Since 2012 and Spec Ops: The Line, to be “subversive” means to challenge—or not even challenge, just kind of point out—videogames’ contrivances and hypocrisies, of which, like in any other form, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands. I suppose there’s a paradox, that if subversive works got made more often they wouldn’t be, by virtue of their commonality, that subversive—they’d be more normal. But it seems like whatever it is, the quota or threshold for quantity of subversive work before it becomes mainstream, jejune, or subversive only in a way that complements and enhances the routine, rather than challenging or tearing at it, whatever that quota or threshold may be, videogames don’t seem even close to filling or crossing or matching it, which I suppose has this mobilising effect on me as a critic because any truly subversive game that does more than just identify and contradict game contrivances, and actually subverts, say, matters of taste seems all the more subversive owing to the rarity of this type of game in general.
Manhunt, by Rockstar, a studio which has transformed since 1997 into maker of some of the least subversive games available (Red Dead Redemption 2, which I love, abides and effectuates every mechanic, trope, and generality of the open-world game as concept; Grand Theft Auto 5, likewise, with the additional conservativeness and orthodoxy of being a service-style game-as-product like Fortnite and World of Warcraft—the as-far-from-subversive-as-possible-by-design, mass market yin to any hypothetical subversive game’s yang), Manhunt is not at all subversive or contrapuntal or even anything close to like unique when it comes to its mechanics, what it gets the player to do at the fundamental ludological level. If anything, it’s a good—as in, bad—example of videogame genre contrivance: the same way it makes no thematic or aesthetic or “real” sense that guards can’t see Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell just because he’s crouched in a single square foot of shadow, a metre from their face, or henchman stop tracking the bald, tattooed Agent 47 in Hitman just because he changed from a blue guard shirt to a red guard shirt, James Earl Cash, protagonist of Manhunt, can also evade pursuers by simply running into designated dark areas, at which point, even if they stare right into his eyes, since he’s crossed over, as it were, the ocular border, he is out of their jurisdiction until he crosses back over.
Manhunt is, in the generic sense, a stealth game. Enemies graduate between states of awareness—either patrolling, hunting, or actively chasing—in a system copied essentially wholesale from the foundational Metal Gear Solid, and its gameplay of infiltrating through the shifting states of the “caution” and “alert” guard AI dyad. The goal when it comes to killing, like in Hitman, Deus Ex, Dishonored, or basically any designated stealth section of any designated game, is to lure or tail opponents to a secluded area then sneak up on them from behind. —Manhunt is distinctive in allowing—in fact, encouraging—you to customise and variate the level of violence you inflict on enemies during “executions”, but the principle is the same as every other stealth videogame, either from before or after 2003. You’re even graded on your performance; just as Metal Gear gives you an endgame ranking in the form of a Foxhound codename, Hitman assigns you a title ranging from Silent Assassin to Mass Murderer depending on multidinous style factors, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution distributes experience points and in-game material differently for covert or overt players, Manhunt, congruous with its dramatic conceit that you’re killing people for the recording of a snuff film, gives you stars out of five at the end of each level, and the more times you’re spotted, the lower your rating.
Rather than mechanics, structure, and the formal characteristics or expectations of games, Manhunt subverts, or else is identifiably subversive (that is, illicit, scandalous, and in deliberate poor taste) owing to its approach to narrative, character, and aesthetic. Firstly, this is about what it chooses to do—what it does do.
