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“Picture Grand Theft Auto, but as a shark,” game designer Bill Munk said near the end of a demonstration of Maneater at E3 in Los Angeles last week.
Well, not quite. There are no cars to jack. There are no radio stations. Although, the designers have considered letting the shark get drunk, if it eats a drunk person. “We don’t have that in the game yet, but I want to,” Munk said.
Maneater, currently announced for a PC release some time before E3 2020, does have some GTA stylings. It has a wanted system that replaces cops with shark hunters and it’s an outrageous project that flirts with going too far.
In the game’s E3 demo, played by a Maneater rep, the shark relentlessly attacked swimmers, flopped onto the beach to eat sunbathers and eventually drew the attraction of hunters through an intensifying wanted system that definitely evoked GTA. The more mayhem the player-shark causes, the more aggressively the hunters chase you down. Lay low and they eventually go away. During the demo, there was no laying low, just a lot of shark aggression. As a result, hunters would drive their motorboats to the shark’s location, shoot into the water or drop depth charges, all the while the person controlling the demo charged the boats, serrated people with the shark’s jaws and, through the chaos, gradually approached the point of leveling up.
At its most basic, Maneater is an action role-playing game about swimming around as a bull shark near a fictional gulf coast, chomping down on wildlife and people in various areas, like bayous, resorts, a nuclear waste site and the deep ocean. In these regions, players can attack and explore, discovering new fish to eat, new enemies, hidden caches of an empowering mutation agent and, of course, plenty of people to eat. A day-night cycle changes who and what will appear in a given area. There are more people swimming during the daytime, for example.
Gameplay depth is always a concern with games in which you play as a sea life. Can there really be that many interesting things to do? It’s hard to tell from an E3 demo, but the shark can do more than just swim and chew. It can jump out of the water, barrel roll, flop around a little on land, bit, bash, and even grab things in its mouth and then spit them out as projectile weapons. A swordfish held in its jaws can be shot out of its mouth like a shot from a sniper rifle, a log like a spinning helicopter blade.
Maneater is by no means grounded in science, as the shark exhibits extraordinary abilities and can level up, from baby to teen to adult to elder to mega throughout the game. Eaten prey provides protein and fat, which helps the shark grow. Players can fill meters in each region to indicate how many hidden locations they’ve found or how much they’ve terrified the local population. Elite enemies include an alligator, a barracuda and eventually a massive harpoon-pierced white sperm whale. Upgrades include the ability to stay on land longer and the addition of mutations that might add external bone to the shark’s mouth (for better ramming) or metal teeth (for better biting).
Maneater first turned heads when it debuted in trailer form at last year’s E3. Back then, according to Munk, it was being made by about a half dozen people working with Alex Quick, the person who created the original shooter mod Killing Floor, which later became a fully developed game overseen by Munk. A year ago, Maneater was merely being published by Munk’s company, Tripwire Interactive, but now, Tripwire and Munk are leading development with some 40 people and creating that rare game these days that’s neither an indie nor a mega-sized potential blockbuster made by hundreds of people.
The game’s developers have decided to wrap the game into the context of a fictionalized reality TV show called “Maneaters vs. Sharkhunters.” The show’s announcer, voiced by comedian Chris Parnell, talked throughout the game’s demo, narrating the action. It’s a clever touch that adds some personality to a game featuring a character that can’t talk, though the tone will make or break the game for many. At its gentlest, it’s sarcastic, as Parnell’s announcer voice followed a shark attack with: “Someone’s special someone won’t be coming home tonight.” After a few more people got chewed: “Sharks help balance food webs by keeping human populations healthy and in proper proportion to their ecosystem.”
The announcer’s antics seemed like they could get repetitive, but also, the other catch with his inclusion in the game was that it made the demo tonally confusing. Maneater is no interactive nature documentary, but Tripwire does seem to be using the narrator to add meta-commentary onto the action. At times, the narrator seemed like a way to excuse, or at least jokingly acknowledge, the game’s indulgence in violent shark stereotypes. “The bull shark is one of the ocean’s most feared predators, an insatiable beast intent on devouring everything in sight,” the announcer says. He later leavens that with some commentary about how shark attacks on humans are actually “an aberration caused by the fish mistaking a human for a seal, as humans and seals are virtually indistinguishable.”
The people showing the demo reminded us that reality TV announcers sensationalize. Or is this announcer also here to tone things down? Or to mock any desire for that? In another instance, when a hunter named Two-Ton Trish showed up, the announcer is used to perhaps mock the game’s own crass presentation of the character: “Trish would really prefer a person-first nickname that doesn’t define her by her weight.”
The developers of Maneater don’t seem to expect their game to be taken seriously. Look at the trailer and you’ll see they’re presenting it as a black comedy, one that presents the shark as an animal on a revenge quest against the hunter Scaly Pete, who disfigured the playable shark when it was a baby.
“I’m hoping that people can see this and see that it’s silly fun and not actually reality,” Munk said, when another reporter and I asked about how the game depicted sharks. Movies such as Jaws have instilled the image of the shark as a people-killing predator as, well, a maneater, though sharks are far more often the victims of people than the other way around. “We definitely don’t want to spread a stigma like, ‘Oh, you know, kill sharks, hunt sharks,'” Munk said. “I think that’s as far as we’ve kind of thought about it.” He also noted: “I’m super scared of sharks… I know they don’t normally attack humans.”
The Maneater team is focusing on making an outrageous shark game, one in which you’re eating people for points and leveling up so you can go fight an alligator hiding out in an underwater pipe. The game’s tone is going to be off-putting for some people but appealing for others. Even more pertinent will be how well it plays in its final form, and specifically, whether there are enough moves that a fantastical bull shark can do to keep the action interesting after the first several hundred bites.