Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The Manhunt 2 Ban Explained

I didn’t want to write about this.

But the topic seems to have blown up to epic proportions, and it would seem a little churlish to avoid it.

So, the Manhunt 2 ban. Good lord, what an unholy mess. While I've seen games come and go, hit over the head with the 'ban-stick' across numerous territories and generations, I can't remember a time where things have turned into a total landslide of chaos as we've witnessed with Rockstar's super violent action thriller.

For those who've been sleeping soundly under a very large rock the past week, let's quickly review what happened. First, Manhunt 2 gets banned in the U.K for both Wii and PlayStation2 (bizarrely, no mention was made of the PlayStation Portable version). The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rejected the game for release after going through its content and deciding it crossed a moral line via its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing". In other words, it showed 'immoral behaviour' that, while fitting within the game's story and established tone, was relentless and more than likely beyond what the medium has asked a player to actively participate in before. True to the first Manhunt, then, it would seem.

Director of the BBFC, David Cooke, went on to say that game has an "unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying" and lacks "alternative pleasures", which is to suggest that it's purely about hunting and slaughter. Unlike games such as Grand Theft Auto or other titles which may be brought up in this melee, Manhunt 2's reality is presented so that its gameplay consists of killing, hiding, a bit more killing… and very little else. Very few other gameplay components are there to take you away from the brutal assassination of those out to murder you; it's kill or be killed and that's about as far as it goes. Again, nothing really new to those familiar with Manhunt, on a whole.

Things got even worse when the American ratings board, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) slapped an Adult Only tag on Manhunt 2, which meant the game would instantly be limited to certain shops – dominant family based stores such as Wal-Mart refuse to stock titles with an AO rating, which takes away a massive chunk of potential retail. And just to add further insult to injury, neither Sony nor Nintendo allow AO rated software on their consoles (something Microsoft doesn’t allow, either). Not a particularly well thought-out system, seeing as it pretty much renders the AO classification utterly worthless, but that's a subject for another time. The bottom line is that all these fallen dominos effectively makes Manhunt 2 banned in the U.S. as well.

Where it leaves the game is something that will be decided soon, as Rockstar has just over a month to appeal, although it seems unlikely any minds will be changed. The BBFC is against any cuts or what would be deemed as a 'watered down' version of the game that would make it more suitable, but Rockstar could well do so to reduce its rating to a more market friendly 'Mature' classification for North America.

Although the question asked is, didn't Rockstar realise this was going to happen?

Cynical cries of 'publicity stunt' have rung around, somewhat predictably, yet it's hard to say if this is totally fair. The controversial company has long courted outrage and flagrantly flaunted its freedoms to vocal moral forces who have been in running battles against the GTA maker for well over a decade. Rockstar certainly knows how to gather free publicity, although to state there's no such thing as bad press would be naïve – Bully (nee Canis Canem Edit) suffered from a sales point of view after some shops refused to sell it in the light of an utterly misguided witch-hunt which didn't reflect the game's content at all. Negative press CAN neuter a title's potential, especially in this age where certain publications, people and… lawyers, are waiting in the wings to try and take anything they deem unsuitable off the shelves.

If Rockstar is indeed playing the Press with Manhunt 2, it's a dangerous game indeed. Yes, there are now millions who have heard of the title who may not have even known it existed before – the very epitome of good marketing. And yes, a big red button has been slapped on Manhunt 2, making it irresistible to those curious to see just how bad it could be. But if the game fails to reach stores, it's all for naught. So has Rockstar got a slightly altered version ready to roll out, in preparation? Did it just wind up the Controversy Machine to get maximum benefit, totally aware that it could push its REAL iteration of Manhunt 2 out, coasting on a wave of near unprecedented infamy? Because in truth, even if a tamer edition was released, there would still be more people buying it than before the outcry, regardless of whether they feel ripped off (excuse the pun) by its lack of apparent brutality, after all this shouting.

