You walk down 42nd street as the rain falls slowly all-around you. You tip your hat lower to shield yourself from the rain and block your face from the strange faces that feel as if they suddenly know you. Eventually, you reach a run down theater manned by a dead-eyed attendant. Above you, upon the faded and dimly lit marquee, is the title of the evening’s showing: “Vampire Women of the Third Reich In: The Sexkrieg.”
You have arrived at the grindhouse.
Though they’ve long since faded from relevance, at the height of their popularity in the ’60s and ’70s, grindhouse theaters are where film fans went to watch the movies nobody wanted them to see. They were low-budget films usually made by an individual or small group of friends that typically focused on providing large amounts of sex, violence, and shock. But it’s too easy to dismiss these films as merely exploitative. Even the worst among them were built on the belief that there was an inherent darker desire in people that gave them certain urges that weren’t being satisfied by the mainstream film industry.
Yet, what truly separated an actual grindhouse film from some of the slick homages to the grindhouse era in recent years (such as Machete) is that, most of the time, the people making the films didn’t believe they were making something awful. There was an honest nature about the content that left no doubt that the indescribable film you were watching was made with love.
Which brings us to Manhunt.
Released in 2003, back when Rockstar was using its Grand Theft Auto money to fund pretty much whatever it wanted to make, Manhunt told the story of a death row convict named James Earl Cash. Shortly after Mr. Cash’s lethal injection, he awakens to find that his fatal shot was in fact just a powerful sedative.
It is then that Cash is introduced to a mysterious “Director,” who informs Cash that he is now the star of an elaborate snuff film. Cash must now attempt to get past a series of psychopathic killers who will all be rewarded handsomely if they manage to kill the convict. Should Cash survive each of the director’s twisted scenes, he will receive his freedom.
Manhunt is easy to label as one of those slick homages to the grindhouse era as opposed to a genuine piece of grindhouse entertainment. It certainly has all of the elements of the latter, with its grainy graphical filter meant to instill a sense of cheapness to the production value, even though the game was made by a major video game developer.
The game is perhaps still often far too slick to be a card-carrying piece of grindhouse entertainment, though, despite the better parts of its presentation being lifted directly from that genre. The very basic plot of a convict being given the chance for freedom if they are able to survive a hellish gauntlet is straight from the script of films like The Running Man, Escape from New York, and Battle Royale. The more stylish elements and the general vibe the game is trying to create by resembling a fabled “snuff film” are reminiscent of 1975’s Snuff or The Last House on Dead End Street. These are movies obsessed with the idea of a snuff film being able to disrupt polite society, which is what Manhunt’s Director has been trying to accomplish since his exile from the Los Santos film scene.
Some elements are even directly lifted from the films that inspired Manhunt. The game’s most iconic enemy, “Piggsy” – a pig-headed psychopath wielding a chainsaw – is ripped straight from the 1980 slasher classic Motel Hell. Meanwhile, the themed roaming gangs are highly reminiscent of The Warriors, which Rockstar would go on to adapt in 2005.
However, much like it isn’t fair to write off the grindhouse genre as a cheap attempt to rake in the cash of gore hounds and perverts, Manhunt is a game that is difficult to merely treat as a gimmicky attempt by a major developer to create controversy while also giving a nod here and there to the films that inspired its aesthetics. It feels more significant than that.
A part of this has to do with Manhunt’s pedigree. This was not a game made by a company that needed cash and hoped to generate some by making something exploitative. It also wasn’t a game that was trying to capitalize on the craze for more violent open world content that Grand Theft Auto had created. No, that Rockstar game is called State of Emergency.
In fact, Manhunt suffered from its refusal to follow the Grand Theft Auto formula. It was a stealth game made by a development team that wasn’t particularly skilled at the subtle art of the stealth genre. It’s easy to tell that they were trying to keep the stealth mechanics as simple as possible, but even that focus on minimalism didn’t help Manhunt’s dodgy camera, iffy controls, and general lack of deeper gameplay elements.
