Grand Theft Auto 6, GTA 5, and a Red Dead Redemption remaster are more than enough for Rockstar to focus on right now. But as we approach the 20th anniversary of the first game, and as I come to the end of replaying it, yet again, I’m craving the return of Manhunt. One of the greatest horror games ever made, it’s not just scary, but shocking, smart, and legitimately squalid. There’s something to be said for the current tide of triple-A games, which – compared to perhaps two or three decades ago – represent a culture that has seriously broadened its appeal. But Manhunt takes me back to a time when gaming was a counter-culture, and it felt like a willingness to experiment and plumb the depths of poor taste still existed among big-name developers.
I’m a bit cynical, a bit jaded, and a bit older now than I was, and it takes a lot to really get to me. But I still think Manhunt is genuinely nasty. Ignoring some of the old hysteria and hyperbole, and the reputation that Manhunt has gained as one of the most controversial games ever, this is still more brutal and nihilistic than any other mainstream release I’ve seen in my lifetime.
It’s a horrible cliche, and often untrue, but I think it genuinely applies with Manhunt – you couldn’t make this game now, or at least, it seems very unlikely that Rockstar, or any other big developer, would allocate a budget and attempt to market a game like this now.
It’s not just the violence. It’s the sexualization of the violence. It’s the director, Lionel Starkweather, groaning into your earpiece when you open a hunter’s face with a hammer. It’s the old mock-up website for the in-game snuff ring business Valiant Video, a place where you can buy latex gloves and gimp masks.
This is a journey to the center of depravity, a horrible adventure through some of the darkest psychosexual impulses. Your enemies are white supremacists. Your weapons are hand axes, shards of glass, and plastic bags. Stripped to their underwear and tied to a stake, you rescue your family one level, only to watch them butchered, on a VHS tape you find in an abandoned shopping mall, one level later. It’s real dirt.
It’s the levels with the family that really bring the power of Manhunt home, in fact. In other games, rescuing them would represent something redemptive, an optimistic kind of uptick in the story where we’re allowed to feel that perhaps the world isn’t all bad.
Similarly, when they die, it’d be a dramatic turning point, the moment our protagonist, James Earl Cash, resolves to do something – to pursue some morally cleansing vengeance. But Manhunt offers neither of these things. When he rescues them, apart from barking orders like “run away” or “get out of here,” Cash doesn’t speak to his family – it’s as if they don’t love each other, don’t care about each other, don’t know each other. Likewise, when they’re killed, the game just continues like nothing happened. Cash keeps following Starkweather’s orders. The executions roll in. None of it matters.
And that, I think, is Manhunt’s greatest achievement. When I see writers or game-makers or whoever it may be talking about nihilism, and how they want to explore hopelessness, immorality, or how everything is pain – or something – it often feels like a cop out, like there’s something easier in making art about how everything’s terrible.
But while it’s certainly nihilistic, Manhunt has a forceful conviction. It takes perhaps the first four levels before it hits the absolute rock bottom of the soul, and then it just keeps digging and digging and digging. It’s committed to squalor, sleaze, and spiritual oblivion. For a game about hollowness, and the absence of even the basest humanity, it’s got serious voice and substance.
Which is why I want it back. By broadening their appeal and softening their approach, videogames, as a commercial prospect and arguably as an artform as well, have done well in the last 20 years. Games have proven to the world – to the mainstream cultural vanguard – that they’ve got some expressive and certainly some industrial worth.
But in doing that, they’ve stopped being dangerous. Stopped being iconoclastic. Stopped being appalling. And I miss that particular creative urge, that urge to be grungy, challenge taste, and rebel against accepted standards of artistic cleanliness. I think that urge once gave to gaming a distinctive cultural identity. And if it did, Manhunt was its apex. I’d love to have it back. But I’m almost certain it won’t happen.