Manhunt

a review of Manhunt
a videogame developed by rockstar north
and published by rockstar games
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Thomas Callahan

0.5 star

Bottom line: Manhunt is “door-bashing, window-smashing vandalism.”

As somebody who has played Halo 2 online, I can tell you that the Xbox Live Headset is usually pretty terrifying. Women are demeaned on a medieval level. Prepubescent boys bark military jargon with gut-wrenching enthusiasm. Dead players are angry and they will let you know; racism and inflammatory bullstuff accumulates. I feel sleazy by proxy just listening to it all. These people are in my living room. At some point I’m bound to claw off my headset, banishing them out the door. Inevitably I’ll let them back in — listening to their vapid bile is almost as morbidly amusing as reading YouTube comments.

 

In Manhunt, you play as James Cash, a gore-loving serial killer lining up in death row. You bastard! When you escape, to the delight of journalists, you begin murdering people again — only this time, murder is your full-time job. No, you’re not a hitman, you’re a film star. You’re employed by ‘The Director’ to kill men in sadistic, needlessly complicated fashion. Each kill is videotaped with a shaky handheld camera and broadcast through a grainy filter. The footage is then spliced and edited into a series of snuff films.

Manhunt uses the Xbox Live Headset outside of an online context, and the result is more outright terrifying than any testosterone-fuelled internet-deathmatch banter could hope to be. We hear narration, a device criminally underused in videogames, through the headset, while all other sounds are emitted from television speakers. This maneuver reinforces the narration as separate from the in-game action; less detached and expository, more akin to a DVD’s audio commentary. As you butcher and maim enemies, ‘The Director’ chortles with uninhibited glee into your headset. To him, these illegal-voyeur-reality-HOT! death videos are captivating pornography — he’s getting off, and uncomfortably close to your inner ear.

What kind of sick freak would buy tapes of real murders? Is there really an existing audience, an actual market? Are there others just like The Director, giggling rapturously at these senseless snuff films? Man, that’s hardly even a question. Of course there’s an audience. There will always be an audience for depraved violence. For starters: you, the player. You the player bought Manhunt, a game documenting depraved violence in vivid detail; a game by that depraved studio Rockstar Games; a game created for depraved gamers just like you.

This is a damning portrayal of the videogame industry, where developers endlessly one-up each other, piling on the shock value for consumers endlessly craving more. Blame falls equally on the entertainers and the entertained. James Cash provides inspired violence for the camera — he is Rockstar’s loathsome self-portrait — and The Director is a pastiche of you, the grinning spectator clamoring for more. What a mess. Manhunt sends up everyone. It’s not preachy satire: it presents no escape from the gory supply and gory demand. Perhaps it’s nothing more than an expression of videogame industry turmoil circa 2000. Either way, the whole enterprise is thick with despair. When I suffocate a man with a plastic bag and The Director chortles in my headset, his cruel delight and my instinctive satisfaction mirror each other.

And I don’t like it. In fact, I find the parallel pretty hecking nihilistic. Pretty hecking patronizing.

Rockstar Games created Grand Theft Auto with the most earnest of intentions. They aimed to accommodate as many stray ideas as possible, without care or precision, in order to provide templates for more polished games to come (such as Bully, Crackdown and Dead Rising). They succeeded; the series’ reckless ambition was and continues to be infectious. Somewhat regrettably, its explicit subject matter spawned lawsuits, activists, and sensationalist press. But that was mere tabloid opportunism, wasn’t it?

Here comes the nigh-unwatchable naïveté: this controversy is treated by Manhunt as another stray idea of Grand Theft Auto’s to be polished, a template to build upon.

That’s not only tactless, it’s, uh. What the hell’s the point?

 


Manhunt is a pointless act of destruction. It flaunts the sickness of an industry and continues the sickness with knowing symbolism, providing more blood and sex, you sickos, and don’t worry, we’re sickos too. The Director is a sadist for enjoying violence; you’re a sadist for enjoying violence because ha! you’re still playing our violent videogame. Serial killer James Cash is forced to pump out more violence by The Director; us Grand Theft Auto developers are forced to pump out more videogame violence by you. This is not an anguished protest. It’s an opportunistic tantrum. If everyone is guilty and accused, even the victims of the snuff films — yeah, they’re hecking neo-Nazis — then what’s the intent beneath the bleak, all-encompassing cynicism? More spotlight, more sales. So what if Manhunt can draw clever parallels; it drags its players, its developers and the public image of videogames a little further into a vague sludgy pit. Consider the mission revolving around a 300-pound mentally &^#$#ed man wielding a chainsaw. Or the anemic stealth engine, where tossing decapitated heads into distracting corners is the end-all answer to everything. Was Rockstar inspired to create this game as one giant mischievous heck You to the likes of Jack Thompson? If so, they’ve simply handed their opponents more ammunition. Was Manhunt intended to provoke discussion about the pitfalls of the medium? If so, Rockstar have provoked discussion from me: this review, where I give their noisy pitfall of a game a resounding half star.

