I’m absolutely in love with Maneater, the new shark game from Tripwire Interactive. Nothing in video games has ever made me feel as powerful as cruising the Louisiana bayou and wantonly chomping passing barracuda. But one setpiece managed to inject my shark-inspired reverie with a terror made only more potent by the rest of the game’s dedication to its over-the-top power fantasy.
Maneater starts you off small. As a tiny pup ripped from your dead mother’s womb, even relatively tiny creeks and the muskies that inhabit them can prove dangerous. Survival is a matter of eating whatever small fish you can grab without alerting the much-larger alligators that patrol the murky water. I found this challenging but never all that scary. Dying simply meant respawning in my grotto to try again.
My journey through Maneater only got easier from there. Soon, not even leaving the water for extended periods posed any danger to my rapidly evolving shark. I was attacking fishing boats for fun and luring out ever-stronger bounty hunters to be rid of my human enemies once and for all. Mako, hammerheads, and great whites were reduced to breakfast, lunch, and dinner, minor obstacles in the food chain. It felt like nothing could stop me.
And then it happened. As I traversed Maneater’s labyrinth of area-connecting pipelines, I suddenly emerged into a huge body of water. Most of the prior game had focused on hazy rivers and ponds, but this was different. A clear blue stretched ahead of me, seemingly without end. I found this distressing enough, but then I saw the inflatable beach balls and suspended hoops and knew one of my worst fears had been realized: I was in an orca tank.
Orca are terrifying. They hunt in packs like wolves. They play with their food. They kill for fun. In captivity, they’ve been known to chill for years before (in some cases, understandably) turning on their handlers. While sharks are mindless murder machines, orca are the ocean’s cold, calculating predators. As someone who can barely linger in the deep end of a pool for fear of the large, empty space beneath me, falling into an orca tank has been one of my greatest fears since I was a child.
Upon entering Maneater’s orca tank I froze. My elder bull shark, usually consumed by the desire to, well, consume, looked like a pup again due to the sudden expansion of space. Turtles and marlin swam lazily by, but I focused intensely on echoing orca calls that I’m still not sure were in the game or in my head. I snapped out of the trance, split, and returned to my sharky adventure, but the tank still haunted me even after learning how easy it was to dine on orca in the open ocean. Much later I returned to the enclosure to hunt an apex orca, prompting an encore performance from my anxiety.
Maneater is a power fantasy’s power fantasy. Even more than games that ask you to wage a one-man war against zombies or Nazis or zombie Nazis, it puts you in control of a violence generator so bereft of weakness that the only real challenge is seeing how many other predators you can gobble up. No joke, the game eventually asks you to eat 10 hammerhead sharks in a single mission. Just swim right up and start chomping. This happens multiple times.
As someone whose fear and anxiety sometimes feel unending, these brief opportunities to live as the most badass creature on the planet were exhilarating. Maneater is silly and light in several excellent ways, but I was floored by how my encounters with the orca tank brought that all crashing down, if only for a little while. They gave me a gentle reminder of my real-world fears, subjective though they may be, even as I reclaimed the ocean with ease. It stopped me in my tracks and then gave me the chance to face those fears as a prehistoric megalodon. And I think that’s pretty cool.