NEW YORK — Jeronimo Barrera doesn't like talking about the games he helps create. And that makes him no fan of interviews, which is kind of a challenge when the game Barrera made may be the most heavily covered game of the year: the banned-in-Europe "Manhunt 2."
On Friday MTV News spoke to the vice president of product development at Rockstar Games, a generally affable guy who plays a wide range of games, loves Halloween and has his Brooklyn front yard decorated for the season with white webs and silly fake tombstones that read "Rest In Pieces." And though "Manhunt 2" comes out this week, when asked whether he enjoys discussing Rockstar's games his answer was firm: "Absolutely not. I like people playing my games."
Unlike other studios, Rockstar declines to push an individual personality, and rather than nominate a star designer for the public's appreciation, the company puts the games first. When the games are under fire — as the studio's "Grand Theft Auto," "Bully" and "Manhunt" games so frequently have been — it lets everyone else do the talking.
That was the approach taken in June when the original version of "Manhunt 2," a stealth-horror game for the Wii, PSP and PS2, was given an Adults-Only rating in the U.S. by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board and blocked from sale in the U.K., where the British Board of Film Classification condemned the "casual sadism" and "unremitting bleakness" of the game's content. Rockstar chose that moment to allow MTV News and Newsweek joint exclusive access to the first six levels of the game.
"We were floored by the AO rating because we thought we were definitely still in M-rating territory with what we originally gave," Barrera said, adding that the initial AO rating never threatened the game's release. "We always thought we would release it. It was a bummer, and we immediately said, 'Let's figure out what we're going to do with this.' "
The studio has since revised the game to get an M rating, though it is still blocked from release in the U.K.
"We are very happy to have the game out, and we feel we kept the original vision and the content and we didn't neuter the game as people say we have," Barrera said of the revisions, which left the game's story intact and didn't cut a scene.
"You know, a lot of people just believe this is a murder simulator and all you do is kill people," Barrera said. "But the reality is that there's a really strong narrative. And I think we've built something that's really unique in the sense that it puts the player in a position that you absolutely would never get into in the real world."
The player controls Daniel Lamb, a tortured man who wakes in a daze in a terrible mental institution and proceeds through 15 missions, skulking through red-light districts and graveyards, finding hiding places in shadows and then creeping carefully enough to execute a stream of hoodlums and police officers, all of whom seem unnaturally hostile. Lamb is aided by the cajoling of Leo Kasper, a man who is always nearby but seldom gets his own hands bloody. The mystery of who Daniel and Leo are and what has put them in this situation propel the action of the game.
What have been changed are the scenes that play during the successful execution of an enemy. They still depict the horrific infliction of pistols, plastic bags, shovels and other items on enemy body parts, but they have been blurred and altered in color, making the grisly action harder to make out — more impressionistic, if not any less violent.
Also dropped from the version MTV News previewed earlier in the year was a scoring system that gave incentives to performing the most extreme version of a kill. Such kills were the most nerve-racking and challenging activities in the game, since performing one required waiting longer behind a more powerful enemy before pouncing.
"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," Barrera said. "We felt it flowed better without a score screen between levels."
As ghoulish as the details of the game may sound, Barrera said they are in line both with what Rockstar believes is permissible among games-ratings boards and what is desirable to create a genuinely scary horror experience. "We want you to have that same sense of anxiety that you get when you're watching a [horror] movie, but you're part of it," he said. "We want to get the person to crouch down in their seat. But onscreen they're hiding in the hide box in the shadows, waiting for the hunter to go by so they can get to the next spot."
The game continues to have its critics, from those who want to see it banned to those who feel it will have a negative affect on society. On Friday, MTV News received an unsolicited offer to comment on the game from a PR firm representing Maimonides Medical Center. The center's director of psychology, Dr. Alan Hilfer, wanted to warn parents about the game. "Games like 'Manhunt 2' not only expose children to violence, but this video game actually requires the player to become actively involved in committing onscreen acts of violence," Hilfer said in the press release. "I am not suggesting that those who play this game will go out and kill, but this game desensitizes a child to acts of violence and makes them immune to understanding why violence is wrong." While the game is rated M, meaning it is not intended for anyone under 17, a representative for Dr. Hilfer explained that the concern is still pertinent to college-age gamers.
Does such criticism shake the developers at Rockstar? "I think we all here want to make the best games we can possibly make," Barrera said. "We make creative decisions along the way. There are guidelines we adhere to and think we are well within. I don't understand why a game like this got an AO while we were well within the M-rated territories."
There are certainly no apologies coming from Rockstar and no indication that the house behind everything from "GTA" to a well-received table-tennis video game is going to avoid volatile subject matter in the future. Asked if the team had considered making a multiplayer "Manhunt" game, Barrera said, "That's a very interesting question. ... Who knows where the 'Manhunt' series is going to go? And that's definitely something that warrants some exploring on our part for sure."
And then there's the call from some gamers who think Rockstar should make an end run around the ratings boards and release the original version of the game on the PC, where, unlike on Sony and Nintendo platforms, an AO rating is still permissible. "We have always considered the feedback of our fans," Barrera said. "We believe it is very important, but at this point in time, we have no announcements to make."
The release of "Manhunt 2" may well be a bigger deal than it would have been without the ratings controversy. But Barrera hopes people will talk about the game's content too. "There are conversations to be had about this game — intelligent conversations," he said. "That's what we want to do: get people interested in those [things], rather than ban this game because of X, Y and Z."
"Manhunt 2," which earned its 17-and-up M rating for intense violence and sexual content, is available for the PS2, PSP and Wii this week.