Stealth in this game doesn’t really go far beyond sticking to the shadows and trying not to flaunt your presence to the game’s mostly inept killer guards. There was an attempt to incorporate microphone peripherals that allow the player to generate verbal distractions, but they are inconsistent at best. Beyond that, you do have the ability to grab a gun occasionally, or even just beat up on enemies head-on. Yet, aside from a sequence or two later on in the game that essentially forces you to use your guns, the game never feels like it’s encouraging any line of play beyond stealth, even when that system doesn’t particularly work.
At the same time, it’s apparent that Rockstar committed to this stealth system rather than an open world comfort zone because it is the only medium that could have properly conveyed the fear and dread that Manhunt’s aesthetics were designed to create. It’s also the only system that could have properly handled Manhunt’s tiered execution mechanic, which is really what makes this game so special.
The tiered execution system works like this: As you sneak up on one of your stalkers with a weapon in hand, you receive a white targeting reticle to indicate that the enemy can now be executed. However, if you continue to stalk the enemy in this position, then the reticle becomes yellow and eventually red. Each color indicates the “style” of the execution, and the longer you stalk your enemy, the more gratuitous the execution becomes. For example, a piano wire kill at tier one just results in the enemy being choked to death. At tier three, however, Cash saws his enemy’s head clean off.
From a gameplay standpoint, this system matters, as it dictates what kind of rating you receive from the Director at the end of the level. The more elaborate executions you manage to perform, the more you please the Director. It’s worth noting that there really isn’t much reward for getting higher ratings, though, beyond verbal praise from the Director and deriving some form of personal entertainment in a game that is often so mechanically shaky, it can struggle to provide such joy. And that’s where this mechanic becomes so interesting from a social standpoint.
While there are of course hyper-violent games outside of Manhunt, none of them before or since have managed to treat violence with equal levels of revulsion and romanticism. The level of violence that earned Manhunt such incredible controversy is reserved for the optional higher-end kills. Oh sure, the game’s lower level violence isn’t exactly pleasant – nor is its gritty premise and environment – but the really shocking stuff doesn’t even need to be explored at all. There isn’t really even a tangible reward for doing so.
But it never feels like that when you’re playing Manhunt. The call for the higher end violence becomes stronger and stronger, if for no other reason than your own amusement and vindication. Without it, you are duly moving through the shadows and occasionally receiving lukewarm responses from the Director for the most simple of executions. Your only purpose in life is survival. Extreme violence is your only higher calling.
The game’s story isn’t equally as impressive. Manhunt’s initially promising plot falters a bit by trying to take on too much responsibility for driving the player forward. This is not the kind of game that benefits from a traditional narrative, yet as the game’s story starts to turn into a larger conspiracy involving journalists and the police, the gritty bloodlust for vengeance becomes harder to appreciate.
No, Manhunt’s true purpose is as a brilliant medium for the question, “What amusement do you find in violence and how important is it to you?” It doesn’t just cater to your darkest desires. It makes you work to embrace them. You are not just an observer to someone else’s perversions, as you would be when viewing a grindhouse film, but you are the star of your very own. Only by embracing your desire to become a willing participant in the madness can you fully accept the guilty pleasure that you receive from it.
That’s a disturbing quality that few other games have ever been able to – or even attempted to – achieve, including Manhunt 2, which ultimately served as the complete antithesis of its intelligent predecessor. This was a hyperviolent exploitation piece with little merit. It focused on cranking up the original game’s more controversial aspects without attempting to maintain the things that made it special. The hero is more sympathetic, his cause is nobler, and the motivation to play is far more traditional.
But the original Manhunt was a dirty game made with love, even if much of it is held together with half-functioning concepts and digital duct tape. Beyond its flaws and brutal exterior, though, lies a brilliant piece of social commentary that speaks on subjects that no other work in its medium would dare to invoke.
No, Manhunt is much more than just a slick nod to the style of grindhouse. It is one of the rare instances of a video game worthy of being featured in a dingy Time Square theatre populated by those housing a secret desire for darker amusement under their low-worn hats.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.