Spoiler Alert! This article contains major spoilers for the finale and events of Hotline Miami 2. Please do not read if you don’t want to be spoiled or if the content of the game is too graphic.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Hotline Miami series interacts with reality in weird ways. The psychedelic unreliably narrated games are steeped in a drug induced haze that most of the characters are unable to escape from or unwilling to leave. The characters from the second game in particular are split in camps between those who escape too much from reality and those who do not. These camps are also divide by who is able to prevent 50 Blessings cult from instigating World War Three and those who have too many obligations to be running off half-cocked.
The game splits characters into realists and escapists. They’re also split between characters who kill because they can and characters who kill because they must. Jake, The Mob Boss, The Actor, and The Henchman, The Fans, and Manny Pardo (I’m not going too in depth with the Henchman or the Actor as they only have three levels between the two of them, one of these levels being the tutorial.) are firmly in the escapist camp whereas Evan Wright, Richter Berg, and the Soldier are realists.
Hotline Miami 2 takes place in an alternate history in which the Cold War got very hot in 1983-85 and Hawaii was the battleground. The US loses and The Soldier and Jacket, the protagonist from the first game, barely escape from the bitter conflict with their lives. In 1986 The Soldier goes on to own a convenience store in California and he’s killed in a nuclear blast before he and Jacket can resolve their feelings about the war. Needless to say, tensions between Russia and the US are still strained in 1991, the current day for the game’s setting, and things are driven further to the brink by a group calling themselves 50 Blessings. 50 Blessings employs agents known as operators, threatening them under pain of death or other coercion, to kill Russian mobsters in an effort to force an international incident.
Jacket and Jake are operators for 50 Blessings in 1989. Jacket’s obviously motivated by his interactions with the Soldier but it’s unclear his emotional state i.e. is he doing it for revenge or as a way to misguidedly cope with loss (He never speaks so it’s difficult to tell). Jake on the other hand is an eager ultranationalist who thinks the US can do no wrong and Russia can do no right — this is the kind of guy who treats ‘Russian’ as the most grievous insult he can inflict. 50 Blessings refuses his desire for transparency and any sane person would see that they’re dangerous. If the player plays their cards right Jake will even be invited to a 50 Blessings recruitment center that’s disguised as a organization that peacefully resists the Russians. One of the recruiters tracks him down for knowing too much and even when Jake’s got a gun in his face he trusts these men implicitly. Jake even mentions that a lot of the people involved have a military history and could put up a damn good fight against the Russians again. If he weren’t so blinded by his fanatical devotion he might consider turning these military against his tormentors but this thought never occurs to him.
Fast-forwarding –literally, that’s how the game does time skips– into 1991, 50 Blessings has completed its goal of eliminating the Russia mafia and does not send out any more calls. A detective, Manny Pardo, is investigating a line of grisly murders. The catch is that he’s the killer. He uses his knowledge of police protocol to leave no useful evidence behind. The kicker is that he kills only for attention. He wants to be famous, during a scene where he talks with the CSI he imagines a camera crew nearby, filming the scene. Before the first level he comments to the waitress at a diner that she wouldn’t believe what the station has him doing i.e. investigating his own killings.
His levels consist of him thwarting untold numbers of criminals all by himself. These criminals are generally the people who are the most prominent threat at the time. His opponents are generic criminal thugs, then the Colombians (who have taken over the crime scene since the Russian Mob got wiped out), and then the police force who he believes have found him out. The Police station level is revealed to be a dream which casts this light on the other levels. Pardo dies in the nuclear blasts that herald World War 3 after he barricades himself in his home for an unknown period of time waiting for a manhunt that never occurs. If he had been doing his job he might be investigating these weird symbols that are at the buildings with dead Russian mobsters in them.
Then there are the Fans, who Pardo despises for stealing his spotlight. They share 50 Blessings anti-Russian sentiment and see Jacket as a hero but 50 Blessings isn’t sending out calls any more. They want to be noticed by the organization so they kill criminal thugs. They dress up like 50 Blessings members, with animal masks –which makes them literally in murderous cosplay– and hit the streets in their absurd death van. These guys are so far from the truth and they never bother to examine 50 Blessings for what it was. They see people killing Russian mobsters and they want in. There’s very little examination in them. They just want to play hero and kill criminals. They don’t even notice when their fantasy falls to pieces. They try to “rescue” a girl from some thugs but are shocked when she’s apprehensive about leaving with them.
