I was born in Pomona, CA in Los Angeles County.
At that time, Pomona was considered lower-income, but stable.
My parents (both relatively new immigrants) had just moved from Cleveland to Pomona to attend CalPoly University. My father used to be a vice detective in Lebanon and upon arriving to America the only job he could land without knowing English was dishwashing at Bob’s Big Boy.
In Pomona, my parents were able to afford a small apartment off of one of the main drags. The parking was just below the bedroom window.
One night my father heard some noise coming out of the lot. He went down to check it out.
There was a man scanning his car for an alarm. The man tried to run away, but my father caught him, threw him to the ground and pummeled him until someone intervened.
When the police showed up, they found my father casually standing around. While inspecting the criminal, one officer took my father aside and asked him what happened, my father replied: “He fell.”
The policeman looked at him, “He fell, huh?”
“Yeah, I grabbed him when he started running and he tripped.”
The policeman laughed, “We’re going to have to get him serious medical treatment.”
My father agreed.
Southern California in the eighties and nineties is a place more than it is a time. It is a place that cannot be replicated or replaced in the world today. There lived a hot combination of innovation, crime, violence, style, decay, and spirit.
Los Angeles was the embodiment of urban schizophrenia.
1980’s and 1990’s LA was a place you could feel, a place you always knew.
The first time I saw Scarface, I could tell most of it was shot in Southern California, in and around LA. It was so obvious to me.
There are segments in the film where the environment felt too grimy for Miami, there was a familiarity there.
Miami as played by LA.
This didn’t really bother me, I enjoyed it. In spite of all its problems, Miami always seemed to me to be too clean for that kind of grit, it needed LA’s blood.
I believe that people who know LA and know Southern California understand the fundamental ugliness of the place.
Who doesn’t remember the 1997 North Hollywood shootout? That was a bloody, surreal event: The subconscious of the city bubbling up.
The two men behind the North Hollywood shootout had studied Heat in order to better prepare themselves for engaging police.
Each of those films is an exploration of violence and dissociation. That’s what LA does and is.
Using that city as a filter for the world, every other place looks a little more real. In all its schizophrenia, LA tears at the facade of these other worlds with surgical precision.
Grand Theft Auto V is set in a fictional representation of LA called ‘Los Santos’. In each iteration of the GTA series, the devs always seek to capture the essence of a place.
In the first four games, Rockstar did a great job manufacturing a New York City doppelganger called ‘Liberty City.’ In the non-numbered series’ (GTA: San Andreas, GTA: Vice City) they recreated California and Miami surprisingly well.
While Grand Theft Auto V represents downtown LA and the surrounding areas accurately, it misses the heart of the place.
Los Santos has none of the grime of its source, none of the alienation.
Their myth has no substance.
I’m not certain how Rockstar messed this up considering their near endless resources and past success in recreating places. I believe maybe they missed the history. They recreated LA as they see it today without knowing how it was and where we thought it was going.
However, newer films like Drive and Collateral managed to capture the heart of the city. Rockstar, maybe, was just deaf to it.
They didn’t see the world through LA’s eyes and that’s why they couldn’t get inside its head.
They couldn’t see the tearing.
When Hotline Miami released in 2012, I avoided it. Initially, it looked like another low-res, early GTA, indie knockoff and I was burnt out on the whole aesthetic.
I couldn’t just forget about it, though.
The promotional art would keep showing up on gaming sites and on Steam. Online, everyone kept talking about how strange and fluid its story was. The game was often called ‘disturbed.’
I bought it a few months after release.
What initially struck me was how much the game felt like Scarface. Hotline Miami is set in Miami in 1989, but felt like 1980’s LA.
In it, you play as a nameless hitman who is assigned missions only through telephone calls. The missions involve killing Russian mobsters in different locales around the city. Prior to each mission, the player can choose one mask to wear. Each mask is an animal which grants the player one ability.
The act of wearing the mask only amplifies the schizophrenic nature of the game.
Hotline Miami has the grime. It is Miami seen through LA eyes.
Everything from the ultra-violence to the quiet, dissociative environment captures the city.
The fascinating part is that Dennaton Games is comprised of two Swedes.
I couldn’t understand how they were able to synthesize Miami by way of LA without having lived in the United States for any prolonged period of time.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Soderstrom and Wedin discuss how the two major influences for Hotline were the films Drive and Cocaine Cowboys, a film about the rise of the drug trade and crime in Miami through the 70’s and 80’s.
Hotline Miami is a synthesis of the extremes of two cities: Miami drugs and LA violence.
That’s why the game exists so effortlessly, stuck between two worlds.
My father would sometimes take me to downtown LA to run errands.
Between the wholesale jewelry warehouse and the few looming towers LA has, there was a dark, hole-in-the-wall Lebanese diner. The place was dark even in the middle of the day, the lighting was poor, there was a CRT Television hanging in the corner and porn vendors outside.
Hotline Miami is the virtual embodiment of that place.
Hotline Miami is the CRT in the corner of that darkness.
In a lot of ways, Hotline hones the narrative presented in Scarface. Rather than the main character becoming increasingly disassociated and isolated like Tony Montana, the main character in Hotline has no attachments.
He is isolated from the beginning, isolated and constantly descending further into the violent subconscious of the urban.
At some point, he begins to hallucinate as he goes about town and the hallucinations gradually become more substantial.
The city becomes the graveyard of the mind.
I am still fascinated as to how a foreign independent developer managed to capture and synthesize an American city through the lens of another.
This reminds me in a lot of ways of how Australian Nick Cave can make American Rock music better than most American bands.
While the games industry is still waiting for its ‘Citizen Kane’ of video games, Hotline Miami is the Scarface of video games, only meaner, darker, and sharper.
It does away with all the narrative excess of the cinematic and distills everything down to its core.
As I said in the beginning, southern California in the eighties and nineties is a place more than it is a time. And while that cannot be replicated:
Hotline Miami understands that place and lives forever in that time.