In Manhunter: New York, alien eyeballs conquered the Earth and it was your job to help them

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random games back into the light. This week, adventure legends Sierra present a dark vision of one of the strangest alien invasions ever. And you thought your boss was a monster.

In 2002, the Orbs invaded. They looked like giant floating eyeballs. Despite that, humanity's attempt to fight back with a big pokey stick didn't work out so well, and two years later, Earth is theirs. Humanity is now crushed under their... uh... lower squishy bits. Now, under the hellish scarlet skies, only one man has a chance of turning the tide. There's only one problem; or two, if you count the entire world having been nuked into a monstrous parody of civilisation. He works for them. And he's pretty good at his job, when he's not being randomly murdered by everything from street punks to dinosaurs.

This happens a lot. Manhunter is one of the weirdest SF adventures ever made.

Honestly, it's a bit of a surprise that it's taken this long for Manhunter (no relation to the Hannibal movie, incidentally) to show up here, because in the great list of weird and variably wonderful games, it's had a little red cross next to it since it came out back in 1988. It's one of Sierra Online's lesser-known games, with none of the recognisability of, say, Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry. It's also not one of its best, honestly. It retains a cult following though, partly because cults appreciate a hero who knows how to rock a spooky-looking cloak, but mostly because there's nothing else quite like it.

Here's an example. You're a nameless Manhunter, which means that your job is to do the Orbs' dirty work and investigate human-related incidents around New York. You have a computer, which the Orbs can use to contact you at any time. Being the Orbs though, they don't actually use that to send new missions. No, instead they prefer to burst into your room while you're sleeping and—

And to think I jump when I'm woken by my phone.

As if there's any doubt whatsoever that they're completely screwing with you, the Orbs can fly. When this guy leaves, after waking you up with nothing more than "THERE WAS AN EXPLOSION AT BELLEVUE HOSPITAL! INVESTIGATE!", you see him flying past the window. Why then did he use the elevator to come into your room? Because Orbs, bitch! Orbs! They're basically an entire species that wishes they were sentient flying bottoms rather than eyeballs. Even their kids get in on it. Look.

No, look closer.

They're also carnivorous, and as well as using humans as convenient baby-incubators, even their babies are capable of eating you alive if you hang around gawping when you should be running screaming and yelling "OH DEATH, FREE ME OF THIS MEMORY!"

You can't actually do that, though. In fact, you can't talk at all. Nobody can. The Orbs, having listened to one too many minions responding to their orders with "Eye-eye, sir!" have banned all speech, which means humanity has to communicate with nothing more than facial expressions. They've also banned any clothes that aren't a full-length monk habit thing, which looks very itchy—though on the plus side, at least it's an outfit that will still fit after Christmas dinner, and has forever banished the plumbers' bum crack. So overall, it could be worse, though the itchiness does explain why everyone is so damn cranky.

While Manhunter pretends to be a detective game, it's really more Try to Stay Sane: The Adventure. The basic gist is that every day, the Orbs wake you up with a "SURPRISE, HUMAN! EYEBALL RIGHT IN YOUR FACE!" alarm call, and tell you to go sort something out. You track the suspect's movement via your computer, follow them around and try to work out what the hell they were doing in each location. On the first day for instance, we see the suspect going to a bar, a church, a park, and then just... vanishing. When you go to the bar, the only thing to play with is an old arcade machine, but as soon as you touch it, everyone in the room angrily jumps on top of you.

How do you prove your worthiness to play on their arcade cabinet?

Knife-throwing. Obviously.

Somewhat unfairly, if you miss during this minigame, the guy then pops your head like a champagne cork before you can actively not say "Dude! This was your idea!" Win, and everyone just vanishes, on the grounds that clearly nobody who works for the Orbs can have basic motor skills.

Why won't they let you touch their arcade machine? Oh, you'll love this.

This game is actually a map for later on, showing the location of 12 keycards—yes, twelve—that you need to find in a maze. Every one you collect also knocks down one of the dolls, knocking them all down showing a picture of Coney Island. The Orbs having apparently decided that we're not allowed proper clothes, speech, dignity or freedom of action, but that shutting down our funfairs would be a dick move even for them. After seeing what the resistance thinks is a good idea though, to say nothing of their real security later, I'm starting to warm to the little buggers.

