[15 December 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
One of the unfortunate consequences of the current AAA climate in game development is that it’s tough to find a high production game that experiments very much. Although they might slip in an interesting idea or maybe a radical plot, in terms of game design most things are by the book. Rockstar’s Manhunt 2 is a very interesting game that inadvertently, due to the controversy and subsequent censoring of its violent kill scenes, developed a very unique game design. They lobotomized the reward structure. Whereas the original appeal of the game was experimenting with weapons and seeing the various death scenes unfold, in its censored form this appeal is no longer there. The game design’s entire function was to challenge the player to get the most impressive kill and now that no longer exists. The result is the unique experience of getting to see the nuts and bolts of a game with zero appeal attached to their function. The way the game creaks and falls apart without that reward system is nearly as instructive an experience as seeing an excellent game fully intact.
Manhunt 2 is a combination of Resident Evil 4 combat and a simplified light/dark stealth system. When you bar turns blue, you’re totally invisible. Otherwise you can be seen from a certain radius. Sounds like running or knocking on a wall will attract guards. You then wait until they walk around to inspect the noise, turn their back on you, and then lock on. The longer you hold the lock, the more violent the stealth kill. Like Thief, melee combat with more than two people is suicidal so the stealth kill becomes a necessary strategy in many levels. Mixed with this are the gun portions of the game. Aiming with guns resembles Resident Evil 4 albeit clunkier and with some awkward control issues. You can also lock on and make insta-kill shots provided they are close enough. Structurally, it’s a high road vs. low road scenario to help people who are stuck on a level. Once you get sick of trying to lure a guard close enough to see their gory death, you can just shoot them and get on with it. The low road is supposed to be much less satisfying because you’re missing out on the death scenes. Now, with the last minute censorship, there is no incentive to ever take the high road. You’re just doing the simple head shot move that offers little satisfaction and trudging through the level. Playing such a game is strange because one is so accustomed to the subconscious sense of progress and reward in a game. Without a reward structure to give the incentive to self-induce more complex play, vast elements of strategy and nuance are abandoned by the player. You just run through the experience as quickly as possible, rather than exploring all the tiny details and elements of design. It’s a crisp example of what happens when a game’s rewards don’t encourage more complex play: the player inadvertently shirks themselves of the full experience of the game. Without the death scene rewards, the game doesn’t have a way to make players do anything except the same easy-to-win tactics over and over.
Which begs the question of how one should feel about a death sequence as reward in the first place. The plot of the original Manhunt was about a snuff film director capturing a death row inmate. He then makes him run through various obstacles and abandoned buildings, brutally murdering psychopaths and gang members. Whenever you initiate a death sequence, the screen cuts to a video camera recording while the director (voiced by a fantastic Brian Cox) murmurs his praise. In the sequel, the protagonist is immediately portrayed as completely insane. The first level is your breaking free from an insane asylum while your Tyler Durden esque alternate identity Leo guides you. In those sequences it is Leo, instead of the snuff director, praising you for the brutal murders. It’s a simple metaphor: Leo/the Director both represent the player controlling this other person. Whereas both Cash/Danny have sane emotions and desires, this insane outer party is controlling them and making them do awful things because they enjoy the violence. Which is what the player of Manhunt or its sequel are thinking, they are enjoying the violence that this helpless agent is committing under their control. As the game’s violence continues to grow and serve as a reward, the disturbing epiphany that you have been complicit in the villain’s destructive love of death is its masterstroke. In either of these games, the player’s final realization is that they are the monster of the horror story.
From the very beginning it is made obvious that Leo is a figment of Danny’s mind. Whenever Danny does something awful, he becomes Leo for a brief while during the censored murder sequences. It could’ve even been an interesting foil of Danny’s denial that he himself is the killer to have this censoring, except the game doesn’t have a reward structure to replace not seeing the kill. When he is aware of the violence, Danny sometimes vomits or cries. Yet this forced innocence while he is covered in gore and murdering dozens of people becomes a source of mixed emotions for the player. Danny may be protesting his actions but there is always the second voice, Leo, shouting out support. The part of us nagging that what we are doing is wrong and sick is represented by Danny, while the voice in our heads telling us that it’s hilarious and awesome is Leo. He’ll often say after a kill, “You gave me a boy. Now I present the man!” or “Whose the alpha male buddy? YOU ARE!” The weak voiced and glasses wearing Danny, as everyman a game character as you could ask for, chooses to never question this conduct as he pursues his own goals. Violence, for both the player and Danny, is easier to just not think about and instead enjoy on a more carnal level. This pleasure is aptly paralleled in numerous levels by the sexual imagery planted throughout the game. Enjoying the adrenaline of committing a gory murder is connected with enjoying sex and other bodily pleasures. During one level the player must work his way through a whore house taking out guards and looking for a scientist. During all of the fights and kills, the sound of sex is in the background. This sex/violence analogy is ultimately made explicit when Danny walks onto a movie stage covered in blood carrying a gun to an audience of thugs. Behind him, as blunt as possible, is a softcore porn playing.
The final plot twist of the game is one reminiscent of the social commentary found in Myst, that if you participate in a virtual environment long enough your behavior will spill over into the real one. Towards the end of the game the player discovers that Leo is not actually a split personality but a real human being planted in Danny’s mind. The indulgence in violence’s satisfactions, our Mr. Hyde, has become a real and independent being. The final mission takes place in Danny’s mind and requires him to properly bury the wife he murdered while Leo was in control of his body. It is not so much a boss fight as it is an endurance match of lugging her corpse across the yard while Leo attacks you. Putting to rest the female figure in Danny’s life, who was only seen fighting with him in other cutscenes, is to make amends with the thing that drove Danny to signing up for the project in the first place: his inability to make enough money to feed his family. The insecurity he felt as a male, as a father who could not provide, must be buried to defeat the need for Leo’s support. It is probably this final moment that suffers the most due to the lobotomized game design. Without having done enough violence to become a monster, Danny’s catharsis ultimately is not felt by the player. We are not complicit enough in the dark fantasy the game means to lure you into, if only to give the experience of escaping from its awful reality. We are instead no better than film goers pressing a button when we are ready for the monster to make yet another kill, over and over and over.