Hunting Down Manhunt and Playing Manhunt

In keeping with the spirit of writing somewhat generic video game reviews ala my 8th grade self, I wanted to pen some words on Manhunt, which came out in 2004. I had initially intended to write about video games but bring a more nuanced, perhaps cerebral approach to the prose, crafting a piece that would leave the reader both impressed by my acumen and stroking his/her chin with new thoughts regarding the efficacy and sociologic value of “video games”, which are, in the grand scheme of global society, extraordinarily trivial (apart from the fact that they’ve sucked eons of time away from us and made some people very rich). There have been numerous attempts to imbue video games with an elevated literary lens, most notably Tom Bissell’s excellent if uneven Extra Lives, but largely video games remain untouched insofar as compelling critical inquiry is confirmed. That video games are not taken to be worthy subject matter for writers is curious to me, considering they are no different than all the other simulated experiences we dive into on a daily basis- the news, sports, films, and critically-acclaimed serial televisions for which the AV Club writes they’re slapdash and- I’m sorry- but pretty awful reviews. Anyway I played Manhunt recently and this is my “blog”, so I want some of my thoughts on “record” (?).

I’ll get one shot across the bow right off the bat (a favored weapon in Manhunt): we live in a selfish tear-down culture where disagreement is the starting point and enjoyment of any thought process is subject to the gnashing metal jaws of the IronyBot. The majority of people barely read anything, so most of this is purely futile and the “market”, i.e. indoctrinated trends and norms, concepts which I would have thought literature and serious writing could challenge and subvert- are actually deeply entrenched in the “think-piece” and literary community. Alas, I digress. Back to Manhunt.

Manhunt is a spatially engaging stealth game developed by Rockstar. As a nondescript player-character, you’re thrown into various urban environments with a weapon or two and must use the shadows to hide and hunt different gangs that have been hired to kill you. Rather than stomp through abandoned buildings and alleyways guns ablaze, you’re required to exercise patience and stealth in the process of surviving each level. The city is a dystopia, crumbling and cruel, and you have to use the natural hiding places of the physical environment to your advantage, hitting walls and luring enemies towards you, watching them from secluded corners and sneaking up behind them, executing them with a three-pronged range of severity. The tension that arises by simply switching the procedural mechanisms of Rockstar’s RenderWare engine display that engine’s revolutionary ingenuity- simply replace the sunny, car-filled maps of Vice City and improve enemy AI- now you have the framework for the game Manhunt.

And that’s what is so important about video games, and about discourse- there is no theoretical underpinning, no over-abstraction capable of landing the final resounding rhetorical blow. Video games are a neurological hamster wheel created because people were already sitting in front of their televisions. Passivity as the starting point, we’ve developed ways to surround ourselves with mediated storylines and simulated emotion. Video games are a fun diversion, but also a reminder of the corporeal limitations of our slouching skeletal skin sacks, and ultraviolent entertainment- in Manhunt you can suffocate enemies with plastic bags- makes us feel alive in an era when we’re spoiled rotten with complacency. The controversy surround Manhunt‘s release was not surprising, as it’s clear that Rockstar was courting controversy and continues to do so. Over a decade later, it is not so much transgressive as gratuitous in the same way that comic books are gratuitous.

What fascinates me, I’ll have you know, requires some solipsistic reflection, so apologies in advance. As a fourteen year old living what in many respects is one of the most prototypical East Coast suburban lives imaginable, games like Manhunt were an opportunity for me to engage with what was, especially at the time, a fascinating “alternative” culture. Hardcore violence, mature themes and blatant nihilism were signifiers to me of a widened scope of human emotion (or lack thereof) as well as a political statement. The game was purely terrifying and extremely difficult, and so felt like an escape from suburbia or an aesthetic affirmation of my own maturity. That I never completed Manhunt in 2004 but really enjoyed it, bugged me until recently when I finally played through it entirely. I was struck not by it’s bleak ultraviolence or visceral, gray-blue urban landscapes (both of which are well-imbued with cinematic ambiance), but by the realization that the very act of playing this particular game, with this particular sprite, was not so much an opportunity to objectively analyze a game, but instead, it became apparent that the whole isolated performance of my sitting there, controller in hand was in fact a regression backwards, with the express purpose of affirming my own subjectivity which had somehow gotten locked up with a game from Rockstar.

It is difficult for me to explain my thought processes but I will attempt to do so: the bleak cityscape, the abandoned mall and the zoo in Manhunt are a reflection of my own interiority, perhaps. Reaffirming my own interests (which I had recently and arbitrarily decided would include writing reviews of third-person games), I was hoping to close a circle that I’d started years ago when I first played the game. Not simply a belief in Manhunt, but that video games in general have to have an aesthetic and near-literary quality to them which makes them worth looking at from multiple angles, thinking about through multiple theoretical frameworks, not to ruin them, but to indicate that they (and I) am worthy of serious consideration. So you can see that playing the game was not just playing a game- and though I’d argue that it never is, or shouldn’t be, perhaps I pulled back too far on my bow and my arrow just skitted randomly through the sky.

So anyway, the game Manhunt is intense, jarring, and well-constructed.

4/5 stars

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