When the Messenger Shoots the Audience: Gaming’s Evolving Meta-Critique

“Do you like hurting other people?” the game asks, simply and objectively, like I’m filling out a medical history form in some lonely waiting room.

My defensive, involuntary thought process snaps out a casual “no, of course not.” This odd defiance ricochets around my internal monologue for a few seconds before I remember I just beat four complete strangers to death with a golf club not 30 seconds ago. There’s a small chance that weakens the integrity of my answer.

Even though its trance club soundtrack and carnage-centric combo system paint “Hotline Miami” as a reverent hymn of 80′s ultra-violence, there’s a subtle change in the game-gamer relationship interwoven within its tapestry of white blazers and bloodshed.

“Hotline Miami” addresses the gamer directly at several points, asking why we’re drawn to games such as this, why we assuage boredom with about 50 counts of first-degree murder. And it represents an evolving trend of games taking aim at the very people playing them.

Granted, games acknowledging they’re games isn’t anything new. “Eternal Darkness”, “Metal Gear Solid” and “Arkham Asylum” all faked game crashes to mess with players. Other titles, like “Max Payne,” used the fact they were games to critique game mechanics firsthand. Heck, “Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard” made an entire game out of that last idea, featuring 2-D soldiers from the 80′s who can ‘disappear’ by turning sideways and an effete RPG protagonist who just won’t shut up.

But this newer idea of criticizing the audience, (y’know… the people who actually paid money for the work in question) is a twist only made possible by the full maturation of a medium. And by this point in gaming culture, the fourth wall’s been broken so much it was only a matter of time before somebody turned one of the cracks into an arrow slit.

Other mediums have already reached this level of credibility. The manic loners residing within Dostoevsky’s pages spew misanthropy at every turn, sometimes addressing the reader directly. And Quentin Tarantino has stated in several interviews that he delights in forcing audiences to oscillate between abject horror and uncontrollable laughter (and then meditate on that transition), like some corrupt puppeteer.

But games are just starting to cultivate that degree of self-awareness.

“Hotline Miami” presents its strongest commentary by instilling unease whenever there’s a lull in the carnage; the game’s entrancing music goes dead, and you’re forced to retrace your steps past the dozen or so bloody corpses you elatedly stacked to the rhythm of that oh-so-catchy soundtrack. It overwhelms you with a sense of regret, as you numbly wonder, “What the hell did I just do?”

Another quality example of a game taking potshots at its audience is “Spec Ops: The Line.” On its face, it’s yet another chest-thumping FPS, brimming with lethal levels of testosterone and jingoism. But that’s exactly what it needs to be, at least to draw in the twitch-and-kill “Call of Duty” crowd it’s so cogently mocking.

From the onset, you’re supposed to feel that something’s slightly off. Between the cliched nĂ¼ metal soundtrack and the fact you blow up about two dozen helicopters descending into the combat zone, if you think everything’s normal in this outlandish power fantasy, you’re exactly who the game’s critique is targeting.

As the narrative of “The Line” evolves, it drops more and more hints that the main character is an unstable lunatic, from the protagonist purposely endangering his crew for no tactical reason so he can blow more stuff up with his shiny new chain gun to the fact that most of the game’s enemies are American soliders.

Near the end, the game mocks you during loading screens, taunting you for how many lives you’ve ruined. Your ally providing support over the radio starts chiming in with little vignettes about each enemy you kill. And the experience is expertly capped with a single line from the game’s villain, “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero.”

It’s a brilliant deconstruction. When the ‘bad guys’ have names and faces, suddenly mowing them down 25 at a time becomes disgusting instead of fun. And we’re abruptly forced to ask ourself why we’re drawn to unrelenting (though supposedly heroic) massacre as a leisure activity.

Now, I’m not saying we should all just stop playing violent video games. That would make me the largest hypocrite in the known universe. Almost immediately after pondering “Hotline Miami’s” central themes, I went back to making Bloody Leisure Suit Salad by way of katana.

I am, however, incredibly excited about what this means for gaming as an art form. If a game can chastise its players for enjoying it and yet keep them coming back for more, there’s potential to start digging deeper and asking more uncomfortable questions.

Maybe there isn’t a definitive explanation for why senseless violence is so much fun. Maybe the answer’s so dark we aren’t yet ready to acknowledge it, because it’s more in line with the response given by “Hotline Miami’s” main antagonists when asked their motivations:

“We’re bored, that’s why! Why would we need to justify our actions?”

Regardless of the answer, though, I’d rather keep asking until we know for sure…