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

In Round 1 of Vs. Mode, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal leapt to the defense of the controversial "Manhunt 2" and slammed the game raters who have currently blocked the ultra-violent game from being released: "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."

The Internet applauded N'Gai's impassioned defense. But it is my job -- nay, my calling -- as N'Gai's Vs. Mode partner to call him out for it, to try to poke his argument full of holes.

You can read my counter-point as well as my suggestion of a hybrid "Manhunt"-"Sex and the City" (Rockstar, take notes!) and my description of the most extreme moment of "Manhunt 2," a moment that you haven't read about anywhere else. (Actually you can read it in one other place. These Vs. Mode exchanges also appear on N'Gai's "Level Up" blog.)

Here we go:

To: N'Gai Croal

Fr: Stephen Totilo

Date: June 24, 2007

Re: “Manhunt 2”'s movie moment


Thanks for the "Final Fantasy"-length letter. I just wish you hadn't censored yourself.

No, I'm not joking.

By focusing your analysis on the decisions of the British Board of Film Classification and Entertainment Software Ratings Board you've offered a de facto defense of "Manhunt 2" that you could have given -- and I'm certain would have given -- the game had you never played it. I respect that. But in so deftly arguing why games and gamers should be treated with the same respect for intelligence and range of taste as films and filmmakers, you managed to write 3700-plus words that never describe any of the features of "Manhunt 2" that would obviously set it apart in many people's minds from any movie they've ever seen or ever heard of.

For example: the game's prime mechanic, the three tiers of stealth-murder. Other stealth games, like "Metal Gear Solid" and "Splinter Cell" ask the player to sneak and ask the player to kill. Failing to sneak into that kill alerts the intended victim, which either makes them put up a fight and/or forces you to re-try a few minutes' worth of the game. You either pull off the sneaking well or you fail. The better players might be able to actually sneak by enemies instead of sneaking up to them and killing, but for those who choose to go in for the kill there are only two possible resolutions: a successful stealth kill or a failed one.

The "Manhunt" series is different. In "Manhunt" I can put a plastic bag in my character's hand and stalk an enemy thug who is pacing through an alley. I can tiptoe up to within a few feet of him, softly as to not alert him. My character will raise his right hand. That's the cue that I'm within range of a kill. I press a button on the controller. A targeting reticule surrounds the enemy's head. It flashes white. If, in the first game, I then trigger the kill the camera angle switches and I see my guy throw a bag on the enemy's head and suffocate him. It's nasty. But if I had waited while the white reticule flashed – if I had had the nerve to keep my guy right behind the enemy, maybe even tiptoed in step with his pacing to keep close – then the white would have turned to yellow and the triggered kill would involve not just a suffocation but a follow-up punch to the bagged head. Had I waited longer, yellow would have gone to red and the murder would have been more grisly.

You talked about your initial revulsion at seeing "Fight Club." You initially viewed the film as Fascist. Then you watched it again, and as far as you're concerned, you got it. You figured out what the filmmakers were really trying to say. I think we could say you feel you played your role as movie-viewer better the second time. What reward did the filmmaker have for you? A subtler understanding of what you just watched. What was Rockstar's reward for you when you played your role as a stealthy gamer better? A more grisly murder to watch your character commit. On a deeper level there may be "Fight Club" readings and mis-readings that you could have applied to the first “Manhunt.” Maybe a mis-reading would have been that the game is pro-violence. Maybe playing the game in full reveals that is actually anti-violence. Whether that's the case or not, I certainly believe that games can be interpreted in their entirety, and maybe one can view understanding the game properly as some sort of super-reward for playing the game well. But the moment-to-moment rewards of “Manhunt” are an increasingly vicious spectacle.

