Articles on Manhunt
Belly up to the slaughter buffet
ANDREW RYAN reviews Manhunt and finds that as nasty as the hype has been for the R-rated video game, the sadism in it is actually much worse
March 6, 2004
Globe and Mail
By Andrew Ryan
Nobody normal could prepare for what awaits them in the bloody video game world of Manhunt. As monstrous as the buzz has been, actually playing the game is worse. Much, much worse. The violence starts with a splat and accelerates to unimaginably graphic levels.
For review purposes only, I've played Manhunt and lived to tell about it, but who do I see about the nightmares?
Manhunt just might be the most violent video game of all time and has stirred up considerable fuss recently. The game is currently available for PlayStation 2 and will soon be released in Xbox and PC formats. This week the Ontario Film Review Board affixed an R rating to Manhunt, making it theoretically forbidden for sale or rent to anyone under 18 in Ontario. The game is banned completely in New Zealand. Obviously, this makes kids want it all the more.
Manhunt comes from Rockstar Games, the makers of the extremely violent Grand Theft Auto series, some of the top-selling games of all time. Clearly great effort has gone into this new creation: The game has more opening credits, to producers, designers and artists, than many feature films.
It's creepy from the start. One of the first screens gleefully tells you to, "Turn off the lights . . . close the drapes . . . lock the door . . . Then get ready to kill!" The player has the option of a "Fetish" or "Hardcore" version (there is no sex or kink involved; the terms are curious Manhunt-speak for Normal and Difficult modes). Images of splayed dead bodies and psychotic grinning clowns usher the player into the game's dank bowels.
The intro to Manhunt sets up the nasty concept: The player is to assume the persona of one James Earl Cash, a bald, bulky and grim-looking convict, shown here in the scant seconds before his death by electrocution for crimes unknown. At no point in the game is it made clear whether Cash is a good guy or bad guy, but he is a killing machine on a manhunt.
The game starts with Cash's resurrection and arrival in a deserted slum neighbourhood. He has a nasty new friend: A snaky off-camera voice that, again, motive unknown, is videotaping Cash as he exhorts him to wander about and kill the lurking, very obvious bad guys named Hunters -- roving packs of murderous thugs and punks that stand in his way. The Voice tells Cash he will have many weapons for his slaughter. And so the bloodbath begins.
In gamer jargon, Manhunt is known as a "stealth" game, meaning the player must sneak about and eliminate obstacles. The apparent difference here is Manhunt's astounding array of exceedingly unpleasant implements of death and their shocking, truly sadistic application. The on-screen imagery as reminiscent of the movie Seven, except far less cheerful. Almost immediately the game became a virtual-reality slaughter buffet of violence. I wasn't ready for this.
It starts with a plastic bag, of all things.
The idea is to sneak up on a Hunter, slip the bag over his head and suffocate/choke him to death. Then another. The images of violence are staggering, made even worse by the fact the screen action keeps shifting between the sharp-focus battles and the Voice's scratchy surveillance-camera footage documenting Cash's killing spree, from different angles. In the fistfights, the blood sprays with each punch. The soft humming soundtrack is nerve-scraping, mixed in with Cash's thrumming heartbeat.
The killing progresses quickly, as do the weapons. Next up: a long shard of glass, used to slash and stab the enemy, mostly around the face area. The sound effect for the face slash is terrible.
The Voice steers the player through the streets and buildings, saying lines like, "Give me some Grade-A gore and you'll be buzzed through that door!" The weapon arsenal broadens as the blood flows. From glass shard to blackjack. Then a wooden baseball bat, graduating later to aluminum. A meat cleaver. A garrote. A crowbar.
The killing in Manhunt is relentless. All the tools of death are used to hack and bludgeon at will. Brains explode; bones crack; victims beg for mercy before their head is caved in. Bodies hang from ceiling beams. Crows and rats gnaw at corpses strewn through abandoned buildings. After a particularly bloody kill, the Voice says cheerily: "That was the best snuff I've ever seen!" I only wish I was making this up.
No shortage of consequence-free-violence lessons here. A handy game-player tip: As Cash, you have the ability to kick an opponent, but only when he's down, and then you have to kick him to death. And another: It takes the player at least eight or 10 good cracks to the head to kill an opponent, even with the crowbar. When you graduate to a nail gun, it takes about the same number of nails to the head.
The death builds through the game's nine levels, as the weapons move up to handguns, shotguns, machine guns, small cannons. Bodies burst apart. Some of the Hunters are obvious white supremacists and skinheads wearing quasi-Nazi insignia and barking racial epithets such as, "My race is not made for running!"
The story line is wildly inconsistent and messages are mixed. Cash rescues innocent people in the later stages of the game, after which he promptly stabs three men to death. At regular intervals, the player must collect Painkillers, a floating bottle of pills that prolong game life.
