Opinion – Manhunt Is The Dark, Underappreciated Masterpiece We Deserve
Manhunt was just re-released on PS4 this past week, so I thought I'd talk about why it's so fantastic.
It's hard for me to imagine any other company than Rockstar emerging as the defining video game developer in the first decade of this century. Not only did Rockstar popularize the open-world genre with Grand Theft Auto III and its decade-bouncing siblings, but the developer's constant courting of controversy ensured that its games would be up front and center in all mainstream news outlets. Though the technical and creative achievements of the Grand Theft Auto series are indeed laudable, for me, 2003's Manhunt has always been the developer's strongest game and remains my favorite title from the sixth console generation.
Manhunt was released in 2003 and was developed mostly by Rockstar North. The game cast the player as death-row inmate James Earl Cash, who is given another chance at life by disgusting snuff-film director Lionel Starkweather (brought to life by Brian Cox in a great performance). After being released from a dark room by Starkweather, Cash has to journey across modern-metropolis-turned-hellscape Carcer City while brutally killing members of various gangs and military outfits who have been paid by Starkweather to hunt him down. Starkweather films you via thousands of cameras placed all over the city while you murder these people in gruesome detail with scythes, baseball bats, shards of glass, and various firearms. Survive the night, do what you're told, and you'll earn your freedom, so says Starkweather. It's a pretty grim premise and more than just a tad grody.
So what makes Manhunt so great then?
I'm In Control, Right?
Nearly four years before BioShock would wow everyone with a twist ending that revealed you were just a puppet following the orders of some jerk in the midst of a power struggle, Manhunt created a narrative that constantly toys around with notions of player control in subtle but diabolical ways. Within the game, a rating system hinges on the sorts of executions you perform on enemies. The majority of Manhunt takes place in the shadows, with you sneaking around foes to get behind them and kill them. While you're standing there holding the attack button, a colored ring orbits your target's head. It goes through three phases depending on how long you hold the button: white, yellow, and red.
If you release the button during the white phase, Cash quickly dispatches the bad guy with whatever weapon he has in an animation that's brutal, but also over quickly. Animations tied to the yellow ring take a bit longer, and are generally more gruesome, while red-ring animations are absolutely disgusting and drawn out. Earning the most points for each level means nabbing as many red-ring animations as possible. To say it plainly: We're being scored on just how cruel and malicious we can be to other characters. It's revolting. It's monstrous. It's absolutely enthralling.
Yes, it's a sick game, but it's hard to deny just how fun it is (and how much skill it takes) to pull off those brutal stealth executions. You have to move quietly and think strategically, using mundane items like bricks and bottles to distract enemies so you can get the drop on them. Even years later, Manhunt plays extremely well and provides a constant challenge; it plays so well that that it turns off the part of my brain that should be horrified with the fact that I'm plunging shards of glass into strangers' eyeballs over and over again, fantasy or not. Manhunt constantly puts me in a contradictory state, one of both being horrified and entertained, and that works because the game itself is so caught up in its own contradictions. For example: the player is both Cash and the director, Lionel Starkweather, at the same time.
During executions, the camera flips to Starkweather's view, showing Cash killing his target in a bloody close up, with arterial spray often splashing across the screen. Starkweather, often acting as a sadistic dungeon master, gives you various objectives to complete as the game goes along. Kill this goon over here with a certain weapon to unlock a door. Rescue some people. Guide a drunk through the streets. Neither Cash, Starkweather, nor I, the player, can progress until these actions are complete, no matter how grotesque they may be. Manhunt, all at once, holds players hostage and encourages them to indulge in the most violent of fantasies. And what lies at the end of the game, after you've jumped through all of Rockstar's hoops? A bloody, nihilistic ending that offers neither closure or absolution, but is instead a showcase of the violent acts you've committed. You're not the savior of this story. Everything you do, both as Cash and Starkweather, brings misery and death to other people. You're a two-headed monster that doesn't deserve redemption.
Perhaps the only way to win Manhunt in any true sense is to turn the game off in defiance of the power it wants to hold over you. But that's a battle I've lost many, many times and will continue to lose as I return to the game year after year, ready to prowl its dismal streets and earn yet another perfect rating.
I Spy With My Little Eye...
Games are often just as much the product of the culture they were produced in as they are the creations of the development teams that made them. In 2003, reality television was quickly becoming hip, with both Survivor and American Idol taking off and demonstrating that people wanted content that felt "more real." They didn't actually want reality, though; that would be too boring. Instead they wanted something that appeared to be real while still being grounded in the high-stakes drama of fiction. Reality television, whatever you may think of it, was good at producing this sort of experience: handheld cameras surging toward contestants crying, everyday people being pushed too far to the edge and then responding violently or with profanity-laced rants. It was exhilarating and raw.
