It should be of no surprise to learn that the mainstream video game industry has a severe aversion to mature themes in video games. I am not talking about M rated games. We have plenty of those. I am not talking about AO rated games. Those don’t really constitute maturity any more than M rated games. I am talking about mature themes. Themes that are meant to draw out emotions other than “Oh wow!!! Did you see that explosion?!?!?!”
If you look back over the years, you will find stories of games that were rejected by major publishers and console companies because they felt the theme was too bold. One such game was the DS game Imagination Is The Only Escape which told the story of a young holocaust victim as he tried to escape reality through his imagination. The game was cancelled because the topic was too controversial. Another more recent game was Six Days In Fallujah which was cancelled by Konami over concerns that it made light of war and that battle in particular. I am barely scratching the surface here.
We now learn that if it weren’t for Sony taking a chance, we may not have had one of the most critically acclaimed games, even if it wasn’t one of the best selling games, in recent history. When developer Quantic Dreams was shopping around the idea of Heavy Rain to prospective publishers, Microsoft felt the theme of kidnapped children was too mature and controversial to address.
We were pitching Heavy Rain to different publishers, including Sony, and we went to Microsoft.
We had a very long talk and they loved Fahrenheit, and they really wanted to do something with us.
They got scared by the fact that Heavy Rain was about kids being kidnapped, and they said, ‘This is an issue, we want to change it’. Well, we could have kidnapped cats, it would be a different experience!
For me, that was a very interesting signal. It was like, you know what, I don’t think we can work together, because you don’t understand what I’m to achieve here.
They were scared of the scandal and scared of what people may write and what people may think. ‘Oh, this is a developer and the publisher making games about a child getting kidnapped’.
It is amazing that in an industry that is vying for artistic relevance would be so adverse to publishing something that is common in most other media. By self censoring based on fears of potential controversy, we are selling ourselves short on our potential artistic merits. By denying a canvas to themes such as these we are telling the world that games are nothing more than a child’s toy.
Can you imagine what film would be like today if the censors of the early 1900s had their way and were successful at blocking the production of films with too much cleavage or guns pointed at the camera? Can you image what comics would be like if underground comics that bypassed the Comics Code Authority didn’t exist? The artistic world we live in today was formed by artists defying censors and releasing their art and defending it. I think the world is a better place because of it.
What Microsoft, Konami, and many more have done and many continue to do in censoring these themes is harming our creative potential. While indie developers are trying to fill the gaps left by big players, they are left holding more weight than needed or possibly than they can bear because of the fears and anxiety of suits in major publishers. Major Publishers and developers could do far more to bring artistic relevance to the industry.
But what really bothers me about this whole problem is this quote, “This is an issue, we want to change it.” This to me is just as damaging as censoring the whole of the game. We have seen what the anxiety of a potential AO rating has done for the US games industry. The US market treats the AO rating as a de facto ban, but that was never its purpose. So we censor our games to avoid it and make weaker art because of it. And now we learn that developers are being forced to censor their art because of fears of media controversy.
Would Microsoft have done the same to Mass Effect if it knew in advance the media frenzy that the sex scene in the game would cause? What about Grand Theft Auto? That one is controversial no matter what Rockstar does. Or is the anxiety only with games Microsoft itself publishes? Which puts Microsoft into an awkward position of allowing controversial games to be published on its console, but will not publish those games itself.
I am glad that Sony took a chance with Heavy Rain. I think that gaming is a far better place because of it. I think that we may not have had other great stories such as The Last of Us if Sony didn’t take that chance. However, Sony is merely one publisher out of many. As we have seen, the aversion toward truly mature themes is rooted deeply in this industry. Until we rip out those roots, we will not truly grow as an industry.