Culture

Why Australia Was Wrong To Ban ‘Hotline Miami 2’

The game was refused classification in January, for an implied rape scene. Our games critic takes issue with that decision.

This piece deals with discussion of sexual violence.

I’m sitting in front of my PC, covered in a faint sheen of anticipatory sweat. I’m about to hit ‘play’ on a videogame that has been banned in Australia. We live in a culture of free-wheeling digital piracy, but I’m a professional video game critic; there’s something truly weird and awful (and exhilarating) about having my finger hover over my mouse moments before booting up a banned product.

I pause a moment before taking the plunge.

The Problem With Hotline Miami 2

The game in question is Hotline Miami 2. The first Hotline Miami was largely an homage to Drive made by Dennaton, an indie Swedish development team consisting of two guys: Dennis Wedin (artist) and Jonatan Söderström (programmer). The game follows a man known as Jacket, who receives cryptic voicemail messages before heading to various locations, donning animal masks, and slaughtering his way through hundreds of Russian mobsters. There is, however, a dark, intelligent plot beneath the surface, turning the game from mindless violence to a meditation on revenge; by having you revel in the violence, you come to focus on the game’s condemnation of it. Much of Hotline Miami is riddled with hallucinations, taking place in the memories of Jacket trapped in a post-gunshot coma. It’s trippy, terrifying, and utterly glorious.

But there was recent controversy surrounding its sequel, Hotline Miami 2, which was refused classification in Australia in January for an implied rape scene. This made it illegal to sell the game here, and digital distribution channels – for example Steam, the gaming equivalent of the iTunes store – used region blocking to stymie its release. The classification board handed down the following ruling on the specific scene — a scene which acts as a prologue to the game itself. And just a heads up: this does get a tad graphic.

“In the sequence of game play footage titled Midnight Animal, the protagonist character bursts into what appears to be a movie set and explicitly kills 4 people, who collapse to the floor in a pool of copious blood, often accompanied by blood splatter. After stomping on the head of a fifth male character, he strikes a female character wearing red underwear. She is knocked to the floor and is viewed lying face down in a pool of copious blood. The male character is viewed with his pants halfway down, partially exposing his buttocks. He is viewed pinning the female down by the arms and lying on top of her thrusting, implicitly raping her (either rear entry or anally) while her legs are viewed kicking as she struggles beneath him. This visual depiction of implied sexual violence is emphasised by it being mid-screen, with a red backdrop pulsating and the remainder of the screen being surrounded by black.”

Hotline_Miami_2

Two things need to be discussed before we get back to me, sweaty-palmed, about to hit play while waiting for SWAT teams to hammer down my door.

First: that description takes some liberties. The scene itself is a lot more vague than it sounds. After the protagonist collapses onto his victim, the lights fade away and it is revealed that we are, in fact, on the set of a slasher film. The director yells “cut”, and the actors get up and are given direction. ‘Midnight Animal’ is, we discover, a sensationalised B-Movie take on the events of the first game, in which the murderer actually rescued the girl from her captors. Later in the game, we see the conclusion of this film; it’s revealed to be a rape-revenge flick, akin to I Spit On Your Grave, which culminates with the violated heroine getting gruesome, righteous revenge on her tormentor.

There are arguments from both sides of the fence here. On the one hand, there is the tremendously valid threat of triggering; anyone who has been a victim of sexual violence, or anyone who fears it, could be deeply troubled or traumatised by this sequence. Does this ‘implied rape’ scene need to be in Hotline Miami 2? Does it serve the plot in a meaningful way, or is it just there for shock value? I’m part of the movement that rails against sexism in video games, and understand that, in the context of the recent (and ongoing) #gamergate saga, including an implied rape scene in this game may have been a needlessly incendiary move that contributes to a culture of rape. Those who dismiss these kinds of objections are typically speaking from a position of unfettered privilege, shared by many from the gamergate camp: petulant, angry men who want gender politics and social issues kept out of their gaming. (At least, gender politics and social issues that don’t directly affect them.) But nearly half of all gamers are women, and we need to take important shit like this into account — even if it does mean that, occasionally, a game gets banned.

But there it is: censorship. What censorship boils down to, for me, is an argument I remember first coming across back in 2003, when Margaret Pomeranz rallied against the Australian Classification Board for their refusing classification to Ken Park. The fact that the film was utter balls wasn’t the point; the point was that art is, at times, meant to challenge us. Picasso’s Guernica portrayed men, women, children and animals fused together in a horrific morass of tangled flesh, and he made this monumental, guttural work to draw attention to something. Ken Park, base though it was, attempted to show the choking futility and aggression and meaninglessness that suburban kids can be saddled with.