 

As sheer horrific provocation, Manhunt succeeds. Yet underneath is dreary, methodical stealth, and underneath that is door-bashing window-smashing vandalism. None of it has purpose. A tinge of self-parody is undeniable, but it’s a baseless, rabble-rousing plea for attention all the same, and the attention it received — frenzied 11:00 breaking-news drama — has subtly pushed videogames further away from respectability, further into the publicly scorned fringes that comics, wrestling and pornography call home.

Further still, now: Manhunt 2 has been banned in the UK. Nintendo and Sony, in an attempt to save face, are refusing to publish the sequel without some hefty censorship. The situation is all kinds of ridiculous. It brings to mind countless independent films forever silenced by their NC-17 ratings. I’m too drained to line up in defense of Manhunt 2, though, because judging by the adulatory PR — featuring necrophilia and castration — I doubt it will amount to anything greater than Grisly Unfriendly Action Utilizing Wiimote Stabbing Motions. I conclude now, having finished Manhunt (it ends up ditching all symbolism and resorting to trite cops vs. robbers), that the good folks at Rockstar have been playing a bit too much Grand Theft Auto. Here they snag the attention of mass media the same way giddy “sandbox-gamers” snag the attention of cops: with desperate, drunken destruction demanding immediate response. Run over that pedestrian! Ah, a policeman: a dead policeman! Twenty innocent bystanders and five unsuspecting hookers later, C.J. is under fire from the US Army. And they’re using hecking helicopters, dude! Slash them down! And now Manhunt is getting blamed for homicides, dude! And now the UK government is throwing us into the bonfire — we might have too many stars to wriggle out of this one, dude! Do it again! This has gotta be the biggest adrenaline rush we’ve had since we free-climbed the Mayan ruins!

–Thomas Callahan

Comments

24 Responses to Manhunt

  1. Didn’t one of the members of the development team blog about how uneasy [most of] the team felt about making this game in the first place? I honestly haven’t played it yet, but I have followed the buzz since its release, and for the most part, I have to agree with you.

    I mean, on one level, the concept is pretty damn brilliant. The game leads you to believe that you, the player, are the character on screen, decapitating and castrating foes and whatnot — all the while, in truth, you ARE the Director, waiting in anticipation for that next satisfying, gruesome kill. Like I said, as a concept, the game is brilliant.

    But I agree with how you felt: “…I find the parallel pretty hecking nihilistic. Pretty hecking patronizing.” Seriously. Despite Manhunt being a virtual world and all, I honestly do not want to kill people in gruesome ways, as much as I didn’t want to harvest those creepy little girls in Bioshock. Maybe I’m a pansy, but whatever.

    Anyway, great review. I thought your Resident Evil piece was spot on, as well.

  2. Didn’t one of the members of the development team blog about how uneasy [most of] the team felt about making this game in the first place? I honestly haven’t played it yet, but I have followed the buzz since its release, and for the most part, I have to agree with you.

    I mean, on one level, the concept is pretty damn brilliant (albeit a tad unethical). The game leads you to believe that you, the player, are the character on screen, decapitating and castrating foes and whatnot — all the while, in truth, you ARE the Director, waiting in anticipation for that next satisfying, gruesome kill. Like I said, as a concept, the game is brilliant.

    But I agree with how you felt: “…I find the parallel pretty hecking nihilistic. Pretty hecking patronizing.” Seriously. Despite Manhunt being a virtual world and all, I honestly do not want to kill people in gruesome ways, as much as I didn’t want to harvest those creepy little girls in Bioshock. Maybe I’m a pansy, but whatever.

    Anyway, great review, along with the Resident Evil piece you did awhile back. Good stuff.

