Monday, June 26, 2017

Manhunt and How Some Stains Don't Wash Out

I very recently had an itch to play a game from my youth.

Youth is a relative term, I suppose, but the game is 13 years old, which means I was roughly 16 when it was released. I'm only a little bothered by the fact that I can say I first played A Link to the Past 25 years ago, but that's neither here nor there.

I'm old, is what I'm saying. But again, old is relative.

Getting sidetracked.... Although, as a tie in, A Link to the Past has aged very well, like many of its contemporaries from the SNES generation of games. When you're not worried about pushing graphical boundaries to blur the line between player and game world, you have things like tight controls and engaging story.

With that in mind: Manhunt - Originally released in 2003 for the Playstation 2, later released for XBox and PC in 2004. A controversial game if ever there was one, Manhunt put you in the jumpsuit of a death row convict named James Cash, who was executed by lethal injection, but not really because he wakes up and is thrust into a Saw-like situation where he has to follow the instructions of "The Director" in order to be reunited with his family, but which involves killing some folks along the way.

That's a general plot overview, there's plenty of details an intricacies to fill in the blanks, but they ultimately don't factor into this discussion.

Back to that itch I had to play the game. I had to jump on ebay to find it, expecting to find dozens of listings for upwards of $100 considering how old the game was and the trend of older games, good or bad, skyrocketing in value as a result of supposed scarcity. To my surprise, I found a copy that cost me a mere $11, which included shipping.

I was pleasantly surprised! The anticipation of the game's arrival was palpable. I was about to replay a game that I was enthralled with in my teens. Why? I don't know. It was a video game built around gruesome violence and murder without all the trimmings of vehicles and layered storytelling like Rockstar's other games.

They took the violence of the GTA series and scaled the world back to make it a more claustrophobic, atmospheric game that put the blood and guts front and center.

It was graphic to say the least, but like the plot, the content of the game is not really the point.

After an hour of stepping back into the twisted world of Manhunt, I remembered that, as much fun as I had with the over-the-top murder of the game, it is an ugly game. An ugly game with frustrating controls and a camera I wish I could manifest in some tangible form just to strangle and stab in the head with a piece of broken glass and....

What was I saying?

Right, Manhunt, while fun, is a frustrating endeavor. The camera, whether inverted or not, doesn't turn your character's view in the proper direction, seemingly locked into being contrary to what it should be doing.

In a game the requires you to be aware of your surroundings, take note of the enemy movements and build a strategy for eliminating threats without alerting anyone around, a functional camera is important.

But then, when you stop and look at your surroundings, you come to find a lack of variety in your environment. Dark, drab alleys, paths that are conducive to stealth and the goals of the game, but feel largely inauthentic....

The world of Manhunt is not interesting. And when you don't have a world to draw you in, the gameplay becomes the focus. Which, while satisfying to a point, is not the game's strong suit.

Let me explain. Attacks with weapons are called executions. Each weapon has its own execution, and each execution has three levels, Hasty being the least intense, Violent being a step up and Gruesome being the most intense, and thorough, rank of execution. The more intense the execution, the more points you score.

Incentive for playing the game like a sociopath!

The first enemy you encounter is setup to allow you to get a feel for the system. You pick up a plastic bag and sneak up behind him. The Hasty execution just has you put the bag over his head to suffocate him.

Awful, right?

The Violent execution has you put the bag over his head, punch in in the stomach, then knee him in the face until he is dead.

Just peachy...

The Gruesome execution features the bag over the head, repeated punches to the face and then a brutal snap of the neck.

..... The game wants me to do this multiple times? I'm sick just doing it this once!

And that's just the beginning. The executions vary by weapon, of course. Wielding a nightstick has you bludgeoning enemies in the head until they drop to their knees, and then their death. Or a swift blow to the back of the head, which knocks them to their knees, where Cash then uses the weapon to strangle the life out of the enemy. Or a blow to the head, turned into a headlock, ending with a sickening neck break.

Then there's a hammer, a bat, a crowbar, knife, hatchet, glass shard, barbed wire, wooden spike... And of course, firearms, which are significantly less violent in that they don't come with unique executions.

This is the type of game my teenage self was playing. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City may have been a violent game, full of mature content, but it was an open world where violence was just a part of the game.

And, not to downplay the violence, you were utilizing firearms more than anything else. Handguns, shotguns, rifles, tanks in some instances. You were, in a sense, removed from the death you were raining down on enemies and innocents alike.

Manhunt closes that gap in disturbing fashion. Violence isn't just a part of the game. It is the focus of the game.

No longer could you spray bullets at an anonymous NPC, whether bystander or foe. You were brought face to face with your enemies, taking a more direct role in their death, removing the distance between player and character.

Or more accurately, between player and victim.

You are not simply controlling death row inmate James Cash. You are taking the deliverance of horrific murder into your own hands.

I played for maybe an hour before the combination of frustration with the controls and camera, and the overwhelmingly harrowing experience were too much to stomach. I don't remember feeling that way over a decade ago when I first played it, though perhaps I was at the peak of desensitization at the time.

It made me wish I could fire up my SNES and replay those simple, 16-bit games that were vibrant and comforting, even if they dealt with death and darker themes.

Not to ignore the existence of Mortal Kombat or Primal Rage from days gone by, but you weren't a human being gutting another human being with a knife in those games. Sure, the former did feature separating blood, guts and bones, but in retrospect it was controversial for being violent at a time when games, by and large, weren't pushing the boundary.

Most importantly, I've never left a game of Mortal Kombat feeling sick. Maybe I've come to see those graphics and that violence as a little campy compared to current standards. The latest entries in the series have gone even further overboard, with fatalities taking on a whole new, dark, morbid graphical tone.

It is not comfortable seeing a fighter held by each leg and pulled apart wishbone style, complete with innards and bodily fluids exploding outward, but that is over-the-top. Realistic visuals in an unrealistic setting.

Manhunt dials up the realism on all fronts, though the graphics don't allow for intestines to fall out or other such atrocities. It is the action, not the visual, that is really what separates the two in my mind.

Perhaps it is a sign of maturity that I no longer crave the horrific acts of violence I once found so intriguing in years passed. After a week of wanting to play it, anticipating the arrival of the game at my doorstep, I can't bring myself to progress any further than the first couple of areas.

I find no appeal in it. I ended the playthrough with a sense of guilt and almost disgust with myself for wanting to replay it in the first place.

Even trying to think of games that would cleanse my palette didn't work. Naughty Bear? Well, maybe not... That's just simulated murder of stuffed animals. A little too similar.

Without exaggerating, I have found it difficult to pick up a controller to play much of anything since I played Manhunt. It was a wholly unsettling experience that, very clearly, stimulated some serious thought on the matter.

No comments:

Post a Comment