Thu. Apr 18th, 2024

The Perils of Overanalysis in Media Criticism

In the realm of criticism, the analysis of various forms of media, including films, music, and books, is often regarded as a form of excessive scrutiny. Many individuals delve too deeply into these works, seeking profound meanings that may not even be present. For those in the general public who have not explored the realms of philosophy or literary theory they might be surprised to find that Ratatouille can be interpreted as an exploration of existentialism or that Gon Freecss‘s character in the anime Hunter × Hunter serves as a study in character psychology, delving into the concepts of good and evil. Nevertheless, certain media critics opt not to dwell on such interpretations but instead pursue meaning enthusiastically, irrespective of whether it leads to irrelevance. There is no assurance that this pursuit will consistently yield subjective results, as it depends on how one perceives media through the lenses of philosophy or theory. This approach is frequently excessive, concentrating on minute details, potentially resulting in the forging of connections between unrelated elements of media, and sometimes culminating in an endless array of theories and speculations.

We can effectively and almost flawlessly shield ourselves from the hardships of life by making the quest for meaning in media our standard procedure. It is indeed valid that some argue, quite persuasively, that the world is inherently absurd, akin to the perspective of Albert Camus. It is entirely reasonable when Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that meaning must be constructed. Ideally, this construction occurs in how individuals function within society rather than solely functioning as institutions. In the contemporary era, there have been numerous portrayals of diverse versions of hell in fiction. Examples include Event Horizon, a science fiction horror film in which a rescue crew encounters a spaceship in a nightmarish dimension, resulting in supernatural horror; Paradise Lost, an epic poem exploring Satan’s descent and rebellion against God, the creation of hell, and the consequences of sin; and Berserk, a dark fantasy anime and manga featuring a protagonist grappling with a world teeming with demonic forces and hellish themes.

Nonetheless, how does the specific representation of hell in video games become so deeply ingrained and pervasive that it seems insurmountable, regardless of our efforts? An instance that exemplifies this phenomenon is Rockstar North’s Manhunt, a video game that portrays a world devoid of meaning, morality, light, and, most importantly, heroes. There are no clear distinctions between right and wrong; only violence and inevitable suffering prevail. Among its other qualities, there is no more fitting term to describe the world depicted in Manhunt than the most realistic and precise portrayal of hell ever encountered in a video game.

Unprecedented Controversy

We can affirm that Manhunt is a game characterized by exceptional controversy and the same holds for its sequel. Both games are born from unprecedented brutality that unfolds within this digital realm. Some individuals may disregard the controversies that surround violent video games. Calls to ban a game believed to encourage gamers to commit murder typically leave many of us astounded. Games like Manhunt consistently stand out as a platform for posing numerous rational questions. If some people inherently hesitate to accord rights to demons, there is no hint of jest in this context. It is worth noting that some Manhunt developers believed they had pushed the boundaries of acceptability with the game. A former employee of Rockstar North even claimed that there was a near-rebellion within the company, with most Rockstar Games employees choosing not to be involved. Consequently, it is improbable that they could provide a comprehensive explanation of the game. According to this insider, there is simply no way to rationalize it, given the difficulty in comprehending the artistic context or the underlying ethical message that justifies the inclusion of extreme violence.

However, it is essential to recognize that there is indeed context and meaning behind the violence portrayed in the game. Manhunt commences with a news broadcast from Carcer City, a fictitious urban setting. Reportedly, a death row inmate named James Earl Cash has recently undergone execution via lethal injection. However, this official narrative is far from the truth, as the substance administered to Cash was merely a sedative. He awakens in a dimly lit chamber, guided by a voice emanating from an intercom owned by Lionel Starkweather, who initially identifies as the director. Cash deduces from Starkweather’s words that he wields significant influence, enabling him to manipulate authorities in exchange for Cash’s continued existence. Starkweather dangles the promise of freedom before Cash. However, this promise comes with a caveat: Cash must track down and eliminate a series of gang members in enclosed areas within Carcer City. These gang members symbolize society’s most depraved facets, including psychotic killers, pedophiles, sadists, and racists.

Meanwhile, Starkweather documents Cash’s actions through CCTV, intending to create snuff films, among other infamous works sold on the black market. It constitutes the game’s fundamental premise, underscoring the earlier point that there are no heroes within this narrative. Everyone, including the central character Cash, is a grim reflection of humanity. The sole character who approaches anything resembling virtue is a Carcer City news journalist. However, even in her case, a question lingers: Why should we assist Cash in achieving his objectives, given the public’s perception and the legal system’s support for the death penalty, regardless of Starkweather’s promise of freedom?