  3. hey thanks!

    i haven’t heard of that blog though the thought of it has me excited. i’ll have to take a look around. manhunt’s player-director concept could have been pulled off with such brutal elegance; unfortunately it just comes off as really, really vapid.

    i wrote this review months ago, back when the manhunt 2 ban was making headlines. since then, it’s been confirmed that manhunt 2 can, legally, be released uncut in the netherlands — which in no way implies that it will be released in the netherlands at all. also, rockstar games has self-censored (castration with pliers is out, blur filter is in), so the esrb’s giving them the M . . . look for manhunt 2 in stores near america come october 31 which is heckin halloween.

  4. [url=http://badasscat.blogspot.com/2007/07/rockstar.html]Life During Wartime – Working at Rockstar Games[/url]

  5. I used to think the same way for the longest time. Having spent an hour or so with the game I felt the violence was too in your face, just for the sake of being violent and shocking.

    Months later, for some reason, I played the game again, all the way through the end. I found it an extremely powerful experience: almost Takashi Miike-like in its execution, what with its &^#$#ed hyperviolence hiding an actual deep message. Maybe it’s just the fact that I love Stephen King’s novel “The Running Man”, that I decided to accept the game’s proposition of being a hunted animal, a criminal that is anything but innocent, that is thrown into a game of survival.

    I wouldn’t mistake the playing of the game to agreeing with the proceedings: you are put in a position where the only means of escape involves murder, and it’s to be understood by the player that he has no choice, other than turn off the console.

    The director is not an aide, or a guide: he’s a captor. You have no choice but to listen to him and follow his sick instructions, or you (and at some point, “your family”) will die. So you play along with this haunting fantasy. See where it goes… that’s what I did.

    I’m surprised you don’t find some sort of redemption by the resolution of Manhunt. Eventually you escape the game, and embark on a quest to enact revenge on the Director. You never break the cycle of violence, as its the only language this particular game speaks, but the fact that at the end the tables turn and you kill the one who forced you to murder for entertainment validated everything I had to go through. I know it sounds shallow, like what does it matter the motives if you are still doing horrible things, but I find that the intention redeems the game from being pure exploitation. It’s not giddyness what the game encourages, but discomfort, wanting to break free, and perhaps the self-revulsion for feeling pangs of bloodlust from time to time. The creators are not oblivious to the wrongs within: they can tell good from bad, and they decide to put you in that uncomfortable position. At times it reminded of the Marquis de Sade’s writings, which weren’t handbooks of cruelty, but a mirror to reflect on our own morality. Manhunt takes it one step further by making us active actors of the experience.

    Maybe I’m giving Rockstar way too much credit, but that was my “reading” of the game, and I ended enjoying it immensely. I find myself in the other end: I think Manhunt is deeper than its shocking surface, and offers an emotional experience that goes beyond what videogames are supposed to be. It doesn’t have to be pretty, or “fun”; as long as its experience moves the player to feel and think, I find this work of fiction valid and worth of a second chance.

  6. Anything that makes you hate yourself is probably a worthwhile experience.

    We might call Manhunt the first horror game.

  7. oops. well, that was the link to the former Rockstar employee who talked about how he “didn’t support Manhunt’s release” and how “there was almost a mutiny at the company over that game.”

  8. kurenai, i tend to disagree RE: the key turnaround in the game, the shift from obeying the director to hunting him . . .

    well, it’s a clever twist on paper. thing is, if manhunt is geared to force the player into self-revulsion and discomfort, the fact that the tables are eventually turned certainly doesn’t offer any consolation. it should! yeah, all of a sudden james cash is acting of his free will. he’s going after the director; the director’s sending a SWAT team after him. only it all falls flat, on an emotional level, because he’s (we’re) confined to the same stealth-murderer engine — we’re still milking the creative-torture-executions, still tossing around the decapitated heads. at this point we aren’t rebelling against the director, really. if anything, we’re enacting our own snuff films. and when we finally cap the director in the head, we’ve . . . finished another boss fight. it’s not emotionally satisfying, nor does it represent some sort of vindication.

    “You never break the cycle of violence, as it’s the only language this particular game speaks […]”

    this is a problem, when said language is spoken so tediously. manhunt is like the obligatory stealth section in a modern third-person action-adventure stretched out over the course of several hours. it’s glum and uncomfortable. eventually it degenerates into awkward gunplay. at no point does it come full circle. all things said and done, i found it a pretty tiresome experience.

