'd explode its way beyond cult status to become one of contemporary indie gaming's biggest hits.
Hotline Miami – a bloody top-down shooter with retro graphics and a pulsating soundtrack of atmospheric electronica – wore its Drive influences proudly enough, but still stands apart from all other games. Set in 1980s Miami, it took the player on a sordid journey of visceral violence. Awarding the game 10/10 on PC – the game is also available across Sony platforms and for OS X and Linux – Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell wrote: "It only works as a whole, and it doesn't hit you like a flavour; it builds in your system, like an intravenous solution." Quite possibly one brewed from brain matter scraped from hallway walls. Further acclaim collected, and awards followed.
"We didn't think the first game would sell well," says Dennis. "It was a really indie project. We didn't really think about what people wanted to play – we just made the game that we wanted to play."
Turned out that hundreds of thousands of gamers wanted to play it, too. Dennaton sold 130,000 copies of Hotline Miami in the game's first seven weeks of availability. By February 2013, that figure had more than doubled. A sequel was talked about, and confirmed when a teaser trailer went live in June 2013.
But Dennis and Jonatan haven't rush-released their second Hotline game. By the time it eventually comes out – which might be March based on a new, somewhat creepy answerphone message (although the pair will only confirm "soon" when I speak to them) – almost two years will have passed between announcement and arrival. That's the kind of timeframe Grand Theft Auto V worked to.
It's got to be right, basically – especially as the pair are on record as saying the Hotline Miami sequel, set in the 1990s and subtitled Wrong Number, will be the final game in this brief series. Just as they refused to compromise the first time around, so they've done likewise for number two – even in the face of mounting controversy surrounding one particular scene, which depicts an act of rape, and an outright ban for the Australian market. Dennaton have made the (optional, and seemingly simulated, on a movie set) rape scene available on YouTube ahead of the game's release, so you can see for yourself whether or not it's worth the headlines.
Amongst those publications weighing in with particularly strong rhetoric was The Mirror, which ran an article on the 15th of January titled: "Hotline Miami 2 Rape Scene Prompts Ban as Critics Label it 'Most Violent' Video Game Ever". Which we'll get to in due course. Regarding that Australian ban, though, you have to wonder how Dennaton have taken the news that the spectacularly gory Mortal Kombat X, which uses lifelike visuals, was cleared for release in the country, albeit with the top R18+ rating. That news only came through in the last few days, after I spoke with Dennis and Jonatan.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number – dial tone trailer
VICE: You've said Wrong Number will be the final Hotline Miami game. Is that because you've done all you can with this breed of game, and its cast of characters?
Jonatan: We had a lot of ideas after we'd finished the first game, and now we've made a game based on all of those ideas. I don't think we can come up with anything new that would add to the game. We really want to do new games. We have no desire to make a Hotline Miami 3.
Did you feel any pressure to even make this sequel, as the first game was such a success? Did you feel you owed it to people, to the game's fans, to make another one?
Dennis: Not really, no. We're still making the game that we want to make. A lot of people tell us that it looks the same as the first one, and that it feels the same. But, yeah. We wanted to make more of this, so...
There are some substantial changes that have been previewed, though, like the game's level editor and playing as multiple characters, each with specific talents. What are you most excited about letting the public get its hands on, this time around?
Jonatan: I think the most fun thing this time is actually the storyline, and seeing how people interpret it, and if they like it or not.
Dennis: I want to see how people react to our new characters. I'm looking forward to seeing which ones they favour, and which they hate.
Is it a game you'll be able to finish without using every character, a bit like Maniac Mansion?
Dennis: No, you have to use every character. Each level is tailored to one character, connected to them. You will jump between different perspectives.
Jonatan: Aside from "The Fans", because you can choose which character to play as there. But that's not the case on most of the other levels.
(The rape scene is) part of the story. We don't really want to talk about it before people play it.
And am I right in thinking that, plot wise, it's not linear?
Dennis: That's right. The story is more important this time. On the first one, we didn't know if anyone would really pick up on the story, so we really focused on the gameplay. People really liked that, so for the sequel every environment has its own story. There's more of that in this game.
Wrong Number has already been banned in Australia. Did you see that coming? It's a country with a reputation for this sort of thing.
Jonatan: It wasn't a surprise. I think we were warned that they were pretty strict.
Dennis: We had a lot of problems with the first game out there, as well. It took a long time to get it certified in Australia.
People will ask why the scene that has come under the most scrutiny, the rape, hasn't been removed. I'm asking you now, in fact: why don't you remove it, if that's a sticking point in the game getting a release in Australia?
Dennis: It's a part of the story, of the idea we had. We don't really want to talk about it before people play it. Then we can talk about it in context.
So is it frustrating to see The Mirror run with a headline saying that Wrong Number is the most violent game ever?
Jonatan: It's not that frustrating. It's a bit too abstract that there are so many people having opinions about a game they haven't played yet. So we don't really think too much about it. It's kind of comical that they're actually talking about something that doesn't fully exist yet.
And you're not going to produce a censored version of the game, at all?
Jonatan: There is actually an option to censor the game when you play it, so you don't have to see that (rape) scene. We think that's enough.
Dennis: Also, it's not just that scene that got the game banned. There are other things, too. So it'd be a major task to "fix" the game just for one market. We'd have to remove entire levels, so it's really not a possibility.
You've said that Australians should pirate the game if they want to play it. That's a pretty strong statement. But if people do, and the reaction is huge, does that represent a victory against censorship?
Jonatan: I don't think we'd see it as a victory. We just want people who want to play the game to be able to.
Dennis: We want people to think for themselves, to form their own opinions, and not have an opinion forced on them.
Violent video games have been around forever. Presumably you don't think that Wrong Number is the most violent of all?
Dennis: (Laughing) No! But it's interesting that it's seen to be the most violent video game ever, when it's in 2D. It's really lo-fi. I actually think it's pretty cool that people have said that.
Just to touch on something else real quick, the music of Wrong Number is coming out on vinyl, giving you a physical side to a very digital product. Do you think that's something that other developers working on download-only games should look at?
Dennis: It's awesome. It's like a trophy. It's nice for the musicians to have something that's their product – it's not the game, it's just the music. Well, when you buy the album you get the game digitally, too, but it's more like their thing. It's celebrating the music, and not just the game.
Jonatan: But not all games have the option to do something like this, because it's expensive. It has to be worth it, I guess – or the developers have to be really passionate about it.
Dennis: We both love limited-edition stuff, and we both love records.
Jonatan: We actually have an action figure coming, too. We started that with a guy in the USA. It's a DIY job but it's really awesome, and really big. It's, like, nine inches tall.
Dennis: It has removable clothes, and removable masks. It's awesome. I can't wait to have it on my shelf.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number might be released in March. You can pre-order the triple-vinyl, limited-edition soundtrack – which gets you the game, too – here.