Rational Arguments Against Avoiding Violent Video Games

If only Cash were to feel remorse and repent, he would reject Starkweather’s offer and accept death at his hands. Alternatively, if we prioritize an ethical response, regardless of the consequences in the fictional world, the morally sound action would be to refrain from playing the game altogether. However, there are several rational arguments against this position. For instance, the game Mortal Kombat has ignited significant controversy. Nevertheless, it remains highly violent and widespread, with its latest installment, Mortal Kombat 1.

Furthermore, violent video games like Mortal Kombat provide an outlet for darker human impulses that might otherwise manifest in less legal ways. Mortal Kombat is a fantasy martial arts fighting game featuring various characters, each with unique fatalities or brutal finishing moves, abilities, and fighting styles. Additionally, the violence in the game is framed within the context of a fictional tournament where fighters from different realms battle for various reasons, such as revenge or a thirst for power.

In contrast to Mortal Kombat, Manhunt strongly emphasizes stealth gameplay, where players assume the role of a character thrust into life-threatening situations that must be avoided. The psychology of violence in the game also explores themes of inhumane violence, desperation, and survival. However, Mortal Kombat is not entirely equivalent to Manhunt. The violence in Mortal Kombat is depicted in such a fantastical manner that it is intended for entertainment, whereas Manhunt aims for realism. Nonetheless, the excessive violence in Manhunt is used to shock consumers and convey a broader message. Maybe the game also conveys an artistic message regarding the portrayal of violence, similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., which utilizes the open-world survival horror shooter category to illustrate encounters with mutated beings, unfriendly groups, and anomalies.

For various reasons, the main character becomes entangled in senseless violence just to prompt the game to turn a mirror on itself and, by extension, its players. However, Manhunt does not achieve this, as the game’s narrative does not guide the player toward a moral resolution. Manhunt lacks any resolution, not for the snuff film industry, not for journalists, and not even for Cash himself. It leaves the developer’s artistic intent unclear. If the sole purpose is to shield the game from censorship and ensure profitability, one might also think aligning clear artistic statements with senseless violence would be beneficial. However, the developers did not do so.

Gamers would not endorse the widespread availability of games that allow them to engage in atrocious acts against others devoid of artistic context or narrative. However, the question arises: Why do we refrain from committing murder ourselves? Developers avoid addressing this question because, in reality, there is an artistic intention embedded in the game, though it may require effort to discern. One could even argue that Manhunt, through its depiction of violence, makes a more profound artistic statement than most other violent fiction works. It draws inspiration from philosophical concepts such as absurdism and Nietzschean philosophy.

Exploring Nihilism and Nietzschean Philosophy

In the game context, nihilism (the absence of meaning or morality in the game world) is employed. As a philosophical doctrine, nihilism predates Nietzsche, but he can be seen as its foremost expositor and advocate. To reiterate, Nietzsche posited that the natural response to nihilism is the creation of one’s values to establish a morality transcending the notions of good and evil. However, the challenge lies in humans’ struggle to generate these values in a seemingly meaningless world. Moreover, the more likely it is that values are replaced with something darker, the more harm humanity inflicts upon itself due to the suffering inherent in existence. For instance, Camus identified a conflict between the universe’s inherent meaninglessness and humanity’s relentless pursuit of meaning. In Manhunt, players find themselves in a bleak, violent, and seemingly purposeless world where Cash is compelled into a life-or-death struggle. Survival and violence take precedence over loftier objectives or moral values. The game’s violence can also illustrate the absurdity of human existence, where gratuitous and extreme violence accentuates the notion that life, in this context, has been reduced to a meaningless yet brutal struggle.

Unlike Camus, Nietzsche challenged the concepts of good and evil by asserting that morality is subjective and individuals must transcend conventional morality to assert their values. In Manhunt, traditional moral boundaries are conspicuously absent, often featuring brutal violence yet not framed within conventional moral judgments. Consequently, the game reflects moral relativism, encouraging players to define their values within its unique context.

Another Nietzschean concept that strongly permeates the game is the concept of Übermensch (Superman or Overman), a notion derived from Nietzsche’s work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. This concept represents a pivotal idea in Nietzschean philosophy and critiques traditional values and morality. In Nietzsche’s book, the Übermensch is an individual who forges meaning and value in their own life. Instead of adhering to pre-existing moral codes, they engage in self-creation and self-discovery, thus determining their values and path. Fundamentally, the Übermensch operates beyond conventional notions of good and evil. Instead, they embrace a distinct yet intricate perspective, recognizing that traditional moral judgments are often steeped in cultural and social biases.