The Fans are killed by the Mob Boss who systematically kills them as they clear the floors of the last remaining Russian controlled building in the city. Speaking of the Mob Boss, although Jacket killed his father and 50 Blessings destroyed his organization he has no desire to get back at them. He “follows his father’s footsteps” as Richard puts it and continues to mindlessly amass wealth and power. His escapism = death and pain metaphor isn’t a metaphor though. He munches four handfuls of pills and trips himself to death. He kills the Fans in the drug haze.
Back to the beginning of things and onto the realists, the Soldier is a member of an elite unit called the Ghost Wolves. The Ghost Wolves perform operations that others can’t even though there are only four of them. They’re coordinated by a Colonel who is only known by his rank. Before their most dangerous mission yet The Colonel approaches them with a panther hide draped across his body. He begins expounding how “They don’t even know why they’re fighting,” and that, “They enjoy it.” The Ghost Wolves, despite their mythic penchant for violence, do not agree. They ask if he’s feeling and don’t follow up on The Colonel’s words. As if to punctuate this the hide slides off and The Colonel mumbles something about drinking too much. The Soldier and his crew are unwilling to listen to this rhetoric.
In any other situation The Colonel would be put away. If someone acted like that outside the context of a commanding officer in war time then The Solder, given his generally caring personality, would have gotten him some professional help at the very least. The circumstances make him unable to do so. This Colonel goes on to lead 50 Blessings and the march begins. The Soldier’s death is quick and the only thing he lacked was a copy of the war photograph he gave to Jacket although he does say that he doesn’t care when Jacket gets it to him.
Richter Berg is a lonely man with an ailing mother who probably joined 50 Blessing for the opportunity to make a friend or quite possibly just socialize with someone. To this end he was told to leave messages on people’s phones and tag areas Russian Mobsters frequented with the 50 Blessings symbol. When he was ordered to start killing instead of painting targets he refused. He was willing to stand against 50 Blessings, that is until they threatened the life of his mother.
He submits to their demands and does not fight against them. He’s able to break out of prison however and with the help of The Writer, Evan Wright, he’s able to reunite with his mother in Hawaii. Richard reveals that they’ve been having a good time but Richter agrees that good times never last. He and his mother are destroyed in a nuclear blast. Speaking of The Writer, he’s the closest of all the main characters to realizing the 50 Blessings conspiracy.
He was a correspondent during the war and he’s been trying to find a profitable occupation or to write a popular book ever since. His family’s not exactly suffering but they’re certainly not on the fast track to success. Jacket’s actions, and the popularity surrounding them, inspire him to write a comprehensive text on Jacket and his crimes. He could write about the Russo-American conflict but that just won’t sell in this environment. He could plunge himself deep into the world of 50 Blessings to figure out all there is to know about it but he has a family to care for.
There’s too much in the way between him and the truth. It’s perfectly reasonable that he stick by his wife and two children, a wife who leaves him only to return if Evan chooses the family over his career. They’re all eliminated in a nuclear blast. Evan, Richter, and The Soldier all experience quick merciful deaths and despite the hardships in their lives they find meaning and a degree of happiness, happiness in a way that The Mob Boss, The Fans, Jake, and Pardo do not. None of them were able to prevent 50 Blessings’ mad march but the game recognizes that the realists at least had good reasons not to.
As if this were not enough, the game, represented by the character Richard, sneers at characters who use their escapism like a crutch, and these characters are punished with grisly and painful deaths or desperately empty lives. He is much more civil with the realists and is even conversational with The Soldier. He tries to explain things to Evan but can only say, “I’m the opposite of why you’re writing your book.” When Richter apologizes for his actions Richard commends him for this but that it’s too little too late.
The game is trying to warn against excessive escapism. All of the escapists are extreme in their fantasies and their divorce from reality. As if to show this even further they find articles about the mounting tensions but are only able to read a few lines before they move on to something else. They don’t keep up with current events, they don’t look at the world in a larger picture, they’re just in it for their own close-minded goals. And because they’re all so wretchedly selfish the events of the game go off, seemingly, without a hitch.