Horror Gaming Essentials: The Manhunt Franchise

Rockstar’s Gift to Gorehounds

Gamers with a proclivity for horror have been getting their fright fix dating back to the early days of the Atari 2600. Since then, names like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have endeared themselves to the gaming community. However, the medium is full of titles that often never make the radars of fans, yet are just as important to the overall landscape of horror gaming as are their mainstream counterparts. Some have been lost to time; others were overlooked due to larger titles or because of questionable content. At any rate, these games deserve to be experienced by any who enjoy a good scare.

These are Horror Gaming Essentials.

Rockstar hasn’t always pigeonholed itself in the worlds of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption; their catalog includes The Warriors, Bully, and even a pretty badass table tennis sim. Never one to shy away from the controversial, the company has navigated their way through lawsuits, outcries from the incensed, and general catcalls of damnation for what some consider the perversion of gamers as a whole.

Spanning just two titles, the Manhunt franchise left an indelible mark on the world of horror and action gaming. In terms of design, there was nothing new or revolutionary about either entry. But the delivery of graphic scenes of death and dismemberment played out over bleakly dismal environs with a you-against-the-world vibe would strike a chord with players. It continued the tradition of content that seemingly could only be put out by a company as brazen as Rockstar. And, in typical Rockstar fashion, it would lead to one of the most pivotal and hotly debated discussions about  censorship in digital media that the gaming industry has ever played host to.


Borrowing inspiration from Stephen King’s The Running Man, Manhunt is a stealth action game released in late 2003 for the Playstation 2 and early 2004 for Xbox and PC. It follows the story of death row inmate James Earl Cash, who is executed by way of lethal injection – or so it would seem. After awakening from what was in actuality a sedative-induced sleep, Cash is offered a reprieve of sorts from “The Director,” a moniker taken by failed movie producer Lionel Starkweather. Voiced by Emmy Award winner Brian Cox (Super Troopers, Braveheart), Starkweather hamstrings Cash along via directives delivered through an earpiece, an idea that’s recreated for players on console by using a USB compatible headset.

Starkweather’s cat-and-mouse contest has Cash traversing some fairly dire locales through the fictional town of Carcer City, including a decrepit prison and labyrinthine scrapyard. Walls are scribbled with profane warnings, streets are littered with trash and vermin, and there’s even the occasional gore soaked bed mattress lying out in open view. Along the way, he’ll have to skulk in the shadows and dispatch different gangs, each with their own twisted identity. There’s the Nazi collective known as the “Skinz”; a group of mentally unstable psychopaths garbed in bloody warnings – these guys are the “Smileys.” Even the Carcer City PD is on Starkweather’s payroll, working with petty criminals as the “Hoods.” In setting a tone of hopelessness, Rockstar imbued gang members (referred to as Hunters) with multiple lines of dialog to incite Cash into giving up his location. They’ll banter back and forth with cohorts and spout forth incoherent sounds and nonsensical phrases that cement the notion that Cash is an island, endlessly surrounded by sharks.

Two Hunters, one in a skull mask and gray hoodie brandishing a gun, and one wearing a white mask and Hawaiian shirt stare into the camera.

Except for a few instances of escort missions and fetch quests, everything plays out pretty straightforward. Get from point A to point B in one piece and slaughter anyone that gets in your way. Said slaughter, however, is the stuff of horror legend. It’s up to players to eliminate foes in whichever way they see fit with whatever tools are at their disposal, including nail guns, piano wire, and hatchets. Sneaking up behind an enemy initiates the execution system. Each execution has three stages of brutality – Hasty, Violent, Gruesome – determined by how long the player holds the action button. Eyes will be gouged out, heads sawed off (and then worn around the protagonist’s waist), and skulls shattered with the business end of a baseball bat. Splatter fans will delight at the sight of grue literally dripping from the walls. The more violent and creative the death, the higher the player is scored on a ranking system at the end of each stage, which unlocks concept art and bonus stages.

Manhunt not only encourages debauchery; it rewards it.

Cash is a man of few words, wearing a permanently etched scowl across his face for the entire game. By the time the end credits roll, he’ll have endured some pretty heinous things, including encounters with a half-naked assailant wearing a pig head, in what could be considered a nod to cult film Motel Hell. Deep, engaging story and character development are not to be found here, and that’s not a bad thing. Manhunt knows what it is from start to finish, and that’s one of the most violent video games ever made.

