Of all the violent executions in Manhunt, it’s arguably the plastic bag kill that is the most disturbing. Even more so than the glass shards in the eyes or machete decapitation, suffocating a person while repeatedly punching them in the face has a certain unflinching brutality.
It is the first complete execution the player can perform in the game and somehow the blunt and vicious style of it is never matched. Sneaking up behind a member of The Hoods (a gang lowest on the rung of Carcer City’s omnipresent scum), James Earl Cash quickly whips the bag over their head. As the gang member begins to gasp for breath, he is spun around as Cash punches him again and again with the force of three freight trains. Blood jets out of the bag and the body begins to go limp. It is then that the Hood is finished, his neck broken with a sickening crunch.
The violence of it is quick and dirty. It’s grimy, like Carcer City itself. Cash’s actions throughout this execution and indeed, the rest of the game seem to remain born of the frustration, tension and terror that his situation would bring. Violence that comes as a result of anger and frenzy rather than desire or blood lust. It is immediate. It doesn’t linger. He is trapped in a fate worse than death and the only way out is to wade knee-deep in carnage. This is the world of Rockstar Games’ Manhunt.
What is Manhunt?
The game tells the foreboding story of James Earl Cash, a convicted murderer who has been sentenced to death by lethal injection. However, thanks to some high-level corruption at the prison, he’s not dead. His body is transferred to a cold, lonely room and he wakes up to discover he was only given a sedative rather than a lethal dose. From here, a sinister voice tells him that he is now part of a film.
The voice belongs to ‘The Director’ and he wants Cash to be his new star. Over a loudspeaker and subsequently a microphone in Cash’s ear, he says: “Hey tough guy, wake up. You’re not dead. Well, not yet, anyway. You’re getting a second chance, another throw of the dice. As far as the world is concerned, you died back in the chamber. Justice was served, James Earl Cash is rotting in hell. You’ve had an unexpected reprieve. Do exactly as I say, and I promise this will be over before the night is out.”
Delivered with sinister menace by Scottish actor Brian Cox, his words are a creepy omen of things to come.
The nameless director is a sadistic nightmare of a man. Eager to see the very depths to which people can sink, he has unleashed Carcer City’s worst examples of humanity upon an abandoned part of town. James Earl Cash is now the main character in a snuff film that will last one single night and will conclude with his freedom — at least that’s what The Director tells him. He directs Cash through dilapidated apartment buildings and warehouses, only truly showing emotion when he demands that his new ‘actor’ dispose of the swarming gang members in the most gruesome way possible.
Cash must keep to the shadows. Sneak quietly. The instant he is detected by anyone, death can be sudden and unmerciful. The Director (later revealed as failed film director Lionel Starkweather) demands that Cash display sickening levels of violence for entertainment value. Anything less and he will get mad. He wants to see the ‘money shots’.
It is a dark, unrelenting experience. From the second it begins, Manhunt exudes tension. It never lets up. Very few games, if any, have come close to matching its constant sense of dread. Everything in Carcer City is broken and dirty. The houses, the vehicles and especially the minds of its inhabitants. The gangs roaming the streets are extremely violent and the further Cash ventures into the night, they grow more insane. Some of them have the word KILL cut into their abdomens, others wear smiley face masks etched with PLEASE STOP ME on the surface.
That’s where the dread comes in. It is like another character in the game, accompanying Cash wherever he goes. Avoiding the gangs is the only way to survive. They search corners and alleyways for Cash, threatening him with undirected abuse. Trying to scare him out. As the player, it works. Some sections drip with such suspense that it becomes difficult to advance. It takes the terror that a person feels in the most effective of horror films and increases it tenfold. Much like the silhouette of ‘Mother’ in the window in Psycho or the approach to the bedroom door in The Exorcist, it is a masterpiece of pure suspense.
A mixed reception
Manhunt was released on the 18th November 2003 on the PlayStation 2 in North America and three days later in Australia and Europe. An Xbox and PC version were released the following year. At the time of release, reviews were mixed. Game Informer praised its atmosphere, calling it an “intense experience”. IGN regarded it as “nearly unsurpassed in its unique brand of stealth and tactical combat.” Other reviewers such as GamesTM called it “bland” and G4TV told their readers to look elsewhere for their stealth fix.
