Nihilism, and the philosophy of Midnight Animal

UPDATE [27 September 2016]: This article is very outdated, and no longer represents an accurate depiction of the themes which I want to pursue with the game. Read it only as a cursory glimpse into my thought processes at a very specific point in development, and nothing more.


One common theme I’ve noticed far too often nowadays in many films, and as an extension of that, games, is this all-consuming cynicism, which can be more broadly defined as a genre-leaping obsession with portraying things more ‘realistically’. More often than not, this ‘realism’ essentially just seems to be pessimism bordering on the nihilistic, masked as maturity in world that seems to simultaneously and paradoxically be getting increasingly infantilised, as well as maturised – hence, why you see shit like twelve-year-olds playing games with incredibly adult themes like GTA V, while at the same time, GTA V itself is a twelve-year-old’s digital fantasy with adult themes. There’s certainly a time and a place for nihilism and ‘everything is meaningless’ tropes in entertainment, to be sure – but when it reaches a point where it’s literally become memetic and people are just doing it now to be hip or to fit in with the trend, then it stops being an effective storytelling device and becomes another tired, shitty old fad.

With Midnight Animal, I sought to take that straw realism and write a story and world that was actually truly realistic; in other words, there’s just as much good as there is bad in this world (to paint this in broadly dualistic strokes), and sometimes, yes, the antagonists do win, but so too do the protagonists other times. In writing the dialogue, I attempted to create characters who were accurate depictions of real people, with real concerns and real emotions, based on complex histories and experiences. They’re not action heroes, and they’re not Hollywood villains; they’re just people who are at the end of the day just trying to survive in a world that’s falling apart visibly day by day, who are being manipulated by forces they can’t even begin to comprehend, and must struggle with finding some kind of meaning amidst all the violence.

One of the most striking things about HM2, at least plot-wise, is its nihilism. You have the character of Richard, who, no matter what interpretation you give credence to, ultimately represents the finality of fate, at least in the HM universe; and the things he says are largely concerned with the futility of human effort to prevent annihilation. If we take him as a literal manifestation of the HM universe’s zeitgeist, if you will, we can extrapolate that the universe is largely nihilistic, and obsessed with self-obliteration – at least at face value. At face value, this too is true of all the characters; half of them (the Fans, Jake, Pardo) act purely through animalistic instinct, and are pretty much slaves to infantile and reptilian drives; whereas of the characters that do have some kind of philosophical bent (the Henchman, Beard, Richter, the Son – even Evan, depending on how we interpret his words) pretty much act with absolute realisation that what they do is utterly meaningless, and won’t matter in the end anyways – the Son builds an empire only to waste it away in one night; the Henchman retires thinking he can now live a good life, all the while knowing that such things never happen; Richter, as the most fatalistic of them all, directly acknowledges the futility of resistance, and just passively acquiesces to pretty much all external forces without complaint; and Beard, particularly in the comic, realises completely that he’s fighting a losing war that serves little purpose in the grand scheme of things.

What I want to address is the possibility of a life beyond that – beyond hopelessness, beyond disappointment, beyond despair. The world may be fraught with chaos and violence, sure, and even the characters themselves within my game are often literally agents of that violence; but instead of preaching apocalypticism and just saying, “Well, fuck it, we’re all going to die anyway”, I wanted to communicate that there is indeed a way out, a way home – that no matter what you’ve done, there is some kind of redemption, a tiny bit of salvation and dignity left at the end.

The very setting of Midnight Animal rests on the premise that the ‘end of the world’ as seen in HM2, was not actually the end of the world, and far from it; that humanity was able to not just recover from it, but thrive in its destruction. That being said, the world in Midnight Animal is very much an extension of the world which remained in the HM canon; it’s a world filled with violence, where people are killed all the time and everywhere, some of it at the behest of shadowy organisations and indecipherable entities, but more often than not, because of much more mundane reasons: greed, jealousy, lust, ambition, petty arguments – sometimes even the very act of killing itself.

The player character, John, starts as someone whose life has been based solely on violence: he was born in the wake of the nuclear exchange; fought in the subsequent uprisings and revolutions fomented by the destruction which tore the nation apart and precipitated it into a second civil war; took part in multiple campaigns under the new Fifty Blessings regime which were basically modern crusades of state-sponsored genocide; and now he works as a brutally efficient hitman, ‘cleaning up’ the mistakes of other agents through massacres, assassinations, and officially-sanctioned terrorism. I didn’t write him as sadist or a nihilist, two common themes in the HM canon; but as a pretty normal man who just happened to have been born into a world where laws are written at the barrel of a gun and futures dictated by body counts, and who also happened to be very, very good at it.

