UPDATE [27 September 2016]: This article is very outdated, and no longer represents an accurate depiction of the themes which I want to pursue with the game.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.