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Hotline Miami 1

Dennaton Games' grimy, mysterious murder fest easily has the best soundtrack I’ve heard all year. A lot of the indie rock and hip hop jams in Hotline Miami are ones I'd listen to normally. But in the context of this hyperviolent PC title, these songs do something special: They help to flesh out the the minimal storyline with emotion. 

 

You play as an unlucky man who is recruited by a shady group of weirdos in animal masks to carry out their hit jobs. This usually involves creating a bloodbath of thugs in white suits. The audio helps to contextualize the madness.

First, consider when the hero wakes up in his apartment. You can hear reverb-heavy percussion that sounds more like bubbles than drums (if that makes sense). A sleepy guitar slides in to accompany the distorted, simple-yet-melodic vocal samples. This laid-back combination evokes a dreamy effect. It suggests to the player that perhaps the meeting with those extorting creepy masked men or the killings from the previous night didn’t actually happen. 

The cryptic message on the answering machine about the next hit says otherwise.

Hotline Miami 2So before the disassociation has a chance to settle in, the hero is off to the next house to dispose of its unsavory residents. Usually at this point, the game cues up a high-energy, synthesizer-heavy dance track backed by what sounds like a Roland 808 drum machine. A variety of layers repeat, come in, and cut out seemingly dependent on what the player does. 

This audio structure mirrors the flow of the action. As the player goes through a series of trial-and-error runs to see what murder methods work best, parts of the song drone on. He equips, uses, drops, and reuses an array of weapons much in the same way the background music employs different loops.

After all of the bad guys are dead and the mission is complete, the hero returns to his car. During his drive, a 1980s-inspired synthesizer plays over a steady drum beat. The repetition of kicks and snares makes me think of what it’s like to cruise down a road under a never ending cycle of street lamps.

Hotline Miami score

Visually, all the game shows is a breakdown of the player’s score and a row of passing palm trees. The music, however, creates the perfect image in my head of what it’s like to drive through Miami at night … which I've never actually done before. I can't quite put my finger on the connection.

The hero then usually makes a pit stop (to a pizza parlor or grocery store, for example) before returning home. The game spins the perfect hip hop song during these interludes. Jazzy pianos; a reflective, almost bluesy guitar; and a boom-bap beat come together for a sort of rough, hardcore rap fantasy. Though no one actually rhymes over the track, it sounds like something the rapper Nas would have torn up in his early days. 

Hotline Miami clerk

Or pick any lyricist who paints pictures of drug-laced shootouts. Such graphic words would perfectly summarize what the player had just committed. Except, the hero doesn’t take the braggadocio route. He seems distant, as noted by the clerk, as he returns home only to repeat a similar series of events the following day.

This handful of songs essentially form a fantastic EP (and I haven’t even touched on all of the other amazing tracks in the game). I knew after my first listen that I wanted to buy the Hotline Miami soundtrack. Now, after spending some quality time hearing some selections while playing through the levels, I have a better appreciation for the imagery and context they create. 

I’m not a killer. But when I inevitably use this soundtrack as the background to my daily, real-life routine, I’ll think back to all the horrific things I’ve done — and the moments in between — when I played as one in Hotline Miami.