Many developers have been going darker with the tones of stories lately. It's time we stop asking definitively if this is a good or bad thing and consider the artistic value at hand.
Why Nothing Should be Too Controversial for Games
In a recent roundtable discussion with Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima, the legendary developer expressed fears in releasing his upcoming game Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes due to the fact that it will be addressing some heavily mature themes that may deter consumers from purchasing it. Mature games are nothing new, but apparently the topics Kojima is referring to are so taboo that either the game’s sales might suffer, or it might not be able to be released at all.
What topics or themes are so dark and mature that even Kojima–the Japanese developer responsible for the emotional, story-driven franchise that has changed narrative format in video games–is worried there’s a chance his game won’t ship? Fans have speculated that Ground Zeroes may focus more heavily on the subjects of child soldiers, terrorism, or torture, themes that have been at least lightly addressed in past Metal Gear installments. While these topics may seem relatively light, it still has Kojima worried.
Really, this whole idea brings up an important question: Why are any themes at all considered taboo in the realm of gaming? Look at books. Almost any subject can be written about in a novel with no consequences, such as rape, pedophilia, sex trafficking, the drug trade, war crimes, death, torture, and so on. Even movies have a wide breadth of subjects to show in a visual format, and hardly any controversy arises over them. Why should games be any different?
For one, it’s different to watch a scene of violence play out in a movie or read about it in a novel. You are the audience looking in, watching the story of another person unfold. However, in games, you become that person committing that crime, shooting that person, taking that drug. While you’re not doing anything immoral by playing these games, the person you’re playing as usually does, and that’s how games are set apart from other media.
My mind goes back to the controversy surrounding the second Modern Warfare game that featured an optional opening mission called “No Russian” where the player assumes control of an undercover CIA agent posing as a Russian terrorist that attacks an airport. Throughout the sequence, players shoot and kill unarmed civilians as they flee for their lives in a bloody frenzy. Players can skip the mission at any point with no penalty due to its “disturbing content,” but those that do experience the entire level are certainly in for some shocking stuff.
Civilian deaths at the hands of terrorists is a popular trope in all kinds of media. Plenty of movies and books feature unarmed citizens getting killed by the evil forces that hate freedom and all that. But what made Modern Warfare 2’s take on the topic stand out was the fact that the player controlled the entire sequence. You, the protagonist, are the one pulling the trigger on a machine gun aimed at a crowd of screaming civilians, snuffing their lives out in an instance.
As shocking as moments like these in games are, however, I believe they can be used effectively. As I played this mission for the first time, it gave me a new understanding of the horror that the atrocities of terrorist attacks are. Experiencing a simulation of such an event, especially as the perpetrator, cemented the fear, tragedy, and rage I felt for real life attacks. Simulating the act of killing innocent people made me realize something new about such occurrences on our planet. Despite the outrage this sequence caused, it was used in an effective and purposeful manner, and that’s something I can stand behind and support.
Going Too Far
Manhunt, a stealth-based horror game developed by Rockstar North in 2003 and 2004 for the PS2 and Xbox respectively, received a lot of attention for its over-the-top and disturbingly realistic violence. The game awarded players for the gruesome way they killed enemies, so it quickly gained the media spotlight. Even former Rockstar employee Jeff Williams said the game made the developers “all feel icky” and that he knew they were “crossing a line.” The sequel, Manhunt 2, went even farther, to the point that the game was censored by removing some brutal execution animations and blurring the camera during violent kills before it could be released.
Manhunt took violence to its limit, pushing the boundaries of what is too much for a video game. But should Rockstar had to have censored their work in order to release it? As disturbing as the games are, disturbing acts of violence can be found in nearly every type of media, and they’re generally considered acceptable, even in their most extreme instances.
Maybe Rockstar censored Manhunt 2 because they didn’t want any more negative attention. Maybe they wanted to keep the game rated Mature instead of Adults Only so it would sell better. Maybe they honestly believed they had gone to far. Whatever their reason, I think the game should have been released as it was with an appropriate rating and let the public decide its value. No form of media deserves to be censored, no matter how offensive it may be to the common consumer; that’s what viewer discretion is all about.
Toronto Star writer Ben Rayner said it best when he wrote, “Manhunt…is totally disturbing. But so is the evening news, the ‘I’ll eat anything for money’ lunacy of Fear Factor and the unfettered, misanthropic gunplay of Bad Boys II, so I will defend until my last breath Rockstar’s right to sell this stuff to me and anyone else who wants it.”
Rating Games Appropriately
The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its edgy violence, profanity, car jacking, and do-whatever-you-want sandbox mantra. The series has consistently been rated M for Mature by the ESRB since GTA 2 was released in October of 1999, which is an appropriate fit for its content.
However, the 2004 Rockstar game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas received some unwanted attention in the summer of 2005 when 38-year-old modder Patrick Wildenborg discovered a hidden sex minigame within the title and released a patch for gamers to play it. In the vanilla game, the player would take his girlfriend back to her apartment where she would ask if you’d like to join her for some “hot coffee.” The camera would stay outside the apartment and rock and sway as moans came from within. In the patch Widenborg released, players could actually watch the sex scene play out, which included nudity and crude sexual animations. What was shocking about this is that even though the minigame was hidden by developers, it was still technically included on the disc, and the ESRB was never told about it when the game went up for review.
For once, the public and media acted appropriately, and the ESRB changed San Andreas’ rating from Mature to AO for Adults Only on July 20, 2005. While I’m sure a large percentage of parents were offended with the content of the “Hot Coffee” mod itself, the real problem here wasn’t the minigame; it was the fact that San Andreas included graphic nudity and depictions of sex in their game and didn’t tell the ESRB, resulting in a rating inappropriate to the game’s content. The issue wasn’t the game but the audience the game was catered too, and the choice to change the title’s rating to Adults Only was the right move.
As you can see, there is a large amount of controversy that can surround games when they fall into the wrong light. Whether people are offended by players assuming the control of a terrorist, over-the-top violence, or simulated sex minigames, I say no content in a game should be censored as long as it’s is rated appropriately and and used to an effective end. It’s shocking to blow away unarmed civilians as a terrorist in a Call of Duty game, but it also sends a message that shows how horrific terrorist attacks are. It can be said that the brutal decapitations and executions in Manhunt are crossing a line. However, the problem isn’t the violence but the audience such violence caters to, and players should know what content is right for them and their children. And as far as sex minigames go, if you want to put one in your game, fine. But it’s your job as a developer to let the ESRB know that so they can rate the game appropriately.
Games receive a bad rap from the media because they have yet to be respected as a form of art as movies and books have, something Kojima wants to rectify through his Metal Gear Solid franchise. But how do we expect to rise as an industry to that next tier when the public demands we be censored over content that passes in movies and books without a problem? I’m not saying video games should try to be as edgy, over-the-top, or offensive as possible, but games have just as much right as other forms of entertainment to do as they wish. By censoring ourselves, we’re delaying our progress.
I don’t know what content Kojima has in Ground Zeroes that has him worried his game may be too controversial for release. Maybe it’s just hype. All I know is that if it is released, I expect him to back it up as a work of art and support its content without having it censored, so long as its rated appropriately and used to an effective end. As soon as the rest of the industry can do that, video games will be well on their way to being accepted as expressive forms of art.