From a game design perspective, this is smart stuff. The "Manhunt" games, like few others, have a system that actually rewards brazen play. I see a parallel with the city racing series "Burnout," which gives the player extra speed boost power for every near miss and for every second they drive on the wrong side a double-yellow line. I like the "Manhunt" system and think other games should reward bold displays of skill. (For those who can't sympathize because they are so put off by "Manhunt"'s content, let me put this in terms of a made-up game: imagine a game called "Manhunt" that puts you in control of a woman who is seeking Mr. Right. If you have her approach a guy and just briskly say hello, then maybe you'll just get a clipped greeting in reply without the guy breaking his stride. But if you finesse that hello, maybe he'll stop and smile. And if you really finesse it, maybe he'll stop, smile, ask you your name and ask you for your phone number. That's how the real "Manhunt" works, but with plastic bags and, as far as I've seen, only man-to-man murderous interaction).

Given this central mechanic of the game, I don't have hard time seeing how people would find "Manhunt" and "Manhunt 2" to be a class apart from any of the movies you mentioned. This game asks something of the player – clinical killing -- and then it encourages them, but notably does not require them, to accent that killing with a butcher's callousness or even a torturer's sadism. Is this game series a laboratory for human behavior, testing how far a player will go? Is it a game that revels in the interactive nature of the medium by presenting players with opportunities that will haunt them, a horror experience genuinely distinct from horror films because it allows the player to choose how revealing of their own dark side they want the macabre experience of "Manhunt" to be? Or is this just violence porn? Is it condemnatory, bad-taste over-kill?

I respect defense of games as speech. But I think for too long those who write and talk about video games – and I'm thinking primarily of reviewers -- have ignored the effects of ultra-violence on games and the nature of that violence as it relates to the quality of what we play. I'm not talking about anything that would affect how games are rated. The people who rate games seem primarily concerned with how the interactivity of games possibly teaches or at least desensitizes gamers to real violence. What about how gamers have been desensitized to violence in games? It seems to me that the very thing that makes a game a game – its interactivity – encourages game makers to fill their creations with an inordinate amount of one of the most reliably engaging things there is to do with the press of a controller button: squashing enemies in "Super Mario," shooting them in "Call of Duty," committing an act of virtual violence. As a result, gamers' entertainment is soaked in far more blood than other forms of entertainment. Is it a wonder games get such a bad rap?

Yet who would argue that "Ratchet and Clank" would be more fun if Ratchet went pacifist and negotiated peace deals or if the next World War II first-person game shelved the rifles and focused on repairing tanks. I don't think it's weird that so many people are freaked out about games. I actually think it's weirder that so few gamers are freaked out about games. What are we having fun with?

I played a near-final version of a PS3 game called "The Darkness" on Saturday. It's a first-person shooter with a twist. The twist is that you gain two magical snakes that slither in the air in your peripheral vision and can snatch a dead enemy's heart with their long, sharp teeth. But before you learn to do that the game teaches you to wield a pistol in each hand and trigger special execution kills. Just tap a button. I did. My game's anti-hero put a pistol in a mobster's mouth and fired. And that wasn't even the point of the game. The snakes are. Frankly, the gunplay felt gratuitous.

This is what I think it comes down to really: What's the point? Until the day an ultra-violent game impresses upon the world that it has a point beyond sadistic thrills, I doubt a game like "Manhunt" can find its place. You certainly appreciate the first as in invaluable psychologically provocative experience. That's not how most of the world that's heard of the game views it. At least, that's not how they talk about it. It's easier to decry it as crude rubbish -- possibly as something evil.

I can't dismiss "Manhunt 2" like that, though. For one thing, it's hard to outright reject something that exhibits craft, that exhibits the signs of being made by talented people. Craft alone is no automatic apology for subject matter -- certainly not in a world where one of the most technically lauded films of early cinema was "The Birth of a Nation," a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan. But if you identify craft you can at least begin to consider a work as serious and worthy of dissemination.

So a few notes on "Manhunt 2"'s signs of craft. Graphically, it's solid. On the Wii it doesn't look quite as good as the first "Manhunt" did on Xbox, but it looks good. It's a little grainy and its scene transitions are intentionally scratchy. Camera work is a little wobbly. This isn't bad programming. It's an attempt to make the game feel just a bit verité, a bit homemade. It suits a game that begins in an asylum and puts you in control of a mental patient.