In Manhunt, Cash is compelled to resort to violence for survival, exploring Nietzschean themes related to an individual’s capacity to define their values, even in a morally brutal and ambiguous world. While upholding Nietzschean morality is feasible, it remains challenging to deny the existence of various negative responses that might arise in the face of a seemingly meaningless world. For example, Starkweather, once a prosperous mainstream film director, saw his career decline when his films began to underperform at the box office. His response to this setback was to relocate to Carcer City and produce underground pornography under the banner of Valiant Video Enterprises. His success was so substantial that it garnered the attention of a mysterious criminal entrepreneur named Mr. Nasty, a character mentioned solely in the game’s manual and never in the game itself. Mr. Nasty’s financial clout was so immense that he financed Starkweather’s snuff film productions and corrupted the American legal system to shield him. Once everything was said and done, Starkweather dispatched assassins to eliminate those who had ruined his previous career. Beyond the unsettling concept itself, what is most disconcerting is the parallel drawn between the characters and their real-life actions.

Unresolved Nihilism

The comparison between Starkweather’s character study, although not entirely applicable and somewhat simplified, can be related to real-life figures such as Charles Manson (a cult leader known for controlling and manipulative behavior, exploiting his followers for various purposes) and Richard Ramirez (a psychopathic criminal who exhibited tendencies of manipulation, violence, and a lack of empathy), regarding Mr. Nasty, it is suspected that this character is based on an individual named Tom Halloran, who reportedly, in 1994, sold illicit videos depicting fake murders to children. It was covered in the tabloid newspaper News of the World under the headline Mr. Nasty Sells Death Videos to Our Kids, as “video nasty” is a common term in the UK used to describe exploitative film genres. Since Rockstar North is headquartered in the same country as News of the World, they drew inspiration from these events and the associated terminology.

Manhunt‘s primary message through these character types is that such individuals exist. Despite some asserting that snuff films produced by wealthy individuals are a myth, it cannot be denied that videos are created solely to portray heinous acts, which people use to satisfy their deviant desires. Manhunt allows people to briefly immerse themselves in the most extreme version of a hedonistic and nihilistic world. Furthermore, it enables us to actively explore the same doctrine embraced by all characters in the game, reaping both benefits and drawbacks.

The primary downside is that nothing is resolved in the nihilistic world. Towards the game’s conclusion, Cash realizes that participating in Starkweather’s snuff films will not grant him the desired freedom. Instead, Starkweather intends to conclude the film with Cash’s death. Nevertheless, Cash seeks retribution for the deceit by tracking Starkweather to his substantial residence. The undeniable fact remains that nothing fundamentally changes. Mr. Nasty persists, and Cash remains a condemned man. Even the journalist who exposed the snuff film ring fares no better. In the game, events lead to her experiencing psychological disturbances, ultimately institutionalizing her. For all parties involved, corruption and suffering persist and worsen, becoming deeply ingrained in American society.

While most other games depict extreme violence but guide players toward a moral conclusion, Manhunt possesses the capability not to do so. It enables gamers to reflect on their own experiences without guidance. The initial question might be, “Are we entertained?” For a 2004 stealth game, its mechanics still stand out remarkably well. While its stealth elements may not be as refined and precise as those in Metal Gear Solid, the psychological sensations offered by this game are unmatched. It is particularly fascinating for those who played it on the original console with a USB headset. The game delivers Starkweather’s voice to the headset and the game’s other sounds to the television speaker, a clear choice made further to blur the lines between the gamer and Cash, allowing players to live vicariously through the eyes of a killer and gain an understanding that the horror is perfectly acceptable.

Manhunt’s Purpose

Manhunt serves as a horror video game to prompt players to reflect on their actions and how closely these actions mirror fundamental patterns of human wickedness. The game introduces characters like Pigsy, Cash’s predecessor, who succumbed to depravity and found himself imprisoned in Starkweather’s attic. Pigsy is notorious for his extreme obesity, sadistic cannibalistic tendencies, and hedonistic disposition. Other video games also pay tribute to Pigsy, including titles like Hotline Miami and Dead Rising. Manhunt strives to make players question their potential to emulate Pigsy through physical and psychological torment, coupled with a nihilistic mindset. By permitting the game to conclude without resolution, players are compelled to step out of their subconscious, allowing them to gain insight into a form of significance.

The underlying significance of Manhunt is paradoxical, signifying that it possesses no inherent meaning. While some individuals might cope with this reality by constructing their significance, others, akin to those in the real world, maybe incapable of confronting or accepting this truth. The unsettling truth remains that, under specific circumstances, people could adopt characteristics reminiscent of those found in Manhunt, elevating it to the status of a horror masterpiece and a significant work of art. Nevertheless, specific individuals desire to censor the game owing to their inability to confront this stark reality.

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