Manhunt, developed and released right around the same time as this boom, was also doing the same thing with video game violence, making it more real and disturbing than what gamers were used to. During execution sequences, everything comes together to create incredibly unnerving spectacles, from the chop chop chop sounds of Cash lopping off a mercenary's head with a machete to the little splatters of meat that splash over and stick to wall when you take off half of some guy's face with a baseball-bat swing.
However, more than a decade down the line, and the significance of Manhunt's visual language and the themes connected to it has evolved with the times. In the aughts (and now, but to a lesser degree), Americans often voiced their fear of the surveillance state, that the government could and would be listening in on our phone calls and watching us at any given time. As the years passed, this idea became more bearable because it shifted into the surveillance society. Thanks to the explosion of social-media platforms and the role that such tech plays in our lives, people everywhere are either comfortable or resigned to being observed as long as they can observe others as well. We live in an age where, in a matter of moments, we can watch events unfold halfway across the world, or we can send a message to someone who we haven't spoken to in a decade just to see how they're doing. We pay for these privileges not necessarily with cash, but instead with our personal information for corporate databases and marketers to use.
In Manhunt, both Cash and Starkweather mutually benefit from working together via the wireless headset in Cash's ear and the cameras located all around the city. There are certain situations where Starkweather will tell Cash where a valuable weapon is or give him certain information to help him along for the sake of making the action more exciting. As Cash does more of what Starkweather wants, his odds for surviving the night increase while the director gets more footage for his snuff masterpiece. Like us, Cash is being watched, but he's receiving beneficial information in return thanks to the tech he and Starkweather are using to communicate, though the director certainly has the upper hand in the relationship given that he's able to keep tabs on Cash and manipulate the scenarios Cash finds himself in. It's a very twisted take on mutualism, but it's one that fits Manhunt's predatory universe — a world that mirrors our own in an uncomfortable number of ways.
Continue on to Page 2 to read about more about where Manhunt and the real world meet.
Shortly after Manhunt's release, writer Levi Buchanan penned a review for the Chicago Tribune that ended with the following sentiment:
If "Manhunt" succeeds at retail, it will say more about America's fascination with violence than any political discourse or social debate. That makes "Manhunt" the most important video game of the last five years.
Levi's point is definitely a bit time-stamped. The game did emerge, after all, in the period of great anxiety about violence following 9/11 and, stretching back even earlier, 1999's shooting at Columbine High School. In many ways, this culture war boosted the game's notoriety while leading to criticisms that it was a cynical piece of exploitative media thriving off shock value, the gory cousin to the raunchy BMX XXX. Even Rockstar, the poster child for pushing the boundaries in video games, had internal issues over developing and publishing the game, former web producer Jeff Williams revealed in 2007:
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.
To return to Levi's point: yes, Manhunt was likely one of, if not the most important game to be released in its time mostly for its violent content. It could have been trash, absolute garbage, and his point would have still had merit because of when the game was released and the public outcry that followed. However, as the years have gone on, Manhunt has become important because of the mirror it holds up to modern times.
The game has a dark, gnarled heart that beats with hatred and fear; it presents a world filled with people who are totally unsympathetic so that's it difficult to root or want the best for any of them, even Cash. He's a death-row inmate who doesn't even flinch once as he shoves a scythe into someone's groin. This goes far beyond the witty anti-heroes of Tarantino's films, who dance to pop hits of yesteryear and crack witty remarks and cultural references as they kill people, because the characters in Manhunt are disgusting and unlovable on every conceivable level. Carcer City itself seems riddled with sickness and hate, every street and broken sidewalk covered in blood or puke, with abandoned buildings hiding murderous wackos ready to carve up any passerby with a cleaver. There are no more heroes. They're all dead or have gotten the hell out of Dodge, and we're left with a world that's been swallowed by the chaos of an uncaring universe held hostage by the violent and the depraved.
Manhunt is deeply cynical, but it's not shallow. It presents a certain vision of humanity, one with people at each other's throats for the sake of survival, for the sake of entertainment, for the sake of controlling other people, and it never defers from that vision in spite of whatever the player may think of it. In a time where a pharmaceutical executive can raise the price of a drug used by many people to treat a dangerous infection by more than 5,000 percent, where horrific shooting sprees are becoming tragically commonplace, maybe Manhunt isn't wrong about us.
Maybe it's the game we deserve.
If you want to see Manhunt in action, you can check out our Replay of the game here.