When he has his confrontation with the ‘Richard’ of the new world, it provokes him by telling him that while he thinks it’s just a job, that he really enjoys it deep inside, the sadism and brutality that come with his work. But rather than remaining a passive entity like Jacket or any of the characters in HM2, who either do not understand who Richard is or otherwise passively accept what he has to say, John knows what he is, and is able to resist and eventually deny and even destroy Richard.

Similarly, the people he encounters and the things he reads about on the whole may be rather typically nihilistic and apocalyptic, which is the world he lives in; but there are others that seem to suggest an alternate way of life, and his dialogue and the ending both reflect his insistence that while life may be hard and oftentimes messy, it’s not bad in the end, and that he’d rather be alive than not. There’s one sequence in particular that I don’t want to ruin for you that drives this point home, and I’m sure you’ll recognise it once the final product comes out.

On this subject, the character of Amy, who’s a love interest for John, was written in part to serve as a sort of alternate perspective to the violence which engulfs John’s world. As a complete outsider to the shadowy dealings and arbitrary massacres endemic to the world of Fifty Blessings, she’s completely unaware of the ‘justifications’ of any of the violence, and just like most normal people, has no choice but to exist and just try to deal with the violence as it happens, decontextualised and meaningless. She not only acts as a philosophical temper to John’s world, but as an emotional one too; when John is with her, he’s able to relax and let go of the hurt which has clung to him his entire life, and enjoy life as a ‘normal’ person. She helps him effectively communicate the sides of his personality which never really had an opportunity to show, and offers him a kind of shelter amidst all the violence.

Which leads me directly to the second theme, which is beauty within chaos. Barring how incredibly pretentious that sounds, it’s a theme that goes along well with the one I just mentioned. There’s a lot of really subtle touches I’m trying to include which suggest that, even amongst all the filth and instability, there is still some beauty. The main menu, for example, goes to illustrate this point exactly, as well as the music and appearance of the transition screens, as well as John’s interactions at home and with Amy. Some people may actually be put off by the dissonance between the peaceful scenes and the violent scenes, but that’s the point.

In Hotline Miami, and even in HM2, there was never really a sense of resolution or peace. Everything exists in a constant state of decay or disintegration, and Jacket’s story is one that’s plagued with madness and insanity. The dissonance is bred by the player walking back to his/her car after the massacre and looking at all the bodies, and the eerie music playing. But rather than having the dissonance be between exhilaration and disgust, as HM did it, I wanted it to be between exhilaration and mundanity. The characters aren’t disturbed by the outcomes of their violent actions, because violence has been something they’ve known all their lives, is something which suffuses every inch of existence; rather, they’re tired of it, and just want to be done with it, and go back home.

In this sense, the gameplay sections are actually fairly incidental to the telling of the story, and that’s exactly what they are: they’re just jobs to the characters, and little else. They’re neither enjoyed nor despised after they’re finished; they produce a brief moment of exhilaration and then are completed, and then the characters can go back to their homes and enjoy their lifestyles, which, translated into the player’s situation, allows the player an infinite amount of time to just wander about the world and uncover various things about it.

I guess the ultimate theme is a summation of all this: that no matter how bad things get, no matter how violent the world seems or how bleak everything seems be, you don’t have to die the death of a tragic figure or live as if you’re in a movie. Sure, it won’t be a perfectly happy and ideal life, but you can still live on, and many people do, and most are okay with that. The game ends on a rather dramatic note, but it doesn’t actually end there; there’s stuff that takes place after that, as well, and this isn’t the last of the series either. Just like in real life, no matter how horrible or wonderful or tragic or dramatic the things that you do and the things that happen to you, after they happen, life goes on. At the end of the great epic, the credits close with the hero standing above a shimmering empire, with the understanding that that condition persisted eternally, if not within the actual canon then at least preserved within the limitations of silver nitrate. But in real life, no matter how glorious that moment may be, it ends, and life goes on. And that’s ‘realism’. That’s what it means to be live, and to love, and to die in the real world.

 

 

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13 thoughts on “Nihilism, and the philosophy of Midnight Animal

  1. Hey Spencer,

    I really enjoyed this piece and I liked there are hope-spots to be hoped on for Midnight Animal. I actually thought for HM2 (albeit tying into the nihilism) one of its central ideas was one about things ending. I actually thought before playing the game, this would be represented in some way like the Henchman if he didn’t get killed by The Fans. Of someone able to leave all of the violence in Miami knowing it ends. Especially with Into The Pit before the discovery of the sewer, that the Fans’ rampages cannot last. Also I attribute some of the nihilism to the duration of levels like Dead Ahead, Deathwish, Casualties and Take Over. They go on so long that one can’t help but get worn out by them. A certain emptiness befalls them. I want to know how hope could tie into the gameplay? Perhaps hope is in the separation of violence from John’s life? That they can be separated unlike the protagonists of Hotline Miami tied by their violence at every turn. Nevertheless, I’m glad you’re taking this step into the Hotline Miami verse or the call so to speak.

