Rockstar’s Playstation 2 games were the video nasties of my generation. I remember my father reading an article in USA Today about prostitution in Grand Theft: Auto Vice City and telling me that I couldn’t have it. Likewise, the majority of my friends were forbidden from playing any of the Grand Theft Auto games. However, like most groups of adolescent male friends, we had one guy whose parents didn’t care one iota what he played, watched, listened to, or read, so we became enamored with Vice City over at his house on the weekends.
In hindsight, I find it strange that Manhunt never kicked up as much of a fuss. With a pitch to my mother that might have untruthfully underplayed the extent of violence within the game, I was allowed to own it. Manhunt, just like Vice City, became a way for my group of friends to gather together to pass the time in a small Southern town. I’d have two or three of them over at the house during the afternoons, and we would take turns playing through each level in Rockstar’s gruesome survival action game.
Manhunt, drawing inspiration from movies like The Running Man, is about a death row inmate named James Earl Cash who is given another “chance” at life by snuff film director Lionel Starkweather (voiced by actor Brian Cox). After being released by Starkweather, Cash must stealthily make his way across the metropolitan cesspit known as Carcer City while executing gang members who have been assigned to hunt him down. Weapons include conventional items like shotguns and pistols, and unconventional ones as well: plastic bags, shards of glass, and metal baseball bats. There are a few combat-oriented levels, but Cash spends most of the time in the shadows stalking his prey. Each melee weapon has three levels of execution: hasty, violent, and gruesome. Sneaking up behind an enemy and holding the strike button longer will result in a more violent execution that rewards the player with a higher star rating at the end of each stage. More stars mean more unlocked bonus content, including some extra challenge levels. When my friends and I took turns playing, we were competing to see who could get the highest star rating: we were basically trying to one-up one another when it came to slaughtering bad dudes.
Two recent occurrences made yearn to revisit a game I hadn’t played since 2004. The first was the release of Spec Ops: The Line this past June. I won’t go into detail about my experience with Yager’s first game except to say that when the credits rolled, I mulled over the ridiculous virtual body count I had accumulated during my time as a gamer. I didn’t really understand my own feelings about the experience, except that for some reason it had made me—after fifteen years of blasting my way through every shooter on the market—incredibly anxious about virtual bloodshed. (Brendan Keogh’s critical reading provided some reassurance that this wasn’t a ludicrous experience.) And then Steam’s accursed winter sale rolled around. I had played pretty much all the big titles I was interested in this past year, so I bought a handful of cheap games I hadn’t experienced in a long time, including Manhunt.
Manhunt was an impulse purchase with little reason behind it beyond me wanting to grasp at nostalgia. But while I was installing the game, I thought about those afternoons back in 2004. What the balls had we bonded over exactly? Gruesome, shocking images of a man castrating another man with a sickle? (Were we just redneck violence junkies?) And, moreover, I was curious whether or not Manhunt was any good; if I could view the game through a different lens than that of an impressionable, Tarantino–obsessed teenager almost a decade later, and it still be a memorable experience.
The Hunt: Would You Kindly Kill This Dumb Fuck?
Carcer City doesn’t look half-bad for a nine year old game, which is surprising given that the game runs on the same engine that GTAII and GTA:VC do. Much of that has to do with how the dark visuals cover up muddy textures and make the few aesthetic features that you can see—blood and grime on character models, mostly—pop out.
The first level, entitled “Born Again,” starts with Cash on a deserted street. A tabloid blows by as I run, Starkweather’s words still ringing in my mind, “These streets are being controlled by gangs. They’re scum, just like you. And they’re here to hunt you down and cut you up.” Cox’s matter-of- fact delivery helps me get a good idea of who Cash is, but that’s the extent of character development we get on the protagonist until he decides halfway through the game to drop the Gordon Freeman act and yell. A lot. But in essence, Cash’s death row inmate status and willingness to kill define his character. Of course, Cash’s willingness mirrors my own: I may be killing reluctantly, but I’m still doing it to progress through the game.
