The Unsatisfying Mechanics of Game Brutality

I recently had the opportunity to play Manhunt 2 on my friend Keith’s Wii. I have been very curious about the game, given the controversy surrounding it. I only played through the first couple levels, but it got me thinking about why gamers seem much less interested in the game than the news media.

The game’s basic mechanic is simple: find a weapon; sneak up on a victim; hold a button until instructions on how to wiggle the Wiimote pop up on screen; follow the instructions, and your victim should end up dead. This is called an “execution.” If you don’t have a weapon or if you screw up the instructions, you can flail with the Wiimote attachments to simulate a fist fight. I imagine that the PS2 version replaces Wiimote-swinging instructions with button-combo instructions for executions—and herein the problem lies, at least for me.

No matter what all the critics of this game say, at no point did I ever feel like I was killing someone with an actual weapon, despite the motions I was making with the controller. I felt like I was making an abstract series of motions no more realistic than pressing a button. The whole game felt like the scenes in Resident Evil 4 where you have to press a button combo at precisely the right moment in order to succeed, and I kind of hate that sort of scene. It makes it harder to pay attention to multiple targets onscreen, instead forcing focus on the instruction of what button to press (or how to jiggle the Wiimote). It makes player action too far removed from what’s happening onscreen, which kind of kills any engagement with the story for me.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the instructions appear in the upper left corner of the screen, which means the actual violence is going on beyond your range of focus. Rockstar’s decision to add visual noise to execution scenes (to achieve an M rating rather than an AO) made it practically impossible for me to actually see the killings at the same time as following on-screen instructions. Keith said he appreciated watching me play because it was the first time he had gotten a good look at some of the executions.

The only time I did feel any sort of connection between what I was doing and what was happening onscreen was when I was using the Wiimote to punch people and then kick them when they hit the ground. I generally avoided doing this, however, because there wasn’t much in-game reward to it. Generally you only punch people when you screw up more efficient ways of moving through the game. Moreover, the developers cut the scoring system for executions that was previously in the AO version and in the original Manhunt. In summary, the part where using the controller is kind of fun feels like a punishment for screwing up more efficient means of progress, but aside from the relative efficiency of executions, they are a pretty unrewarding experience for lack of reinforcing scores or fascinating visuals I could actually see. That is why, like Stephen Totilo, I found myself just doing the quickest executions much of the time.

All of that said, Keith has been telling me he is enjoying the game right now, and is digging the story. Maybe some of these complaints melt away when you get more familiar with the controller. And, as Keith notes, the instructions are more of a guideline than actions that requires precise adherence, so perhaps that allows a bit more leeway in looking elsewhere onscreen when you get the hang of it. Even so, I can’t help but feel like Manhunt 2 is nowhere near worthy the vilification heaped upon it by critics, and may deserve the cold shoulder it’s getting from gamers. Let it be known that I’ve experienced more blood lust playing competitive puzzle games that involve herding cartoon mice into rocket ships.

2 thoughts on “The Unsatisfying Mechanics of Game Brutality

  1. There comes a point where you have to wonder if the folks at Rockstar are trying to make compelling, entertaining games that push the envelope or are simply trying to keep their name fresh on everyone’s lips. I think most gamers put up with the media circus surrounding San Andreas because the GTA series really offers a lot in the way of impressive, open-ended gameplay that many find compelling. Look at a game like God of War; it had visceral violence and gratuitous nudity, but most gamers were solely interested in the fact that the game played exceedingly well. I’ve got no problem with sex or violence, but that’s not the core game aspect I look for. In the end, Manhunt 2 is a love letter to political pundits and anti-gaming legislators. While the media spelunk the darkest depths of human iniquity, most gamers are playing games that are actually worth our time like Halo 3, Guitar Hero III, and Phantom Hourglass.

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