But it gets even sillier than this! Having gotten the codes, you need to keep following the suspect, who disappeared at the park. As a trained Manhunter, we can probably assume that there's some kind of secret door. And... well... yeah, there is. Kind of. More or less.

Most games wait a while before hitting this level of craziness. Manhunter has you literally flush yourself down a toilet on Day 1, into an endless sewer maze full of grape juice that has to be mapped out by using a map from an arcade game that you're not allowed to play until you've proved yourself a master of knife-throwing. This is a thing that happens, about five minutes into the game.

And no, it's not even remotely done being weird yet.

At Coney Island, showing a medallion found in the sewer to a truly hideous-looking guy is deemed proof of your loyalty, or perhaps he just wants you to get the poop-smelling thing out of his face and go away, and the first day wraps up with essentially nothing whatsoever solved or resolved. 

Have you actually joined the resistance? It's difficult to tell, given that literally the only humans in the game with the power of speech are the designers, and they only really use it to take far too much pleasure in your death.

It's not that there's no internal logic to the game, just that it's a constant battle to work out how big a bottle of absinthe was used to come up with it. Manhunter is a super linear game where you're not allowed to go anywhere unless you have a confirmed reason to be there, and there's not a lot to do once you arrive except stumble around until a solution presents itself. And die, a lot.

One of the worst examples of this comes on Day 2, with a minigame about getting into a nightclub where another resistance member was tracked going to. Outside, you face off with another angry, knife-obsessed human who's so rebellious, he's not even wearing his hood.

It's not enough to just very, very, veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery slowly make your way across the screen and punch him though. That would be too easy. You have to very, very, veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery slowly make your way across the screen and punch him, then deal with two more guys in exactly the same way. Manhunter is merciful enough to put you back where you were after death, but skip minigames? Heresy! At times like this, it's almost like it's trying to push you into ending it all for real.

Most of the investigation early on is about collecting roughly a billion keycards for no reason, with the resistance being pretty careless about who it hands them off to. "Oh, you've got a picture of an orb with a cross through it?" one might say, if they could talk. "Good enough for me. Here's my card." In the nightclub, a lady resistance member spots you following her and smacks you in the face with her purse, leading to her card falling out for you to collect. My general feeling that the Orbs deserve to win this one and do whatever they want with humanity's festering corpses only keeps getting stronger.

At this point though, the game starts getting a little confused about what you're doing and why. The big villain of the game is a guy called Phil, which... I think speaks for himself. It's about this point that you start stumbling across his handiwork, which he politely signs by writing the letter P onto the victims.

Like this!

Ordinarily, going after a serial killer would seem like a sensible idea, but in Manhunter, Phil pretty much works for the same aliens that you do, so professional courtesy would seem to involve just leaving him to it. While we don't hear the character's thoughts on working for a sadistic army of overlord eyeballs, he sure as hell sleeps soundly at night and it's not as though the people he's helping to oppress are exactly a bunch of charmers. I'm just saying. At least with the Orbs, you know where you are.

As do they, of course. All the time.

All of the keycards you collect during the first couple of days... all 13 of the damn things... turn out to be for doors in the Museum of Natural History. Manhunter's speciality is blending the mundane with the what-the-hell though, so obviously it's not going to be that simple to track down the day's targets. 

Remember when I said that you could be killed by dinosaurs in this game?

If all of this seems a little chaotic, that's because it absolutely is. As I said, Manhunter is more about being led to stuff than really investigating it, and doing things because they're there. It's what's sometimes known as reverse-design, or more colloquially, 'crap design'. You don't collect 13 keycards because you know you need them for the Museum, for instance; you get to the Museum and find you need 13 keycards. 

It's obviously OK for things to turn out like that occasionally, especially when you're carrying around something mysterious like a card from a corpse or an artefact like Planescape's bronze sphere. Generally though, it's considered a good idea to let the main character have some kind of plan guiding their actions, rather than just simply stumbling across everything. In the case of Manhunter, at least having nigh-omniscient eyeballs telling you where to go and tracking everyone in the city means that you always have a reason to visit key locations.