    Also will the roll dodge return? I liked the roll dodge though it takes time to get used to.

    Thanks,
    Alvin Wong

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    1. Damn, I didn’t think anybody would actually take the time to comment on these posts, let alone give such a detailed response. These are all great points that you brought up. With regards to your question about introducing the idea of hope in a gameplay, I’ve experimented with a number of different designs, and have ultimately settled on something similar to HM’s standard formula, but subverted; instead of the eerie, ambient music, it’s a calm and almost sad music that plays; and stuff like interfaces and menu visuals have been scaled down to be calmer and more peaceful, and even beautiful to a certain degree. There’s a greater focus on visuals than in the previous two games, and whereas the previous two games attempted to create some kind of visual unity, Midnight Animal relies a lot on motifs and contrasts. Also, there’s significantly more focus on plot, and exposition: Midnight Animal is very dialogue heavy (of course, this can be easily skipped if the player doesn’t care), and the world is filled with incredible detail and entirely optional artefacts which will yield more information if interacted with. In fact, if the player were to play the game without skipping a single cutscene or line of dialogue, and interacting with every interactable object, the act of exploration and exposition vastly outstrips the ‘gameplay’: which is to say, the killing. To reflect the player character’s expertise, combat has been tightened to a very precise and fluid state, and everything feels much more cinematic and exact to really drive home just how lethal the player is. The combat, at least to the best of my intentions and ability, will be fast, fluid, and efficient – it’s not a game for people who are getting into the series, but for people who have already played the previous games and already killed hundreds upon thousands of people already, and to whom the act of killing has become nothing more than literally just a job, which it is to John as well. I assume people will already be good at the game because of experience; and John himself is incredibly good at killing, also because of experience. So the killing is not the end, but just another means to an end. The real focus of Midnight Animal is in the act of exploration, and trying to piece together what exactly happened. If Hotline Miami was a game about the act of killing, and Hotline Miami 2 was a game about the consequences of killing, Midnight Animal is a game about the pointlessness of killing; where it’s become so commonplace and repetitive that it’s simply not interesting anymore, and has become mundane. And from that, I hope to extract a kernel of hope, if even in the vaguest of senses.

      Also, yes, the dodge-roll does return, and is packaged together with a couple of other interesting features.

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      1. That is my ace, my man. It really feels like a natural progression considering how Hotline Miami 2 trails and ends with the pointlessness of violence. Then Midnight Animal picks up on that note (If you want to consider it part of the canon). So Midnight Animal leaves the idea of hope in the hands of the player to find that beauty in chaos with its exploration and intractable objects? It’s a pretty uplifting note to the fatalism of Hotline Miami 2 and the party animal of Richard. It gives a sense of choice or agency. It reminds me of the end of Al Russell’s video essay on Hotline Miami 2 where he says “the tools for more murder now lie with the players.” That said, I’m interested to see how you use environmental storytelling for exposition on characters, background etc… along with dialogue exposition since environmental storytelling was part of Hotline Miami’s tradition or are you subverting that in some way? I’m wondering how the game is cinematic since Hotline Miami games don’t really strike me as cinematic, but I guess I’ll find out once the game’s out XD

        Also I’m glad the dodge roll returns. I can do more furniture bumping err…bullet dodging with it!

        In lieu of Redial, (may it rest in peace) have you considered a vaporwave track for Midnight Animal? Maybe for an ambient moment? Although I get that it isn’t the 80s anymore but vaporwave has a nice relaxing quality that could find some beauty in a faded era. Some tracks have a glittery quality that kinda loop which could draw a parallel on finding beauty within the repetition of killing.

        Thanks,

        Alvin

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        1. One of the biggest issues that I came across when writing the story actually was the problem of Richard, and how I wanted to incorporate him into the storyline – if even at all. Eventually, I arrived at a treatment which I really like, and although I imagine it will be incredibly polarising when people arrive at it, I sincerely feel it’s what both he and the audience deserve, and I hope people will be able to understand.

