Manhunt is a stealth game developed by Rockstar Games. It was released to the public on November 18, 2003 for the PlayStation 2 console, and on April 20, 2004 for Xbox and PC. Although it was generally well-received by critics, Manhunt created a controversy due to the graphic violence the player is encouraged to engage in. This resulted in the game being banned in several countries and implicated by media in a murder, although this implication was later rejected by the police.
In October 2007, its sequel, Manhunt 2 was released to a similar level of controversy. As of March 26, 2008, the Manhunt franchise has sold 1.7 million copies according to Take-Two Interactive.
Manhunt is a third-person stealth horror game. The game consists of twenty levels, and four bonus levels that can be unlocked; the levels are referred to as "scenes". Players survive the Scenes by dispatching enemy gang members known as "Hunters", occasionally with firearms but primarily by stealthily executing them in gruesome, over-the-top ways.
The player is rated at the end of each level, primarily dependent on the gruesomeness of the killings and the speed of completion, from one (unimpressive) to five (extremely competent) stars. Executions are preferred in order to gain a higher score, thus encouraging players to play as viscerally as possible. The game's locales are full of "dark spots" and shadows where the player can hide while being chased by the Hunters; hiding in these dark areas makes the player invisible to opponents.
Over the course of the game, the player uses a wide variety of weapons, ranging from plastic bags, baseball bats, crowbars and a variety of bladed items to firearms later on in the game. If the player is running out of health, painkillers can be found which replenish health. The player can strike walls or throw items such as bottles, tin cans, bricks and severed human heads in an attempt to distract the Hunters.
Manhunt also makes use of the PlayStation 2's optional USB Microphone and the Xbox Live microphone feature on the Xbox version of the game. When such a device is connected, the player can use the sound of his or her own voice to distract in-game enemies. This in turn adds a new twist to the stealth elements, as the player has to refrain from noises such as talking or coughing, at the risk of creating in-game noise.
The game's story follows a supposedly executed death row inmate as he executes victims under the instructions of a former Vinewood film director, now turned underground director, Lionel Starkweather (voiced by Brian Cox), who will refrain from aiding and directing the protagonist if he refuses.
Set in dilapidated Carcer City, the story opens with a female news anchor reporting on the convict James Earl Cash, a criminal on death row who has supposedly been executed by lethal injection. Cash awakes to the voice of a person coming from an earpiece, revealing that Cash was only sedated. Cash puts on the earpiece and the person, who refers to himself as the Director, promises Cash his freedom before the night is over, but only if Cash follows the Director's instructions. Released in a dingy neighborhood, Cash is directed to slaughter his way through the streets, populated by a street gang calling themselves "The Hoods" while the Director, watching through security cameras scattered throughout the city, repeatedly mentions the need to please the audiences, revealing his occupation as a snuff film director. However, despite the Director's promise of freedom, Cash is beaten and thrown into the back of a van by a group of mercenaries known as The Cerberus.
After his battle against the Hoods, he is also hunted by other violent gangs in various locations across the city. The gangs are organized by Ramirez, the leader of a gang of former soldiers and war veterans called the Wardogs. First, Cash is pitted against a gang of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis known as "The Skinz" in a scrap yard. After that, he is put up against Ramirez's Wardogs in an abandoned zoo where Cash has to save kidnapped members of his own family. Following the zoo encounter, Cash has to fight a gang of Latino Luciferian Occultists and overweight doll mask-wearing pedophiles called "The Innocentz" in a shopping center where he finds out that all of his family members have been killed. Cash is now out for The Director's blood after witnessing the snuff film of his family's horrible deaths. Then he has to lead a homeless man through the city to a churchyard while defending him from the Innocentz. After one final face-off against the Innocentz in a factory, Cash then faces a gang of schizophrenics and sociopaths, known as the "Smileys", who have taken over an insane asylum. Here, Cash survives the ending to the snuff film as planned by the Director. Consequently, the remaining Wardogs and Ramirez are hired to kill Cash. However, Ramirez and his gang are killed by Cash and Cash betrays the Director.