Manhunt 2

The original Manhunt was a hit. While some critics scoffed at the less-than-refined stealth mechanic, reviews were generally favorable and the title was a commercial success. Due to its controversial nature, however, expectations that Rockstar would publish a follow-up to their gorefest were reasonably low. So when word leaked that a sequel was indeed in the pipeline, fans were excited, and four years after the release of the first game, Manhunt 2 hit PS2, PSP, the Nintendo Wii, and eventually PC.

James Earl Cash’s story of retribution concluded with the first game, with the sequel centering around not a single protagonist, but a pair. Timid and seemingly unremarkable Daniel Lamb is a patient of the Dixmor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. When a power outage causes a malfunction in the electrical system, it’s Leo Kasper who eggs Lamb on into walking out his cell door and presumably towards freedom. Danny soon discovers he has to trade in his everyman persona for that of a ruthless killer and must do so very quickly: his first murder of a security guard causes him to puke. The game carries over the three-tiered execution system from the first but also ups the ante with environmental and jumping kills, as well as those including firearms.

While the sequel wasn’t as well-received as its predecessor, it would surpass it in terms of the amount of controversy it’d generate.

The main character performs an axe execution on a man laying on the floor.

The ESRB rating system was created to call attention to the types of content in video games. Informed consumers know what it means when they spot a giant M (for Mature) on the front of a video game, but one rating that’s very rarely ever used is that of AO, meaning Adults Only. While an M-rating may spur interest in a title, AO can be considered the death knell, effectively guaranteeing that major retailers such as Walmart and Gamestop won’t stock it. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo also won’t allow titles with such a distinction to hit their respective consoles, so Rockstar had to head back to the drawing board.

One of the most significant changes made was the application of a blur effect over the screen whenever an execution is committed. The result essentially rendered the on-screen antics indiscernible, but necessary for Manhunt 2 to score an M-rating and finally be made available to the public. Not surprisingly, it only took 24 hours for hackers to release methods that would bypass that filter. (Other altered elements, including removing the option of harming specific NPC’s, were still omitted from the final version.)

Driven by a fairly predictable narrative, the developers spent considerably more time in creating backstory for the characters than they did with the first game. Stages are played out against scenes of the opening Dixmor institution, a seedy S & M club, and a TV studio with a set design for a children’s show, among others. The implementation of colorful dialog returns, with Danny and Leo exchanging quips with one another alongside that of the Hunters. Manhunt 2 also offers two endings and an alternate final level. Even with improved gameplay mechanics and new concepts and ideas, Manhunt 2 wouldn’t reach the same success as the first game. Reviews were less favorable as well. Most agreed that although censorship was a necessary evil to get the product to market, it ultimately hurt it in the end.

No One Under the Age of 18 Will be Admitted

Both entries in the Manhunt series garnered their share of critique and criticism. Real-world murders would be blamed on their influence, whole countries would ban their presence, and lawmakers would cast the downfall of societal youth at their feet. The acts of violence that long had been consumable in literature and film were now more dangerous than ever, because they were interactive, potentially with young children at the helm.

The Manhunt games, particularly the first, would also prove to be instrumental in changing public perception about the medium. Not all games were intended to be played by minors. Some are meant to be enjoyed by those old enough to discern the difference between reality and fantasy. Would the notion of an Adults Only title be such a bad thing if, in fact, it were played by adults only?

The Manhunt titles delivered something that other titles of the era dared not attempt – unmitigated violence at its finest with no remorse for the lambs led to slaughter. Even the packed-in instruction manuals created a sense of immersion in their respective stories; the guide for the first game read like a pre-dark web printed catalog, featuring faux ads for hitmen-for-hire and signup forms for wannabe hunters.

The franchise enjoys a committed fanbase to this day, and for as much criticism as it receives for its content, it also earns respect and praise from the subset of gamers for who it was intended. Over a decade after the release of Manhunt 2, fans are still clamoring for a third entry, or at the very least, a re-master of one or both of the first two titles.

As of this writing, both Manhunt games are available for download through Sony’s Playstation Store.

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Written by Kevin Hoover

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