          In regards to environmental storytelling, there will be a heavy emphasis on that, particularly in regards to the personal lives of the characters. I’m really trying to build characters which players will be able to empathise with (as opposed to sympathise, which is something so many games seem to be aiming for but cannot understand) through understanding, rather than emotional bait (a la the henchman, for example). I read a bunch of reports from the government about drone operators and their elevated risk for psychological stress, because they track and observe their targets for so long that even if they can’t directly sympathise with their causes, they nevertheless become so accustomed to their targets’ lives and routines that they develop an empathetic bond with them and when the time comes to kill them, it causes incredible trauma. It’s similar to watching a really good television show, for example, or spying on someone for an extended period of time to the point where you know all their friends and routines as well as they do. I wanted to use a similar kind of tactic to help players develop an empathetic connection with the characters, and I’m building their lives and conversations in ways that hopefully will be believable enough even amidst the admittedly absurd surroundings. There’s also going to be significantly more dialogue, which, of course, will be completely skippable for those who have little patience for it; but it’s there for people who want to learn more about the world they’re in and the characters they’re playing as, and most of all, it’s there because this is the story I wanted to tell, and no amount of protest will keep me from telling it.

          I’ve adjusted the roll to be a bit more… flexible, so you can now change the direction of your roll in the middle of it, and roll ‘around’ furniture and enemies. It’s terribly… unrealistic, but we’re also talking about a game where men and women in animal masks clear houses of thirty to forty armed and well-trained enemy agents in seconds, so realism is a bit… questionable in terms of gameplay. :’)

          There will be… vapourwave-like tracks for ambient situations. They’re much sadder, and less memey than vapourwave, but some people will call it vapourwave (because they’re ignorant scum lel).

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  2. Just a question: Since you said that nihilism is a “trend” that people follow to be “hip” and cool (and to an extent “edgy”), do you think nihilism in the media influenced our thinking of the “real world” as in “the real world is hard, it’s tough” I remember a guy and his friend doing a podcast and they were talking about “life preparation” (it was more of a topic in the podcast but it was discussed none of the less for a bit) and what people say about the “real world” (being harsh and horrible) and one of them asked “where is this ‘real world’ that is supposed to be harsh and horrible?”

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    1. Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly the kind of thing I wanted to address, and I definitely agree with that statement, that the media has largely shaped the way we think about the world. I don’t intend any kind of indictment or whatnot against it, because I understand that at the end of the day the media as a whole is an institution which capitalises upon the extremes of the human condition for its own survival; and I don’t intend for MA to be any kind of statement, political, cultural, philosophical, or otherwise. So take everything I say with that in mind.

      In regards to nihilism, perhaps that was a bit too loaded; I wouldn’t say it’s nihilism in the strictly philosophical sense a la True Detective, even; but more so, a kind of weird ‘straw nihilism’ (so TVTropes likes to put it) in the same vein as the pop philosophy which seems to have infiltrated a lot of modern media, particularly games and movies. Ever since the 70s, hell, maybe even the 60s, we’ve been seeing the encroachment of this ‘real world’ upon fiction: the rise of the antihero, the apotheosis of anti-establishment and counterculture figures as, incredibly ironically, cultural icons, the triumph of villains, etc. It’s this general trend of incredible pessimism which seeks not to make any kind of point, but to simply be pessimistic for the sake of being pessimistic. In one way, it perfectly mirrors the increasing anomie of every generation since the end of the Cold War and the beginning of film noir, so it’s understandable; but at the same time, it’s not even a philosophical statement anymore, as it was in film noir, but a stylistic trope, which has been abused in lieu of actually attempting to capture and understand the sorrow and despair which lies at the heart of things like noir.

      It’s a great point you made about media reflecting upon fiction, and fiction reflecting upon our lives and how we see the world; I think media has a lot to blame for the creation of this notion of a ‘mean world’, so it’s called in media studies. I guess it wouldn’t be totally incorrect to speculate that as long as there’s been some kind of ‘media’, it’s been focused on stories of extravagance and excess to succeed; but with the rise of television, and particularly the loosening up of especially TV restrictions on what could and could not be broadcasted, there’s since been a vast cultural and philosophical shift which has been caused almost entirely by the efforts of the media to sell stories of aforementioned extravagance and excess, whether positive or negative. Unfortunately, it’s much easier to find incredible horror and depravity than sublimity and inspiration, simply because of the ways the world works; and once the audience, which is largely constituted of the general populace, begins to see all this violence and chaos reflected back on themselves, they begin to get scared of the ‘world out there’ and retreat into the comfort of the familiar, while simultaneously shunning the other – hence, the creation of that tenuous divide between ‘home’, or alternately ‘childhood’, and the ‘real world’, where ‘adults’ operate and exist. There’s a lot of discussion about this in its respective scholastic fields and I wouldn’t be able to do it justice in a single comment, but if you’re interested, Google ‘mean world syndrome’ and ‘cultivation theory’ and you can get plenty of papers which can explain the phenomenon much more accurately and eloquently than I can.