My first opportunity to kill comes quickly: some graffiti catches my eye as I approach an alleyway. “KILL THIS DUMB FUCK,” the red paint screams. Peeking around the corner, there’s an idle gang member standing beneath a shadowed arch. I approach, my only weapon a blue grocery bag.
The last thought I have before I execute the man is a notion about how smoother the controls are on PC than for Playstation 2. The game switches to a low-budget hand-held camera perspective as Cash slips the bag over the thug’s head. The man struggles as Cash spins him around and punches him in the face several times. Blood erupts from the bag with each blow. Finally, Cash snaps the guy’s neck. The body crumples.
My stomach churns a little bit. Not because of the scene itself, but because I hadn’t even realized that I had held the button down long enough to perform the most gruesome execution. A reflex dredged up from almost ten years ago, but is the origin of that instinct a fourteen year old’s competitive need to beat his pals or, as Starkweather says, a desire to see some “Honest to god goreeeeee?”
It’s here that I realize that Manhunt features two protagonists. The obvious one is Cash, but, whether the player realizes it or not, he/she is playing as the sadistic Starkweather as well. (We are directing Cash, after all.) Gamers may not want to see the gruesome executions but the game’s star system encourages them to pursue the most violent executions to unlock those bonuses. Manhunt, at once, holds players hostage and allows them to indulge in violent fantasies.
On a thematic level, I also find it interesting that Manhunt doesn’t just tackle the idea of control in its narrative, but makes that notion the narrative itself—four years before the release of Bioshock. Both games feature protagonists who are nothing more than pieces—or “props”—taking part in a game being played by other parties. Jack’s a pawn in the game of war being played by Fontaine and Andrew. Cash, on the other hand, is herded from location to location (level to level) to violently kill men for the sake of a snuff film, a masturbatory game for Starkweather. And sure enough, as soon as Cash’s part is done, the despicable SOB is more than willing to sacrifice his pawn (and, interestingly enough, opponent) to ensure that no one finds out about his operation and that the game can go on in the form of future Starkweather films. Rockstar just didn’t package the concept as a plot twist but instead tried to craft a whole narrative from it, with mixed results.
But the story does what it’s supposed to in terms of game progression, pushing the gamer onward through the dark cityscape. The environs actually has more variety than the sneak & slay gameplay, as Cash finds himself traversing junkyards, insane asylums, and even a mansion. Manhunt may not be a sandbox, but it still gives off the impression that you’re navigating a huge, decaying city. Each cluster of sections also comes with radically different enemies, gangs hired by Starkweather. They still all have the same goal (sniffing you out and bashing your bald head in), but the different personalities, masks, and tattoos make each gang distinctly different from one another. In the end, though, they’re still characterized not as society’s lost children, but its waste, the kind of villains you’d find in a Death Wish sequel.
And Cash is no better than they are—from society’s standpoint, anyway. He’s a convicted death row inmate, after all. Moreover, he displays no fear or remorse when slaughtering his foes. He also never bungles an execution; even the spurtiest ones are done “professionally.” There are no good guys here. Manhunt is merely the story of a lesser evil (Cash) versus a greater one (Starkweather), with the player taking on both roles: the man willing to do anything in order to achieve his freedom and the sadistic voyeur who gets off on watching as someone’s eyes are gouged out with a shard of glass.
Manhunt isn’t a bad game but it isn’t a fantastic one, either. Its simplistic stealth mechanics are fun for a while but ultimately don’t trump anything you’ve seen in the likes of Metal Gear Solid. I find myself more preoccupied with the (possibly nonexistent) meta nature of the game, as in, what does this say about me, the player? Manhunt has spots of brilliance—the control narrative being one of them. However, to say that it’s making a firm message about virtual violence is going a wee bit overboard. There are points where it may seem like the game is, especially with the voyeuristic murder camera, but that message is too obtuse, if there is one.
