Though Sierra On-Line was known for the Quest games, they published quite a bit more. Some of these were definitely Quest-styled adventure games in everything but name only – The Black Cauldron, Gold Rush!, Codename: Iceman – all of these examples retain the classic AGI style and help solidify adventure games as Sierra’s bread and butter. Manhunter is a similar series that dropped out after two games, but was clearly expecting to continue this legacy. Its strange blend of childish humor and grisly crime scenes make it pretty clear to me why this never lasted beyond the sequel.
We begin our story with giant alien eyeballs called Orbs that have enslaved the human race. You’ve been tasked with the job of “manhunter” – a cross between a bounty hunter and a police detective. The Orbs have set up some Orwellian surveillance gear across New York and given you the keys. Each day your alien handler arrives to give you a dissident to find. As the days progress, you’ll soon find you’re chasing a serial killer who’s somehow able to evade the surveillance tracking. What’s he up to? What are the aliens hiding? So far, pretty interesting stuff.
Most of the backstory is found in the manual, and it is mostly a “man-on-the-street” view of the changes that occurred when the aliens arrived. It does a bit to explain the odd state of society that you see in the game, like the brown monk robes and such, but certainly doesn’t answer enough, like why certain humans look like deformed trolls. The aliens’ operation seems pretty slapdash too, with enough holes in their master plan to make you wonder why they bothered in the first place.
It also intentionally does not answer the money question of why you were chosen to become a Manhunter, or why you accepted. Aside from being watched at every turn and suffering under a regime where speaking is a capital offense, the humans don’t seem to have it that bad. There are bars and nightclubs, free access to parks, and even Coney Island is up and running with boardwalk games. There’s nothing to suggest Manhunters get specific special treatment that would make such a position desirable and your promotion is not part of the mystery to unravel as the game goes on.
I would also like to know how many men you are expected to have hunted by this point, because it would help explain the turn of events toward the end. It would appear that your character naively believes the aliens are a benevolent force at the beginning, then discovers a horrible truth that makes you cast away your man-hunting ways by the end. You’re never really given enough story either way. The fact that no one speaks may be to dodge the limits of the PC speaker, or to make international translations easier, but the result is watching a lot of pantomime and drawing your own conclusions. What is clear – and maybe that’s supposed to be enough motivation – is the not-so-surprising discovery that the offer of a “transfer to Chicago” is a euphemism for “hot ‘n spicy death.”
Though you’re essentially a bounty hunter, you have no weapons or capture tools. Your job is strictly to investigate and tattle names back to your Orb superiors for appropriate handling. Your primary field tool is a wireless laptop computer called a MAD. It’s connected to the alien supercomputer and allows you access to overhead surveillance scanners and a database of every person on Earth. Every human has been outfitted with a radio transmitter tag which only broadcasts their location, not their identity (explained by “trouble” the Orbs are having with the system). It’s a lame gimmick for a brilliant system that ultimately asks you to divine purpose from little dots’ seemingly random movements.
The game chapters are divided by days. Each day begins with a rude awakening from your alien commander (despite being able to fly, he still has to take the noisy elevator). Something unpleasant will have happened overnight, and the Orbs expect you to track down and report the name of the suspect by the end of the day. At the beginning of the game, for example, you’re informed that there has been an explosion at a hospital in Manhattan. You then switch on the MAD and watch overhead footage of the culprit’s tracking dot planting the bomb, dinking around in a blown-open room, and then fleeing. You can follow any target’s path across New York until you lose the signal inside jammed areas, or if they disappear underground.
Again, your suspects won’t have names yet, so your job will be to watch the tracking tape and investigate the places that they patronized for clues. So, if you watch the suspect go to a church and stop at a table in the corner for a few minutes, you can then travel to that church in “real life,” go to that table, and see what’s so interesting about it. If the suspect meets up with another person, you can turn the tracker on that person to see where they head off to and if they could be involved.
You’re able to replay that day’s footage as many times as you like to track different targets and refresh your memory of their movement patterns if needed. You’re not timed, and the day only ends when you’ve found the requisite clues and information for that day. Your MAD will beep, order you to type in the name of your suspect, and then you’ll be off to bed to rest up for another day of ratting out your fellow New Yorkers. You really do feel like a futuristic detective in these moments, uncovering clues in the course of your investigation and wondering how far down the rabbit hole goes.
That’s where the ingenuity, and by no coincidence, the interesting parts of the game end. Your “real world” investigations consist primarily of taking copious notes of every detail you come across, in the hopes that they may be used in practical terms later that day. You’ll learn of an underground resistance movement throughout the game, which means that every landscape, hand gesture, sequence of events, and even the layout of an arcade game maze may have some meaning in a puzzle later on. But to prevent you from finding this resistance too easily, most everyone you track will end up as a fresh and icky corpse.
