There’s always going to be people who lose their cool over violence in Video Games. It’s an effective means to shift the blame and get an “easy answer” to a problem that’s much deeper. Yet 15 years ago this argument reached boiling point and one game, in particular, deemed as one of the most violent. This caused the debate to explode. Welcome to the stand, Manhunt.
What is Manhunt?
Manhunt is Rockstar’s 2003 Survival Horror cult hit that infuses elements of murder and nasties into a brutal game of hide and seek. To this day is banned in a number of countries. And withholding a copy can be a criminal offense.
Dare I argue that Manhunt is much more cleaver and more self-aware than people may think.
The Root of all Evil?
Players take on the role of death row inmate James Earl Cash. He’s been freed into Carcer City’s decaying ruins, where a number of murderous gangs are hunting him down. Cash is instructed to murder anyone he crosses paths with as every action he makes is being recorded and observed by a sinister figure known as the Director (voiced by Bryan Cox). The Director is filming another of his latest snuff movies and Cash is the leading star.
However, while Cash is no angel he is being hunted down by groups made up of Neo-Nazis, Mercenaries, Sadists and murderous pedophiles. These sick people will do everything and anything to Cash if they catch him within the abandoned areas of Carson City. All Cash can do now is hide in the shadows and wait for the chance to strike.
The Perfect Video Nasty?
The story, setting and themes are all fascinating in Manhunt, making it a unique game to this day. It’s the perfect homage to the era of horror films from the 70s/80s. Manhunt is very bleak, merciless and harrowing but it’s also a neat statement on the argument of violence in media. Manhunt may have rewarded players for their violent acts, but in many of the game’s circumstances, you didn’t need to kill. It was much easier to sneak by without causing any upset as executing enemies could well indeed alert nearby enemies.
Rockstar was very clever to dive deeper into what they felt made people violent, through their displays of depravity and asking players to commit sickening acts. Yet we didn’t need to for the most part. Manhunt points out that Carcer City has fallen on hard times, with an economic depression breaking down society. Cash explores empty high streets, factories, hospitals, and places which would thrive in life and industry. Even the Insane asylum could depict that poor health care of the mentally ill has serious problems on society.
It’s interesting commentary and something many overlooks.
Ultra-violence with Purpose
Manhunt is a venture of challenging cat and mouse style hunts with refined stealth mechanics. It was surprising to see a game that’s over 15 years old showing more confidence with stealth mechanics than most AAA games nowadays. In terms of gameplay, Cash will use a variety of objects to snuff out his hunters.
Players would need to hide Cash in the shadows, lure hunters to his location and kill them with plastic bags, glass, axes, baseball bats and more. Each object had three different executions, each one more brutal than the last and it’s up to the player to decide, how far they want to go to please The Director. Players are awarded points for more gruesome kills and higher ratings will unlock deleted levels and concept art. Manhunt displayed executions through a “found footage” format that, which is regarded to detach the viewer from the reality. This would be Rockstar’s nod to films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Cannibal Holocaust and Man Bites Dog.
The violent acts are shown through crude and distorted imagery, making them difficult to associate with reality. An effective way of showing how players are observers and more so the Director of these violent acts. What makes the violence so harrowing is the effective sound design, with each kill echoing cries, blood, and flesh being cut to a crisp clean level. You can see why there was so much debate when this game came out.
Hate-Filled and Self Aware
The aesthetic shows Rockstar paying homage to an era which was controversial. The impact of horror films was debated among figures like Mary Whitehouse, who deemed them harmful. As stated above, Rockstar knew what they were doing and did so by crossing a moral line in media. Players were told to murder in the most gruesome way, dozens of people to appease a lunatic.
Manhunt is a game, depicting humanity at its worst and that makes it uncomfortable. Rockstar and Director Christian Cantamessa, intended on shocking players, making them repulse at the act they were committing. By creating a self-contained experience where violence heavily interlinks with gameplay and the story, we’re given the assumption that violence is the answer to everything. Yet the element of choice is more prominent that you may think. In reality, players could pass through a majority of stages with very little killing taking place.
As I mentioned, players are awarded points for performing the most gruesome executions. But little know that players can earn just as many points for clearing a level in good time. Killing is often presented as an option to the player but never forced, say only for a few confrontations where you need to defend yourself. But the nihilistic tone is hard to swallow because we know it’s happening in this day and age. The world of Manhunt is bleak, void of emotion and depraved to an extreme degree, a reflection of our own society.
What about the game Patrick?
Manhunt starts off slow but soon becomes a thrilling venture of stealth and violence. While exploring the darkest aspects of society with an interesting aesthetic. The gangs are memorable and resemble something from The Warriors on a much darker level. Players will love the refined stealth gameplay and the excellent sound design as well. The soundtrack alone is fantastic, creepy, and unnerving. It sounds like something from a young John Carpenter.
There are some problems with the shooting mechanics and melee combat, but Manhunt is engrossing and a relentless venture that keeps you hooked to the screen. However, there are some great moments which have even stuck with me after 15 years. Including a level where Cash must defeat a mutilated, Pigskin wearing guy with a chainsaw.
Is It a Classic?
Manhunt is a response to the politics of violent video games influencing its audiences. It’s the game Rockstar wants you to hate. A comfortable work of fiction that gets under your skin and unnerves even the hardest gamer. Manhunt is just as disturbing as any horror movie.
Yet Manhunt is transgressive, uncompromising and proud of it. It points out the roots of violence and even forces the answer in your face. On surface level Manhunt has a gripping story, interesting characters, a great soundtrack and excellent stealth gameplay. Yet deep down, Manhunt is something more complex and intelligent. Remaining innovated and a captivating response to the politics of violence in gaming.
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