Vs. Mode: Newsweek And MTV News Play and Debate "Manhunt 2" — Round One

N'Gai Croal from Newsweek and I used to talk for hours on the phone about video games. Then we decided to make those exchanges public, in e-mail form, and call them Vs. Mode. In May we discussed "Halo 3" in three parts. In March we more vigorously debated "God of War II." Those exchanges -- as well as this new one -- were also published at N'Gai's Newsweek blog, "Level Up."As I explain below, we've intended to do our next Vs. Mode about "Manhunt 2" before last week's ratings controversy. That only made things more interesting.

What follows and will continue over the next few days is a spirited and -- I'll warn you now -- lengthy discussion of the game and the issues that surround it by two reporters who have, as of this writing, played through the game's first six of 16 levels. I lead it off:

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: June 23, 2007

Re: We Got Static


I guess you and I have some explaining to do for those who follow these e-mail exchanges of ours. We're doing something unusual by writing about "Manhunt 2."

We're writing about a game that isn't out. We're writing about a game that, in its current form, will never appear on store shelves and has been put on hold by its publisher, even though the game is done. We're writing about the first game in a decade deemed unfit for any rating by the official board that rates games in the U.K. We're writing about a game that, in the U.S., currently has an 18-and-older Adults Only rating, a label issued by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to just 23 porn and gambling titles, a few adventure games that have sex scenes in them, and one hyper-violent game called "Thrill Kill." (The ESRB website lists more than 1,000 titles as "M," which is for gamers 17 and up; more than 8,400 listings for games rated "E" for Everyone).

We're writing about the controversial "Manhunt 2," and in keeping with Vs. Mode tradition, we're only writing about it because we played it and played it extensively. Now how'd we do that?

You were the one who kept telling me in 2003 to play the first "Manhunt," the one released for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. I was leery. It was a stealth game. I find stealth games frustrating, because they ask you to skulk around for minutes and suddenly pounce on a bad guy and then sneak some more, usually with a high penalty for failure that forces you to re-play levels many times. But you said this one was a stand-out. I believed you could be right. The first "Manhunt" was made by Rockstar North, fresh off their groundbreaking work on "Grand Theft Auto III" and "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."

You said they did some special things with audio. As death row inmate James Earl Cash, the player wasn't just sneaking around, killing wretched-looking gangsters. He was doing this because he was taking orders from a sick-sounding voice in the headset he wore on his ear. A gamer could wear a PS2 or Xbox headset of their own, and hear the wretched glee of the Director as he pushed the player from one kill to the next and celebrated the player's skill at bludgeoning heads and inserting shards of glass into soft tissue. During tense moments, the headset's microphone could pick up a gamer's anxious breathing and send enemies to investigate a rapid exhale. That all seemed like an interesting use of sound technology, but the game didn't sound like something I would enjoy – or that I would want to be caught enjoying. I was slow to pick it up. When I did, I didn't have the patience to sneak around. I quit after level four.

Somewhere in my ongoing quest to get you to sit down and play through a "Zelda" game I decided I'd have to throw you a bone. So when "Manhunt 2" popped up on the PS2 release schedule for the summer – and then also, shockingly, got slated for the family-friendly Nintendo Wii – I decided we could do a Vs. Mode exchange on the game. That way you'd owe me.

We pitched Rockstar a month or so ago, asking if they'd let us play the game early so that we could be done and ready to discuss it by the time it came out in early July. We got some signs of interest, but I was skeptical. Rockstar's company philosophy is to let games speak for themselves. They don't brag about their games very often. And they defend their often-controversial content even less. Then they got the AO and the U.K. rejection and I was certain our drive had failed. Somehow we got the green light.

I don't really need to tell you any of this, though. You were there. We played "Manhunt 2" for a full afternoon at Rockstar's headquarters on Friday. I think we need to talk about that.

You're the "Manhunt" expert. Do you think we got a genuine experience of the game? The first game opened with a screen that offered a few tips:

"To best experience Manhunt you should…

"Turn off the lights…

"Close the drapes…

"Lock the door…

"Then get ready to kill!"