What you eventually pick up, aside from the resistance being far too fond of bullshit puzzles, is that they were working on a plan to take out the Orbs once and for all. Unfortunately, Phil—oh, by the way, this is Phil:

Phil has managed to murder them all before they could actually pull it off. That means that you're the only one with a chance of striking back, and the game just assumes that you're in the mood for that after discovering the Orbs' greatest secret—that they're mulching up the citizens of New York for their meat. Again, normally I'd be against that kind of of thing... but these citizens specifically? 

I'm going to have to call reverse-design here again, in that it makes you decide to strike back before giving you a genuinely compelling reason to go all-in with the resistance. Specifically, Orby the Mission Eyeball turns up and essentially orders you to investigate yourself, the mysterious person who broke into their files, and doubles-down by saying that after this assignment, you're going to be "Transferred to Chicago".

Now, that might sound OK. I gather it's been at least five days since its last jazz-related fatality. In Manhunter though, it's code for 'about to spend the rest of your life being glad that the rest of your life at least isn't going to be very long', and then becoming an alien hamburger. So, yeah. Probably best to stop these guys, as long as it doesn't involve more insane, out of place minigames.

The Orbs, loving their drama, have based their plans out of the Empire State Building. Luckily, despite their armies of robots and meat-mulching machines, they are no match for one guy who psychically decided to sabotage their security systems in advance. The resistance's plan? Steal an Orb bomber ship and consult Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Chapter 3: Nuke All That Shit. Sounds like a plan!

But first... even more minigames!

Great. You know your aliens are intergalactic losers when their plans involve live-action Frak.

Stealing an Orb ship, all that remains to be done is to take out their four New York bases—made only slightly trickier by the fact that Phil also has an Orb ship and is coming to get you. There's the Hospital, where they feed on the dead, the Statue of Liberty pumping noxious chemicals into the air, the Empire State Building where they run their schemes, and a small newsagent who once short-changed the Manhunter and he's still bitter about. Or Grand Central Station. One of the two, anyway.

Even this isn't enough to conclusively stop the Orbs, who have after all conquered the planet. It buys New York its temporary freedom though, and everyone is quite happy about that.

Look how happy everyone is about that. Their happy faces.

Then everyone remembers that Phil is still flying an Orb ship around. Then this happens.

And this is Phil's face after that happened.

So, yeah. That was totally worth it! And so the game ends, with the Manhunter getting back aboard his stolen ship and giving chase to the second game, Manhunter: San Francisco. In that one, he's officially with the rebels from the start, though spends most of the game masquerading as a loyal Manhunter after stealing a new identity. It's also a very strange game, though second time around, the quirkiness wasn't as surprising. There were plans for a third adventure, Manhunter: London, but the series ended there—in true Manhunter style, very strangely, with him literally hanging onto Phil's spaceship as it took off.

These were not particularly good adventures, but it's easy to see why people remember them so fondly. They manage to make looking hideous work for them, with a ton of detail. The surreal situations mean you never have the slightest clue what's coming next, whether it's being killed by a dinosaur or trying to make it through a minefield in Central Park. 

Even when something seems like it's relatively sane, there's usually a twist—a shopkeeper working for the resistance won't simply open a door to a base when given the code, but a trapdoor, with the Manhunter's cloak blowing up to reveal comedy boxer shorts as he falls. It's a weird mix of genuinely gruesome and ludicrously silly that's actually really entertaining, even if the puzzles and minigames are generally a pain in the neck.

While there are a couple of LPs out there, the best way to check out the complete investigation—from the start of New York to the end of San Francisco—is over on the LP Archive. It's got animated gifs for some of the more interesting moments, and even comes up with an epilogue to replace London that's probably about what it would have turned out to be given the designers' sense of humour.

And now, excuse me. After repeating some of these puzzles, I need to go and apologise to the Towers of Hanoi for ever complaining about them. Don't however expect this mood to last longer than... oooh... Sunday, though. Next time I see them, I'm still bringing the wrecking ball.