Back in 2003, Levin Buchanan, writing for The Chicago Tribune, stated that “If Manhunt succeeds at retail, it will say more about American’s fascination with violence than any political discourse or social debate. That makes Manhunt the most important video game of the last five years.” But did/does the game add to the discussion of virtual violence? It lacks the mockery of Hotline Miami, the bite of Spec Ops: The Line. Perhaps this is simply a case of me looking at a game that I played as a younger man and hoping that its violence has some clear message, some way to absolve me of how much I enjoyed watching things like this:
But let’s play devil’s advocate. Let’s assume that Manhunt—like Spec Ops, like Hotline Miami—has some barbed message to make about the amount of virtual violence we commit in game after game after game. Can video games successfully act as mirrors for the player and make gamers socially conscious?
I remember a number of conversations that came about shortly after Spec Ops: The Line’s release that made the point about the game’s mechanics and dark violence undermining its criticism about shooters. I, for one, think the admittedly subpar mechanics reinforces game’s points, especially when the last two hours become a trudge through a difficulty spike laden hell. After all, could Coppola have made Apocalypse Now—one of the greatest films of all time and SPO:TL’s daddy— without showcasing acts of violence? Probably not.
This doesn’t mean that meaningful games can’t make those sorts of arguments without resorting to hefty amounts of onscreen violence. On the contrary, one of the most insightful games I played this past year was Paolo Pedercini’s Unmanned, which puts you in the shoes of a drone pilot. The only obvious incident of up-close bloodshed comes when the protagonist nicks himself shaving. However, the game satirizes achievement systems in military shooters while simultaneously offering a unique, hauntingly empathetic perspective on the lives of military personnel. The most disturbing sequence in the game involves you launching a drone missile at another human being, a caricature of a Middle Eastern man. But it’s not disturbing because you see a smoldering ruin where the caricature was moments before. Instead, it’s horrifying because the two pilots are having a prosaic conversation as they do it. The protagonist has nonchalantly obliterated another human being from the face of the earth while hitting on his copilot—an effective jab at sequences like this. I don’t think that Unmanned is necessarily a better game than Spec Ops: The Line/Hotline Miami or vice versa. Each game (and possibly Manhunt) has something to say about violence, particularly the gamer’s assumed consumption of violent media.
Two weeks ago Maddy Myers wrote an article examining masculinity in Hotline Miami in which she said that “Hotline Miami tells the story of where we are now, and it is sad story. It is a story that needs telling. But is also a story that I hope we don’t have to keep telling and retelling. Eventually, these ‘wake-up call’ games need to actually wake something up.” This is a valid frustration felt by many gamers thanks to the seemingly endless line of cookie cutter AAA games the industry turns out year after year and that same industry’s ass-backwards, lazy portrayals of anyone who isn’t a rugged white dude with biceps the size of anvils. Wake-up call games, even if they operate within the conventions of said cookie cutter games (like Spec Ops does) can still create subversive, meaningful messages.
I’m talking about the potential of the medium, of crafting a variety of meaningful experiences like those featured in Journey, The Walking Dead, To the Moon, Thirty Flights of Loving, and Kentucky Route Zero. But to get more of those games, I think it’s neccissary to reflect on what gaming culture produces. Obviously, there are plenty of writers out there who do just that and share their thoughts with everyone. But not everyone reads those pieces. Games like Spec Ops:The Line and Hotline Miami hold up a mirror to the gamer’s face and speak to them in ways that articles written for IGN, Kotaku, or Gameranx cannot. “This is what you’re playing; it’s a reflection of who you are. Is this really what you want to play?”
Call me an optimist, but I earnestly believe that “wake-up call”/mirror games will, along with the popularity of crowdfunding and relatively inexpensive development tools like Gamemaker:Studio and Twine, lead to more diverse experiences within games and gaming culture. Basically, I’m expecting less of this:
And more of this:
To move forward we must be able to reflect on who we are, what we play, and what we want; and these mirrors—as cracked as they maybe—offers gamers and developers a unique avenue to that necessary self-reflection.
Let’s not waste them.
When he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel, Javy devotes his time to writing about these video game things. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter feed @JavyIV
Further Reading: Why Are You Doing This: Hotline Miami and Drive (Medium Difficulty)