In some ways its craft seems superior to that of the first game. The first relied on the video game cliché of the floating health pack. Walk into this item and your hero's health meter is re-filled. The sight of a floating health pack is a reminder that you're seeing a video game on your TV screen. In "Manhunt 2," the floating health pack still hovers. But it also flickers. It looks like a hallucination and suits the setting.

Compare the first level of each game. The first "Manhunt" is straight-forward in its opening minutes. It's a little plain, actually. You stalk people in a few alleys. It begins with the least subtlety I've seen in a game: Your fist victim stands with his back to you next to a wall spray-painted with the command "Kill this f---ing guy." The second "Manhunt" begins as I described it in my first letter, weaving its tutorial through the asylum's progressively madder halls and cells. You play the first level of "Manhunt 2" with a decent enough goal: escape that crazy place.

Another example of craft is that one scene that had both of us laughing.

[SPOILER WARNING: Skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want to read about a scene that may or may not remain in any possible edited version of the game.]

I was in control of protagonist Daniel Lamb in the last full level we played. I walked him down a staircase with a pistol in hand. The game gave me a cue, instructing me how to kill the man at the end of the hallway ahead of me with a stealth pistol kill. What struck me was that he wasn't looking my way. He was half-turned away from me, watching something through an open doorway. Whatever he was watching sounded like a couple making love. Taking advantage of his distraction, I followed orders and killed him.

Then I walked through the doorway expecting to see a TV playing a dirty movie. Instead the camera angle switched, and the TV you and I were watching was filled with a movie screen showing a pornographic movie – a watered down one, that is, with a virtual man and a woman hot and sweaty but revealing none of their most private parts. Daniel Lamb was standing right in front of it, fully armed. Then I walked a couple of steps and the camera angle changed (players don't control the angles in "Manhunt 2," which is a change from the first game). Now the movie screen was to his back. I couldn't see it. I could just hear it. The love-making continued. I looked out at the rows of empty seats. I was in a movie theater. A group of hit-men rushed in. Suddenly I was in a tough firefight. The whole time the guns were blazing, those sounds kept on playing. Do you think that scene was crafted to say something about sex and violence, by any chance? After I took out each of the hitmen, they lay there and the movie kept on playing. I could hear the rattle of the film projector and see the dusty beam of light it projected over Daniel's head and onto the screen. I looked over to you and to the Rockstar employee who had walked in to see what we were laughing about and said "I'm going to put an end to this smut." I pointed my Wii remote at the film projector and fired. The sound from the movie warbled. The room went dark and quiet. That was quite a moment – and one that I think is worth grown-up gamers experiencing.

I'm anxious to hear more of what you thought of the game. And I'd still like to know what your experience of the first level was like (you never answer my questions right away, do you?). Also, how do you think this game compares to the first? People are focusing on the “M” vs “AO” rating of the two titles. Whether you agree that they deserve different ratings from each other, do you find one game edgier than the other?


To: Stephen Totilo

Fr: N'Gai Croal

Date: June 25, 2007

Re: It's Not Violence, It's Pixels

It's not blood, it's red.

--Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, responding to criticism of the violence in his film "Weekend"


Are you sure that you don't want to join Greg Kasavin and Luke Smith among the recent ranks of journalists-turned developers? Your alternative take on Manhunt as the videogame equivalent of "Sex and the City" is very intriguing. Perhaps the Alpha Moms who have made the Wii such a hit could use your game as an escape from the quotidian routine of their suburban lives. But given all the ratings troubles facing Rockstar at present, allow me to suggest that your version of "Manhunt" focus less on the sex and more on the city.