  9. So, let’s say, if the game had responsive, ingenious gameplay dynamics from the start, would you’ve been more receptive to what it might be trying to say?

    Or, even better, if once you are free from the Director clutches, you could win the game without resorting to violence?

    Both are valid arguments! I found myself annoyed by Killer 7 by its clumsy mechanics (which some people argue are intentional, and that justs irks me even more)… and I have to ask if good gameplay would’ve acted in detriment of the K7 experience. I believe not: good mechanics never get in the way, and if anything they would’ve made it easier to digest (to which people would argue “it’s not intended to be digested easily!… yawn). Just think of the stuff the Metal Gear series would’ve endured on its plot alone if the games didn’t feature some of the finest gameplay ever.

    I too found at first the stealth mechanics clumsy, especially compared to, say Splinter Cell. Maybe I made concessions to the game as I’m willing to forgive annoying traits if the big picture seems interesting enough (and boy did my patience got tested with Rule of Rose, but it was worth it in the end), but I quickly embraced the feeling of being just a guy that was cornered and outnumbered (the sense of dread was quite something), and the fact that I was not a ninja that could just mow the hordes made it even more real. I don’t usually subscribe to the idea that “clumsy control=regular guy”, but I found the gameplay adequate enough so as to put me in a disadvantage and feel anxiety through most of the game.

    I could go on and on about how some of the most “shocking at first” elements tend to lose their face value and reveal themselves as byproducts of an overall bleak universe, not really to incite a “cool!” or “gross!”, but a “man, what a hecking nightmare”… but I’ll be first to admit it’s all in the reading, on my own reception. I would never force this game on anyone, or recommend it indiscriminately. I also believe people defend the game for the wrong reasons too: that “worthless garbage games” deserve to exist too. The infamous 10 page analysis someone wrote, for all the attention it gave to the game, actually considered the game purposely crap.

    I can understand people not being so forgiving or accommodating to games like these. You touch on an interesting point, though: could Manhunt be elevated on gameplay alone? If the gunplay or stealth were exciting on their own, yet the murders remained untouched, would you (or other people) have a better opinion of it?

    Cheers.

  10. firstly, thanks for the comments kurenai — always good to see a debate get rolling here.

    what would i think, had manhunt’s stealth engine been exciting purely on its own terms, while its director-player gore-developer conceit remained the same? well hm.

    it seems to me like you genuinely enjoyed the stealth engine, if only for the sense of dread it gave you. hey, i can sympathize; i gleaned much enjoyment out of resident evil remake from suffering under, and finally triumphing against its tough-as-nails survival horror. so how would one go about “improving” manhunt’s mechanics, if their clunkiness is executed with such intent? surely “elevating the gameplay” to better gratify the player would be contrary to manhunt’s design, if the game, indeed, is using desperation as one of its chief narrative devices?

    at the end of the day, i dislike manhunt primarily because it carries out its grandiose Statement in an asinine and bizarrely condescending manner, not because its stealth-action input-output fails to quench my button-pushing thirst. that the stealth itself is . . . seriously methodical feels more irritating due to the banal shocktastic package around it than anything. i find many moments — take the entrance of piggsy the nude 300-pound mentally &^#$#ed pigskull-wearing chainsaw maniac for example! — utterly exasperating. you admit it’s all in the reading, when you say these elements are out to convey an overall bleak universe, but i can’t see them as anything other than overreaching juvenilia delivered with a dirty, knowing smirk. and when i find what is, to my mind, a blank, uninspired stealth engine within all of this, i just don’t feel a great deal of patience.

  11. It is my pleasure! I’m afraid this comment got way out of hand, so bear with me.

    What got me interested in the review in the first place was that you voiced, almost word for word, my first impression of the game. “Overreaching juvenilia, delivered with a dirty, knowing smirk”, yes, that’s what I felt almost exactly.

    As I’m not really interested in changing your mind with my comments, but simply state that it’s interesting how the same game can evoke such different readings, let me elaborate on the process I personally went trough to change my opinion of Manhunt.

    I always felt great disinterest in the GTA series, mainly because even people within my circle of friends loved it for the same reasons other hated it: the anarchy of it all, the way the games totally let you punch hookers, cause mayhem, get chased by cops. I found it all to silly, like a child poking a dead squirrel, even though I knew there were solid fundamentals and a sense of humor about it underneath it all.

