Saturday, June 30, 2007

Manhunt 2: One Sorry Excuse for a Martyr

Manhunt 2, unlike its predecessor, will be a footnote in college textbooks in the years to come.

The game seems to be eliciting two opinions. The first is “It’s disgusting, and I’m glad that it won’t be released, and by the way, I hate video games.” The second is “I’m sick of the government limiting my freedom of expression. [So] I want to play this game. By the way, I hate Jack Thompson.” Predictable responses from those outspoken on the matter.

Manhunt 2 is not simply gaining headlines because it is the first to be denied release in the U.K. by the ratings boards, and one of the first to be given an AO rating in the U.S., severely limiting its distribution. The limits it pushes aren’t just in the type of violence the game can simulate creating, it’s how you, the player interact with that simulation, with the Wii’s new control system factoring in this prominently. The hype of Manhunt 2 is focused around this improved interaction with your murdering character. The previews of it, before the bannings that generated so much publicity, show it planned to be controversial from the get go.

From a preview at “Gouging an enemy's eyeballs with a glass shard, gutting him with a sickle, sucking the life outta him with a plastic bag -- Manhunt's sadistic executions sure did get people's attention. Unfortunately, those gruesome acts also helped get the original game banned in some countries. Lesson learned, right? Pfft -- Rockstar has only cranked up the violence dial for the sequel. And as much as we'd like to say that the gore doesn't impress us (ya know, that'd be the politically correct thing), we couldn't help but want to see more. Some of the new tricks in this game include plunging a syringe into an enemy's heart, or chopping off his head with an ax and then tossing it to distract others in the area. Yet it's the wire cutters that win the prize here: If you perform a level-three execution (just like in the last Manhunt, the longer you wait before attacking, the more grotesque the death blow) with this weapon, you'll reach underneath the enemy to grab on to his family jewels, rip 'em off, and then stick the wire cutters into his back and tear out the spinal cord.”

From a preview at Joystiq: “There is going to be some perverse pleasure about playing this game on the Wii for many, many, reasons. The most obvious being that the Wii's control possibilities could be conceived of as being an interactive murder simulator, and then there's the amazing fact that Nintendo let it happen. But it's all up to the responsiveness of the controls that will determine the sick pleasure factor.”

From a preview at Gamespot: “Once inside the club, the first kill that we were able to pull off was one of the new environmental executions. These occur when enemies are standing next to something that can be used to kill them, such as a rope, a fuse box, or, in this case, a toilet. Our first victim was an unfortunate man in a gimp mask, who had his face introduced to a toilet in a number of painful ways. As well as environmental kills, there are puzzles that require you to dispatch people in certain ways. For example, to gain entry into the torture chamber, you have to show the guard a recognizable face. Predictably, this involves removing someone's head with an axe and then holding it up to the window.”

From a preview at IGN: “Consider for one moment that in Manhunt 2 you can, Wii remote and nunchuk in hands, use a pair of pliers to clamp onto an enemy's testicles and literally tear them from his body in a bloody display; and if that weren't enough, you'll take one of the poor victim's vertebrae along with his manhood. Or, if you'd prefer, you can use a saw blade and cut upward into a foe's groin and buttocks, motioning forward and backward with the Wii remote as you go.”
I am a gamer. I side with gamers. I recognize that the fight against video games is motivated by politicians’ desire for reelection and by the arbitrary standards of various groups and individuals who haven’t really considered video games and what they can potentially do.

It’s ridiculous that a movie can be as bad as Manhunt 2, all elements considered, and still be accessible at theatres by 17 year olds, but a game version will not. Psychological studies, whether you believe them or not (and the opponents of video games do), indict both video games and movies—you can’t get off by saying “oh, a movie doesn’t require participation.” A movie is very much a way of participating. Movies are a powerful influence. But film, as a genre, has finally achieved its recognition as an art form. After the majority of a century, people don’t ask “are movies good or bad”? They ask, “what makes a good movie or a bad movie?” Video games haven’t quite achieved that status yet. If they had, this wouldn’t have happened to Manhunt 2. I wish it didn’t happen to Manhunt 2—not because I like it, but because the real issues have now been thrown at the window and are serving the interests of business. And I’m not talking about Best Buy, Walmart, Sony, or Nintendo. I’m talking about Take-Two and Rockstar.

There shouldn’t be any surprise or uproar over any of this. There should only be eyeball rolling. After Hot Coffee, after all the lawsuits and bad press, after what happened with Manhunt 1, Rockstar persisted in pushing the limits. Take-Two sanctioned it. When it comes to balls, the pain being experienced isn’t by the poor fellow in Manhunt 2 or by Rockstar or Take-Two--it’s by us.

Is Rockstar stirring the pot yet again in order to help our cause of becoming a society that embraces video games, instead of tolerating them? No. They’ve fooled some of us into taking up Manhunt 2 as our poster child, our martyr for our cause. Some will buy it in protest, including some who weren’t going to buy it anyway. To any who do this: you are a tool, and someone is profiting at your expense. Other games have been similarly violent, but not as controversial, and therefore poor-selling, and Rockstar isn’t exempt from this rule. Rockstar is using the controversy to sell a game. That’s all they’re doing.

Take-Two called Manhunt 2 a “piece of art”. I’ve seen games that are a piece of art, and Manhunt 2 is not one of them. Rockstar and its games are not what people think of when getting into the subject of video games as art. A game touted for its ability to redefine how someone can simulate using a knife, phone cord, or pen for killing is not being considered for artistic merit, it’s being considered for its functional ability and entertainment value—and those are the people who want to play it.

Please, for the love of God (or video games, rather), don’t choose Manhunt 2 as your champion or martyr, fellow gamers. Please. This would make Rockstar very happy and the rest of us, if we knew what it meant, very sad. Buy it if you want, but don’t buy it because you are angry.

Do you want present society to eventually embrace video games? Do you want society to stop viewing games and gamers as objects of fear, which must be carefully monitored? Here’s a suggestion: don’t take up as your cause a game that prides itself on the precision with which it enables you to rip off the balls of your enemies. There are plenty of options that are more effective. Whatever happens to Manhunt 2, remember that.

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