I’ve been thinking about the best ways to articulate this, and I think the most effective is likely just a series of rhetorical questions, e.g., what other mainstream, boxed videogame from a major publisher and developer, especially nowadays, would name its two difficulty modes Fetish and Hardcore? What other game has, as its final boss, a fat, naked man with learning disabilities, whose arms you saw off? When was the last time you played a game where, when you did what it asked you to, and performed an execution of the most severe category—for example, driving the handaxe into the centre of an enemy’s spine, then laterally twisting it upward until it pops out—“rewarded” you with the sound of your instructor and benefactor reaching an accompanying orgasm? To quote the YouTube compilation of Lionel Starkweather’s in-game dialogue: “Uuunh. That was good.” “Oh god, yes, Cash. Yes.” “You’re really getting me off, Cash.” “Jesus, Cash, that’s the money shot.” “Yes, Cash, work me up.” “Christ alive, that’s the sweet spot, right there.” “You got me hot, Cash, I’m priapic!” I think this is where Manhunt still, to this day, rises above—or maybe a better way to say it is: sinks below—every other subversive, controversial, profane game made before or after it, including even games like Hotline Miami, Hatred, or Manhunt 2. There are dozens of games that reward you for violence, want violence, of the most gratuitous and constant variety, to feel like pleasure. But they don’t go this far—they’ll give you points, grades, unlockables, combo streaks, etc., but they won’t sexualise it; they won’t dare to put sex and cumming in the same sentence as murder. But Manhunt does, to the extent that—and I don’t think this is deliberate by Rockstar or, like, something to take especially seriously—but I’d invite you to imagine for a second that the title isn’t a pun referencing Starkweather’s looking for the perfect snuff-porn star.
And then there’s what Manhunt doesn’t do. At the start of the game, Cash is on death row, and Starkweather frees him. The game never tells us what Cash did or didn’t do—it definitely never tells us whether he is innocent or guilty. Again with the rhetorical questions, but how many other games, or movies, or TV shows or anything, would labour that point? I imagine that normally, Cash would be wrongfully convicted of, like, killing someone in self defence, or even worse, Starkweather was the one who framed him all along. But that never happens in Manhunt. Cash kills everyone. Kills Starkweather. The game ends. Likewise, Cash never seems to have any compunction about killing whatsoever—even Martin Walker, Spec Ops: The Line’s poster boy for complex videogame protagonists, or anti-heroes, or guys you’re not meant to root for, wrings his hands all the time about murder, something painstakingly expressed by the warping, accusatory loading screens, meant to represent some kind of inner turmoil, which ask “do you even remember why you came here?” and things like that as The Line goes on. But Cash, from the start, is not only a willing—or at least, never outwardly unwilling—murderer, but a capable sadist who can intuitively improvise a blue plastic bag into a method of suffocating and beating a guy to death at the same time. He’s ugly. His family, who he has barely anything to say to when he rescues them (they’re murdered later anyway), look like dumb white folk. During those two quasi escort missions, he barks orders at the journalist and the homeless guy like he hates them. The homeless guy, in fact, is another example of where Manhunt excels in subversion by what it doesn’t do, as the guy, unlike in, it’s easy to imagine, a lot of games, remains a gurgling, mumbling, cackling drunk throughout, and we never learn, for example, anything about him that makes us see him with any kind of sympathy or care. He is not, like in David Cage’s games, which are ostensibly subversive in their own way, since they dare to depict various quantities of subject matter hitherto considered unsuitable for videogames—unvideogameable—not a deliverer of wisdom or a revelation in the plot or some kind of emotional respite for Cash or the player. He is not, as the homeless characters in Cage’s games so often turn out to be, or homeless characters in anything, Noble Homeless.
I’ve seen Manhunt described as nihilistic. I can understand why, but I’d personally resist that descriptor, partially because I don’t believe that nihilism exists—not believing in anything becoming its own belief system— but also because Manhunt is a game about base, base, base urges. The worst, or at least the most foul, in the world. Cash is probably a convicted murderer. The family he saves are worthless to him, and killed anyway. The police, who you kill en masse, and who the journalist is out to expose, are all brutal pigs. Piggsy and the Smileys gang are crazy and need to die. The homeless guy is just a lousy piece of shit. There’s no subtlety. Like the guy opening and closing his anus in Pink Flamingos, why should there be? When everything can get so goddamn miserable all the time, why bother with nuance, or eloquence? It apportions only a specific part of life and experience—that is, abject suffering and desolation—but apportions it with such brutal singularity that Manhunt, for me, more than like What Remains of Edith Finch or Life Is Strange or The Last of Us or the myriad other darlings of Videogame Narrative that are supposed to prove games can say something about life, Manhunt feels it achieves that—saying something—in a way that’s more potent and savage. That, I suppose, becomes the ultimate subversion, that a game ostensibly about feeling nothing, believing nothing, bearing witness to the darkest nothing of the soul, actually feels like it has more authenticity, and is true about something to do with people, more than not just its subversive counterparts, but the kinds of games trying to be everything it’s not.
Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.