Regardless of critics, Manhunt was always going to attract attention even before consumers were aware of its mature content — simply because it was coming from Rockstar Games.
The studio had already garnered critical acclaim over the two previous years with their seminal titles Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. They had also published Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne 2 less than a month before. On top of that, this was the first non-Grand Theft Auto game from their head development studio Rockstar North. Truly, all eyes were on the production and release of Manhunt.
Rockstar themselves were still neck deep in controversy at the time. In October, less than a month before Manhunt’s release, the families of Aaron Hamel, age 46, and Kimberley Bede, age 19, sued Rockstar, Take-Two Interactive, Walmart and Sony Computer Entertainment to the tune of $246 million. Hamel was killed and Bede seriously wounded when two teenagers (William, 16, and Joshua Buckner, 14) shot them from a moving car.
According to the lawsuit, the teens started randomly shooting at people in the street after playing Grand Theft Auto III and the companies targeted by the lawsuit were to be held responsible. To date, Rockstar Games have been sued for almost a billion dollars. The majority of the lawsuits filed against them have gone nowhere, based on hyperbole, censorship and parents blaming them for warping their children. By the end of 2003, Rockstar were already the whipping boy for angry, anti-video game pundits who blamed society’s ills and violent behaviour on their products.
Approaching the release of Manhunt, it was understandable if their marketing was a little more low-key.
The Australian connection
It was around here that Manhunt‘s journey into Australia began. On October 21, 2003, Manhunt was classified MA15+ by the now-defunct Office Of Literature And Classification (replaced by the Australian Classification Review Board in 2006) and released a month later.
Already, things become strange.
Submitted by local distributor Take Two Interactive Software, the Classification Board’s official report on their website regarding the 2003 ruling states that the game consists of ‘Medium Level Animated Violence’. Despite this ruling, the copy I purchased in 2003 (which is on the desk in front of me) has a classification of ‘High Level Animated Violence’. A small inconsistency, but confusing nonetheless.
Two months later, on December 12, New Zealand was about to make history. In their first ever banning of a video game, the NZ OFLC outlawed the sale of Manhunt and made it illegal to own a copy. Chief Censor Bill Hastings called the game “injurious to the public good” and the ruling stated that possession would cost you a $2,000 fine. If that wasn’t enough, an additional ruling said that if you showed the game to a minor, a $20,000 fine and a year in jail would be headed your way.
Classification breaches are difficult to enforce at best, so it remains to be seen if anyone was prosecuted. Regardless of copies of the game being removed from shelves in New Zealand, Australia was unaffected. Manhunt continued to sell despite any controversy across the Tasman Sea. In fact, in the Australian OFLC 2003-2004 Annual Report, Manhunt was the subject of a comparatively paltry four complaints from the public. The complaints regarding other video games are worth noting as a comparison.
Computer games – complaints: The OFLC received 21 complaints about computer games including five complaints about the lack of an R classification for computer games. Two complaints were about incorrect reports that an R classification was to be introduced. Five complaints concerned alleged breaches in classification requirements including incorrect labelling and the sale of MA(15+) games to persons under 15. There were four complaints about the violent content of the MA(15+) classified game Manhunt. Individual complaints were received about coarse language in the G(8+) title Rally Fusion: Race of Champions and violence in the G(8+) titles, The Simpsons: Hit & Run and Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb.
In that same report, it interesting to take note of the following conclusion regarding the introduction of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Amendment Bill 2004. Keep in mind this amendment was introduced ten years ago in response to ‘community demands’.
The amendments are designed to improve the understanding and effectiveness of the classification scheme by creating common classifications for films and computer games based on the existing film classifications. The amendments do not affect the material permissible within each classification. The common classifications introducted (sic) by the 2004 Amendment Act are G, PG, M (advisory classifications) and MA15+, R18+, X18+ (restricted classifications).
The Bill was initiated in response to community demands for a simple, common sense classification system that is the same across all classified products. Research by the OFLC indicates that less than half of the population is aware of the computer games classification scheme and that consumers are very confused about the MA classification.
The renamed computer games classifications will assist parents in choosing games for their children. The amendments also address the poor understanding of the MA classification through renaming this classification as MA15+. All parents need to know that films and computer games classified MA15+ are unsuitable for people under 15 years.
In the video games industry, ten years is an eternity.