They don't mention it, but I think it would also have been good to play it alone. The experience of the game – and I would assume, its sequel -- is designed to instill panic in the player. You play the game for tension punctuated with rushes of action, to some extent the same reason people ride roller-coasters.

We played "Manhunt 2" in an office. For much of our session we sat in the same room and swapped the controller back forth between levels. I had a cup of Reese's Pieces at my side.

I wonder how the people rating the game played it. I wonder if their room was well lit or if they locked the door. I wonder if that matters. For that matter, I wonder how the people who made the game played it. What were all those people thinking? Did they absorb what it would be like to be an average "Manhunt 2" gamer? Does it make a difference?

I have a lot of thoughts about the game that I want share with you, I hardly know where to begin. The thing you know the least about my "Manhunt 2" session is how I experienced the first level, because it's the only one I played when you were in a different room.

The first level of ‘Manhunt 2" is the only one that matches the description most reporters – including myself – have used to explain the game: it has the player controlling Daniel Lamb, escaping an insane asylum where something has gone horribly wrong, the helpful voice of a guy names Leo accompanying him with each step. We'll talk more about this level later, I'm sure, but rest easy knowing I experienced its highs and lows. I got Daniel urinated on by one angry inmate still behind bars. I discovered another who had hung himself. I performed my first stealth kill – with a syringe – and watched Daniel vomit because of his quick-passing guilt. I learned to sneak around and figured out how to get past some characters without killing them. I learned the motion controls and swiped the Wii's movement-sensitive remote sharply one way then another to knock a man's head off with an axe. I made my escape. I played the part of a crazy man.

It was dark. It was brutal. It was horrific. It implicated me as a role-player in some vile actions. It was all exacerbated by something that may have been intentional or may have been a programming bug or been intentional, I don't know. The Wii remote has a speaker, and about halfway into my progress in the level, the remote started emitting crackling static. The pattern of the static kept switching. It didn't seem to relate to any particular action on the screen, and it bothered me. It made me uncomfortable, physically, because it was annoying. It was as if I played half the level while sitting on a thumbtack. The interactivity and design of the level kept me engaged and wanting to know what I was going to have to do next. Some would say that qualified the level as being "fun." But my innate discomfort because of the static – to say nothing of other elements in the level – prevented me from getting any joy from the level. Instead, I played it… perturbed. It made me feel a little crazy, like an asylum inmate.

I wonder if that was a good thing, for a game designed to put you in control of a crazy man. It gives you some of the feeling of going crazy. It reminded me of a building that scientist built in the virtual online world "Second Life" that uses that world's video-game-like technology to let people virtually walk through a series of rooms that contain sights and sounds that patients suffering schizophrenia say they experience. It's an interesting bit of role play that may or may not have been aided by the static buzz: buy "Manhunt 2," if you want to feel crazy. (Which is cheaper than going to acting school and hoping to land a part in the next "Rain Man" or "Silence of the Lambs."). Then again, the speaker crackle may have been a programming fluke.

We played five more levels of the game's 16 total together. We need to talk about the Wii gestures that make you pantomime some brutal acts. We need to talk about the idea of horror in a video game, and what to make of a game that asks you to kill without suggesting as in, say, "Super Mario Brothers," that killing is clean. I want to know what you made of things.

But there's one thing I don't want to talk about, and that's the ratings. At heart I'm still a reporter, and I don't have the facts about the content of the final two thirds of "Manhunt 2," nor do I know what content made the ESRB apply that "AO." I won't debate that, though we certainly can compare the content in this game to others, including the first "Manhunt."

OK. Have at it.


To: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: June 23, 2007

Re: The Miseducation of N'Gai Croal


Thanks for your recap of how we came to be embroiled in what I've affectionately dubbed "The Satanic Versus."

