At the Crossroads of Violence: Drive Meets Hotline Miami

Carolyn Petit delves into the motivations for and costs of violence in Hotline Miami and the film Drive.


It was a few weeks ago when I'd first decided to write something about the the film Drive and the game Hotline Miami, which owes an acknowledged stylistic debt to the film. Since that time, unspeakably tragic events have brought about a national conversation about violence in media, with video games, as they often do in times like these, getting particular focus. I lament that it seems horrifying things need to occur to instigate such concerns about the media we consume, but I welcome the discussions those concerns lead to. Though I object to the notion that there is a causal relationship between violence in media and real-world violence, I also think that in general, we could all stand to think more critically about the movies we watch and the games we play. It never hurts to ask ourselves if, for instance, a given film or game glorifies violence or condemns it.

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Both Drive and Hotline Miami are extremely violent. I do not think that either one glorifies violence, however; I think they both make violence horrifying, and present it as something that ultimately destroys the lives of those who engage in it.

Both the nameless protagonist of Drive (who is referred to in the end credits as Driver) and the nameless protagonist of Hotline Miami (who is frequently referred to by fans as Jacket) engage in criminal activities for reasons that aren't clear. The Driver occasionally works as a getaway driver for criminals, but why does he do it? Presumably he gets paid, but an exchange of money is never mentioned. He lives a very modest life, residing in a small Los Angeles apartment, and at one point in the film, he walks away from a million dollars in cash. One gets the sense that he does it mostly for the pleasure of doing it; for the rush of adrenaline, for the satisfaction of the clean getaway, for a chance to employ his remarkable talents behind the wheel. As he lays out the parameters of his involvement in a crime, he says, "I don't carry a gun. I drive." And as long as he's just a driver, he can walk away without any blood on his hands. Or so he might think.

The lack of a clear motivation makes you question Jacket's actions, and by extension, your own.
Jacket's reasons in Hotline Miami are even more puzzling. He receives messages on his answering machine that tell him to go to an address. The instructions are disguised as requests for him to pick up his order from a bakery, to babysit some rowdy kids, or do some other ordinary task, but his actual mission is always the same: to slaughter dozens of Russians. Why does he go along with the orders? The lack of a clear motivation makes you question Jacket's actions, and by extension, your own.

I sometimes think back to games like Rambo on the NES which forced you to actively make a choice to play the game at the beginning. In Rambo, Colonel Trautman asks you if you wish to go on a mission. If you decline, saying "I feel better in prison," Trautman's fourth-wall-shattering response is "But it's up to you. The game doesn't start until you say YES." From that point on, the game may not give you the choice to avoid violence, but you are nonetheless complicit. You made the choice to participate. As Maddy Myers writes in her article Hotline Miami and America's narrative of masculinity and violence, "The twist is that You Did It. The game asked you to do it, but you're the one who did what the game told you."

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In fact, as players, we always make this choice, whether a game spells it out for us or not. We choose to pick up the controller or to put our fingers on the WASD keys and play the game. We should always think critically about just what it is we are participating in. I believe that Hotline Miami, more than most games, encourages you to do this, by providing a narrative justification for your actions that's so flimsy, you can't help but question what the hell you've gotten yourself into. The game reinforces your impulse to reflect on what you're doing by starting with a hallucinatory conversation in which a masked figure tells you, "Knowing oneself means acknowledging your actions."

Here, violence only breeds more violence. It is an ongoing, destructive problem, not a solution.
When you're playing Hotline Miami, carnage happens so fast you can't even consider it. Defeating enemies is a matter of acting quickly, and though your victims are bloody messes when you're done with them, you can't stop to reflect; you're too busy worrying about the next threat that's bearing down on you. The trancelike music pushes you onward, and because every enemy poses such a real threat--one hit and you're done--every encounter ratchets up your adrenaline. Until the last. The instant you drop your last enemy, the music stops, and as you make your way back to your car, the carnage you've left in your wake confronts you at every turn. It's extremely ugly, and the fact that it seems so senseless only makes it uglier. As you drive away from the scene of the crime, visions of palm trees and the city being lit by a massive sun fill the screen; these stereotypical images of tropical beauty contrast sickeningly with the horrifying bloodshed you've just participated in.

Eventually, the Driver, too, repeatedly engages in shocking acts of violence. Like your kills in Hotline Miami, the Driver's kills are bloody, and they come with a suddenness and a vigor that is shocking. When the Driver starts getting his hands dirty, his motivations are clear; he cares about his neighbor Irene and her son, who are in danger because Irene's husband owes bad people a lot of money. But this simple truth doesn't establish an endorsement of violence. Here, violence only breeds more violence. It is an ongoing, destructive problem, not a solution. Ultimately, the Driver may keep Irene and her son safe, but doing so has cost him everything; his shot at a racing career, his job, his friend Shannon, and any hopes he had of a life with Irene.

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In both Drive and Hotline Miami, the violence originates in deeply rooted issues with American culture. At one point in the film, the mobster Nino reveals a deep-seated resentment for his Italian mafia mates, who belittle him because he's Jewish. It's this resentment that drives him to make his power play against a Philadelphia mobster, the fallout from which involves the driver and costs so many lives.

The genesis of violence in Hotline Miami is a lot more far-fetched, but it works within that game's surreal world. Throughout the game, you can collect letters that come together to spell out a password, "IWASBORNINTHEUSA." If you collect all the letters, you can confront the two figures behind the hotline about their actions. As the password suggests, it's a misguided sense of what they call patriotism that leads the hotline's creators to call in hit after hit on Russians. As one of the masterminds says, "All you gotta do to get people to do what you want them to is to make them think there'll be consequences if they don't." So in both Drive and Hotline Miami, it's a tension between ethnic or cultural groups that initially fuels the violence, and it's the threat of violence that leads people to continue committing acts of violence.

Hotline Miami and Drive are fictions that are concerned with illuminating the problem of violence as a component of American culture. It's up to us to try to find ways to do something about it.


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