2003 was a very different time. The PlayStation 2 was king, closely followed by the Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s Gamecube. Micro-transactions and downloadable content as we know them today were just a glint in a businessman’s eye. The Nokia N-Gage was released, Obsidian Entertainment opened for business and Valve’s digital distribution platform Steam launched for the very first time.
Manhunt wasn’t a smash hit in Australia. If anything, its continued existence on Australian shelves was strangely quiet, considering the controversy happening just across the Tasman. Very little attention was being paid to the game.
But all of that changed when a teenage boy was murdered in the United Kingdom.
The brewing storm
Located in the Leicester suburb of New Parks, Stokeswood Park is within walking distance of at least three schools — all of them primary schools, teaching children from Years One to Six. In the park itself, there was an area known as The Dumps, where the horrific murder of 14-year-old Stefan Pakeerah occurred.
On February 27 2004, one of Pakeerah’s friends, 17-year-old Warren Leblanc, reportedly lured him to the park with a promise of meeting a couple of girls. When they reached the park, Leblanc produced a hammer and a knife and attacked his friend. Pakeerah was dead within minutes, suffering over fifty wounds. His neck was covered in deep cuts and his head suffered several fractures. Multiple stab wounds were found throughout his body, some so deep that they punctured his liver and kidney. Moments after the crime, two Leicester police officers found Leblanc covered in blood. He instantly confessed to the murder of his friend and was arrested.
Despite the brutal injuries to Pakeerah, very little national media attention in the UK was paid to the crime. Following Leblanc’s arrest, he was remanded to custody and appeared in the Leicester Crown Court five months later. On the 28th July 2004, he pleaded guilty to the charge of murder. The Leicester Mercury, the local newspaper, was contacted for more information regarding the murder but as of this writing, they have not responded.
In attendance at the hearing was Pakeerah’s parents, Giselle and Patrick. Giselle left the hearing early due to the uncomfortable nature in the details of her son’s murder. Outside the court, her and her husband faced the media. It was here, not in the court hearing, when Manhunt was first mentioned. Here’s what Mrs Pakeerah said, in her statement to the UK press:
“I think that I heard some of Warren’s friends say that he was obsessed by this game. To quote from the website that promotes it, it calls it a psychological experience, not a game, and it encourages brutal killing. If he was obsessed with it, it could well be that the boundaries for him became quite hazy.”
Patrick Pakeerah, Stefan’s father, also made a statement:
“The way Warren committed the murder this is how the game is set out, killing people using weapons like hammers and knives. I don’t play these games but if they are influencing kids to go out and kill people then you don’t want them on the shelves.”
The media exploded. The next day, The Daily Mail ran the front page headline “MURDER BY PLAYSTATION” above Stefan Pakeerah’s image. The subtitle stated “Horror images on computer drove teenager to kill his friend aged 14“. The BBC carried a headline of “Game Blamed For Hammer Murder“. CNN ran with “Video Game Sparked Hammer Murder“.
Now that a video game was being blamed, it seemed the press was ready to take notice.
Trial by media
At the same time, local police denied that the game had any connection to the crime. Barely a week after the hearing, police investigating the murder made a formal statement to the press. A copy of Manhunt was discovered, but it was found in the bedroom of the victim, Pakeerah. Not Leblanc.
A month later, in September, Leblanc was sentenced to life in prison. More details of the crime emerged. The court was told the motive for the murder was robbery. Leblanc reportedly owed seventy-five pounds to a local gang and feared retaliation for late payment. The extent of the horrific injuries and the root cause for such a violent act of aggression were not explained but the judge said that the murder was “far beyond what was necessary for a robbery” and sentenced Leblanc with a final statement:
“You have taken the life of a 14-year-old boy in a most brutal fashion. One thing is clear – you and you alone were responsible for this prolonged, vicious and murderous attack on someone who thought of you as a friend.”
Despite evidence to the contrary and the conclusions of the authorities, both of Pakeerah’s parents maintained their stance against Manhunt. The judge, defence lawyers and local police all denied the game was responsible for any aspect of the crime, saying it was instead committed out of fear and desperation. But this did little to stem the tide of media hype against the game. Major department stores across the UK removed copies of it from their shelves. Manhunt and the Stokeswood Park murder were now forever linked. Even to this day, whenever Manhunt is mentioned, talk of the murder immediately — and incorrectly — follows.
