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News Extended – Manhunt 2: A Credible Game Ban?

Andrew Fletcher's picture

Manhunt 2

Curiously, I think I was more elated than disappointed when I heard of Manhunt 2's UK ban (and latterly it's as-good-as-banned AO rating in the US).

It was not a knee-jerk reaction to a recent news story. It was not because of real world environments within the game (see Sony's Resistance woes). The game was not guilty of offending ethnic minorities. The BBFC statement did not even mention a concern over copycat killings (although "unjustifiable harm risks" sounds disconcertingly ambiguous).

No, it seems like this videogame has been banned on its own merit, so-to-speak. Rockstar set out to make a provocative and unsettling psychological drama, and have succeeded in the eyes of the world's media and key regulatory boards.

An odd compliment? Not really. I think many of those who played and appreciated the original Manhunt might also have felt a little pang of excitement to see the disturbing power of its vision recognized. For me it is another sign of how far games have come. Though certainly gruesome, Manhunt was not a game of shock and bad taste for its own sake. The real impact of that game came from the "unremitting bleakness" of its snuff movie setting, and the way it questioned the gamer's pleasure and voyeurism in a game about "stalking and brutal slaying".

Manhunt

Those quotations actually come from the BBFC's Manhunt 2 statement, and indeed they themselves admit that the second game does not push the envelope too far beyond what we were playing 3 and a half years ago. Yet that in itself is a justification of the details that have been taken into account with this decision.

The key areas of contention seem to be regarding "the lack of alternative pleasures on offer" and "the different overall narrative context". The former sounds a little too much like a design criticism to me, but the latter shows evidence that the first game's satirical bent and non-interactive execution scenes were taken into account by the board, and that the sequel (which seems to have ditched these subtleties) has less contextual merit to bolster its snuff elements. It is this kind of thoughtful criticism that I think demonstrates a respect for the integrity of the medium, even if in this case it has worked against the game in question.

Interestingly, it is the Wii version that is likely to have proven most controversial, yet the classification boards have still made no allowances for the PS2 and PSP versions. Was this perhaps a political decision, to avoid controversy focusing solely on the motion-sensing element? Or is the core game genuinely deserving of such a hard line reaction in itself? (Check out the BBC video link here for a brief discussion of the Wii version.)

Manhunt 2

I should at this point state that on the evidence provided so far, I do not agree with the decision to ban the game. I have not yet played the game and as a fan of the original would very much like to.

But if censorship is to be enforced, let us take some solace in the fact that videogames are to be evaluated on their own terms. I think that to compare the Manhunt games to similarly extreme films, as many upset gamers are quick to do, is to do the medium a disservice, and to underestimate the role and the value of interactivity in such games. You wouldn't expect any film board to pass an unflinchingly accurate movie adaptation of the novel American Psycho, and I think that marking games out as a unique medium in the same way is sensible (although it may not always work in our favor as gamers).

Manhunt 2

I hope that the considered approach the regulatory boards have taken towards Manhunt 2 will live on in the minds of developers making similarly contentious games. Is that a vote for self-censorship? Well, I'm for anything that makes developers think more carefully about what they are putting into their games and why. But more likely, if platform-holders refuse to license AO-rated games and major retailers refuse to stock them, then this latest example (like the absurd 'Hot Coffee' fiasco) is only going to scare developers from entering controversial territory in the first place.

Still, if we consider that the last game the BBFC banned was the risible Carmageddon (10 years ago), I for one think Manhunt 2 shows that both the medium and the game censors have matured considerably. And even if the game is never to be released, perhaps through the reaction to it we can glimpse something of what Rockstar are trying to achieve with the series: thought-provoking and uncompromising gaming from creatives who will accept intellectual responsibility for their output.