    Then came Manhunt, which seemed to take things to the next level of attention-grabbing. My first half hour with it was full of annoyed groans and rolling of the eyes, as it seemed to encourage shock for shock itself. It felt like something to “scare the old folks”, like wearing an upside-down crucifix without even hearing of Anton Lavey. I wasn’t going to fall for that, I wasn’t interested in schlock, so I thanked the people that so giddily encouraged me to play it, but also said “no, thanks”.

    Months later, I’d just finished watching Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare, and reflected on its discussion on why us, horror-film lovers, desire time and time again to be put through such painful experiences. A memory sprung to my mind: in between the overdone murder sequences, I remember feeling chilled to the bone by the despair and hopelessness of the atmosphere of Manhunt. The lack of music, feeling alone in the night, being blind about where the hunters were other than when the broke the silence of the night. I remembered these moments of stillness as the ones that had me grit my teeth and made my chest hurt. Dread, as I pointed earlier, was overwhelming… and then I began to think, what if Manhunt isn’t just an exercise in juvenile shock, but a actual horror game, a horror game without safe rooms, a horror game that didn’t rely on zombies or other supernatural monsters but instead just tried to instill the fear of death on your person?

    I thought about it. There had been games, like Roadkill, that jumped into the violent, M-rated bandwagon of GTA that were clearly created to make a quick buck. There seemed to be more thought put into Manhunt than just a cramming of tasteless gore. Unlike the mischievous spirit of GTA, the tone of Manhunt is dead serious, without means of releasing the tension. The developers casted the brilliant Brian Cox as The Director: Brian Cox was the original Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon/Manhunter. They took advantage of the misused headset to further close the breach between game and player. I mean, this was Rockstar North, previously DMA Design: the team that made Lemmings, Unirally, Blast Corps, and the original GTA.

    (By the way, thanks mini-attacks for the link: the story is kinda misleading, however, as the one complaining wasn’t part of the creative team, but an employee of the distributor, Rockstar Games. As he states, scottish-based Rockstar North created the game and it was the american branch (the one that distributed non-Rockstar-created crap like State of Emergency and Midnight Club) that made a fuss about it.)

    I believe both you and I shaped the game experience based on a matter of intent. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe your opinion is that the developers prioritized pushing the boundaries of violence for the sake of exploitation, while the vehicle (the game mechanics) just wasn’t as important, as long as it got the gory spectacle across. Disliking the game for that, I admit, is a rationale worth defending: I wouldn’t want to play a game so cheap, so worthless in its intent either.

    The defense of Manhunt 2 by its creators reinforced my belief, however, that Rockstar was actually trying to do something different. In their statements defending it, they compare it to a “horror movie” and treat it as a “work of art”. Obviously not a work of art in the sense of beauty or deeply inspirational, but more like you’d treat any other work of fiction. I can attest that, at times, the dread I felt playing the game wasn’t that much different from the one I felt watching The Nameless or Calvaire, or other harrowing horror films. As gaming gets more adult, more diverse in its themes, sooner or later someone would’ve come up with crazy idea of making the game from the point of view of a killer. While the designer might had dreams of making an American Psycho sort of game (or in this case, The Running Man), the moral implications of having to enact the part would sure get more attention than any profound intention it tried to get across, even if it was just scaring the bejezzus out of you.

    Weird how quite a few games star assassins, however.

    I have to say, though, I also believe that some elements of Manhunt are overdone, and much like the overkill violence of Takashi Miike films like Ichi the Killer, they ends up distracting from more valuable assets hidden beneath all the blood and guts. It frustrates me. A stance like yours is easier to defend than mine, since what you get in the first hour of play is nothing but a barrage of vicious slaughter, enough to convince any sensible person. There’s consolation perhaps, in the fact that a lot of horror classics were treated the same way, as worthless pieces of exploitation.

    Saying that you are wrong in you assessment of the game would be akin to me saying that you thought you didn’t like it but you actually did. A good review, at least not the purchase guide ones, is a personal account of your own experience with the game. I found an affinity with your feelings about Manhunt, and thought I’d share my own experience with it.

    I can’t help but feel deeply intrigued by Manhunt 2, all in all. Not so much because I expect a terrific game, but because I know it will reveal what’s the true intention of Rockstar North, “validating” either my experience or yours. I’d be disappointed if it was quite obvious they turn out to be nothing but noisy, attention grabbing kids… but in the end, my experience with Manhunt would remain untouched, as I expect yours will too.

