Being a Shark at the End of the World
Maneater is an exercise in sustained excess. Through every facet of the game, it washes itself with exuberance, with “too much” in every way a game or story about a mutated shark can do or be “too much.” It is a good game. It thinks that it is better and funnier than it is, but in the face of some of its worst jokes, there is a cynical honesty about the world we live in (and the world that will probably come to be).
When everything is played for a joke, it is safe to assume that a majority of them won’t land. This is due to a few reasons: humor grows tired, jokes can be plain gross and bad, and some might just not click with the player. All of this happens in Maneater, and it happens a lot. There are multiple horrendous jokes that treat homeless individuals as a punchline, jokes endlessly repeat themselves, there are one too many “look at all these stupid country folk” jokes, and the one joke that ties the whole game together—visually—is nature itself. Nature in Maneater is fucked. Humanity bent it to their well, developed over it, and functionally killed it.
Maneater’s open world is split up into various biomes—bayou, open ocean, coastline, etc.—and all of them have been functionally eviscerated by humanity. Clear waters have grown brown and sludge-like thanks to decades and decades of pollution. The ocean floor is littered with the detritus of industrialization, and over-fishing has messed up every ecosystem in irreversible ways. The shorelines are rising and yet beach houses and resorts are still being built closer and closer to the water. What beaches are left feel man-made and are littered with the consumer-first nature of modern existence—bungalows to rent beach chairs, beachside bars and restaurants, golf courses, theme parks, and more wastes of space cast their omnipresent artificial glow across the ever-dwindling natural landscape. That’s just the way things are in Maneater, and as I said before, it's all played as a joke. They’ve tried to heighten pollution and the irreversible effects of humanity’s footprint on the natural world, but even their heightened take on it still doesn’t feel as awful and true as things really are. But it gets saddeningly close.
Even the playable shark is not beyond the touch of humanity. You get hunted, a core aspect of the game is getting revenge on a violent, unrestricted shark hunter (who has a reality TV show akin to the kind of shit you can find on any outdoor/hunting TV channel), and even the shark’s physiology is due in part to humanity. As a bull shark, you can acquire mutagens and various mutations that alter your DNA structure to get new powers/grow larger and larger, and these mutations come by way of pollution and man-made science. You earn your power but it comes from methods of ruination. It makes one think of the opening minutes of the film, The Host. Pollution, specifically brought on by Americans in a foreign country, gives way to an all-consuming and horrifying monster—the abstracted (and ignored) violence of pollution made manifest. The shark in Maneater is a similar stand-in. While the story sets you on a path of revenge against a specific fisherman, the motif of revenge eventually opens up against humankind itself. They’ve created you and to them, you are a monster so they expect you to act as such. And so you do. Eat 10 beachgoers, flop onto shore and eviscerate 20 golfers, and more. These are common mission types in Maneater. This sort of nature vs. humanity revenge feels very earned after one spends, say, 10 minutes with the game. Even the shallowest waters are bursting at the seams with litter, sunken boats, oil spills, and more. There is no “natural” left in the natural world of Maneater. Instead, nature just has to navigate through the spreading toxicity of ecological ruin, and humanity—specifically in America—is there to impede at every step.
And yet the game just has to play it all as a joke. Maneater bites off more than it can chew. A crushed car at the bottom of the ocean becomes a bad joke or a pop culture reference. Jokes in Maneater fall into those two categories and they are almost always bad. It seems that the developers have, in a way, stumbled backward into an interactive, compelling critique of how we treat nature. We take and take, push and push, poison and destroy, and don’t expect to ever see the repercussions of these endeavors. Eventually, we’ll have to answer to it. And the main doers of it all—big companies, the rich, and western imperialist governments—will find a way to dodge the violence of the sundering of the natural world. While that violence might not be as pointed and obvious as a mutated, blood-thirsty shark, the violence will occur across a far larger canvas. The world will continue to heat, the sea levels will swallow cities, and more forests and animal populations will fall under the boot of “progress” never to be seen again. Maneater doesn’t have an answer to this, all it has are bad jokes.