Manhunt: A look back at Rockstar’s most violent and controversial game

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“Who let the dogs off the leash? Who let the wolves see the sheep? Let ‘em eat right now.” – (Nasty C – Jungle)

Every other year, usually around Halloween, or when a new horror game or a remaster of a classic horror game sees release, a couple of sites publish a list with a catchy title like: “The Ten Best Horror Games Of All Time”.

Those lists never include Manhunt.

And if you’ve ever played Rockstar’s torture porn snuff movie survival horror game, this state of affair strikes you as completely bonkers because Manhunt is easily one of the most horrific and horrifying games ever made.

Manhunt (2)

It’s a horror game that will never receive the remaster treatment because presenting it with current gen graphics would likely see a lot of people running to the toilet to empty the contents of their stomach through their mouths. The woke-factory would go into overdrive. Newspapers would have a field day. A “Manhunt: Remastered” release could probably even provide a jolt of adrenaline to the flatlined corpse that is the debate on whether violence in videogames is capable of spilling out into the real world.

Don’t believe me? Describe Manhunt to a couple of your mates or work colleagues who have never heard of it. Their mouths will fall open and they’ll look at you like you’re Ted Bundy.

If you’ve never played it, here’s the juice: players take on the role of an unrepentant criminal named James Earl Cash. They’re never told what unspeakable crimes this shaved-headed thug has committed but they must be pretty bad because the game starts with him strapped to a gurney facing execution by lethal injection. The needle goes in and the lights go out.

A few beats later and Cash is shaking off a drug-induced slumber while a faceless sod named The Director is barking orders at him. Turns out that Cash has been bought and paid for and is set to star in The Director’s latest cinematic endeavor: an epic snuff film in which Cash is tasked with dispatching pretty much anyone he comes across in the most gruesome fashion possible.

If Cash wants to live, he has to play ball. If Cash wants help from The Director, he’d better be prepared to make his executions as violent as possible.

That’s Manhunt in a nutshell and while there are aspects about the game that deserve mentions – both the gangs in Carcer City and the soundtrack owe a debt of inspiration to Walter Hill’s film The Warriors (which Rockstar adapted to the gaming medium a few years after Manhunt’s release) – the meat of the matter is that players are encouraged to unleash their inner beasts.

Manhunt gives them plenty of opportunity to do this; when Cash approaches a foe from behind, a swirling reticule comes into focus above their head. Once it appears, players can issue a killing blow, but the longer they wait the more grisly they can make it. The reticule will change colour – it starts off white, then changes to yellow and then finally to red – and depending on what shade it is by the time the player decides to act, the more graphic the murder will appear on-screen.

In short, players have the option to be as brutal as they want in a game where it’s already been established that the lion’s share of their agency is to take life. That agency isn’t a million miles away from a ton of other games, but the option to be as brutal as possible is what sets Manhunt apart. It allows players to dive to the darkest impulses they have

The game gives players an out of sorts. The people Cash kills are neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Blackwater-esque soldiers, madmen – hell, there are even some paedophiles and Satanists thrown in for good measure. They’re hardly the sorts of targets that’ll inspire any sympathy. On top of that, there’s a rather nasty plot development that involves Cash’s family being held hostage. Players may struggle to find a more deserving set of cadavers-in-waiting in a game.

Manhunt’s environment also helps out; Carcer City is a toilet that looks like the sort of urban hell envisioned by Double Dragon’s creators except with all the lights turned out. The streets, buildings and passageways Cash traverses wouldn’t be out of place in a Saw film. The soundtrack that hovers menacingly in the background can compete with John Carpenter at his darkest; Mike Myers would give this entire scenario a swerve.

Carcer City is an evil place filled with evil people and on paper it allows the player to be as untroubled as possible by their surroundings as Cash goes about his business. And yet… one can’t escape the fact that Manhunt’s contract with the player is the same as that between Cash and The Director.

Kill.

Kill as nastily and as graphically as you can manage.

As brutal as it is in its simplicity, Manhunt’s central conceit opens up a veritable can of worms concerning the relationship between players and their chosen form of entertainment. In a lot of games, the notion of success is tied to stacking up a massive pile of corpses, but that activity can’t get in the way of anyone enjoying themselves.

Players are released from any sense of consequence in countless games from countless franchises – Uncharted, COD, Battlefield, Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, Gears, Halo… the list is endless. You aim down the sights, you pull the trigger, and you proceed.

Manhunt offers no get-out-of-jail-free card. It presents options, sure, but it’s up to the player to decide exactly how far they’re going to go. One could argue that simply presenting players with the ability to stare at the abyss is irresponsible in itself. The counter to that is: at least the abyss is being presented. Manhunt isn’t patting players on the back for racking up kills. It’s making them take a hard, unblinking look at their own culpability. It’s rare that a survival horror game zeroes in on the player as the source of all horror.

One could also argue that Manhunt is a product from a publisher/developer who, at the time, was testing the boundaries of what it could get away with. It’s easy to surmise that Manhunt is to Rockstar as The Broken Movie is to Nine Inch Nails.

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When Manhunt dropped in 2003, Rockstar was still basking in the glow of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, one of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling games of that era. In spite of its boutique veneer, Rockstar was a publishing giant and in the process of blasting its way into the mainstream despite – and in a way because of – a sea of column inches from the Fourth Estate that were decrying its games as the predicted motivation behind millions of kids rising up one day and going all Children Of The Corn on their parents.

This never happened, of course. But Manhunt did make headlines in the UK in connection with a teen murder, which was tossed out of court, and it was banned in several countries. Its sequel was severely ganked – banned outright in some regions and refused a rating in the USA – which is nuts when one considers it’s no less or more violent than its predecessor. Maybe the idea of torture porn on the Wii was just too much for some people to fathom.

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Given its notoriety, however, and the fact that it’s a bloody good game, Manhunt’s relative obscurity seems a little weird. When all the controversy and naval-gazing contemplations are bagged and tagged, Manhunt is one of the best horror games ever made. It’s likely that it’s overlooked because the horror doesn’t involve demons or otherworld beings. The horror centres on the players and their willingness to commit unspeakable acts.

It’s a game of its time, never to be repeated. In the current socio-political climate with gaming machines that are able to render violence in a more realistic fashion than ever before, there’s no place for Manhunt. Which is a pity.

Because there’ll be no Manhunt remaster to remind folk that once upon a time, back in the early 2000s, a bunch of mouthy Brits shoved a stake right through the heart of the ambivalence millions of gamers enjoy with violence.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: April 10, 2019

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