    Cheers.

  12. manhunt is a game which polarizes opinions left and right; it’s either horrifying trash or successful horror fiction. i suppose kurenai and i represent the opposite ends of the spectrum here.

    (an aside: we’re also on different wavelengths RE: grand theft auto. i consider 2, 3 and san andreas fairly brilliant, while he’s quick to dismiss the series)

    at what, 10 dollars, forming an opinion about manhunt isn’t going to break anyone’s budget. hell, even as a guy with nothing but contempt for the game — and believe me, i could spout a couple thousand more words of bile in its general direction — i’m probably going to buy the sequel out of, um, scientific curiosity. i like what kurenai says about manhunt 2 “validating” either my experience or his. will it stand as conclusive evidence that the series is backhanded, manipulative schlock riding on the coattails of tabloid scandal, or will it offer ammunition for his argument? i note that it is set in a psychiatric ward, surely as viable a backdrop for hateful posturing (or carefully maintained terror) as the lens of a snuff film producer’s camera.

    today i finally got around to following mini-attacks’ link (Life During Wartime – Working at Rockstar Games). definitely worth a read, but i’ll post these choice excerpts anyway:

    “Every Rockstar project turned into a huge clusterheck. I mainly blame this on a horrendously inefficient company structure combined with a few individuals who thought they were hot stuff but really didn’t know anything about either video games or marketing. By that time, Rockstar was arrogant to the point of absurdity. I can understand a little swagger – we had the #1 selling game in the world in GTA3, and in fact of all time on the PlayStation 2. Still, we thought that it was because of some sort of “mystique” that we had created around the Rockstar name, that it was all down to good marketing and that we were responsible for that. No credence was given to the thought that maybe – just maybe – GTA3 was just a fun game.”

    “I also took all of the little easter egg shots on the Manhunt web site […] pretty frustrating, especially with a game like Manhunt that’s just inherently ugly.

    And honestly, I was pretty vocal in telling my superiors that while I’d do whatever they asked me to do (within reason), I didn’t support Manhunt’s release. It may sound surprising, but there was almost a mutiny at the company over that game. It was Rockstar North’s pet project – most of us at Rockstar Games wanted no part of it. We’d already weathered plenty of controversy over GTA3 and Vice City – we were no strangers to it – but Manhunt felt different. With GTA, we always had the excuse that the gameplay was untethered – you never had to hurt anybody that wasn’t a “bad guy” in one of the missions. You could play completely ethically if you wanted, and the game was parody anyway, so lighten up.

    Manhunt, though, just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.”

  13. Manhunt is not the story of a hapless hero pulled into an impossible situation from which he must escape and then bring the villain to justice. It’s the story of a bunch of wannabe sickos who get their brains handed to them by the real deal when they decide to screw with him.

    At least that was my take on it. I liked it, by the way. I found it fairly disturbing, bleak, and hopeless. Which is a bit more artsy than the usual shenanigans, y’know?

    Also the gameplay was pretty good, which was something you seemed to pass over completely in your essay except for a quick passage, “Yet underneath is dreary, methodical stealth, and underneath that is door-bashing window-smashing vandalism. None of it has purpose.” Well, the purpose, I think, was the game was supposed to be like The Running Man, where you have to escape from hordes of enemies and if you’re found, you’re pretty much dead (not always, there were ways to escape, but not many).

    Then again the fact that it gets mentioned on your site means it made some sort of impression, right? You don’t exactly cover every game that comes down the pipe. Why only give it half a star when you give pointless frilly trash like Heavenly Sword one and a half? This game tried to do far more, after all, and it was exactly the game the developers were trying to make (except I think they wanted a new cash cow alongside GTA and it didn’t pan out as well as GTA did).

  14. My experience with Manhunt seems to be similar to most people’s. I bought it on the PS2 after reading IGN’s review a few years ago. I made it to to the zoo level and just lost interest. It was a fascinating game and the director’s voice was done really well, but it felt too repetitive at that point.

    As soon as I heard about a sequel, I found a used xbox copy and played through the whole game. I’d say that I agree with the bulk of your review, Callahan, but still enjoyed playing through the game. I think your best point, beyond the moral implications, was that the gameplay didn’t change once you broke free of the director’s control. If they had changed it up there, then I think the game would have seemed more… well, I don’t know, it would have been more defensible.

