It’s impossible to discuss Manhunt 2 without discussing the issues surrounding its rating and release. Certainly Rockstar is no stranger to controversy. Grand Theft Auto, State of Emergency, Bully and even the original Manhunt have all been the subject of scrutiny from the media and various organizations. Whether or not Rockstar sets out to offend is beside the point. The fact is they raise eyebrows, but they also happen to make very good games. It seems interesting to note that the first Manhunt title did not garner the dreaded Adults Only rating from the ESRB. In fact, to my knowledge, Rockstar’s only flirtation with AO stemmed from the inadvertent inclusion of the infamous “Hot Coffee Mod” in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So it very well could be that Manhunt 2 was subject to more stringent scrutiny from the ESRB in the wake of those events. With the recent announcement that Target is refusing to carry the game, it bears investigating whether or not all this controversy is justified.
Apparently, what allowed Manhunt 2‘s rating to be dialed down to Mature was the blur and graphical filters applied to the grisly kill sequences. This is similar to the filters that were added to the most violent sections of THQ and Volition’s The Punisher to avoid an Adults Only rating. But does any of that really make a difference? Clearly the player understands what’s going on behind those filters.
Film directors have long filmed particularly graphic scenes never intended to make the final cut, as a form of misdirection for the MPAA. The idea is that if you take out what they’re sure to object to, something that you didn’t really want in the first place, you can get away with things that are as graphic as you intended, while appearing to have compromised your way to an R-rating. The inherent flaw in this logic, however, is the reliance on predicting what another person will find offensive, particularly with respect to the gray boundaries of sex and violence.
As an example, Martin Scorcese has stated that the scene in Casino in which Joe Pesci’s character tortures and kills a man by putting his head in a vice was intended to be cut by the MPAA, allowing him more flexibility in the rest of the film. For whatever reason, however, the MPAA didn’t object to that scene, so a modified version of it (less graphic than was presented to begin with) was left in. This begs the question of how far away we are from such smoke and mirror tactics with respect to video game ratings, if they haven’t already begun.
Admit it: you want to hang out with these guys.
Though still ongoing, the game violence debate has started to wear thin. It seems clear that some games are intended for adults, in the same way that some films and books are, particularly as the average age of the players of those games continues to rise. Certainly one of the key differences with games as a medium has to do with their interactivity, but how much further can you realistically go than to have ratings on the games, complete with a footnote about the specific kind of content in the game that garnered the rating, which is exactly what the ESRB does now?
So the question becomes, is Manhunt 2 a fundamentally different game since its “toning down” than that originally intended by the developers. The answer is somewhat complex, particularly given that this is a sequel, and therefore inherently has less impact from a genre perspective than the original. Manhunt was essentially an interactive snuff film, tense and uncomfortable to play, particularly with the voice of Brian Cox cackling in the player’s ear. It can be argued that its storyline regarding the voyeuristic nature of violence (though certainly explored in many other forms of media) had more impact than any other Rockstar game. It was a multimedia marriage of The Most Dangerous Game and 8mm.
The old “stealth syringe to the chest”
move never gets old.
Manhunt 2, on the other hand, seems less about survival. Its plot revolves more around finding out what events have led that main character to where he is now than in surviving a bad situation in the moment. The implied commentary on entertainment, violence, and voyeurism no longer really exists. As such, it becomes more difficult to argue that the modified kill sequences lessen the “message” of the game. Certainly they lessen the impact from a purely visceral perspective, but they don’t really change what the story is trying to get across. This doesn’t mean necessarily that such editing should have occurred, but it seems an important distinction to note with respect to what exactly such edits are taking from the game.
As is to be expected, the PlayStation 2 and Wii versions differ in control mechanics, with respect to a wide variety of actions. Aiming, kill sequences, and peering around corners are all handled differently, with the Wii controls predictably being more visceral and immersing. Surprisingly, though, the filters covering up the kill sequences also differ between the two platforms, with the Wii version showing far less of the action than that of the PS2. I don’t really understand this decision, unless Nintendo had a hand in it, but it does make the PS2 version seem nominally more brutal.
In the end, Manhunt 2 certainly is an adult title through and through, and such titles, particularly from a controversy magnet such as Rockstar, are bound to invite scrutiny. Putting aside the games-as-art debate, which does have some bearing on censorship, it is a solid game. Even so, the issues surrounding its release make it interesting as an example of game editing and censorship, which will likely continue to have repercussions as the process around game ratings is fine tuned.