Manhunt: When snuff hits the cul-de-sac

“‘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.” – Jeff Williams, former employee of Rockstar Games.

November 18th, 2003 was the date Rockstar Games unleashed “Manhunt” upon the world, to endless controversy and censorship. 

In the 20 years since release, a cult-like following has formed around the game, primarily due to its polarizing nature, in and out of the game. 

Fans praise “Manhuntfor its gritty tone, 80s VHS style visuals, tense game-play, and uncompromising writing. 

Detractors condemn it for its overly violent game-play, brutal themes, and its intimate portrayal of real world violence and evil. 

Given its anniversary is around the corner, and it’s Halloween, now is the perfect time to experience this dark piece of history.

“Manhunt” is a third-person stealth horror video-game, originally released for the Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Windows. It was silently re-released for PlayStation 4 in 2016, and is now also available on Xbox One. 

After the initial release of titles like “Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3)” and “Vice City,” Rockstar North, a branch of Rockstar Games, was no stranger to controversy. From lawsuits, news coverage, and even protests, the company has been flamed over the violence and dark themes presented in such titles. 

In an attempt to play up the aspects criticized by various media outlets, as well as criticize those same outlets, a story of a hyper violent serial killer participating in the production of snuff films was born. 

Christian Cantamessa, lead level designer, has said “[We want to create a game that delivers] a scathing social commentary on media voyeurism, the peddling of violence as entertainment and the inbred inaccuracy of the American penal system.” 

The plot of “Manhunt” follows James Earl Cash, an inmate recently given the death penalty. After a faked execution, Cash is released into the streets of Carcer City by “the director.” This director for the first half of the game commands the player to kill enemies for his snuff film via an earpiece. The second half follows Cash’s revenge plan on the director. 

The first of many complaints waged over “Manhuntwas its hyper violent gameplay. Its kill system works by walking behind an enemy, and holding X, until releasing the button, thus triggering the kill. Holding the button longer rewards a much more brutal kill, while the slower hold is less violent. 

These deaths put the camera into a VHS lens, displaying the kill in a cinematic view, not the typical over the shoulder view. Not only are they absurdly violent from a visual perspective, but an auditory one as well. Cracking an enemy’s head open with a bat sounds crunchy, thick, and wet at the end.

Despite an M for Mature (17+) rating, parents complained children would see such horrific acts, and argued the potential damage of it. Due to the sheer volume of complaints, the game was banned in several countries, most vocally in Australia. 

Claims of children being negatively affected by the game skyrocketed when a murder case of a 14-year-old child was linked to “Manhunt.” The killer, a 17-year-old boy, had a copy located in his room during a search. 

The second-largest complaint was over the graphic nature of the writing, spanning over 200 pages in script length. Aside from the obvious real world ties to the snuff film industry, the enemies depicted in the game consist of Nazis, Mexican gang members, ex-asylum inmates, and human traffickers. In the last mission, a nude, mutilated man with a pig-like face and chainsaw is finally revealed, brutally killing people. 

The game’s morality came into heavy question amongst the writers. Years after quitting Rockstar, former staff member Jeff Williams said,  “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 “GTA3,” 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,”.

After the game was silently brought back to digital stores, its cult following became solidified online. 2019 saw a resurgence of discussions about manhunt, primarily on YouTube. Many speculated over the possibility of a remaster, or third entry to the series, as well as started picking up on small references to “Manhunt” littered across “Grand Theft Auto V” (another game by Rockstar Games.)

Whether or not Rockstar will be publicly revisiting their cult classic this November for its 20th anniversary or not, fans absolutely will be. Material this controversial and polarizing does not simply cease to affect people after a few years. With a 50% price cut for Halloween, now is a better time than ever to give the game a fair shot.

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