Roger Ebert loudly denied that video games could be considered art, but I will fight that argument to my dying breath; some of the most innovative art being made is coming from game developers. Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Braid; immersive, innovative and limitless in their potential, games can explore issues and engage with viewers in many more ways than other mediums can. Games are, at their best, attempts to explore issues via narrative; they can do what movies do, and sometimes they can do it better. Watching a film, you’re a mute recipient; but playing a game, you’re not only observing meaning, but conversing with it At least, that’s the potential. Does Hotline Miami 2 try to say something of value? Anything at all? Because if it is trying, and if the developers take precautions against potentially triggering scenes, and put up warnings so that gamers can navigate their way around them, I maintain it shouldn’t be banned.

Hotline Miami 2 marks the first time I’ve ever seen an explicit, explanatory trigger warning in a game. Empire Magazine once called 2002’s Irreversible, a film revolving around a rape, “meaningful, provocative art… distressing, certainly, but thought-provoking. And to that end, important”.  Applying that logic to the scene in Hotline Miami 2 — contextualised as it is within the framework of a rape-revenge film, in which the violence is played out by actors, within a game that actively, aggressively decries violence — I argue that yes: the scene in the game makes a powerful statement. It is distressing, and thought provoking, and important. It is art. The artists took all necessary precautions to provide adequate trigger warnings, and I believe it should not have been refused classification.

The Game Itself (AKA, Spoiler Alert)

Hotline Miami 2 is bigger, bolder and far more ambitious than its predecessor. It’s still wearing its Drive influences on its sleeve, but it’s added liberal dashes of Apocalypse Now and David Lynch’s Inland Empire. After the controversial prologue, we begin to flit between the lives of a multitude of characters, all affected by Jacket’s spree. We see Jacket on trial. We play as Manny Pardo, a troubled detective. We play as Jake, a right wing maniac whose body is found in the first game, and whose story went untold until now. We step into the shoes of a group of his psychopathic ‘fans’. We even play as Evan Wright, a journalist covering the trial. We spin backwards and forwards through time, and are hammered with interlocking plot points. Reveal upon reveal add up until we are confronted by the following revelations (and this is where the spoilers well and truly commence).

We find out the reappearing store clerk in the first game was, in fact, the man who rescued Jacket from a fatal wound when they were in the same squad together in the war, in which they fought against Russian forces (and, indeed, we play as said clerk in each of those missions). We find out their squad leader formed the mysterious group, Fifty Blessings, who left Jacket those cryptic voicemails. We find out that Jacket’s rescuer was killed in a nuclear blast that destroyed San Francisco before the events of the first game.

These reveals change our perception of Jacket from that of a mindless killer, to a man who survived a war, had his friend die in a Russian nuclear attack, and then, while suffering PTSD, was manipulated by his former commander to kill those who he blamed for all the carnage in his life. What Hotline Miami 2 does so well is re-contextualise the story of the first game, turning the series from something good to something great.

In order for this to work, we need to see just how far The Media in the game devolved. The American media in the Hotline Miami universe puts killers like Jacket on trial for killing Russian criminals, but doesn’t put him on trial for the countless Russians he killed while at war. It condemns him in the form of a film portraying him as a bloated, evil parody of himself, deliberately warping his encounter with the girl (rescue turned to rape), but willingly publicises the film at the same time as the trial, in order to get free publicity and box-office sales. The implied rape is necessary, because it is the nail in the coffin crafted by the developers for their skewering of the American attitude towards violence.

Later in the game, we play several levels as a henchman — the same generic Russian henchman who, as Jacket, we slaughtered thousands of in the first game. After learning his backstory, meeting his girlfriend and seeing him quit and get ready to head on the road towards happiness and freedom, we switch to playing as The Fans, and watch as our now no-longer-faceless generic bad-guy is torn limb from limb. The game makes you revel in violence and depravity, then makes you hate yourself for participating. Without scenes like the slow, painful disassembling of the henchman, or the implied rape, this point wouldn’t be nearly so effective. They’re deliberate, vital and deeply challenging story beats, and one of them got the game banned in Australia.

Recently, in an email to a concerned fan,  Söderström said “if it ends up not being released in Australia… just pirate it after release… no need to send us any money, just enjoy the game!”. But with the recent crackdowns on piracy, even with the blessings of Dennaton, I figured I ought to find a more canny workaround.

I found a loophole. I went to this address, entered my Australian Steam details, and paid Canadian dollars to buy the title. Technically I didn’t buy it from an Australian source, or pirate it. I installed it, I pressed play, the title screen came up, the game started, and five hours later I stumbled outside to go and get myself the breakfast I’d forgotten to bother eating. I watched the sky for choppers, eyes still burning after having them flit madly across my screen, watching hammers, swords, nailguns and rifles churn through hordes of pixellated baddies. I felt agitated, but relieved, like I’d maybe pulled off a tiny, petulant digital heist.

Perhaps the cops will be here tomorrow. Probably, nothing at all will happen. But after much soul-searching, I’m steadfast in my defence of these developers and what they’ve tried to say with their art.

Paul Verhoeven writes for TheVine, and is a presenter on Triple J. He tweets from @PaulVerhoeven