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How do you make Manhunt, a game that, above all of its contemporaries and many of its successors, is brutally violent? How do you make this gritty, stomach-churning thriller at a time when truly adult games were still few and far between and horror titles uniformly involve monsters and ghosts? And how do you make it when you’re Rockstar Games circa 2003, riding high on Grand Theft Auto III and GTA: Vice City and fast becoming the most recognised of a culture hitherto considered dangerous, sordid and improper? How did something like Manhunt ever happen?

Christian Cantamessa joined Rockstar North (then called DMA Design) in 2000. A self-proclaimed film nut, his first assignment was working alongside the camera programmer on GTA III. Born in Italy, he was also given a small voiceover role as one of the game’s many Mafia goons. It was intricate work and Rockstar, in Cantamessa’s words, was “all hands on deck” to get GTA finished. But another project was bubbling away, one that had been in tenuous development since 1998. Once GTA III had shipped, Cantamessa was put to work on what Rockstar hoped would be its unique take on the stealth and horror genres.

“There was no precise idea of what this game would be,” Cantamessa explains. “There had been various incarnations, but nothing that was working. We had some very interesting foundational ideas but also a very small staff—it was basically whoever was left over from the team that made Body Harvest for the N64.

“To begin with, it was a first-person based experiment, an AI-driven version of hide and seek. But slowly and surely, the team was reorganised. We got a new producer, Andy Hay, and Alan Davidson came to the fore at that point with a wealth of concepts and character designs—he dreamed up ideas, scenarios and a look for the game. Then, I had a conversation with Sam Houser when he came over to Edinburgh, and we talked about how he envisioned Manhunt. He told me ‘Christian, you just have to make a horror game. But don’t put any of that stuff like zombies or vampires. We want it to be real, so it can be really scary.'”

A Clockwork Orange, particularly the scene where Alex and his Droogs beat the homeless man in the underpass, provided a mental jumping off point for Cantamessa: “I thought it would be really scary to be that guy. What would happen if he tried to run away?” Cities like Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles proved inspirational, too—hoping to avoid fantasy, and create that “real” horror game, Cantamessa and the Manhunt team turned to America’s tumble-down former centers of industry.

“There are a lot of cities today that are largely warehouses and industry, and no one really lives there any more,” Cantamessa explains. “You go to a place like Vernon, and there are only security guards, walking around these factories and industrial train stations. Manhunt ended up looking like one of these places.”

People inevitably go for the most extreme options, the most violent possible kills.

The industrial aesthetic brought Manhunt to life. With its chain link fences, mouldy factories and deserted tenements, Carcer City became the perfect stage for Manhunt’s dirty, base violence. It’s a hopeless place, comprising dead buildings and unfinished renovations, all of them vandalised, rained on and harshly illuminated by cheap, portable lights—even the “keep out” signs have long since collapsed. Its inhabitants, too, are forsaken. Murderers and racists, they are on society’s fringe.

If Resident Evil was about escaping from a mansion and Silent Hill the eponymous town, when playing Manhunt you wanted to be somewhere—anywhere—other than Carcer. Kill by kill, you were clawing your way out of the gutter.

Instead of a first-person perspective, Cantamessa imagined how Manhunt would look if viewed through CCTV cameras. What if, instead of the main character, players assumed the role of a voyeur, committing the violence, yes, but only so they could watch. Thus came Manhunt’s narrative set-up: A death row inmate named James Earl Cash is unexpectedly sprung by a malevolent benefactor called The Director, and loosed onto the streets of Carcer City. Pursued by gangs of killers and crazies, Cash is forced to kill for the camera. With Cash as his “star,” The Director is staging an elaborate snuff film, and the player is his audience.

“I wanted it to look like it had all been filmed on VHS,” Cantamessa explains, “like a tape you rented from the store and you wouldn’t tell your mother that you’d got it. We simulated static, vertical blank lines, magnetic tape aberrations, a shaky camera, unflattering angles—it’s meant to look like there’s someone with a long lens camera, zooming in.

“It’s not you playing Manhunt. It’s James. You and The Director are in this together. You always have this conflict in Manhunt where either you want to participate in the violence or you want to try and step away from it. The Director gives better ratings for more violent kills, but that doesn’t mean you should do them—the game is very playable without doing all of the most gruesome stuff. However, almost like in an experiment, people inevitably go for the most extreme options, the most violent possible kills. We’re so entrenched in game systems that people will do something to get a good rating even if it makes them sick to their stomachs.”

With the setting, the visuals and the game’s central moral quandary now in place, Cantamessa and team created Manhunt’s “vertical slice”, a standalone level that encompassed everything the game was intended to be. The story was further developed—Cantamessa finished the overarching plot, whilst Alan Davidson and James Worrall wrote dialogue for the enemies—and Rockstar’s sound team, comprising Allan Walker and Craig Conner, produced a soundtrack and, more importantly, a catalogue of weapon and combat effects.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they went into a sound booth with a baseball bat and some chainsaws, because none of those sounds existed before,” says Cantamessa. “It was scary already, you know, from a conceptual point of view or maybe a lighting point of view, but when we added the sound and the music it became genuinely unsettling—my first reaction was 'this is the scariest thing I’ve ever played.'”

The fact we’re talking about the game now, and in these terms, is a sign that things have moved forward.

Terrifying and uncompromising, when Manhunt launched in October 2003 controversy followed. US Representative Joe Baca accused Manhunt of “telling kids how to kill someone.” In Canada, it became the first video game to be certified as a film and restricted to adults only. In Australia and New Zealand it was banned entirely.

Discussions regarding audiences, artists and their respective attitudes towards on-screen violence were overruled by rows about censorship and taste. Having worked on games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in the 13 years since, Cantamessa now says he wouldn’t change a thing about Manhunt. Rockstar in the early ‘00s was the perfect place for that game to be made.

“I didn’t want censorship to be part of the conversation,” he says. “I wanted the role of the player and the role of the game director to be the conversation. I don’t know if that was because I was a young guy in his 20s, or because I really believed in what I was doing. But I felt like the game industry was censored enough.

“When I joined Rockstar, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. There was great excitement for GTA III and also a lot of questions and scepticism, but seeing it come out and be such a success was amazing. That game single-handedly showed there was a new market for games and a new way of making games. The critical conversation at the time of Manhunt was not the critical conversation available today. But the fact we’re talking about the game now, and in these terms, is a sign that things have moved forward.”

Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

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