While Cash runs from the site, the journalist from the beginning of the game comes in her car and Cash gets in. While in the car, she tells him that she is a reporter and that she was at his execution, then revealing that the Director's name is Starkweather. She also tells him that she needs to get her evidence of Starkweather from her apartment and then get out of the city. So Cash tells her to drive to her apartment. Meanwhile, Starkweather tells the chief of the Carcer City Police Department, Gary Schaffer, to bring both Cash and the journalist to him. Protecting her from the police, Cash manages to take the journalist safely to her apartment, and from there goes on to deal with Starkweather personally. He leaves the journalist's apartment through the window and proceeds through to the subway. He finds that a S.W.A.T. team has been dispatched there. Evading them, he moves through the train yard, but is cornered by the police, who are about to arrest him when the Cerberus kill them and recapture Cash. Back at Starkweather's mansion, a Cerberus is ordered to kill him. However, Piggsy - a mentally retarded, chainsaw-wielding psychopath, who wears a pig's head as a mask and was kept chained up in Starkweather's attic - has broken free and slaughters the investigating Cerberus. This allows Cash to work his way through the garden and mansion, killing the Cerberus leader along the way. Cash finally reaches the upper levels of the mansion, where he and Piggsy stalk one another. Cash triumphs after luring Piggsy onto a grate that collapses under his weight, and as Piggsy tries to grab onto the ledge, Cash chainsaws Piggsy's arms off, sending him falling to his death. After hacking his way through the last of the Cerberus, Cash finally confronts Starkweather and despite his pleas, brutally disembowels him with the chainsaw. Before he bleeds to death, Cash saws open his skull and jams the chainsaw into his back. Soon, the press turns up at the mansion with the journalist exposing Starkweather's snuff ring and the police's involvement in Starkweather's operations, although Cash himself is nowhere to be found.
The controversy surrounding the game stems from the graphic manner in which the player executes enemies. The game has three 'levels' of executions, and the executions get bloodier as the levels of execution progress. Level 1 executions are quick and the least bloody of the three, while Level 2 executions are considerably more gory, and Level 3 kills are over-the-top fatalities. The levels of fatalities are based on the lock-on's color (white, yellow, or red). For example, if using the plastic bag and the lock-on is white, then the fatality is minor. The player just suffocates the enemy and nothing else. If the lock-on is yellow, the player slips the bag over his head and continuously knees the enemy in the head. If the lock-on is red, then the player strangles, punches, and snaps the enemy's neck while the enemy groans in pain and suffers from lack of oxygen. The game's graphic presentation of the executions are accentuated in a style reminiscent of a snuff film, and the game encourages players to execute enemies as brutally as possible. In 2007, former Rockstar employee Jeff Williams wrote on his blog that the game wasn't unanimously revered among the developers either, saying that "there was almost a mutiny at the company over that game", and the game "just made us all feel icky. It was all about the violence, and it was realistic violence. We all knew there was no way we could explain away that game. There was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.
The murder of Stefan Pakeerah
In the United Kingdom, the game was linked to the murder of Stefan Pakeerah, 14, by his friend Warren Leblanc, 17, on 28th July 2004. Giselle Pakeerah, the victim's mother, claimed that Leblanc had been "obsessed" with the game after he pleaded guilty in court. During the subsequent media exposure, the game was removed from sale by some vendors, including international branches of GAME and Dixons, leading to "significantly increased" demand both from retailers and on Internet auction sites. The police denied any such link between the game and the murder, citing drug-related robbery as the motive. The presiding judge also placed sole responsibility with Leblanc in his summing up after sentencing him to life.
New Zealand: The game was banned on December 11, 2003. Possession is an offence.
Canada: Following a meeting in Toronto on December 22, 2003 between Bill Hastings, the Chief Censor of New Zealand, and officials from the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services, Manhunt became the first computer game in Ontario to be classified as a film and was restricted to adults on February 3, 2004.
Australia: It was banned ("refused classification") on September 28, 2004 by the Classification Review Board after having earlier received a classification allowing it to be purchased by those aged 15 years or older.
Germany: On July 19, 2004, the Amtsgericht Munich confiscated all versions of Manhunt for violation of § 131 StGB (representation of violence). The game, the court said, portrays the killing of humans as fun, and the more fun, the more violent the killing is. They also sensed a glorification of vigilantism, which they considered harmful per se.
However, apart from Ontario, Manhunt had little or no controversy elsewhere in North America. The British Columbia Film Classification Office reviewed the game after the controversy in Ontario and believed it to be appropriately rated Mature by the ESRB and comparable to an 18A film rather than an R rated one.