If such is the case -and it's perhaps a bridge too far in both concept and as an accusation- it certainly didn’t account for the BBFC not wanting to see the game on any UK shelves, in spite of changed content. A new version of Manhunt 2 may save it in the U.S., but not for many PAL regions where the ban would likely just remain. Curiously enough, some online shops that supply their software from Jersey (such as Play and HMV) are still taking orders anyway, seeing as that region is outside the BBFC's reach, although it remains to be seen if this will continue – if Rockstar's appeal fails, it will still be illegal to supply to the U.K., with hefty fines and even jail time imposed on top of a customs crackdown (which would apply to ANY imports of Manhunt 2). With some other PAL territories likely to follow suit -Australia and Germany are more stringent than Britain at the best of times- it's a large sacrificial lamb that neutralises any extra sales the game could have garnered in the first place. As risk-to-reward tactics go, it's not exactly a practical one.

It's a bit too early to talk about the game disappearing altogether, however. Too much money has been thrown into Manhunt 2's development, and to scrap it would be a total waste that very few companies in the games industry can afford to take. Yet, is it truly as horrific as we're led to believe? Reports of it involving necrophilia and microwaving cats should be treated with a large pinch of salt at the moment, but there's no doubt the game is violent and probably powerful with it.

At the same time, respected British Nintendo magazine, NGamer, gave Manhunt 2 a score of 92% in its most recent issue, which would suggest there's a bit more to it than a mere blood and flesh grind. Despite all the controversy, the first game had a very potent sociological message that verged on satire; all but ignored by the moral majority who naturally never played it to the extent where that message became apparent. The Manhunt 2 website teaser was magnificently written, presented and staged, but belayed a keen sense of irony and made Nietzschean statements about the definition of monsters – something extremely relevant in today's political climate where 'nuclear', 'tyranny', 'oppression', 'liberation', 'terrorism' and 'Kim Jong II' are very much buzzwords of any government. Sure, it's no Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but there seems to be more to Manhunt II than first appearances.

It's easy to get caught up in the Wii motion control style peril of it all, too, which would be the next stage of outrage to follow. NGamer and IGN have described some very grisly multi-staged execution sequences, including genital evisceration, sawing and stabbings, performed with the relevant Wii remote motion. Expected -no less unpleasant- yet totally expected. But we were always heading down this route; if Manhunt 2 hadn't taken us there, another game would have eventually in this generation or the next. That's the nature of entertainment, and boundaries will be pushed in every form regardless of its interactivity. Taste, is another matter altogether, but that never stopped the age of 'video nasties', emerging in our culture. No medium is immune to freedom of expression, and nor should it be, even if you don't agree with it.

If you're wondering what this means for Wii 'adult' styled games, then you have little to worry about for now. Manhunt 2 was banned on the basis of its content, rather than the Wii remote controls, hence the reason why the PS2 version also took a fall. And while they would have had a factor in the game's approval process, it doesn’t seem like something that would be censored on its own. Content is king, and although there's a large question mark that remains over motion control generated violence, given the extremes Manhunt 2 appears to take I doubt we'll be fearing for Wii software on a whole; the Manhunt series is very much on its own when it comes to the stalker Running Man style gameplay, story-driven or no.

In fact, even the fallacious argument that adult designated titles (and third-party ones) don’t sell on Wii is coming under question given Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition is currently doing great guns in Japan and the U.S., reportedly selling out across many stores in the latter. A somewhat ironic point given all this hoo-haw, but a rather heartening one all the same, seeing as it manages to dispel this spurious myth that has emerged regarding Nintendo consoles.

But larger issues still linger over just how the public responds to videogame violence and adult themes; something that will not be resolved any time soon. While super gory movie sequel, Hostel II, gets a publicity blitz this month for its imminent release, it seems a little amusing that Manhunt 2 would find itself in this messy position at the same time. Of course, there's a large difference between the relatively passive nature of watching a film compared to the active pursuit of engaging in gameplay, but as it's been said many times that's what age certification rating are there for. Until they are properly enforced, there's an underlying hypocrisy that refuses to go away, underlined by the clear and erroneous perception that all videogames are for kids.

It's horrible to think that children (or indeed anyone) can be affected by such things, cliché facetiousness aside. But ultimately, interaction or no, it's content that creates the problems, less so the fact we can interact with it. And if that's the case, where does one form of content become safe while another is allowed to go by without equal measures? If we boil it down to the risk factor where we're asking ourselves "can we afford to take the chance of someone seeing [whatever] if it's a danger to society", then does it truly matter if we're playing, reading, watching or listening? Risk is risk, after all – and if we can save one person by removing a violent game, then surely we can also save more by stopping all violent films, music and books as well?

Just where do you exactly stop once you start down that slippery slope?

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