On August 9, 1969 Charles Manson's "family" broke into the home of filmmaker Roman Polanski. Polanski wasn't home at the time, but his wife, actress Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant), and several guests were. The group would slaughter everyone present—then strike again a mere ten days later, adding two more bodies to the total. When they're caught a short time later, Manson becomes a ghoulish celebrity—the devil incarnate, a man feared more than any other.
Since the crimes are so sensationalistic, it's no surprise several books chronicling Manson and his band of hippies sprang up almost over night. Naturally, most of these affairs were written in the style of today's tabloids—any facts that can't be corroborated can still be used and if you're unsure about certain details, feel free to use artistic license and make up something that sounds good.
However, one of these books, The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (written by Ed Sanders of the rock group The Fugs), gains more attention than many of the others. Sanders' book asserts The Family not only committed the Tate and La Bianca murders, but they may have been involved in something even more heinous—the making and trafficking of snuff films. This may or may not have been the first time the phrase "snuff film" was used—but it is almost assuredly the point where it infiltrated the collective consciousness of the American citizenry.
For those readers who aren't up on the history and terminology of transgressive cinema, the "snuff film" is a film wherein a person (or persons) is murdered in front of a camera. This film is then offered to an underground network of collectors who supposedly relish viewing these atrocities. The snuff film is not to be confused with the mondo documentary (a la the sensationalistic Italian documentaries like Mondo Cane, Shocking Africa, et al.) or the Death Tape or "shockumentary" (e.g. Traces of Death, Faces of Death, etc.). The mondo documentary and death tapes exist—you can rent them at your local video store in most instances. Snuff, on the other hand, appears to be nothing more than a clever urban legend. After decades of raids, reported findings of snuff films (which have turned out to be legitimate movies like Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, or Hidoshi Hino's Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood—a film that Charlie Sheen turned over to the FBI because he thought it was real), and sensationalistic claims of underground murder movie rings, no one has ever found a real snuff film made for distribution. Murder has been captured on tape, but never in the way that the snuff film supposedly operates—as a commercial enterprise.
And yet, the myth of snuff cinema lives on—buoyed along not only by the popular media (before Nic Cage starred in 8mm or Alejandro Amenabar made Thesis other filmmakers were exploring the mystique of snuff in Emanuelle in America [Joe D'Amato aka Aristide Massacessi], Last House on Dead End Street [Roger Watkins], Hardcore [Paul Schrader], and the most infamous of all, Michael and Roberta Findlay's Snuff with a generous assist from distributor Allan Shackleton), but by the fact that no matter how repulsive the idea of snuff cinema may be, it also seems like something that could very well be real.
The latest group of mavericks to build a piece of entertainment around the supposedly taboo subject of snuff is none other than Rockstar games. Rockstar, no strangers to controversy since the release of the Grand Theft Auto III (GTA3), have once again pushed the boundaries of what's acceptable in gaming with the release of Manhunta game that plays like a cross between Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell and a 42nd Street grindhouse exploitation flick.
As Scott points out, this game isn't for the weak-hearted. Manhunt is the most perverse and disturbing game I've ever experienced. It does make GTA3 look like Sesame Street. However, my problem with Scott's score is that he's essentially penalized the game not because of technical shortcomings (which are mentioned in passing), but primarily because it offended him. Manhunt is a twisted game—but it's not a game that deserves a 3.5 rating.
Once players get past the gore and nearly pornographic violence of this title, they're treated to one of the better action stealth games to come along in recent memory. Say what you will about Rockstar and their tendency to live off of controversy, but it's hard to deny they make interesting games that do more than simply up the ante in terms of violence and graphic content. GTA is cited by the mainstream because, in it, you can sleep with hookers and then bludgeon them to death. Gamers cite it as a great game because it offered up an unparalleled amount of freedom in its open-ended design. Manhunt will almost assuredly be looked at in the same contradictory terms by the opposing groups.
While there is no shortage of things that impressed me about this game (and I'll get to those shortly), I think the thing that left the biggest impression was the game's completely nihilistic tone. Manhunt is like the bastard offspring of Nietzsche and The Marquis de Sade—had they been game developers. It thrusts players into a world that's so dark, so foreboding, and so all-encompassed by evil, hopelessness, and despair that the hero of the game is a mass murderer. Playing the game reminded me a lot of watching John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in that there was no good in this world, just an endless darkness. This isn't a pleasant feeling, or one that many people go out of their way to experience, but it's really impressive for a game, a medium that's still in its infancy in terms of being an artform. That's not to say Manhunt is art, but it's certainly a title that is going to pave the way for growth in gaming (albeit in both good and bad ways, most likely).
Nihilistic tone wasn't the only thing that really impressed me about Manhunt, though—there are about a bazillion technical elements that stand out as well. Everything from the art design (which complements the game's tone flawlessly—I never want to visit Carcer City), the casting of the inimitable Brian Cox as the voice of the game's antagonist, to the ingenious use of the USB headset to add to the immersiveness of the gameplay (by allowing Brian Cox's character to speak directly in your ear throughout most of the game—he's like the little devil on your shoulder urging you on to greater atrocities as the game progresses) is top notch. This game isn't Roadkill—a lackluster game that tried to lure gamers in with graphic content but didn't have the gameplay to hook them. Manhunt is the real deal—one of those rare games that sports not only mature content, but also solid gameplay to go along with it.