You're absolutely correct that I spent no time describing "any of the features of "Manhunt 2" that would obviously set it apart in many people's minds from any movie they've ever seen or ever heard of." Then again, wouldn't the word "features" obviously set it apart from any movie that people have heard of? Or any book, play, TV show, painting and sculpture, for that matter? In that sense--among many others--movies aren't games, games aren't movies, and I fear that you may have misunderstood why I spent so much time reminiscing about my film-addled college days. The point was to explain how I became so relatively sanguine about a variety of extreme subject matter, both in terms of form and content. But implicit in your challenge is that the "ultra-violence," to use your subsequent term of art, is the only thing that many people would have a problem with.

I submit that that is not the case, particularly when it comes to people who are not gamers. What they often have a problem with, whenever a videogame stray beyond the bounds of the relatively childish, and what they can almost never articulate, is a fundamental objection to what a videogame is at its most fundamental level. Violence is not the basic unit of gameplay. Rather, it is repetitive action, reaction and interaction. Repetitive action, reaction and interaction, along with rules, are what define all games, whether they're digital or analog. In basketball, the ball is passed, shot, rebounded, blocked and stolen--repeatedly. In football, the ball is hiked, passed and kicked--repeatedly. In poker, cards are dealt, discarded and laid out--repeatedly. In Monopoly, dice are rolled, pieces are moved, and properties are bought and sold--repeatedly.

This is the essence of a videogame.

But because videogames look like narrative media--particularly film and television--people are often tempted to compare videogames to other narrative media. This is why we have to be careful to use the right analogies at the right time, because videogames are fundamentally not a narrative medium. A film is narrative; it's always about "What happens next?" A game is interactive; it's always about "What do I do next?" Just as something is always happening on a movie screen from moment to moment, beat-to-beat, in a game, you always need to be doing something; otherwise, it's not interactive. Hence, repetition.

As long as videogame creators confine themselves to the stuff of Friday night action movies (PG-13, please), Saturday morning cartoons, Saturday night Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer 40000 sessions and Sunday afternoon sports, repetitive action and interaction generally don't pose an image problem. After all, who's going to get their nose out of joint over a lightsaber duel (no blood, please), a butt stomp, a defeated orc (again, ixnay on the ood-blay) or a 360-degree windmill jam? It's when developers transgress beyond those boundaries--when they aspire to the stuff of "Aliens," "Black Hawk Down," "Saving Private Ryan," "Goodfellas," "Night of the Living Dead" or, in the case of Manhunt and Manhunt 2, "8 MM" and…well, let's say a cross between "Memento" and "American Psycho"--that they run into more and more trouble with citizen's groups, ratings boards, censors and even some gamers and some of their peers in the industry.

The fact alone that developers would dare to tackle this subject matter is enough for the rejectionists to take umbrage. But their ire is compounded by the fact that the action, reaction and interaction that they're objecting to is repeated over and over and over again. Moreover, this is where they can convince even fans of the abovementioned movies that games based on similar subject matter are beyond the pale: the sheer amount of repetition required to make a game, well, a game, translates into an experience that is quantitatively far more violent than a similarly-themed movie -- and if that weren't offensive enough to their sensibilities, said violence takes place over a longer "running time."

If for example, you were to quadruple the five battle scenes in "Saving Private Ryan"; turn them into playable missions of 15-30 minutes apiece; and strip the narrative of all psychology and subtext, reducing it to premise, tone and attitude; you would have Electronic Arts' "Medal of Honor: Frontline." Do the same thing with the escape-and-retribution-focused last 30 minutes of "Hostel" or "Hostel: Part Two"--movies that were approved both in the U.S. (with an R rating) and in the U.K. (with an 18 certificate), and which "Manhunt" and "Manhunt 2" superficially resemble--and you have, well, just ask Rockstar and Take-Two.

