Cover art for Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (2015)
Beneath the Hotline Miami series' savagely violent mind-trip lies an acutely intelligent narrative -- one that questions players' moralities. But what I really wanted to know was whether the games' cover artist would also give free pizza and snacks as his in-game character Beard does. So, I asked him.
Niklas Åkerblad isn't just the character Beard in the series whose face graces the cover art of Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. He's also the cover artist responsible for setting the visual tone of both of Dennaton's popular top-down action games, while also making musical contributions to their soundtracks under the pseudonym El Huervo. But his accomplishments aren't only tied to Hotline. He has worked on other games such as 2015's Else Heart.Break(), and recorded multiple albums.
Else Heartbreak is one of the most interesting Steam games I've played in ages. It also refuses to hold your hand.
Following the success of the series, the Swedish artist and musician spends his time juggling multiple projects, as he told me over email last week. We discussed a broad range of topics including the differences between creating music and art, his inspirations, favourite anime and games, some of his thoughts and work on the Hotline Miami games and his reaction to his character Beard being killed off so spectacularly.
Åkerblad's creative process, from visual art as with his vivid paintings to the ambient sounds of El Huervo's music, is varied as he explains: "With drawing and painting you are building a world sort of hands on. Music is more abstract to my mind and takes a lot more work before you realise what's going on." He also feels it is difficult to put into words. But he approaches visual art with less of a concern with method and formula but "...rather intuition and emotion." Beginning with sketching, line work, and a colour palette and "in between that it's just trying to look for what feels right in the moment."
The Hotline soundtracks are a diverse collection of songs from various artists. The tracks are pulsating, mesmerising, and meditative. The songs are as much a part of the series' dynamic identity as its stylised goriness and striking visuals.
A few of El Huervo's song contributions -- "Rust", "Daisuke", and "Ghost" -- are laid-back and calming. But it's a different sentiment from how Åkerblad explains his music creation process, which is a whole other beast than his approaches to visual art. "Making music is way more of a mess. And as I get older it seems like an even bigger mess. But that is also the beauty of it methinks. It's like trying to catch an eel with your bare hands. The mindset between the two doctrines is basically the same as in terms of themes, atmospheres and such. I see it as the music and the pictures complement each other very well."
He confesses, "I'm not even sure I can explain it in words except 'play'. I sit around and fiddle, hunting for that instance when your brain sort of starts composing for you without thinking. Alas, it does not happen as often these days. I think my emotional turmoil is not as in turmoil these days anymore and I've always drawn a lot of fire and inspiration from that."
Image credit: "Ronin 6" by Niklas Åkerblad
Given the frequent sci-fi elements embedded in the arms and faces of his characters, I was curious to know if he had any favourite science fiction works, games or anime. He spends some time as a "heavy guilty pleasure addict of Destiny," and reading manga, with Mushishi being a recent one he's enjoyed among others. "[I] recently read the Hyperion Cantos which more or less blew my mind. Hyper Light Drifter gave me a lot of solace. Little Nightmares was an unexpected pleasantry for sure! Some amazing scenes played out in that one."
He's also been trying to convince his friends to watch the sci-fi horror, Beyond The Black Rainbow. Thus far, he's had little success. (With a 55% rating of freshness on movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes, I would imagine it's probably a hard sell.)
Pop-cultural influences have impacted his work, too. Harry Martinson's poem, Aniara, was influential in creating some of his paintings and his game, Else Heart.Break(), with Erik Svedäng. Bloodborne, which is one of his favourite recent games, is one of his biggest pop-cultural influences along with S.T.A.L.K.E.R, and Silent Hill. But video games aren't the only influences with Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Moebius and painters Camille Rose Garcia and Edward Hopper being some others.
But it's also clear in his art that some of his influences come from Japanese and Mexican culture, which he confirms, "...it's mostly Japanese and Mexican traditional art that comes to mind. Japanese wood etchings for their neatness and balance and Mexican 'Day of the Dead' for it's a brilliant mix of vibrant colours and grim thematics."