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I think Manhunt is made in

I think Manhunt is made in bad taste with the sole purpose of shocking people, but I strongly disapprove of government censorship. I think Sony and Nintendo do reserve the right to turn down any game they want, but I don't fully endorse the idea of an AO rating (the consequences of which result in an virtual ban, having no space on Wal-Mart shelves). In an ideal world, I suppose adults would be free to evaluate Manhunt 2 for what it was and base their opinions on it freely. Alas, this is not that world.

What frustrates me most, however, is how Rockstar has become a martyr in the eyes of the gaming media. It isn't surprising, giving how the same media universally hailed a game like Resident Evil 4, which could just as well been scripted by a ten year old, as one of the best games ever. The quickness with which the same media is armed to proclaim games with violence as necesarily "mature" should have been another clue. There have been many, many gaems with over-the-top violence, yet when, I wonder, was the last time a game was universally criticized for featuring too graphic violence? It surely was not Manhunt.

Just because it was wrong for the game to be banned in the UK doesn't make Manhunt 2 a Rembrandt. If the game featured brutal raping in place of brutal killing, or the killing of women and children in place of grown men, I wonder how quickly the opinions of Manhunt's perceived artfulness would change.

Re: I think Manhunt is made in

Nicato: "Just because it was wrong for the game to be banned in the UK doesn't make Manhunt 2 a Rembrandt."

I'm certainly not suggesting that. From what I've heard the game has none of the self-aware ingenuity of the original, which is one of the reasons the BBFC gave for disapproving of it (comparatively). And it's also one of the reasons it'll be hard for Rockstar to overturn the ban.

It'd be a shame if Manhunt 2 turns out to be a validation for those who thought the original was a dumb gore-fest, as it'll probably eclipse it in notoriety and influence. Manhunt wasn't by any means faultless, but what a shame for the sequel to become a perfectly parodic example of the slasher thrills it tried to satirize.

First Manhunt a Satire?

Very interesting article, Andrew. I like your point about gamers defending games by comparing them to movies, in that games are not movies and have that oh-so-important characteristic interactivity (although all media are really interactive, but that's another discussion).

I played the first Manhunt all the way through, and I agree with Mike Bracken (the 2nd opinion review) that it does have a lot of solid stealth gameplay.

However, I did not get the impression that Manhunt was attempting to be a satire of slasher thrills. In satire you are attempting to expose faults; satire ridicules and scorns. I don't remember anything from the original Manhunt that really did any of that. Manhunt wasn't being critical of the snuff film.

In a videogame the player takes on the role of the protagonist. Cash, a murderer, is clearly the game's protagonist, and the player is supposed to help the protagonist achieve his goals identify with him in some way. The player is told that the gruesome murders he is performing are the goal of the game. Success is defined as being able to kill in the most bloody fashion possible. The player is not being criticized for the slasher actions, he is being rewarded for them! The slasher life is presented as disturbingly interesting and exhilarating.

Given all of this, I think it is clear that Manhunt was attempting to shock the player with the slasher thrills and arguably get the player to enjoy it, at least within the game world where the consequences are not the same as in real life. I am very curious and would like to hear an explanation of how you think the original Manhunt was a satire.

Re: First Manhunt a Satire?

My comment was that Manhunt tried to satirize the simple slasher thrills its sequel seems to be more conventionally preying on, which was my kind of blunt way of saying that Manhunt 2 appears to have lost the intelligence and satire of the original. But you're right to call me on it because that's not the real target of the satire.

Since you ask, I thought the first game's "satirical bent" (as I put it more eloquently in the article) was towards reality TV and its audience's thirst for ever more extreme and lurid thrills. It took that desire for humiliation and voyeurism to its most unpleasant (but worryingly quite believable) conclusion, which is to watch real murders for the sake of entertainment. Snuff.

With the director barking orders in your ear and baying for the blood he know will sell his videos, and the CCTV execution cutaways positing us as the audience he is catering for, I think the game can definitely be read as quite a well-mounted satire of our voyeuristic culture and depth-plumbing trash TV. It exaggerates that trend of voyeurism to paint a picture of what could be. And in a sense it does, if not satirize, certainly ask questions of the bloodlust that is keeping the player entertained throughout.