Where to begin, indeed? I suspect that we're going to spill a lot of pixels on this one, so I hope that you and the readers will show me some forbearance as I use a big chunk of this post to clear my throat. Because with the AO rating bestowed upon "Manhunt 2"--which means the de facto banning of the game in the United States, because Sony and Nintendo do not permit AO-rated titles to be released on any of their systems--along with the de jure banning of the game in other countries like the U.K. and Ireland--Rockstar Games has vaulted into the rarified territory occupied by the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Stanley Kubrick, Vladimir Nabokov, Bernardo Bertolucci, Bret Easton Ellis, Larry Clark, Clive Barker and others who have seen their work banned, dropped, declared obscene or given the most restrictive ratings possible. Since this rarely so happens with games, Rockstar's own Hot Coffee controversy notwithstanding, I think it's important to look at other media to help understand what's going on here. And with film being the medium that I'm most familiar with, I'll focus on that.

The comparative media aspect of this debate is interesting to me because as a student of film during my college days, I was (and am still, somewhat) very interested in material that pushed viewers' buttons and their limits. This wasn't always the case. I didn't see a lot of movies growing up, because in addition to not having a console in the house, we also weren't much of a movie-going family. As a result, I came late not just to movies, but challenging movies in particular. I saw "Taxi Driver" for the first time the summer before I left for college. It was on TV late one night, I watched it, and being completely unprepared for what I saw, I hated it. I'd never seen anything like it, and its insinuating portrayal of one man's desperately isolated psychosis was far too much for my young mind to process--I felt like I wanted to take a bath afterwards and wash the mental grime of Travis Bickle from my memory.

When I got to Stanford, one of the campus rituals was rounding up the dorm and heading over to Memorial Auditorium to watch Sunday Flicks, the student-run film series. It was there that I saw "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Wild at Heart." I watched "Henry and June," the first film to receive the then-newly conceived NC-17 rating, at an off-campus. I saw "A Clockwork Orange" during Friday night movie rentals in my freshman dorm. For a kid who'd had a light-on-movies childhood, my mind was blown, and while I didn't fully understand or appreciate everything that I saw, it opened my tastes up to a wide range of cinematic experiences, which was only reinforced by studying film from my sophomore year on. So when I subsequently watched "Taxi Driver" again, I realized that my initial hatred for the film had in fact been a mélange of confusion, repulsion and attraction to the material. It had indeed been insinuating, for it had lodged itself in the recesses of my mind like a dormant virus, and having spent a year being exposed to enough other challenging cinematic experiences, I could finally grasp what Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader were trying to accomplish with "Taxi Driver," and loved it. To this day, it's one of just a few candidates for my favorite film ever made. I had gone from despising challenging movies to embracing them; in fact, my decision to start reviewing movies for the student paper is what led to me to become a journalist in the first place.

During my senior year, I was hired to run the Sunday Flicks series. And while Flicks was primarily intended to entertain and make money, I wanted to bring back some of the provocative spirit of the kinds of movies that I'd seen at Flicks during my freshman year. So among the many Hollywood movies designed to put butts in seats, I sprinkled in Mike Leigh's "Naked" and Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel, and Benoit Poolverde's disturbing satirical mockumentary of a serial killer, "Man Bites Dog." The former provoked a number of walkouts; the latter prompted a half-exodus--along with complaints, letters to the editor of the student paper, and an attempt by my bosses at the student union to fire me. Rockstar, c'est moi! (I refused step down, it turned out that they couldn't fire me without a warning, and I served out my term.) The most interesting response the night I screened "Man Bites Dog" was from a couple that walked by me on the way out. When I asked them why they were leaving, they politely answered that they'd seen enough to know that it wasn't for them, but that they'd be back next week. In other words, they'd made a decision that was right for them, but they had no interest in trying to impose their tastes upon others, a live-and-let-live mentality for which I could only have the utmost respect, and is especially relevant to those parts of the world where "Manhunt 2" has been de jure banned.

