Game Eaters

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


You won't believe this.

Okay, maybe you will.

Indigo Prophecy is censored. Turns out, some sex and nudity was removed from the U.S. version. So if you live in the U.S. and don't want to be patronized you'll have to shell out the extra cash to import Fahrenheit, the European version.

If you want proof, take this snippet from a developer interview:

"16+ was the rating we wanted. Otherwise it would be 18+ and people just told us our game would only be available in sex shops with that rating. There is nothing sexual in it that you wouldn’t see in a regular movie. But that is what we were told."

There you have it. The ESRB's M-Rating, the rating that is equivalent to an R rated film, is a joke. It allows for depictions of violence unheard of in an R rated movie, but flat out refuses depictions of sex above a PG level.

This is the moment when, I'm sure, some of you would point the finger at Rockstar and their Hot Coffee nonsense. But that's the easy way out. As much as Rockstar is messing things up by creating controversy, it is ultimately the responsibility of regulatory bodies like the ESRB to separate the smut from the art. The fact that they *choose* not to see a difference between GTA and Indigo Prophecy is both lazy and disgraceful.

But why is it the ESRB's fault, you ask? Aren't they just assessing content based on whatever values the broader culture advocates?
In a sense this is true. But, in my view, this is precisely *why* they should be putting their foot down. They have the ability to set and curtail trends as much as reflect them, and when the stakes are the artistic growth of videogames as a medium it is their duty to be more than limp reeds that bend any which way the winds of mass culture blow.

The debate over who's responsible for self-censorship isn't new. It's been going on in the film industry for decades. Remember the controversy over Eyes Wide Shut? That was an excellent example of the same double standard we're seeing evolve in the videogame world today. The X (later NC-17) rating, like the ESRB's AO rating, became associated with pornography. This was because the porn industry co-opted "X" into their advertising in the 70's, forever associating that rating with explicit sex. NC-17 was supposed to be a remedy to that, but the damage had already been done. Once people understood that NC-17 was just another term for X the change became meaningless... and filmmakers have been forced to "adjust" their films to R-rated standards ever since or else be refused normal distribution and advertising channels. One could argue this isn't the MPAA's fault, but the MPAA suspiciously doesn't do much to counter this notion, seemly very comfortable with the smutty connotations of NC-17. Nor does it seem, as the Eyes Wide Shut case proved, incredibly deft at recognizing the difference between sexual content that is intended to be pornographic and that which is not.

Sound familiar?

The relationship between culture, government, and industry-based regulatory bodies is obviously a messy one, and I don't claim to have all the answers. It is true that culture really is what needs to change in order for values to actually change. But it's also important to realize that culture doesn't change by itself, but as part of policy shifts that affect people. Organizations like the ESRB and MPAA are bottlenecks for these policies. They are where mature decision-making is needed the most. I read once that Brian DePalma was outraged that his 1980 film Dressed to Kill received an X rating by the MPAA. When he protested the response of then MPAA president Jack Valenti was:

"The political climate of this country is shifting from left to right, and that means more conservative attitudes toward sex and violence."

When so-called self-regulatory bodies openly admit their criteria is dictated by politics, you wonder what the point of such bodies is.

That's what I'm wondering about the ESRB right now.

Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games

Costikyan is going to start an indie game publishing company, and you're invited along for the ride through his blog. I've always thought the man had a point, although I was put off by the way he presented them. He always sounds like he's griping instead of trying to actually rally a change in the games industry. Frankly, I think this new direction is extremely promising...risky, yes, but worthy of support.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Sad thing is, this is less annoying then "PWNZ0R3D!!!ONE11"

How cool is Street Fighter II? It has colors not found anywhere else! A fun, cringeworthy look back at Genesis-era advertising.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Guns of the Patriots.

After 9/11 I would have thought no one would have the balls to make a political military game. But, just two months later, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty stunned me, like a slap in the face. I knew Kojima had devised his Orwellian nightmare vision of America before 9/11, but that's what made it so creepy. I wasn't expecting any real critique of America for a long time, until it was politically "safe" to do so... like all those Vietnam movies that weren't able to come out until the 80's. But MGS2 was like Dr. Strangelove. It just came out of nowhere and left you gasping "How did that even get out?"

For years I've been wondering what Kojima would do when he finally got around to finishing the Metal Gear saga. MGS3 was a sly jab at the black & white politics of Hollywood, but cloaked behind its retro, Cold War theme it wasn't overtly political. My theory was that Kojima was biding his time, wondering how the hell he was going to finish the series while the War on Terror was still going on.

And now we have it. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The Patriots, as we know from MGS2, are the corrupt body that controls American politics, the puppet masters who keep elections a meaningless charade. We can only guess from MGS4's title that the plot involves The Patriots, and their war mongering, as a central theme.

And what else do we have? What appears to be a war-torn Middle Eastern city? Robots based on DARPA's design for Metal Gear roaming the streets? An old, grizzled Snake hiding from this superior military force in the ruins? And somehow The Patriots are behind it all?

Um... can we say Dark Knight Returns meets The Bush Administration?

Okay okay. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. Clearly, the Metal Gear game I want to see is one where Snake and Co. take down a corrupt U.S. government. But who knows what the final plot will be. I will say though... so far it certainly looks like it could be a dangerously political game. Given Metal Gear's previous politics, Guns of the Patriots promises to avoid the gutless, morally-neutral mush you find in all other military-themed games.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Goldeneye is the best movie ever based on a game.

Did you know this? I watched Goldeneye last night, part of my Bond-a-thon. I hadn't seen the movie since it came out in 1995. All these years I've actually been more familiar with its characters and situations from the famous N64 game. Watching it last night flipped me out. Through the whole movie I was screaming "I've been there!" It felt more like the movie was based on the game than the other way around.

Why is this? I'm sure there could be various theories, but to me the obvious answer is because RARE's FPS actually created coherent spaces out of the locations seen in the film. This is different from a normal movie-to-game, where you usually get linear obstacle courses designed to create the events of the film. RARE wasn't trying to create the events of the film at all, just the world. It made the locations from the film places I could explore at my leisure. Therefore I felt like I had been there. Seeing the movie afterwards is like seeing a film shot in your home town.

This begs the questions of what it means to adapt film, or some other media, to a video game. I recently spoke with Espen Aarseth about this. We were talking about the Pirates of the Caribbean game versus the movie, and I remember he kept asking "But is the game really the same story as the movie?"

This is beside the point, I think. Adaptation don't need to be about story at all. Why can't they just be about a world? And I don't think even so-called linear media is just about events. Do audiences go to see Pirates of the Caribbean just to see a sequence of events, or is the sequence of events just a convenient means to illustrate a world?

Different media are limited in different ways. You can describe smell and touch in literature but in film it's almost impossible. One tends to adapt the aspects of fiction that carry over naturally from one media to the other. So what's wrong with calling a video game an adaptation of a movie if all it does is recreate the world of the film?

Goldeneye certainly works for me. Because it models the world and not the events it stands the test of time. Stuff like Enter the Matrix just gets it all wrong. I don't want the story. I want the space.