Which leads to part of the identity crisis I spoke of in the opening paragraph. Manhunter is one of Sierra’s darkest games, and certainly the darkest for the time it was released. The body count here is also high, bloody, and detailed in frequent close-ups. On the one hand, the game doesn’t shy away from having a serial killer at large and seems to want to lean on old detective tropes about the decay of the city and the hopelessness of the situation.
It comes as a bit of confusion that the old Sierra-style humor is still present in nearly full force. Resistance messages are in silly children’s rhymes. Patrons at a bar will spin you around over their heads before tossing you to the ground, where you’ll collapse in a puddle Loony Tunes-style. Your character literally stops at one point to do a “raise the roof” victory dance, and is then joined unnamed backup dancers as they “Walk Like an Egyptian.” The three Murrys (the designers), even appear after your death like Jim Walls did in Police Quest, and offer a quip about your last method of death. It all seems out of place in a plot that is midnight black, with no story elements to support the juvenile giggles. You’ll go from finding bloated corpses to falling down a pit and having your heart-adorned boxers revealed, in 3.2 seconds. It has all the uncomfortable, frowny effect of a Jerry Lewis cameo in Seven.
The second point of confusion is the copious arcade sequences that block your investigation. You’ll enter a bar and be forced to throw knives between a bartender’s hand before you can continue. You’ll have to break into a nightclub by leaping and ducking guns, knives, and bombs thrown by gangbangers in an alley. You’ll have to sort your way through a minefield where you have about fifteen directions per screen you can take. A sort of Donkey Kong Jr. clone and the final ship sequence are so needlessly difficult that they make you wonder if the game even wants you to beat it. All of these cannot be skipped.
I’ve heard a lot of lamentations in general regarding the inclusion of arcade sequences in adventure games, and this title offers a great example of how not to make them fit. The nicest thing that can be said for them is that you’re allowed to repeat each from the beginning without penalty. But if you’re still having trouble beating it on the 20th try, you’re not going to feel any better at the 50th. There’s absolutely no reason to hold up the entire adventure while you make the player perform some unsolicited, arbitrary test of reflexes.
The game has some novelty, as it is credited with being Sierra’s first “point and click” adventure in the AGI engine. It was too early for the proliferation of mice however, so the pointing and clicking is done with the sluggish arrow keys and enter. It also departs from the typical third-person adventures and drops you into a first person view for the majority of the game, only breaking for cinematic shots or to view some crime performed on your person. This has a few interesting effects; the most obvious being an attempt to pull you into the world. Seeing recognizable New York landmarks in various states of disrepair with “your own eyes” does help to bring home the post-apocalyptic feel.
It’s also an excuse to draw less, and incur undue mental duress with the inclusion of first-person mazes. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the… err… joy of wandering through a hedge maze, but that’s the basic idea here. The trick of course is that every turn and doorway is totally identical, because they were only drawn once and reused. Even with a map, I had no shortage of trouble following where I was. The MAD only lets you view security footage, and calling up MapQuest is right out.
Graphics run on a hacked version of Sierra’s old AGI interpreter, and do their job without much finesse. They’re on par with the visuals in the first Larry or Space Quest 1, with about the same level of detail. The inclusion of recognizable buildings cast against a gloomy, red sky is a great touch though, and helps sell the morose mood of silent, deformed humans shuffling through the winds of dirty, boarded streets. This game wouldn’t have worked the same way if you were the unknown inhabitants of a fictional planet, and you wouldn’t have the same impressions of being surrounded by the shadows of something lost and worth fighting for. It also brings a certain future noir danger of creeping through dirty urban alleys with the constant threat of being jumped by your mark at every turn.
So there it is; one of Sierra’s most unique titles, that actually plays as a fairly boring and standard detective game. The MAD device is a pretty neat piece of kit, and tracking suspects from a kind of overseer view is an interesting twist. However, the actual investigation that occurs when you arrive on the scene is painfully simplistic (“click” on the only item in the scene that can be examined further), overly complicated, (play this silly minigame over and over until you get it right, and only then may you continue), or just plain tedious (navigate this featureless maze, and make sure to collect all twelve keycards along the way). And I still, after having just finished the game, do not understand what the main villain’s deal is. I guess, like the ending suggests, I’ll just have to find out in Manhunter 2: San Francisco. Meet me there if you like, but I’d avoid New York in the meantime.
Interesting atmosphere and potential. The MAD scanner is a great twist on the standard investigation game, and its interplay with the game’s “real” locations is well done.
Dark and childish in the same game, for no good reason. Investigations are far too basic, so they’re supplemented by taxing arcade and maze sequences.