I was thrilled to see Jon Bois’ 17776 as one of this week’s readings. This piece is one of my favourite examples of unconventional storytelling. The story takes full advantages of being published digitally, it could not be told the same way in a conventional medium. This piece of media blurs the lines of what exactly it “is”. It’s not a book, an article, or a video. It’s a multimedia experience. It’s completely unique.
There’s so much I like about his storytelling. The introduction to the story is crazy cool, with the news article that dissipates into the black screen. It’s such a weird start to an equally weird story, and I love it. It really throws you right into the narrative with little explanation, and the reader is slowly fed little bits of information over time. I especially like the heavy use of Google Earth. I have never seen that done before, but it works very well here. The use of videos is also interesting. A lot of the videos are just the same text conversations that we see in the story, except overlayed over a backdrop with music. I think this is an interesting choice. Most of these sections could be told without the use of video, but Bois chooses to use it anyways. I think it’s a nice way to break up the work. If the story was just 25 chapters of text, it would be a lot more boring.
17776 fully embraces the medium in which it exists. You couldn’t tell the story as well in a different medium like a book or a movie. I appreciate art like this, art that does something unique by virtue of its medium. One of my favourite pieces of art that does this is Hotline Miami.
Hotline Miami (Do you like hurting other people?)
Hotline Miami is a video game released in 2012. The game takes place in a fictionalized 1989 Miami. You play as an unnamed man who receives cryptic phone calls telling him to go to locations and kill everyone inside. If this intrigues you, go play it now, because I’m about to spoil it.
The game starts with you walking into a decrepit apartment and seeing three figures wearing animal masks. They ask you some cryptic questions, and then the gameplay starts. You are in your apartment, you receive a call telling you to go to an address. You go there, put on an animal mask, and kill everyone in the building. This is the basic gameplay loop. You can kill your enemies with a variety of tools such as guns, knives, baseball bats, bricks, hammers, axes, swords, and many, many other things. Enemies die in one hit, but so do you. The top-down perspective of the game gives you increased perception, allowing you to see into every room and know where enemies are coming from. All of this is accompanied by a wicked soundtrack of 80s-sounding electronic music.
For the first few levels, it just seems like an ultra-violent arcade game. The gameplay is brutally difficult at first, but the more you play, the better you get, and the more fun you start to have. The game scores you based on a variety of factors such as speed, combos, weapon variety, and boldness. Once you start to get good, it’s an incredible rush to run into a building and chain together a 20x combo of bashing in heads with a baseball bat. You start to REALLY enjoy it. I showed the game to my friend who doesn’t play many video games, and she was instantly hooked. It’s a very addicting gameplay loop.
One of the three characters from the beginning eventually leaves the protagonist with four questions, one of them being “Do you like hurting other people?”. Although this is being asked to the player character, it’s in a sense being asked to the player itself. This is not some movie where you’re watching these actions play out. YOU’RE the one performing them, and you’re really liking it. This idea is reinforced further through the soundtrack. During the levels, the soundtrack will be loud, fast-paced electronic music up until you kill the last enemy, at which point the music cuts to an eerie ambient track. The game makes you walk back through the blood-soaked corridors to get to your car before the level ends. This happens at the end of every stage.
After the encounter with the masked figures, you go back to keep on killing more and more people, until you finally reach the final boss of the game. You kill the boss, and the credits roll. There’s no resolution. You killed everyone, and that’s it, thanks for playing. You immediately think “what was that all for?”.
The discussion of violence in media is not a new theme by any means. It’s been discussed to death in the news, but some have even made media about the topic, like David Cronenberg’s “Videodrome”. I think Hotline Miami does such a good job with this subject because it puts the actions in the players hands, and that can only really be accomplished by a video game. The story would lose meaning if translated to another medium.
Speaking of the story, that’s my favourite part of this game. From what I’ve described so far, it would sound like there isn’t much of a story to Hotline Miami. The game tells it’s story in a very abstract and indirect way, often blurring the lines of what is “real”.
About halfway through the game, you receive a call saying that someone at the phone company’s headquarters needs to be dispatched. You go there and find someone wearing a motorcycle helmet going through a computer. A fight ensues, and you kill the Biker with a golf club. At the time, this interaction just seems like a mini boss fight. However, once you beat the game and the credits start to roll, the game rewinds back to an earlier point, except now you are taking control of the Biker. He is trying to uncover the mystery of the phone calls, which eventually leads him to the phone company. While you are there investigating, the original protagonist shows up, so you assume this is where the story will end. Oddly enough, the Biker wins the fight by killing the original protagonist, and the story continues to play out as Biker. It’s never revealed which outcome really happened. If you finish the story as Biker, you can finally get some resolution on what the phone calls were about. An ultranationalist organization by the name of 50 Blessings had been recruiting people to kill members of the Russian mafia in hopes of toppling a fictional alliance between the Soviet Union and the USA. It’s a vast simplification of the events in-game, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on how much more complicated things get in the sequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number.
Oh my, this has been quite the long post. I suppose most of it was just me gushing about how brilliant one of my favourite works of art is. I think art like that is important. I played that game when I was 14 and it’s had a profound impact on me. It’s influenced a lot of the music I listen to, movies I watch, the way I dress, the art I like to create, and probably much more. I didn’t fully grasp everything about it when I first played it, but I knew “wow, this is unlike any game I’ve played before”. It made quite the impression on me, and I wish more people would make art like that.
Bois story garnered the same sort of reaction when I first saw it, the sense that it was something I had never seen before. Work like that is inspiring. I don’t think I would be where I’m at creatively without works like these.