So when you ask me about my reading(s) of "Fight Club" and whether I may have a similar reading of "Manhunt," all I can say is that there really isn't much there for me to read. Again, videogames are not a narrative medium. What I praised the first "Manhunt" for in part was the depth of its formal qualities, not the depth of its content; the content of a game being the actions that you undertake. This lack of depth makes games that deal with taboo subject matter--or more accurately, deal with typical gameplay mechanics in taboo ways--difficult to explain or defend. It's hard to argue that games have anything approaching the depth of theater, novels, movies or television given the medium's newness; its requirement of repetitive action, reaction and interaction to maintain the player's interest; the thinness of its characters; the perfunctoriness of its plots; the lack of complex or even complicated psychology. It would be like arguing that an activity--a mountain hike, laps in a pool or a game of chess--is profound.

Any meaning ascribed to an activity comes from two places: the doing and the context. For games--unlike other narrative media--the story is merely the context, the backdrop and the stage upon which the poor players strut and fret, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Would "Macbeth" have been as deep had it been a "Manhunt"-like action-adventure? (Sneak into the chambers of rivals like King Duncan and Macduff and murder them, while being urged on by the whispers of Lady Macbeth over your headset!) A "Grand Theft Auto"-ish open world game? (Rise from lowly squire to King of Scotland!) Or an "Oblivion"-esque role-playing game? (Carry out quests for the three witches! Solve their riddles! Battle the enchanted trees of Birnam Wood!) I'll let you imagine what "Super Paper Macbeth" and "The Legend of Lady Macbeth: Twilight Queen" might have been.

Let's return to my sports analogy--or is that your sports analogy? If I'm having trouble explaining my experience in critical or aesthetic terms, could that be because I'm trying to take an activity and contemplate it as if I had somehow been outside that experience, like a critic of movies, TV, theater or books? Maybe I'm more like one of those basketball players or coaches you see interviewed at halftime who speaks only in clichés--"We've got to control the tempo," "They're going to come out with a lot of energy," "We have to get stops," "This is a game of runs,"--because how else can you describe a fundamentally repetitive activity when you're the player? (Ever interviewed an actor about his or her "process"? It's pretty much the same thing: cliché-ridden.) Or as Pauline Kael wrote, perhaps more presciently than even she realized, in her 1962 essay "Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?":

Art is the greatest game, the supreme entertainment, because you discover the game as you play it. There is only one rule, as we learned in "Orphee": Astonish us! In all art we look and listen for what we have not experienced quite that way before. We want to see, to feel, to understand, to respond a new way. Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?

That's what "Manhunt" did. It astonished me. Or, to paraphrase myself paraphrasing my friend, screenwriter and journalist Cheo Hodari Coker, it made me shake my ass.

You're right to wonder why more of us aren't freaking out over our chosen form of entertainment--and by extension, more of the developers who create these videogames and the publishers who distribute them--but isn't the answer by now self-evident? We can't. The very fabric of videogames--their repetitive action, reaction and interaction--is the original sin for which censorious organizations like the BBFC, the IFCO, and, ultimately, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, would have us either a) repent, then go forth and sin no more; or b) confine our blasphemy to acceptable form and content. But as Kael wrote, "Why should pedants be allowed to spoil the game?"

I am a man: I hold that nothing human is alien to me.

--Publius Terentius Afer, the Roman comic playwright

So now, at long last, my throat being well and fully cleared, it's time for me to tackle "Manhunt 2."

You asked me what I thought of the first mission, which centers on escaping from the mental hospital. I'm going to hold off on answering that question for now. Because if you skipped the Execution Tutorial, which I'm guessing is exclusive to the Wii (kudos, Reggie!) for reasons that will quickly become clear, you missed another sick joke from the boys at Rockstar. Since gamers are still getting accustomed to the Wii's gestural controls, many titles include modes that let you calibrate the controller and/or practice the required moves. Rockstar Toronto, the makers of the Wii version, use their "Manhunt" Tutorial to cycle through a series of icons displayed in the upper left hand corner of the darkened screen indicating which gestures I was supposed to perform. As I did so, I heard the sound effects of the various weapons, the sounds of my victims, and saw blood splatter against the black screen and slowly run down its surface, backed by an ominous electronica score. But I didn't see my victims, nor did I see my weapons. For that, I would have to play the game proper.