Image credit: "Pouring Sun" by Niklas Åkerblad
This appeal of vibrant colours and grim content shows up in his individual pieces, but also defines the covers of Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2. The latter's art captures a crucial, gutting moment in the game for Beard. Creating the second Hotline Miami cover, though, came with some ever-so-slight pressure.
"The biggest challenge was probably catering to Dennis' and Jonatan's ambitions with the cover. I remember Jonatan being a little worried if I was gonna be able to pull off the flames with faces," he recalls, and adds with a mischievous text tongue face, "But yeah, I think I managed it pretty good."
Dennaton's Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, creators of the Hotline series, had a hand in the finished covers being so different between the first game and second. But not quite as I was expecting, as Åkerblad reveals: "To my mind the covers are so different because the guys are not concerned with consistency for consistency's sake. Also, Dennis saw me working on a self-portrait and thought, since I am sort of IN the game already, that the cover should be my (Beard's) self-portrait. Why, I'm not sure. Maybe a combination of flatter and Beard's philosophically central position in the story (SPOILER: he is the only 'nice' character in the games and has a 'special' relationship with Richard.)"
Richard is quite the mysterious character in the Hotline games.
Thoughtful spoiler warning aside, he continues, "So ... I was feeling quite an inner turmoil during that time, working full time on Else Heart.Break(), making a full length double album (which I think some folks miss out on ... Do Not Lay Waste To Homes and Where You Must Rest Your Weary Bones are part of the same album) and painting as well. And thus it was kinda perfect to be able to go full monty on the cover. HLM was more of a pastiche based on 80-s VHS covers. So that was less of an 'artistic' inner approach and rather more concerned with aesthetics."
His attachment to his in-game character, Beard, extends beyond the self-portrait. Åkerblad finds his portrayal in the game and subsequent death, flattering. "It was more flattering than surreal. And when I finished HLM 2 a couple of weeks before it was released and started a new game, saw the scene with everyone around the table closing with Richard and Beard sort of bonding I started to cry. For me it was a very emotional moment and a token of appreciation from D & J which I will never forget. Thanks a lot guys, I don't say it enough…"
When asked if there was any moment of self-doubt he had with his approach to the cover art for the Hotline games, there was none. There also wasn't an "a-ha" moment either -- instead, it flowed and just came together. He says, "It was just doing stuff that sort of came together by itself. I don't think you know 'this is it'. It's more of a magical feeling where you find yourself in a situation of balanced and fierce inspiration. Many peeps try to analyse this and recreate this kind of situation it but essentially I think it's just down to a sort of coincidence of order in chaos. And then you ride the wave."
Cover of the first Hotline Miami game (2012)
He continues with some words of wisdom and personal conviction, "Trying to fill yourself with some sort of delusions of grandeur is narcissistic and misleading unless you are commercially concerned or a rapper. Americans tend to want to have this approach I've noticed and for some people it works but ultimately I think creating stuff is not about fame, money or personal fulfilment. It's rather about connecting with people on an emotional plane, stimulating imagination and inspiring more creativity."
Since the last Hotline Miami game, Åkerblad continues to channel his creativity into multiple projects including painting and making music.
With regards to work-related projects, he's been managing quite a lot. "Right now I've been wanting to be my own agent and just let the creativity flow. Sometimes I do illustrations for other games (like GoNNER or RunGunJumpGun) and musicians as well as Bandcamp Weekly. But there is always like 5 things I'm working on at the same time. Right now I'm doing a sequel to my last album VanDereer, trying to figure out how to put a decade old idea into a comic book, painting and generally just practicing my skills."
His work on games has slowed down but only for the moment, "There are, of course, dreams of doing more games but for now that's a bit on hold until the right moment presents itself (finding willing coders etc)." But that's not to say he won't be contributing in some manner to Dennaton's next video game release. He states, "I will do some illustrations for Dennaton's next game and, if the stars align, some music as well."
Oh, right. And as for Beard, would Åkerblad also give out free pizza and snacks as his Hotline character does?
"It has been known to happen yes! I think Beard is sort of rooted in reality. I'm not a good Samaritan or anything but I don't mind sharing things."