I haven't written about movies much since college, but I continued to go to the theaters, and I continued to favor challenging movies upon their release in theaters. I enjoyed "Natural Born Killers," mostly for the way Oliver Stone does violence to the viewer as much with the film's editing and score as he does with its content, to say nothing of the demented sitcom flashback with Rodney Dangerfield as the twisted patriarch. I liked Larry Clark's "Kids" and "Bully," not in spite of his pruriently vampiric fascination with the bodies and behavior of teenagers, but because of the way he mines that fascination to capture the amoral confusion of wayward teens. I'm a huge Lars von Trier fan--regardless of what the critical establishment has to say, I maintain that "Manderlay" was the best film I saw last year, by a country mile. I still have problems with "Se7en"--there's still something too high-concept about its "seven deadly sins" depiction of the villainous John Doe, as compared to, say, the more straightforward cannibalism and skinning in "The Silence of the Lambs"--but I have grown to appreciate the virtues of the way the filmmakers carefully place Morgan Freeman's wise, patient, despairing and ultimately renewed Detective William Somerset at the center of the story.

Even having gone through my earlier conversion with "Taxi Driver," I still struggle sometimes to absorb a movie that legitimately challenges me. I hated "Raging Bull" when I first saw it during my sophomore year. (It's now one of my favorites, too.) Ditto for "Fight Club," which I absolutely despised when I watched it at a screening before its release. On my first viewing, I found it thoroughly fascistic, because I thought that the filmmakers' sympathies lay completely with Tyler Durden's creed before trying to absolve Ed Norton's narrator with the film's last act. But as with "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" before it, something about "Fight Club" stayed with me. I watched it again a few weeks later, and upon a second viewing, I was now completely on the filmmakers' wavelength. I could finally see its carefully calibrated satirical elements; how the titular Fight Club, upon the shooting death of Meat Loaf's Robert Paulsen, becomes one of the self-help groups that the film had mocked during its earlier scenes; and that while the Fight Club had been necessary to snap the narrator out of his torpor, the film's ultimate message was that he needed to grow the hell up. (Add another movie to My Favorites.)

My point--yes, dear readers, I do have one--is that I'm extremely comfortable with material that is at or beyond the outer limits of what a mass audience will embrace. One of the enthusiast magazine editors I respect the most, and whose opinion I value, very much disliked the original "Manhunt." Not in a "this game should be banned kind of way," but in a "this isn't my bag kind of way." It just wasn't for him. And when I recommended it to you, I was concerned that it might not be for you either. But I recommended it to you nonetheless, because as I've said to you and others many times, the original "Manhunt" was one of the most memorable experiences I've had from the previous generation of consoles.

Why? Two reasons. First of all, Manhunt delivered on a purely visceral level. As you and I have discussed ad nauseum, Rockstar is practically without peer when it comes to establishing mood and tone. That's because a) they're really good at it, and b) the mood and tone of their games are radically different from just about anyone else working in this still-nascent medium today. The premise, nicked from the famous 1924 Richard Connell short story "The Most Dangerous Game," isn't really that different from, say "Impossible Mission." But the decaying, rust belt locations; the subtly spooky, largely ambient soundscape that rarely tells you how to feel about what's going on; the freakish assortment of gangs, racists, survivalists, cops and SWAT teams that are out to get you; the grainy security camera filter applied to the brutal killings you carry out--it all added up to something I'd never experienced before, and, like "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "Fight Club," I've found it unshakeable. Despite the broad-brush similarities in their mechanics, when it comes to stealth games, "Splinter Cell" is far more like "Metal Gear Solid" than either is like "Manhunt;" and when it comes to survival-horror games, "Silent Hill" is far more like "Resident Evil" than either is like "Manhunt." It is singular.

The second reason I was so taken with "Manhunt" is because of what you mentioned in your opener: the man who has rescued you from execution and brought you to the abandoned town of Carcer City, where you must kill or be killed, all for his amusement. And as you point out, he gives you orders through your earpiece. He tells you where to go. He tells you what to do. He tells you what minimum level of violence he'll accept in the surveillance camera-meets-snuff film killings that you must commit for his pleasure before he will open the doors or gates that will let you proceed to the next area. He sounds awfully familiar, doesn't he? His name? The Designer--I mean, the Director. Yes, at the heart of "Manhunt" is a brilliantly twisted joke. Rockstar grabs the translucent veil of mildly disreputable innocuousness in which most action titles cloak themselves, tears it open and exposes the sinister truth that lies just beneath the surface: in an awful lot of videogames, the developer and the publisher are asking you to virtually kill an awful lot of virtual enemies, over and over and over again. "Manhunt" is just more honest about this than most, and cleverly, brutally so to boot.

