Maneater: On Junk Feminism

Maneater is a 2020 shark attack game from Tripwire Interactive, the team behind Killing Floor and Red Orchestra 2. It’s not great. Let’s just say that up front – it’s very much a six out of ten. I don’t normally comment on the quality of a game as a whole – most of the time I like to focus in on specific details and talk about how games achieve specific effects rather than whether or not they’re quote-unquote good. That’s a key part of the work here – it’s video game criticism rather than video game reviews. But today we have to start with the fact that Maneater isn’t very good.

The premise is simple enough: you play a shark able to grow and mutate into a bigger, nastier shark, complete with the ability to fire poison balls from your tail or electrocute people with your bite – just normal shark things. You swim around and eat people, and fight off a shark hunter named Scaly Pete, all within the framing of a reality TV show that feels like something off Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

So it’s a joke game. Obviously it’s a joke game. One GamesRadar preview sets it in the context of Goat Simulator – it attempts to elevate Maneater over that point of reference, insisting that “this is a far deeper and more polished experience,” but you can’t walk back that kind of comparison. The subtitle of the preview tells us not to mistake Maneater for “a gimmick game that’s only good for a few laughs,” which really is the critic’s version of that Mike Ginn tweet. Good games normally don’t need that sort of warning. The gameplay starts to grate pretty quickly – there are maybe three or four types of mission repeated across the eight areas (eat humans, eat fish, find collectibles, fight shark hunters), and the unlockable upgrades aren’t really enough to sustain your interest beyond a handful of hours. Joke games have that sort of shelf life.

At the same time, Maneater seems like it has a lot to say about certain topics. You could describe Maneater as a game of feminist eco-poetics, a gratuitous tale of mother nature’s revenge. The game’s setup establishes clear revenge arcs for both villain and protagonist: during the tutorial you play a mother shark, who, at the tutorial’s end, is captured and killed by the murderous shark hunter Scaly Pete. Realising that the mother was pregnant, Pete cuts a small baby shark out of her stomach; the baby severs Pete’s hand and escapes off the boat. That baby then becomes your character for the rest of the game. Thus the revenge narrative, with sustained push and shove from both sides. The mother shark killed Scaly Pete’s father, and so Scaly Pete kills the mother shark, and so the baby takes his hand. Scaly Pete and the shark spend the rest of the game hunting each other, seeking revenge for the things that they’ve lost. Their conflict in turn comes to represent the broader battle between nature and human civilization, with the shark representing the natural world fighting back against pollution and environmental degradation. She becomes a symbol of Mother Earth, gendered partially through her weapon of choice – her toothy hole, ravenous and all-consuming, set in deliberate contrast to Pete’s piercing harpoon or claw.

And this isn’t just me reading too much into it, right. The game has a mission called ‘Third Cave Feminism’, the narrator makes jokes about late stage capitalism – it’s literally called Maneater, which is less a reference to Jaws than to Nelly Furtado. There’s nuclear waste leaking into the water, which is filthy with pollution and discarded rubbish. It’s a game about how humans are bad to the environment. It’s also a critique of capitalism. The filth of the bayou or the derelict Sea World-style water park are contrasted against the pristine beauty of Prosperity Sands. The environmental damage is not indiscriminate – it’s clear which parts suffer, and which parts of society have to live with the consequences. Thus the narrator during one of the shark hunts: “Let’s be frank. This is about saving lives. But it’s also about safeguarding tourism revenue.”

And yet this description doesn’t quite feel complete. I don’t feel like we’ve quite nailed down Maneater‘s vibe. It has all of these things, all these criticisms, a really clearly gendered divide between protagonist and antagonist – but there’s something about the way it engages with those ideas. Maybe it’s the lackluster gameplay, the sense that the whole thing is a bit of a joke. Maybe it’s the fictional framing of the documentary. I touched on this at the start, but the story of Maneater is often filtered through the framing device of a documentary. There’s a little network logo in the corner that you can see sometimes in cutscenes, like on network TV. The filmmakers do interviews with Scaly Pete, drawing again on that very 2000s Discovery Channel vibe.

And the effect of this framing is almost Brechtian. It feels like something that would exist in Don DeLillo’s White Noise – not an actual good-faith critique of capitalism and exploitation, but a simulacrum of that critique, a shambling corpse of a thing. Rather than voicing these critiques itself, the game puts them in the mouth of a secondary text, positioning them more as object to be observed rather than part of the authorial voice. There’s just such a disparity between this dumbass shark-attack game and the weight of these criticisms. They fail to line up in a way that suggests one of them might be insincere – and in the context of a six out of ten joke game, it’s the highbrow commentary that’s more likely the fake.

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