    There was no logical reason to want to stab the cops in the eyes with glass shards and splatter the cerberus’ heads against walls with the bat. At that point it was just bloodlust and revenge and it was unnecessary. Or maybe they were scared to change the gameplay so late in the game.

    What I think is potentially beneficial about this game being released, is that it pushing the debate beyond where it went with GTA. So there was a hidden strip club in San Andreas, who cares? It wasn’t accessible without hacking the game and hardly the focal point of the story. Manhunt is straight-up murder, by the end of the game, and with the release of the sequel we’re finally seeing how far the ESRB is willing to go (I don’t know how the original got through with an M).

    Unfortunately, I think we missed the chance to have a real debate on what is considered art/entertainment and what is depraved. The media went with the typical angle that never solves anything and all real discourse was brought down to Jack Thompson levels of nonsense.

    And as a side note, the final battle with Pigsy freaked me out. That whole area reeked of ambiance and I really enjoyed playing that part of the game. If not for that scene, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the game as much.

  15. art can’t be depraved?

    i’m interested in how people attached to a game where the protagonist seemingly doesn’t encourage any empathy. this is part of why i can’t stand god of war. i don’t like spending time as a total dick. i guess that’s where some will guffaw and suggest that i can’t appreciate expression beyond kinkade-esque perfect bores.

  16. Art can be whatever it wants, but when it comes to interactive entertainment the US has chosen to regulate it by not allowing certain titles to be released on the major consoles. Since we’re already regulating/censoring this art form, we need to have a real discussion about it instead of a bunch of ‘but the children’ local news stories and silly lawsuits.

    I’d like for games like Manhunt to have no problems being released, but that will require an informed society that takes the time to understand what their purchasing. It didn’t work with the PMRC and music and it’s not working with video games.

  17. Maybe the fact that the gameplay doesn’t change at the end is the point?

    If this were a modern Hollywood movie, the protagonist would get sympathetic at that point and you would realize that he was just being forced by the sick whims of the Director and etc.

    Luckily, instead the game gives you an opportunity to realize that the protagonist is a hecking horrible person, and you’re horrible for playing him. He really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. Either the Director ruined them by contaminating them with violence or the guy was just a sick heck to begin with. Either way you’ve been fooled into condoning disgusting violence because you thought this guy might have had a shred of decency, and then you find out he doesn’t. You’ve been tricked.

    Callahan might call that juvenile but I call that the essence of horror.

    I’d be tempted to call Manhunt the Devil’s Rejects of games, or, dare I say it, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except for the fact that those movies had a mastery of technique as well as theme, and Manhunt’s theme, while impeccable, is not borne out in its repetetive and clunky gameplay. I guess you can say what you want about the clunkiness making it feel more “real,” which is fine, but in that case the game should have been half as long. It was simply too drawn-out, and when you start repeating the same godawful mutilations over and over again they aren’t horrifying so much as tedious. The game loses its message when it desensitizes you to the violence. A true horror experience never lets you get desensitized by playing with your expectations and constantly upping the ante. In Manhunt, “upping the ante” means now the cops have SMGs instead of pistols.

    I’m hoping that Manhunt 2 retains the thematic elements while improving the mechanical ones. It could be a real blockbuster.

  18. “Luckily, instead the game gives you an opportunity to realize that the protagonist is a hecking horrible person, and you’re horrible for playing him. He really doesn’t have any redeeming qualities. Either the Director ruined them by contaminating them with violence or the guy was just a sick heck to begin with. Either way you’ve been fooled into condoning disgusting violence because you thought this guy might have had a shred of decency, and then you find out he doesn’t. You’ve been tricked.”

    fooled? tricked? bear in mind that james cash begins the game in death row! his lethal injection is a mass media event.

    i doubt anyone manages to slip into empathy for that man! he’s a psycho before he encounters the director, and he remains a psycho without the guiding hand of the director. is that supposed to be affecting? should i slump into self-loathing there, as per the “essence of horror”?

    hey, hunting down the director could make for a pretty rollicking revenge story, really. that it mostly falls flat is due, in part, to a lack of craftsmanship; i agree with all your points about the monotony and clunkiness of the gameplay. manhunt drags, particularly in its third act. definitely numbing.

    if this game was to take the morally inoffensive route after cash wriggles out of the director’s iron grip, then, well, ha. this is the solemnly artificial one-player videogame at work — “he’s just misunderstood” hollywoodish sentimentality, redeeming the by all means pure evil protagonist simply wouldn’t translate to Third Person Predatory Stealth Action.

