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  • Breaking News

    Hotline Miami 2

    Created by the Swedish two man team of Jonatan ‘Cactusquid’ Söderström and Dennis Wedin, Hotline Miami topped game of the year lists in 2012 due to its addictive action, tight game mechanics and effortlessly cool aesthetic. The ultraviolent blend of classic Grand Theft Auto, Robotron and, hell, even a bit of Rainbow Six’s ‘Open and Clear’ murdering, put their two manned studio Dennaton Games on the map as one of the most exciting indie developers. As Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number approaches, the duo talk me through their backgrounds and making the sequel.

    “I have a band called ‘Fucking Werewolf’ and I had an idea for a long time that I would like to make a music video game for it,” Wedin says.

    “I started hanging out with Jonatan and his brother. He was making games, so I approached him and asked if he wanted to make this game with me, and he said he would do it on the one condition that I made all the graphics, because he didn't want to make it all himself! So that was the first time I ever did pixel art. We made that game and it was really fun working together, so we kept on going from there.”

    Dennaton is a truly independent, punk rock game studio. Just the two of them, even after the success of the first game, and they still work from home rather than having an office. Throughout the interview, they repeatedly mention that Hotline Miami is a game they made ‘for themselves’ and that it is the game that they wanted to make no outside influence. They’re the Ian MacKaye to Notch’s Henry Rollins. It seems like an odd pairing, as Wedin had no prior experience in making games. Zero. By this point, Söderström had already made, by his own estimation “about 50 games” before he started working with Wedin (I recommend that you check out the wild shoot-’em-up Clean Asia!and the Lynchian creepy as hell Mondogames).

    “From the first time I played a game,” Söderström says, “which was when I was eight it was Super Mario I always wanted to play as the enemies instead of Mario, because I thought he was a silly character. Once I got older, I realised it might actually be possible to make a game. So I decided to just give it a try.”

    He reckons the first game he made “was probably when I was 14. I tried to make it in Macromedia Flash but I gave up because I couldn't figure out how to do the programming. When I got into high school I was 16 or something I started experimenting with GameMaker, which is an application which allows you to make games without doing any code, so I could concentrate on ideas. It seemed like a lot of fun to create games, creating your own worlds. I made a game about a cucumber with a head that jumped over a ball. Then I made a game about spitting on children... They weren't very good. Soon I started thinking it would be fun for other people to play my games, so I started going onto online forums and uploading my games there. I got a lot of response to it so I just kept doing it.”

    It’s no secret that the eventual release of Hotline Miami on Steam wasn't the smoothest of launches. Bugged achievements, rough controller support, and in some cases the game wouldn't run at all. The duo chalk this up to an admitted lack of experience when it came to shipping an actual full release of a videogame, some publisher pressure, and simply running out of money. Obviously, this is something Dennaton are doing their utmost to avoid for the sequel.

    “First off, we had never released a game for cash, really, and if a game is for free and it doesn't work no one will let you know,” Wedin explains. “So we didn't know anything about the problems Game Maker had with a new DirectX and stuff like that, because we never got any feedback. So when we released the game we saw that it didn't run at all on Windows 8... it was very hectic at the end. We were out of cash.”

    With the game patched up, broad acclaim and impressive sales translated into a unique cult status. Hotline Miami has an enviable reputation, with its memorable iconography and deliberately obtuse story justifiably provoking a lot of conversation, not to mention demand for a follow-up.

    The sequel has a much more solid base to work with. In fact, Hotline Miami 2 actually started life as an expansion pack for the original.

    “When we realised that the ‘expansion pack’ was going to be bigger than the first game, we changed it to a full sequel,” Söderström says.

    “We also wanted to make the editor and other cool stuff, and that took a lot longer than expected,” Wedin adds. “We also wanted to call it ‘the sequel’, because with expansion packs I find it’s the same formula but when you do a sequel it has to be very innovative nowadays pretty much a whole new game. We wanted to do a sequel like they did with sequels back in the day for people who actually enjoyed the first game and want more, like with Mega Man. So, we felt like we should call it Hotline Miami 2, stick to our guns and just give people that like the first game another game that they will enjoy. Not just trying to get a bigger audience, but making a game for us and people who liked the first one.”

    It will, however, be a more fleshed out and varied experience than the first game. The story of the original, the split narrative between ‘Biker’ and ‘Jacket’, is left intentionally vague. (Neither Wedin or Söderström is willing to divulge which is the ‘canon’ story, even going to the extreme of ‘banning’ the question from being asked in some interviews.) Hell, the characters don’t even officially have names: ‘Biker’ and ‘Jacket’ came from the fan community before being adopted by the Dennaton lads themselves. Hotline Miami 2 features characters that have more clearly defined roles in the story, as well as their own unique abilities.

    “The biggest inspiration for the second game is actually the first game,” Wedin says. “When we made the first game we talked about all these back stories to the characters fleshing out the universe more for us than the players. We always felt like we could make a second game by expanding on this stuff. That was the biggest motivation for us.”

