What The ‘Manhunt 2′ Furor Missed — The Most Important Cut

You may have read a lot of “Manhunt 2” headlines over the last couple of weeks and months.

You, like the guys at Penny Arcade, may be quite over the whole spectacle.

But stay with me. This piece is for you.

Because unless you carefully read one particular story that I wrote 10 days ago, then you, like everyone else following the drama, missed what I believe is the most significant cut Rockstar made in the formerly Adults-Only game.

Why that cut was overlooked says a lot about how people both in and out of gaming talk about violent games. It says something about how the “But you can shoot hookers!” complaint about “Grand Theft Auto” consistently misses a key point. Without a firmer handle on all this, we might as well just be talking about a controversial movie, and that may be the foolhardy approach.

The cut I’m referring to isn’t the removal of a scene of genital mutilation to get the game its M-rating. Nor is it the oft-cited blurring of the game’s execution scenes.

It’s the scoring system.

It’s the system that notified me, when I finished the AO version of the game’s “Awakening” level last June, that I had killed 12 hunters over the last 24 minutes and 27 seconds, executed five of them, scored no environmental executions and earned one of five style points.

It’s the system that tallied a better number for me if I had behaved more brutally, displaying the figures on a screen that appeared between each level of the game.

It’s a system that was in the first M-rated “Manhunt” but is absent from the M-rated version of the sequel.

Let’s be clear: it’s the system that incentivized increased virtual brutality and was cut from the version that was too hot for retail.

How can this cut have been overlooked? Why is almost no one talking about it? I have some ideas…

First, you should know that Rockstar Games does not attribute the removal of the scoring system to the demands of the ratings boards. I don’t know what the ESRB wanted Rockstar to cut. And I don’t know that the British Board of Film Classification list of cuts necessary for the game to get a rating in the U.K. included it (the board’s comments to me about that list don’t specifically address it).

A couple of weeks ago, when I asked Rockstar Games vice president Jeronimo Barrera why the scoring system was removed — a cut that, again, doesn’t seem to have been reported elsewhere despite the armies of reporters covering this game — he said:

“The scoring was a hold-over from the first game, and when we had the opportunity to make edits because of the rating, we decided to remove it. We felt it flowed better without a score screen between levels.”

Almost no one has bothered to mention the scoring cut. Rockstar reps skipped it when talking about how the M-rated version of the game differed from the AO. Few reporters played the AO game and therefore failed to report the omission. Could anyone have played the first “Manhunt” and the released sequel and noticed that the first game’s scoring had been dropped? Sure, but somehow that feature change never became part of the argument.

How could the removal of a scoring system not matter, even if Rockstar doesn’t claim it was dropped to get the M?

It certainly caused a dramatic difference in how I played the game. It made things much tamer. And it tampered with the implicit values system in the game.

When I played the AO “Manhunt 2″ I consistently tried to perform the most vicious, most highly-scored kills. Why? Was it because I enjoyed watching the vicious scenes rendered in the game? That can’t be it. I sat through them too many times for that argument to hold. Any gamer and any game designer can tell you that players like taking shortcuts. That’s a tenet of playing a game: how do I do this next task in the quickest way? You go for the head-shot in a first-person-shooter maybe because you’re twisted enough that you enjoy watching someone’s head get blown off, but maybe because the head-shot costs you one bullet but earns you safety and a stocked ammo clip — whereas shooting at the torso or limbs wastes bullets and time. So I had plenty of reason to not waste my time performing the most elaborate, bloody kills, considering how often they can be repeated.

Remember, there are three levels of execution viciousness in “Manhunt” games. To do the hardest one requires stalking the enemy for the longest period of time, watching (or, on the Wii, controlling) the longest execution sequences and basically taking the most risk. No matter how cool someone — not me — thinks watching a brutal axe kill is, any experienced gamer will try to find a shortcut around seeing it the fifth or sixth time. That is, unless there’s an incentive. When the game had a scoring system, there was. Without it, what’s the point?

Look at how the content changes altered me as a “Manhunt 2″ player:

When I played the AO-rated “Manhunt 2″ I was the bloodthirsty murderer of dozens, killing my enemies in the most garish ways. I did that to get points; pursuing those points so I could assumedly get unlockable content. Say what you will about such carrot-and-stick game design, but that’s what a lot of gamers get caught up doing.

When I played the M-rated “Manhunt 2″ I was a gentler murder, killing my enemies with the quickest, lowest-level executions. Sure, I tried a few of the more elaborate ones, but there wasn’t much incentive. I was more interested in getting through a level. I didn’t have the patience to be brutal.

How could the scoring change go undiscussed? Why the fixation on what scenes are or aren’t in the game?

You may have realized this already, but apparently it’s not clear to everyone that games are not movies. Movies ask nothing of their viewer but to sit still and understand them. Games ask their audience to do something, and they recommend that certain types of actions get done. They make these suggestion by attaching rewards to them:

  • Super Mario Brothers” suggests you do what it takes to collect gold coins. It recommends that you don’t jump in pits.
  • “Resident Evil 4” proposes that you should keep the president’s daughter alive, not because you should value a young woman’s life, but because you can’t finish the level if she croaks.
  • Grand Theft Auto” offers one path of great reward with its infamous prostitute-killing mechanic, which may be a disturbing indulgence of the male id, but might also be one of the most efficient ways to restore your health bar without it costing you any game-money (because you kill the prostitute to get the money back, right?). Incidentally, I’ve seldom used that mechanic, not necessarily because of an ethical qualm, but because it takes too much time, and that’s a currency I value in a game even more than virtual “GTA” dollars. There are quicker ways to restore a health bar.

It’s a tricky subject, but let’s be honest about the values systems in video games. How I am scored affects what I do as a gamer more than what I would or wouldn’t do in real life. So what does it mean that a game might give you more points for one action than another? Does it mean as much as the critics say it does? Does it mean as little as under-fire game designers claim?

It’s been a strange experience watching the debate in the media about whether The New York Times report that “Manhunt 2″ “seems to retain at least 99 percent of the original content.” I both agree with that statement but feel that a radical change has been made. It’s not a content change. It’s a mechanic.

I wonder if Rockstar’s developers broke their own game when they removed scoring. Or did they inadvertently take a radical step away from tired cliches of game design? Since I interviewed game designer Jonathan Blow in August, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about why designers feel the need to reward us with points or virtual baubles for specific gameplay actions. He had described scheduled rewards — the kind often associated with level-grinding in massively multiplayer games — as “a sure sign that the core gameplay itself is not actually rewarding enough to keep them playing, and thus you are deceiving your players into wasting their lives playing your game.”

I wouldn’t call the old “Manhunt 2″ scoring set-up a scheduled reward system, but its removal has caused me to re-think the game’s three-tiered execution gameplay. What did it mean that the removal of a points-scoring incentive removed my interest in taking advantage of all three levels of the kills? What kinds of actions can I be compelled to do in a game that didn’t give me points or health bonuses or any other advantage to doing them?

So who cares about this angle? It’s the content that gets the headlines. When “Manhunt 2″ makes the evening news the attention is on what “Manhunt 2″ lets you see and hear and what you also do — that being the content that you help orchestrate. That’s what people know how to discuss, because it’s kind of like talking about movies — a little bit like talking about watching one, a little bit like talking about acting in one.

But why you do things, how a game rewards you and what those reward systems really say about the player’ priorities in the virtual world and in the real world… those, for the most part, go undiscussed.

What’s the point of all this “Manhunt 2″ coverage? I ask: what about the points?