This, like many of the movies I enjoy watching, is clearly at the outer limits of what a mass audience will sign up for. And that's a dangerous place for any artist to operate, because when some official body (private or public) or group determines that an artist has crossed a line, said artist is unlikely to find many defenders--even among their fellow creatives. We saw that earlier this year with "Super Columbine Massacre RPG!" And we're seeing it again with "Manhunt 2," where it's unlikely that many publishers or developers will rush to Rockstar's side. Heck, Paul Jackson, the director general of the U.K.'s Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association--the trade organization whose purpose is to represent publishers such as Rockstar and its parent company Take-Two-- backed the BBFC's decision, stating, "A decision from the BBFC such as this demonstrates that we have a games ratings system in the UK that is effective. It shows it works and works well." (He later added, "I would say that I was surprised at some of the language the BBFC used when they reported on the matter, but we'll be talking to them about that separately.")

The situation here in the United States differs from that in the U.K. and Ireland. As I stated earlier, the British Board of Film Classification and the Irish Film Censor's Office have banned "Manhunt 2" from being released in its current form, and based on both the language in their respective rulings and the six missions we played on Friday, it's hard to see how Rockstar could make any changes that would satisfy those organizations without completely gutting the game, pun intended. Here's what each had to say:

British Board of Film Classification: Rejecting a work is a very serious action and one which we do not take lightly. Where possible we try to consider cuts or, in the case of games, modifications which remove the material which contravenes the Board's published Guidelines. In the case of "Manhunt 2" this has not been possible. "Manhunt 2" is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing. There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game.

Although the difference should not be exaggerated the fact of the game's unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission from the original Manhunt game. That work was classified '18' in 2003, before the BBFC's recent games research had been undertaken, but was already at the very top end of what the Board judged to be acceptable at that category.

Against this background, the Board's carefully considered view is that to issue a certificate to "Manhunt 2," on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors, within the terms of the Video Recordings Act, and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.

Irish Film Censor's Office: A prohibition order has been made by IFCO in relation to the video game "Manhunt 2." The order was made on 18 June 2007 under Sec 7 (1) (b) of the Video Recordings Act 1989 which refers to 'acts of gross violence or cruelty including mutilation and torture.'

IFCO recognizes that in certain films, DVDs and video games, strong graphic violence may be a justifiable element within the overall context of the work.

However, in the case of "Manhunt 2," IFCO believes that there is no such context, and the level of gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence is unacceptable.

The thing is, while I can quibble with the BBFC and the IFCO's descriptions of the game, for the most part, I can't really disagree with them.

Yes, there is a "bleakness and callousness of tone," though it's certainly not "unremitting," as evidenced by that one darkly comic sequence during our joint play session that prompted us to first drop our jaws to the floor before laughing out loud. (Since you were wielding the Wiimote and nunchuk during that scene, I'll give you the honor of describing it to our dear readers.)

Yes, the overall game context "constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing," though as you point out, the protagonist is sufficiently horrified by his first kill that he drops to his knees and vomits.

Yes, there indeed "is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged."

Yes, the game does have an "unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying," and there is a "sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer."

And yes, the game does include "acts of gross violence or cruelty including mutilation and torture."

My response to all of that is, so what? What does that have to do with adults like you, or me, or the aforementioned magazine editor making our own decisions as whether or not we want to play this game? What does that have to do with the countless number of adults in the U.K. or Ireland for whom the BBFC and the IFCO have decided to play nanny, wag their respective index fingers, and say, "We know better than you, and we in our infinite wisdom have decided that you can't play this game"? Unless they have good reason to believe that this game is an imminent threat to the public order, or that it will in and of itself incite adults to violence, their decision seems to me to be based on taste, and I will never believe in substituting anyone else's tastes for my own.