Manhunt's main gameplay component centers on stealth. Lead character James Earl Cash must sneak around the gang-infested Carcer City while offing his enemies in some of the most brutal ways imaginable. Cash can lure his opponents away from their comrades and deal out swift and merciless death by using his environment. Tapping walls, tossing bricks, or chucking a severed head around a corner will all get the bad guys' attention—as will talking into the game's headset. Meanwhile, Cash hides in the shadows, watching his prey—and when they turn their back, he sneaks up on them and kills them. The brutality of the kill (there are three levels) depends on how long the player holds the attack button before actually committing the action. Level three kills are the most gruesome of the bunch
Each and every kill gets its own cutscene—the game switches to a grainy video camera point-of-view (further adding to the snuff film ambiance), and this is where the men are separated from the boys. The cutscenes in Manhunt capture everything in loving detail—plunging shards of glass into guys' faces, decapitation with piano wire, or beating them to death with baseball bats (amongst countless other tools of death) and are shown with an unflinching eye. The sound work only adds to the game's chilling effect
Many will question whether or not this level of violence was necessary. There's no real answer to this question—is the graphic portrayal of violence in any medium truly necessary? Truthfully, it's an aesthetic decision—not much different than Peckinpah pushing the boundaries of what could be done in cinema with The Wild Bunch.
There will be members of the gaming community and the greater community at large who will assert that Rockstar only included over-the-top violence for violence's sake and to create controversy. I can't say this isn't true. However, in my own estimation, the violence in Manhunt seems more designed as a response to the company's critics than a mere gimmick. While Joe Lieberman and company decry the GTA games for their violence at every opportunity—as though these games were the most graphic things ever created—Rockstar has come out with a new game that makes the violence in GTA seem quaint in comparison. People who were afraid that GTA desensitized them to wanton violence have now discovered they're not nearly as jaded as they thought. I'd go as far as to imagine that at some point, people who thought they were desensitized by the violence in Manhunt will discover there are even worse things out there, too (and I know—I make a living writing about some of the most twisted stuff ever committed to film; believe me, there are things out there that make Manhunt look fairly innocuous). Whether or not this is a good thing is a personal decision—but I like what Rockstar's done with this gamea lot.
The other area where the game works really well is in terms of intensity. Manhunt is a hard game—a lot of the gameplay revolves around the old "try-and-die" school of game mechanics, meaning players will wander into an area, try something, fail, die, and start again. The enemies can be unforgiving and unrelenting in their pursuit of Cash, meaning that a slow and steady approach is often the best course of action. Running from a group of white supremacists whose only goal in life is to dismember me is intense—I literally had sweaty palms at some points (particularly in the level where Piggsy—a creature you must see to believe—was chasing me with a chainsaw).
Yet for all that's good about Manhunt, it's not a game without some problems. While Scott wasn't enamored with the controls, I didn't find them particularly troublesome. What bothered me were the title's later levels, wherein the game will switch from a straight up stealth gore game to a more frenetic action shooter. Levels occasionally employ run-and-gun game mechanics that seem strangely out of place after all the sneaking around, and it's just not as much fun as stealthily taking out enemies. While the early portions of the game tend to let the player decide to fight it out if he chooses (which is rarely ever the best course of action, but players can succeed by not using stealth), these later stages force the player into shooting everything. It's a bit of a letdown, particularly when the targeting system could use some tweaking.
Another problem area is the title's inevitable reliance on "game logic." Game logic issues are those weird things that happen in a game that could never happen in real life—and I don't mean flying, or magic mushrooms, or anything like that. Instead, I mean things like hobbits who can't cross ankle-deep streams, or players who can jump over some cars but not others—things developers put in to make the gameplay work or to keep players on the predestined path, basically. Manhunt's biggest game logic problem is an essential one, but it's still a problem. If Cash enters the shadows and stands still, no one can see him, even if the enemy is standing two feet in front of him. Even more interesting is that no one in the game, not even the bad cops, has access to a flashlight. I can understand why this is, but it does occasionally ruin the immersiveness of the experience.
Finally, even though the stealth portions are the highlight of the game, there's a fair amount of repetition while playing them. Cash sneaks around, lures in his prey, kills them, and does it all over again. Sure, the different weapons and gory animations attempt to keep things fresh, but even the novelty of killing someone with a chainsaw wears off after the 20th time the player has done it. Factor in that players will be dying a lot, and hence re-playing areas over and over, and the repetition factor increases.
I don't think Scott's wrong for scoring Manhunt with a 3.5 rating. I believe he was genuinely affected by the content of the game (which is so in-your-face it can't be ignored), and it kept him from enjoying the experience. Reviews are ultimately subjective pieces, and I think Scott did a fine job of saying why he didn't have fun with Manhunt. I feel the opposite of Scott, but at least part of that's attributable to the fact that I have a keen appreciation for gore films and transgressive cinema as a whole. Yet, even getting past that, there's a solid game here, buried under all the violence and controversy—it would be a shame if stealth game fans missed it because it was overshadowed by the title's gory aesthetics.