I thought the mechanic for saving the nastiest kills for those willing to loiter behind the enemy until the last moment was a really thoughtful way of questioning that bloodlust, which is usually so casually accepted in so many games. Do we do it because we have to if we want to complete the game (though much of Manhunt does not require killing, and never the most brutal kills), because we want the satisfaction of having done things the 'best' way (the hi-score mentality), or do we do it because we want that super-gory execution? Or maybe a bit of all 3?

The shocking realism of the kills actually helped press that question all the more, and I can't think of a game that has addressed the player and their motives (with regards to the violence they commit) as much as Manhunt. The themes it raised were relevant to both its own medium and our culture at large, and it explored them in a way that was totally unique (by making good use of its interactivity). For a mainstream videogame to do that is practically unheard of.

[It's a testament to the game that I'm reminded of the excellent pseudo-documentary film 'Man Bites Dog' while writing about Manhunt. It confronts screen violence in a similarly uncomfortable way. I must watch that again sometime.]

Player intent?

Thanks for the response, Andrew. You've clearly thought about this thoroughly.

Your explanation is valid and your gameplay example (and the questions it raises about the motives of the player) is a great one. I do see what you mean by questioning the motives of the player.

However, a distinction needs to be made, as to WHO is doing the questioning. Is it the developer or the player? I am not really convinced that the developers intended to question the motives behind the killings. Now I do agree with you that the players are meant to be voyeurs, because I think the brutal cutscenes are presented as a reward for the player. But are the developers snickering at us behind our backs? I don't remember anything from the game like, for example, The Sorrow boss fight from Metal Gear Solid 3 that turned killing enemies against you and made you think about what you did to them. There was nothing like the scene in Fight Club where "Jack" beats the blonde headed guy to a bloody pulp that made you step back and say, "Whoa, maybe this has gone too far." There are no moral consequences for getting the most brutal executions except those that the player imposes on himself. The only risk is one of survival, and the law of the game is kill or be killed. That is why I think it is more player interpretation than author intent. Maybe you can convince me otherwise. How this kill or be killed mentality different from games like Doom and Resident Evil?

I will admit that player interpretation is one thing that makes Manhunt a highly artistic game. Most great works of art are very open to interpretation, and interactive art has great power to question the motives of the player or audience.

Re: Player Intent?

I found it interesting that you said MGS3 "made you" think about the role reversal, and Fight Club "made you" step back and reconsider the situation, but that my interpretation was voluntary, and not sanctioned or somehow enforced by the author as it were.

But that's okay, that's just how you read and reacted to those texts. I don't really want to start a subjectivity vs. authorial intent argument.

As audiences and critics, I think if we find something that strikes a chord with us and take a moment to consider it and what it means to us, then that's the kind of contemplation that nobody, not even the author, can wholly discredit or devalue. So long as it is genuinely felt.

[To communicate your ideas to another, of course, requires tact and a certain degree of literacy. And that's the job of critics, I suppose; not, as some people assume, to tell everyone what to think and what the author definitely IS trying to say. Even when it is written didactically, a critic is only ever offering their interpretation.]

Games occupy an interesting space in this process, as they can be vast, multi-faceted experiences with no single 'author' running the show. Although that's not to say that authorial meaning cannot exist within them: I haven't played MGS3, but I thought the run up to the conclusion of MGS2 was a superb exploitation of the medium for conveying authorial intent in new ways (particularly the phony "Fission Mailed" game over screen).

I think Manhunt was a boldly stylised game that clearly had some thought behind its setup and execution (no pun intended), although the initial chord it struck with me was that I found it one of the most miserable, joyless and actually depressing games I had ever played when I first rented it. But that actually piqued my interest and made me want to return to it later and see what it was that caused that sensation.

Silent Hill 2 was the same. I just couldn't bear to play that game (lights off and headphones on, in my defence :)), and returning to it I got so much out of it.

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