The queasiest surprise of all: Manhunt is shockingly easy to play. The player is facilitated fully throughout: An on-screen radar pinpoints the location of enemies. The weapons are always there. The Voice warns the player of hazards. The bad guys are relatively easy to kill and have soft, squishy bodies that splatter easily.
And deserving to die has nothing to do with it. Manhunt is a venal disconnect for the genre. There's no challenge, just assembly-line, ritualistic slaughter. It's less a video game and more a weapon of personal destruction. This is about stacking bodies.
Perhaps the scariest fact of all: Manhunt is so user-friendly that any sharp 12-year-old could navigate through the entire game in one sitting. Be afraid.
In my private moments, I'm a murderer
January 25, 2004
By Ben Rayner
I'd be lying if I told you I had never entertained visions of strangling people before -- hey, you know who you are -- but this was a dismayingly unmotivated case.
In the midst of a record-shopping spree one afternoon this past week, I caught myself contemplating the neck of a fellow pedestrian as I approached him quietly from behind on an uncharacteristically empty Yonge St. sidewalk. Not in a romantic way, either. All of a sudden, I was simply struck by the ease with which I could just drop my bags and garrotte the poor oblivious chap. Just a few quiet steps and -- gah! -- goodnight, Mr. Businessman.
For the record, officers, I would never act on such a whim. Not yet, anyway, heh heh heh. And naturally, being of a pacific rather than murderous nature, I was a little put off by the arrival of such thoughts in my head. I also, for better or worse, had a pretty good idea from whence they might have sprung: I've been playing a lot of Manhunt lately, you see, and I'm becoming most adept at the art of stealth killing. Pretty handy with a nail gun, too, I gotta say. But the sneak attack is where I really shine.
Manhunt, for those unfamiliar with the Playstation2 universe, is certainly the bleakest and most overtly nihilistic title yet unveiled by Rockstar Games, the Scottish company responsible for the smash-hit Grand Theft Auto series. Players inhabit the role of a death-row inmate who wakes up from his "execution" only to discover the lethal injection he was administered wasn't lethal at all and that he's now unwillingly engaged in a Running Man-esque game of "kill or be killed" against the colourfully psychotic members of various inner-city gangs -- all of it staged for the camera and the public's macabre amusement.
Killing and video games go together like Bibles and church, of course, but what sets Manhunt apart from other violent digital fantasies is the remarkably lurid manner in which the "villains" (a nice mix of white supremacists, crooked cops and raving, bloodthirsty loonies) are methodically dispatched. You quietly inch up behind them, assume prime killin' position with a club, a plastic bag or a shard of glass at the ready and, before you can say "bloodlust," the game abruptly cuts to multiple "camera"-angle depictions of their grisly, gurgling death throes while an unseen "director" voices his approval in your ear. You are, for all intents and purposes, complicit in the making of snuff videos.
Even I, as a long-time connoisseur of violent media, have had to concede, after much disgusted rolling of the eyes from my girlfriend, that Manhunt is a little sick. Okay, a lot sick. A "murder simulator," the guy at Microplay called it, and he's pretty bang-on. I love the game, though. It's challenging and genuinely creepy (the sound alone sends chills down your spine) and makes some unsettling points about the human passion for vicarious, voyeuristic bloodletting, even if it engages wholeheartedly in the same hardcore splatter it vaguely purports to criticize.
As entertainment and cultural artefact, Manhunt -- banned for domestic sale by the New Zealand government last month -- is totally disturbing. But so is the evening news, the "I'll eat anything for money" lunacy of Fear Factor and the unfettered, misanthropic gunplay of Bad Boys II, so I will defend until my last breath Rockstar's right to sell this stuff to me and anyone else who wants it. (Except, of course, for those blocked by the over-18 rating and parents who wisely choose to abide by it.)
The thrill of Manhunt, the Grand Theft Auto titles and the less successful, riot-themed State Of Emergency is the thrill of transgression, anyway. Rockstar Games has been immensely successful at exploiting our desire to do the forbidden: Steal cars, shoot pedestrians, carve a cop up with a chainsaw, open fire on a mall or a crowded dance floor with a rocket launcher. Name your preferred breed of carnage and it's at your disposal in one of those games, and we derive delight from "virtually" acting on these fantasies precisely because we know they're unthinkably wrong in real life.
Do I think games such as these could have dire psychological consequences, particularly for young people? As always, I remain agnostic on the matter. Who knows, really? The debate will never be resolved. The American military obviously thinks there's something there: The troubling new TV ad campaign for the U.S. reserves lures potential young soldiers with tales of adventure accompanied by blatant, video-game-styled animation.
And, curiously, no one has complained about or tried to ban SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals, in which stealth and killing figure even more heavily than in Manhunt.
Even if Manhunt has filled me with a lifetime of bloody murder fantasies and SOCOM with a nagging urge to enlist, I trust myself — and the vast majority of people who've played these or any other games -- with the sanity not to act on them.