The first mission was well-designed, as you pointed out. I understand why you would feel that the craft in the second game is superior to the first, especially with changes like the flickering film filter applied to the floating health packs; it's very much in keeping with the sequels sanity-or-insanity themes. And I get why you'd prefer the comparatively more subtle opening of "Manhunt 2," with fellow patient Leo Kasper urging your former family man Danny Lamb through the now-overrun mental hospital, to the blunt-force introduction to "Manhunt," with Brian Cox's malevolent voice urging your death row convict James Earl Cash to, as the spray painted sign on the wall says, "Kill this f---ing guy." But I think you're wrong.

We've learned that after "Manhunt," Rockstar wanted to tell a more complex story in "Manhunt 2." James Earl Cash just wants to stay alive, escape from Carcer City, and maybe get some payback against the Designer--I mean, the Director--while he's at it. By contrast, Danny Lamb is trying to solve the mystery of how he ended up in the mental hospital, what happened to his family and what experiments were performed on him. "Manhunt" is told straightforwardly, from beginning to end, in one straight shot; we never find out why Cash was sentenced to death. "Manhunt 2" uses flashback missions to reveal Danny's backstory and provide clues to his current predicament. The Director is the voice inside your ear, but Leo Kasper is the voice inside your head. So far, so good…

…but for the fact that, as I've said time and time again, videogames aren't very good at telling stories. It's hard for a videogame to get me to care--really care--about who a character is. But it's not very hard for a game to get me to care about what a character does. Even though "Manhunt 2" has a more sophisticated structure than "Manhunt," it comes at the expense of the single-minded focus that gave the original its power. You accused the first game's opening of lacking subtlety; it reminds me of what one critic said when one of his peers leveled similar charges at Oliver Stone: "Subtlety is just a choice. It's not inherently good or bad."

The same is true of what I would ordinarily praise fulsomely: the fact that players have more choice in "Manhunt 2" than they did in original. In "Manhunt," you couldn't complete certain missions until you accomplished a specific goal set by the Director: kill everyone in the level; complete a certain number Level 2 or Level 3 kills; etc. For "Manhunt 2," we were told that you don't have to kill everyone; you can try to sneak past them instead. That's great…in theory. In practice, it doesn't hold a candle to the rigid structure of original, which, when married to the context of the Director's orders and Cox's unctuous, pitch-perfect voice acting--a performance that was in and of itself as precise and evocative as a well-crafted radio play--delivered an experience that I haven't had before or since.

All of this comes with the following caveat: the circumstances under which I've been playing "Manhunt 2" are entirely different from the first. I'm under the gun, because I'll have only had Friday and Monday to play the game, rather than experiencing it at my leisure over a few weeks. I didn't get to experience the introductory level for the first time all by myself, because Rockstar chose to demo it for us before our play session could begin. After I got kicked out of Rockstar's plush demo room with the big screen TV and the 5.1 sound system so that they could show "Grand Theft Auto IV" to some unspecified VIPs (c'mon, Devin; hook a brotha up!), we had to take turns playing on a single machine in their conference room. And we were playing it on the Wii, which, as you know, is not my console of choice, and as a veteran of the Dual Shock 2 controller, I didn't find the Wii controller a more immersive substitute, simply because it's not yet second nature to me. Particularly during the stealth kills, the Simon Says-like gesture matching meant that I was always conscious that I was playing a game, whereas the thoroughly familiar Dual Shock 2 would often feel like an extension of my thoughts. (So much for the BBFC's claims that there's exceptionally little distancing.)

I have some ideas about how Rockstar could have improved the executions on the Wii, though I suspect the company would get a Seniors Only rating were it to adopt them. I've yet to explain my other thoughts on how Rockstar should have expanded its formal critique of videogame violence in "Manhunt," and how it could have embedded its premise of sanity vs. insanity into the gameplay of "Manhunt 2." But we've only played a third of the game, and hopefully we'll get to play some more later today, so perhaps I'll find that they've anticipated my improvements.

And with that, I bid you good night.