In the U.S., where many retailers would likely refuse to stock an AO-rated title, the game hasn't been banned. But that doesn't mean that gamers will ever be able to play it in the form that you and I are experiencing. Here, it's ultimately Nintendo and Sony's whose judgment is being substituted for ours, because they, along with Microsoft, don't allow AO-rated games to be published on their systems. I find this more than a little strange, because both the PSP and the Wii both have built-in parental controls--as do the PS3 and the Xbox 360--which would prevent minors from playing "Manhunt 2" on a properly configured Wii or PSP. (The PS2, however, does not have parental controls for games, just DVDs.) I'm somewhat sympathetic to the fact that unlike with other forms of disc-based media like CDs or DVDs, the platform holders themselves a) approve all of the games for release on their respective systems at various stages of the development process, ranging from initial concepts to gold masters; and b) handle all of the disc replication for games made for their individual machines. By being that hands-on, they're more vulnerable to external criticism than a DVD manufacturer like Samsung which has nothing to do with the movies released by, say, Vivid Entertainment. But sympathetic doesn't mean approval; I don't accept their judgment over what entertainment I should consume anymore than I do the IFCO's or the BBFC's.

Their refusal to approve AO-rated games for their systems illustrates one of the useful benefits of an industry ratings system: plausible deniability when it comes to material that walks the line. If people like Jack Thompson or Hillary Clinton get upset over an M-rated game, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, retailers and publishers can point at the ESRB. If Take-Two and Rockstar get upset over the effective ban that ensues from an AO rating, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and retailers can point at the ESRB. There's no need for genuine discussion or debate--there's too much money to be made to risk upsetting the apple cart; besides, it's just those arrogant, secretive so-and-so's over at Rockstar, anyway--so they'll just issue terse statements and leave the hullabaloo to people like us. Meanwhile, the infantilization of the medium continues, unabated.

You've said that you don't want to get into the ratings process, which I understand. But I suspect that we'll find ourselves drawn into doing so as we continue our discussion, because of a couple of statements that ESRB president Patricia Vance made to Kotaku in an email interview. The first exchange that I found particularly germane concerned the Wii:

Kotaku: With the Wii, developers can now make games that allow gamers to physically act out violent acts and see them occur in a game. Games such as "Godfather," "Scarface" and "Manhunt 2" all do this. Do such controls have an impact on a game's rating? If so do you think that supports the argument that a game's interactive nature makes it more dangerous than more passive experiences like watching a movie, listening to music or reading a book?

Patricia Vance: We've always been very clear about the fact that the degree of player control is one of several elements that the ESRB considers in the assignment of ratings, including the content itself, it's frequency, intensity and realism, context within which it is presented, and the reward system. The interactive nature of games certainly differentiates them from more passive forms of media like films and televisions, which is why the ESRB system takes these other unique characteristics into consideration.

The second exchange address the fact that the first "Manhunt" was rated M by the ESRB (it was also approved for sale in both the U.K. and Ireland):

Kotaku: Rockstar has said that they feel that "Manhunt 2" is very similar to the orignal "Manhunt" in the level and type of violence depicted. If that is the case why did one receive a Mature rating and the other appears to be on the verge of an Adults Only rating?

Patricia Vance: Obviously, "Manhunt 2" is a different product from the original "Manhunt." The raters evaluated the submission for "Manhunt 2" and determined that the AO rating was the appropriate rating assignment. Per our statement from 6/20, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

We've played five missions into the Wii version, so there's a lot that we can say in future posts about how its gestural controls impact the experience. And since I've played the first "Manhunt" in its entirety (imagine that, a game that I've finished and you haven't) I'll be able to expand on some thoughts that I'm already forming--some obvious, some less so--about why the various ratings bodies may have decided to be tougher on "Manhunt 2" than they were on the original. And finally, as has been the case with our earlier Vs. Modes on "God of War II" and the "Halo 3" multiplayer beta, I've got some ideas about what Rockstar could have done to make both "Manhunt" games even better than they already.

But I've said enough. (No, no, really, I have.) So I'll stop here for now.