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
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 Fuck 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!