      Anyhow, it was this notion of the ‘real world’ that I wanted to specifically address, because like that one guy in the podcast suggests, I really can’t see this ‘real world’ for all it is. For example, every single day, I get emailed safety warnings from the police station discussing some violent crime or the other which happened on campus, and for an outsider, judging from the content and frequency of those reports, it’d seem that my campus is an incredibly dangerous place to be. But in actuality, based on my personal experience, it really is not that bad, or at least not nearly as bad as people make it out to be – but people always tend to focus and exacerbate the worst things and make them even worst, and thus, from this kind of thinking, ‘the real world’ is born.

      In Midnight Animal, I basically took every notion of that ‘real world’, and made it real. Like another commenter mentioned, the world of MA is over-the-top in its depiction of violence and cruelty – and I built it that way, as a deliberate testament to the world as seen through media. In MA, the media has little strength or appeal anymore, because you no longer have to go on the news to see people get killed in extravagant ways; it happens hourly, on street corners, in dark alleys, in suburban homes and high above in corporate offices. The world of MA is the world which the media is leading us to believe, which is an unfathomable sphere of power plays where human lives and bullets are currency, and the shadow of imminent annihilation eclipses everything. Yet despite all this, people still persist, and live normal, and even happy lives; in writing the world, I did a lot of research into the accounts of people who grew up, survived, even lived in environments of incredible duress and brutality, and one of the most surprising things I found were reports not of abject misery and agony, but of what seem like genuine happiness, and occasionally even wonder.

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  3. Hey man, great article.

    If you have a second, Market Forces by Richard K. Morgan has an interesting take on the mixture of business and violence which might give you some food for thought while you’re polishing Midnight Animal.

    Really excited to play the game, everything looks great so far. Best of luck.

    Like

    1. Hey, thanks for reading, and for the book recommendation! I’d been looking for something to read recently actually, and I picked up Market Forces over the weekend, after being thoroughly impressed by some brief descriptions I read. Just finished it yesterday – a fantastic suggestion, to be sure! At first, it seemed really quite tedious due to some of the character building (which in the end, was definitely worth it in retrospect), but a little over a quarter way through it really began to pick up and the end in particular I found spectacular. It was something which definitely would’ve flown under my radar had you not pointed it out, and what a shame that would’ve been – so once again, thanks so much!

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  4. I’ve read this article a couple times. I agree that nihilism is a huge part of the HM universe, and I think it was necessary for the game Dennaton was trying to make. It fits with it extremely well; the atmosphere and music is fueled by the philosophical tones in such a way that everything is that much more powerful for the player.

    I like the ideas you have for how you want your game to feel, and that it is a different experience to HM 1/2. I would also like to say that I believe you grouped the first two HM games a little too closely for the wholly different feelings players felt from HM1 to HM2. Personally I felt like HM2 had more energetic and fast paced music compared to HM1. HM1 had great music that was just a little slower compared to the almost dubstep feeling songs in HM2. Of course, the addition of artists like Carpenter Brut are near solely responsible for that, but I digress. Hotline Miami 2’s music is faster than Hotline Miami 1’s music most of the time, and even the more emotional tunes don’t drone on as long as Hotline Miami 1’s did.

    Do you feel like Midnight Animal’s soundtrack will be more like HM1 or HM2?

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    1. I’d tend to agree with you. In the past couple of months, I’ve done some serious re-evaluations of how I felt about the Hotline Miami games, and my own game; and I’ve come to realise that like you mentioned, the difference between HM and HM2 is considerable enough so that you could argue that they’re functionally different games rather than just the latter being a direct build-off of the former. They had different aesthetic emphases, tones and influences, and it’s become apparent to me now that to speak about them interchangeably is a bit of naivete on my part. The music is a pretty good indication of some of the differences, I agree.

      MA’s soundtrack is pretty different from either games, but overall in terms of its variation, it’s much closer to HM2. I sought more sonically powerful and darker tracks often with very prominent basslines for the action sequences, which range from being ominous to aggressive. The other half of the soundtrack is ambient music and theme music, which I chose with a heavy emphasis on permeation, nuance and atmosphere, which range from melancholic to tense. The overall sound, while still electronic, is definitely a bit closer to industrial and possibly even dubstep in terms of the action sequences, and post-rock, ambient and even some trap for the non-action sequences.

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