Whenever a defense of artistic freedom comes up, the word 'censorship' gets foisted around a lot, usually when it's least relevant. The real contention is rarely about censorship, but usually about puritanism—about the threat of rigid, simplistic morality being imposed on the artistic process. It's about the expectations we have for how art is supposed to function, the values it instils, and how we're supposed to hold art and artists ethically accountable.
I don't think it's the main function or compulsion of artists and writers to instil values. I think generally it has a whole lot more to do with self-expression, explorations of inner truths and emotional realities, and whatever 'resonates' for the individual. And if we can't confront and explore our secret fascinations in the arena of art and fiction, no matter how morally dubious, then where can we?
But I also agree with the idea that fiction is always inescapably 'ethical', in that it always implicitly (or explicitly) espouses values of one kind or another. Being a fantasy doesn't get it off the hook on that front; neither does the fact that 'it's just a game' or 'it's just a movie'. And while we (usually) know that these things are fiction, that doesn't mean they don't tinge the way that we view the world. These things we read and watch and play are part of a cultural feedback loop, both symptom and cause of our broader cultural values, resisting or perpetuating or destabilising the values we hold as a society and as individuals.
Still, I don't think that fiction has to be delivered with a neat ethical bow on it where its stance on things is, implicitly or explicitly, very clear-cut and we can all walk away reassured or outraged that it falls on one side of the line or the other. Sometimes fiction can be extremely powerful and compelling precisely by exploring a kind of ethical instability, one that refuses to collapse into safe, sure conclusions and instead suspends us in ambiguity.
Anne Rice's vampire books are a case in point. In Books 2 and 3, Lestat is quite literally a poster child for this philosophy, embracing and exposing that tension and complexity. The characters spend a lot of time grappling with their humanity and monstrosity and the meaning of evil, but the vampire concept never becomes an ethically stable one, and draws all of its power and fascination from exactly that. It's what keeps these vampires gnawing at us.
I think there's always meant to be an uneasy relationship between ethics and art, inside of art itself and in the conversations surrounding it. I think they have a way of keeping each other honest, inclinations towards indulgence and puritanism kept in check by mutual resistance. It's a necessary conflict that sometimes errs on one side or the other, but just as it's important to be ethical, it's important that those ethics are worth a damn by having them constantly challenged by our honest fascinations and explorations of self.
So my feeling is that the artist or writer who rejects the dominion of moralism over art with a haughty sweep of their starry cloak, and the critic who vehemently objects to its poisonous moral depravity, are both, in their own ways, equally righteous, but also equally responsible for paying heed to the necessity of that tension. And when it comes to the provocative stuff, the really good shit actively grapples with this tension, even if (and better if?) it doesn't reach any sure conclusions.
The thing about Rice's vampire books is that they (un)live and (don't) breathe this stuff. They never stop questioning, interrogating, on a deeper textual level as well as with overt philosophising. A game like Hotline Miami (2012) is the same in theory, but the interrogation part is a little harder to quantify.
Hotline Miami is a game that indulges in extreme, stylised violence, and brings our attention to this indulgence through an ironic anti-narrative that systematically frustrates any sense of meaning beyond the violence itself. The result is an aesthetically rich, fun, pixelly bloodbath that feels great to play but attempts to confront us with our own enjoyment of it.
A lot of subsequent commentary has focused on the rhetorical questions asked by the mysterious masked figures who crop up at various interludes during the game, one of which is, 'Do you like hurting other people?'. This has given rise to the interpretation that the game wants you to feel bad or is in some way condemning or critiquing the violence.
It's also led to the criticism that the game fails or is disingenuous in doing this, because merely paying lip service to the idea is not going to hold much weight against the intensely centred fun of the game itself. I get that, but it doesn't actually feel to me like the game ever really sets out to condemn anything. I don't think it even critiques. It vaguely 'problematises'.
As Errant Signal points out, these rhetorical questions—about who you are, who is leaving you messages, and whether you enjoy hurting people—only ever seem intended to bring attention to their own emptiness. I don't think the game ever goes quite so far as to say the violence is meaningless or 'just a game', but it poses the question of where we truly find 'meaning' in this violence, looking mainly to the feel-good indulgence, and is quite cynical about the usual narrative scaffolding used to prop it up.
This indulgence is hard to escape. The experience is meant to feel unstable, with its too-bright colours, psychedelic backgrounds, fast pace and queasy motions, along with all of the encounters that feel like drug-induced hallucinations. It's supposed to feel off-kilter and unhinged, overbearingly sensory, which makes the violence feel somehow very wrong. But even this edginess feeds back into our enjoyment by adding to the intensity—and maybe the way it angles for that anti-heroic or amoral vibe, ironising the experience, 'problematising' it, is also a way to make it more pleasurable, giving us the emotional license to cut loose into its unstable, frenzied visions.
This is the loop in which Hotline Miami implicates you. And depending on which way you look at it, it's either the most intriguing thing about the game, or the most damning.
It would be easy to put together a moralistic argument that the game ultimately glorifies violence. But whether the game truly grapples with the tension that's supposed to define it, or whether its facetious rhetoric is just another mechanism of desensitised indulgence, for me that isn't really a satisfying point to end on. Even if it's true, it doesn't confront how the game might still reveal something about our engagement even though, and maybe because, it's 'problematic'.
By showing us how easy it is to be implicated in its mindless violence, and how persuasive bright colours and a good soundtrack can be—by relishing its own giddy fantasy and taunting us with our own enjoyment—it gives us something pretty compelling to grapple with. And rather than simply declaring it morally wrong or a cynical exercise in indulgence, it would be better to ask: what kind of truths does it speak that make it so problematic? Because, in a way, if the game didn't so successfully make its point, we wouldn't have to worry about it.
To return to vampires: we use horror to explore our boundaries, to experimentally push our buttons and re-evaluate ourselves based on what we find—even if we're only aware of this in the form of how it thrills us. In the same vein, Hotline Miami's little bit of self-awareness can go a long way as it knowingly pushes us to its own extremes, driven by the creators' honest fascinations, even if we want to push back against what we find there.
Maybe the ethical implications of the game should trouble us, as it never manages to escape its own indulgences, and probably neither do most of the players who are just looking for a fun game or their next macho power fantasy. But for my part, for what it reveals about how we enjoy things like it, I find it an intriguing game to keep suspended, 'problematically', in the corner of my eye.
I was going to say something about Wrong Number (2015), the sequel, but that game's up to its own complicated meta thing and mostly seems designed to ensnare commentators in traps of recursive postmodernism. And I'm not sure I'm too sold on it, honestly. I wonder what it means for all of its stacked byzantine self-reference that the violence at the heart of it, more of a strategic slog this time around, isn't nearly as compelling.