    Söderström is quick to clarify that Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number doesn't deviate from the original game’s tone. “There’s still a big part of the game that’s really vague, but part of it that is more set in stone. Much clearer.”

    “Since there’s 13 characters, we had to give them some kind of personality otherwise they'd all be bland,” Wedin says. “It worked for ‘Jacket’, but for ‘Biker’ we added dialogue to make him different, so we’re working on more stuff like that. The story is jumping between different times and settings, so you’ll have to try and connect them.”

    Jumping around why, exactly, I ask. “In this game you’re going to have to play as a load of different characters. There’s going to be a level for just the fans, just the detective, just the cobra guy, and you’ll have to play as all of them. In the first game people would just pick the Tony mask and play the whole game, so in this one we're forcing you to adapt a bit more. You have to adapt to that character’s ability. Like, or this character I have to have this weapon, or for this character it’s better to use guns, you know?”

    Music is an integral part of the Hotline Miami experience. The soundtrack, a curated list of some exceptional electro artists, plays a huge part in the trance-like state you find yourself in as you hammer R to restart after an untimely death. As a game that shifted a good 300,000 copies on Steam, the original provided fairly major exposure for a lot of the artists included. It seems like a slot on the soundtrack to the sequel would be a pretty smart move for the up and coming musician.

    “I think we got around 200 songs sent to us,” Wedin says, “which was cool! Searching for music is really hard. There’s loads of cool tracks that we used. It’s about 50/50, music that we found and music that approached us.”

    As much as the original game was recognised for its soundscape, it was celebrated and criticised still more for its intense graphic violence. For the sequel that seems to have continued as a trend. Earlier in the year, a demo of the game was shown that featured a character known as ‘Pig Butcher’. After going through your typical Hotline Miami level, murdering everything in sight, a post level sequence showed this character threatening sexual assault, before an off-screen director yelled “cut!” revealing the whole sequence to be part of a movie based on the events of the first game. How meta.

    Perhaps like the first game’s portrayal of violence, this was an attempt to critique the objectification of female characters in videogames, but a few writers (including Cara Ellison, writing in this magazine) found it to be in poor taste, making use of an extreme topic to shock, and frankly a bit crass. Dennaton ended up removing the scene from the demo, but when asked if this controversy had affected the development of the game or any of the creative process, Söderström’s answer was simply “No. Not really.”

    “At the start of the game, there’s an option to choose whether you want the game uncensored or not,” Wedin adds. “It was stupid to have it in the demo, looking back. It doesn't really work if you can't continue playing and see how it works.”

    One of the more interesting features of the sequel is the level editor, which is apparently the number one request from fans.

    “It’s not fully working yet,” says Söderström. “We need at least another week to work on the features that are missing. We haven't decided how far we want to take it. Like, it would be cool to add custom graphics and stuff, but then you get these kind of problems with what kind of content users can add to the game, like swastikas or whatever, so we’re not sure we want to do that. We do want to make it so you can create your own storyline, like a campaign. We also want to make it as easy as possible for users to create their own levels, so you don’t have to be good at programming to make anything with the editor. It’s on an MS Paint level.”

    Another thing that fans were asking for was the addition of multiplayer, but that is something that has been left out after all, the Dennaton duo are determined to make games for themselves. The breakneck pace of the game simply wouldn't work with two players, so cooperative killing sprees are out of the question.

    “It’s hard to keep that ‘press R to restart, die repeat die repeat’ with two characters,” Wedin says. “Do both characters die? Or if one character dies, does the other player have to wait?” That, he says, would “break the whole hypnotic vibe of Hotline Miami.”

    Hotline Miami 2 recently got bumped from 2014 to ‘early’ next year. “We are in the final stages of our work,” Wedin says, “and then there’s going to be a lot of testing and bug fixing. We’ve been very close to being finished for a long time but we also discussed a lot of stuff that we didn't have time to make for the first one, like menus and how to design them so they work well in the game. We made our own achievement list, because we didn't like how Steam’s own achievement notification had weird colours from the game on them. We wanted to make everything in the game cohesive. This is the last Hotline Miami because we're cramming everything we have in there. I don’t think we can
    take it any further after this.”

    It’s interesting the duo should hint at the end of the Hotline Miami universe. Providing the game is as or more successful than the original, where does the studio progress from here? I’m interested as to whether the size of their two man team restricts them from going as far as maybe they would like.

    “We talked a bit about it,” Söderström hedges. “We want to keep it just the two of us, but maybe contracting someone to do something in 3D or whatever... something we can't do ourselves.”

    “We want to keep at least one game that just me and Jonatan are making,” Wedin says. “Maybe a side project that we have creative control over. It’s just an idea, though. We never felt like we wanted more people. Things are way more complicated when there’s more than two people.”

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