Three weeks after the murder case first hit the media, Western Australian Opposition Leader Colin Barnett went to the press and to the OFLC in an attempt to ban the game. On August 31, four days before Leblanc was sentenced to life in prison, Western Australian Censorship Minister Michelle Roberts made a request to Attorney General Philip Ruddock to review the game. His statement to the media upon receiving the request was this:
“The Government takes the issue of violence in films, computer games and publications very seriously. We will continue to ensure games with violent content are banned in this country or strictly regulated in a manner that supports informed decision-making by consumers, particularly parents.”
This statement regarding the ‘banning’ of games was made even before any review of Manhunt had taken place. At the time, the Office of Film And Literature Classification answered to Philip Ruddock. Every Annual Report from the OFLC was presented to and overseen by the Attorney General. It is feasible to imagine a request from the Attorney General to re-classify a game for the purpose of banning it would not go unanswered. Both Philip Ruddock and Michelle Robert’s office were contacted to comment on these events but at the time of writing, only Roberts’ office responded — to confirm that events happened as we describe.
The ban comes down
Less than a month after Roberts’ request, the official decision report states that the original applicant, Take-Two Interactive Software, was called back to the OFLC to again demonstrate the game for the Review Board. The OFLC voted 3 to 1 in favour of banning Manhunt.
“In the Classification Review Board’s opinion, the game warrants a refusal of classification because it contains elements beyond those set out in the classification guidelines and legislation for a computer game at the MA15+ classification. Specifically, it contains some depictions of high impact, as well as scenes of blood and gore that go beyond strong. It also contains a high impact theme”.
The reversal of their original decision was unprecedented. Before or since, a classification of a game had never been reviewed as a result of an incorrect media story in a different country. The game was retroactively refused classification and removed from shelves across the country.
In an attempt to shed more light on the Review Board’s decision-making process, the former Deputy Director of the OFLC, Paul Hunt (who was present), was contacted for comment. He has not responded. The current Classification Review Board has not responded to repeated requests for any further information. Former employees of both Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive Software here in Australia will not go on the record about Manhunt. Rockstar Games themselves have repeatedly refused to give comment despite numerous requests.
You may be noticing a pattern here. Even after all this time, ten years on from any controversy, nobody wants to talk about Manhunt. Not a single person connected to any aspect of this game will talk.
On the other hand and perhaps ironically, whenever video game violence or Australia’s newly introduced R18+ rating is mentioned, talk of Manhunt is never far behind. It is still officially a crime to sell a copy of it in Australia. Whether that would actually be enforced is a matter of conjecture. In January of 2011, it briefly appeared for sale on the digital distribution service Steam and Australian customers began purchasing and downloading the game. Within twenty-four hours however, Valve removed the game from sale and refunded the price to anyone who had bought it.
“That murder game”
It remains the quintessential black sheep of the video game world. Whereas other ‘controversial’ games such as Grand Theft Auto or Postal are frequently talked about, Manhunt has been essentially shunned. The reason is because it is the ‘Murder Game‘ or ‘That game you vaguely heard about years ago being responsible for some kid killing another kid‘. Will people start to talk about it in another ten years? Who knows. It is doubtful whether Rockstar Games will ever resubmit Manhunt to the Australian Classification Review Board now that we have an R18+ rating for games. Sales-wise, it would not make much financial sense for them to bother.
Here is a game that was unfairly targeted by a grieving mother and overzealous media. To this day, there is still no evidence it had any influence over Warren Leblanc or anyone else. Despite Giselle Pakeerah’s claims that she “thinks” she “heard” Leblanc was obsessed with the game, this simply just wasn’t the case. The negative effect that statement had on the game and its legacy was greater than any number of anti-video game activists blaming Doom or Grand Theft Auto for every school shooting that happens. This isn’t a case of downplaying the horrific nature of the 2004 murder, but rather admitting that the simple act of talking about the game doesn’t diminish Stefan Pakeerah’s memory. Because one has nothing to do with the other.
Manhunt is not a game to everyone’s taste. It features wave after wave of death and, even ten years on, quite rightly shouldn’t be available to children. But surely, after all this time has passed, it’s safe to ask ourselves: if such a game can be so easily and falsely blamed for murder, tried and convicted by the media against all evidence, banned and subsequently shunned for a decade… surely, on some level that has to be worse than an animated plastic bag over a virtual character’s head.