Why the sequel to Hotline Miami should include a rape scene

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Hotline Miami 2 used to contain a rape scene. Well, a “rape” scene. As with many things Hotline Miami, you can’t take it at face value. But now it doesn’t have that scene. It’s been cut from the demo and the developers at Dennaton have said in an interview they’re going to try to “fix it”.

Unless “fix it” means put it back and continue making the game as they intended, Dennaton is letting the wrong person shape their game. That person is writer Cara Ellison, whose PC Gamer preview presumably caused Dennaton to cut the scene.

After the jump, how not to make a videogame

Not that I have any objection with Miss Ellison’s reaction to Hotline Miami 2. She did exactly what she should have done when the developer plopped her down in front of an unfinished version of the game: she wrote about her experience. She wrote candidly and she clearly articulated why she was uncomfortable with the rape scene, in which a rape doesn’t happen and, it turns out, was never going to happen. But that doesn’t stop it from being a rape scene. Just ask the developers at Crystal Dynamics, whose Tomb Raider was pegged as rapey when bloggers hungry for the kinds of hits only sexual controversy can bring gleefully echoed a few careless words. There’s no controversy like sexual controversy. Mere violence is so passe these days.

The first problem with anyone defending Dennaton’s revision to Hotline Miami 2 is that there’s a clear difference between depicting something and condoning it. I’m always astonished at how often that’s lost on folks eager to whiteknight some cause, or condemn some perceived prurience, or declare something in poor taste, whether it’s a dopey horror movie tchotchke or a tentacle rape card game. Rape is awful, to be sure. But is it completely off the table as something that can happen in a videogame? Are videogames not ready to present the enormity of rape? And I don’t mean Custer’s Revenge presentations. I mean presenting it as the grossly offensive act that it is.

The second problem with Dennaton removing the scene is that the rape scene in Hotline Miami 2 isn’t even a rape scene. It’s an example of how the game plays on your expectations. It’s yanking your chain, forcing you to confront how you feel about something. That is almost never a bad thing in a narrative. And while I appreciate Miss Ellison’s perspective and candor, I’m surprised that she frets about being manipulated in the sequel to Hotline Miami, a game that revels in manipulation.

Dennaton explained in the later interview that there’s more context to the scene that wasn’t in the press demo. But that’s what happens when you need to sell your game by getting people to look at it before it’s finished. You get people talking about partial experiences and incomplete perspectives, divorcing the discussion from the necessary context. A preview is a sales tool based on peering through a keyhole. As far as I’m concerned, the time to have a conversation about a videogame is either during or after the fact. Not before. Whatever Dennaton hopes to accomplish with their rape scene which isn’t even a rape scene apparently takes an entire game, and not a preview build. Thanks, videogames journalism!

The third problem with removing the scene is that it assumes videogames are childish enough to have fingers wagged at them for expressing adult themes. My feeling is that if something is good enough for movies, it’s good enough for videogames. I can’t be the only one who’s seen Virgin Spring, Last House on the Left, and Irreversible. All three movies contain disturbing rape scenes. The difference is that they are, respectively, a sublime Ingmar Bergman film, a classic but icky revenge/exploitation horror movie, and a provocatively disturbing and ultimately poignant exercise in cinematic assault. I love the first movie, I despise the second movie, and I admire the third movie and mostly hope to never see it again. In all three cases, the rape scene is crucial to making these movies what they are. Each of them would lose a fundamental part of its identity if the director took out the rape scene. Why can’t videogames attempt this?

I don’t pretend to know how the scene in Hotline Miami 2 fits, but having played Hotline Miami, I trust Dennaton entirely. They’re storytellers who deserve to tell whatever story they want to tell, because there are too few developers making games as genuinely disturbing as Hotline Miami. Not only does videogaming not have its French new wave of horror, we don’t even have our 70s exploitation trash yet. Unless that was the relatively tame stuff like Harvester and Phantasmagoria in the mid-90s. Oh my.

Videogames can have horrible things like racism, lynching, genocide, and the murder of children. As crowdsourcing and digital distribution undermine the hegemony of the retail system, the ESRB and its rating system are no longer the keepers of the gates. You don’t have to like the stuff in some games — Ellison was clear and articulate about that — but not liking something is no reason to proscribe it or expect it to be cut. Not every game is for you. I’d like to think Ellison had quietly decided not to play Hotline Miami 2, but was disappointed that Dennaton cut the scene from the game. Because part of videogames growing up is also videogames growing out, expanding into place that Cara Ellison or I might not want to go. Videogames can be made for adults, featuring adult topics, featuring reprehensible scenes. They can be provocative. They can be offensive. They can be trash. I think we’re ready. I think it’s time.

Finally, I’m disappointed that Ellison raised the increasingly hollow objection that “videogame women don’t get very many other roles to play but the helpless damsel”. There was a time that complaint would have played better. It was a time before Ellie, Elizabeth, Sam Greenbriar, Triss Merigold, Tiny Tina, Jenny Romano in The Darkness III (fingers crossed!), Chell and GlaDOS, this latest Lara Croft, and even Kinzie. Some of the most exciting narrative developments in videogames are based on the roles of women as characters other than damsels in distress. I’m not denying it’s an issue. But I am denying it’s the issue it used to be, and it’s no longer effective as a go-to jeremiad.

(Hotline Miami image by Chesty McGee.)