  19. The difference is that it’s a game, not the movie. It plays with your natural sympathy toward your own character, whom you are responsible for controlling. Sure James Cash is a psycho before, during, and after the plot of the game. This makes his motivations fairly immaterial and the “trick” harder to see, from a plot point of view (although something like Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake still gets to the point even though his Michael Myers is for all intents and purposes never not crazy).

    The point is, the backstory is just that, and, hey, it’s a videogame. Merely by the act of playing it I am fooling myself into thinking James Cash is a guy worth playing. But the third act makes it more and more difficult for me to avoid admitting that to myself. The game takes the videogamer’s natural reaction (the protagonist is me, the protagonist deserves to win because he’s me) and turns it on its head in the bluntest way possible, by stacking the deck so totally against him that if you still think James Cash is cool after the end of the game you are essentially a worthless person.

    Unfortunately, that creeping impulse of “Why am I still playing this game?” is tainted because one of the answers is “because it’s repetetive and poorly implemented,” which is really too bad. Still, I think the theme holds its own.

    Have you ever seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and did you find it worth watching, or juvenile schlock?

  20. I’m pretty tired and that is pretty poorly written, but you get the gist.

  21. pulling off such an intricate horror premise requires, at the very least, a certain degree of competence — this alone puts the texas chainsaw massacre in an altogether different league than manhunt.

    i mean, there’s great potential for horror fiction in videogames. stacking physical & psychological barriers against the player, or, given the formulaic nature of most games, messing with his/her expectations, etc. seems a natural fit.

    if rockstar really is aiming high and trying to construct this elaborate player-avatar relationship with their manhunt franchise, they’d better go easy on the goofy menace (dialogue sample: “He wears his creed like a leprous whore wears a veil! Who is this guy, the Invisible Man? Can’t find him anywhere! He runs like a beaten wife! Mmm… Nice boobs! I don’t think you need them no more!”) and tighten up the pacing considerably (action sample).

  22. Yeah, I mean, I said all that already. I agree.

    My only point is that it wasn’t juvenile backlashing driven by void principles that generated the game. It shows potential, in other words.

  23. ok: diplo’s mention of god of war reminds me of another overtly manipulative, clumsy bit of videogame horror.

    [you stumble upon a soldier locked in a small cage]

    caged soldier: oh, thank the gods you’ve come. break these bars get me out of here!

    caged soldier: well, what are you waiting for? let me out and we can find our way back to athens.

    kratos: the gods demand sacrifice from all of us.

    [beat]

    caged soldier: oh please, no . . . no.

    [you begin pushing the cage towards a switch]

    caged soldier: gods on high! save me from this barbarian!

    caged soldier: no, please, please!

    caged soldier: please, on your humanity, don’t do this!

    [you place the cage on the switch. the soldier claws at the bars in terror. you pull the nearest lever: machinery rattles noisily, and a burst of flames shoot out, consuming the soldier’s body]

    caged soldier: no, no, noooo!!!

    [fire eats away at the soldier’s skin. he fades into the floor. block puzzle completed, the path forward opens]

  24. At some point, games will have to explore other flavors of horror other than the subtle, understated Silent Hill kind. As games start to get their narrative legs, it is to be expected that strides would be made in a clumsy, usually overkill way. I remember how sophisticated the dialog in Metal Gear Solid 1 seemed at the time, yet now it sounds really cheesy. Baby steps.

    Is it wrong to expect more from videogames? Well, yes and no. It’s important to always believe in the potential of the medium while reminding ourselves that we won’t instantly achieve the same level of depth that books or films in the next videogame sequel. I remember that GoW scene and in retrospect, yeah it’s awkward and pure show off in the sense that it wasn’t necessary, but at time it was one of those things that made you think “you can’t do that on a videogame!”

    The more the medium grows, I believe we will encounter more and more games that test its boundaries, that try to proclaim “I’m not a kid anymore, dammit!”. The assessment of vandalism in the review rings true to what the final product shows, but as with real vandalism I believe it’s a symptom of youth trying to find their place in the world, a necessary process to achieve real maturity.

    In the future we might laugh at the scare tactics of Manhunt and God of War but I believe these are the games that will have the most important historical value as far as building the medium’s vocabulary goes.

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