In a society where we highly value freedom of speech, naturally developers have the right to touch on whatever subjects they wish in whatever way they wish in their games – whether that means sex, violence, gender, religion, morality, human relationships, or anything else under the sun. There have been games that have garnered well-deserved praise for their treatments of mature issues – and others that haven’t been so universally-loved.
In the last few years we’ve seen a sizable palette of games that have garnered a good amount of controversy: the Grand Theft Auto Hot Coffee incident, the depiction of Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M, and most recently the kinds of violence enacted against heroine Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, just to name a few examples. Many people find these incidents to be unsettling at best – and offensive at worst.
Should game companies cripple their freedom in order to bend to the demands of the easily-offended? Or should they hold fast to their creative autonomy?
Colin Moriarty over at IGN wrote an article on the subject in defense of creativity, and I definitely agree with him on principle. Games shouldn’t be shackled to presenting “feel-good” content; they should be free to tackle controversial and uncomfortable issues head-on in their stories, scripts, and gameplay scenarios. After all, at the end of the day it’s an entertainment medium just like TV, radio, movies, books, and the Internet, and the cornerstone of a strong media sector is freedom for conflicting messages to compete.
There’s a caveat, however. If you’re going to make bold political moves, you need to do so well – and your controversial moves need to be backed by solid game content.
Let’s look at the Hot Coffee incident, by far the biggest blemish in the history of video game controversies. The incident involved a fan-made mod that unlocked a previously “removed” sex minigame from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once the discovery got out, the game received a massive amount of public backlash, including a successful campaign to have the game’s ESRB rating bumped up from Mature (17+) to Adults Only (18+) that inevitably resulting in massive recalls.
But at the end of the day, the controversy didn’t actually have any impact on the game’s perceived quality – Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas remains the best-selling game in the franchise to this day with over 20 million lifetime sales on PlayStation 2. That’s because San Andreas still packed in a massive amount of value that had nothing to do with the Hot Coffee minigame. One relatively minor distasteful piece of side content doesn’t invalidate the rest of what the game has to offer.
Compare that to the Other M controversy. A lot of people took issue with Samus’s depiction in the game. Traditionally believed to be a strong silent female heroine who don’t need to answer to nobody, Other M saw Samus as a subordinate to the cold and calculating Adam Malkovich. Meanwhile, Samus is brooding constantly, and it’s clear that her relationship with Adam involves a lot of unresolved tension and unwavering submission. The fact that this was already the case in a previous game in the series – Metroid Fusion – didn’t seem to alleviate this for fans, who saw the scenario as an affront to women and a reinforcement of negative gender stereotypes.
I don’t think that’s what inevitably kept people away from the game, though. I think the blame for that falls more on the jarring disconnect between Other M‘s heavily story and cutscene-driven pacing. Since the Metroid series has traditionally been light on plot in favor of player-driven exploration, any perceived flaws in the story would have stuck out like a sore thumb. The story just wasn’t desirable in general, not because of its content per se but because it was not what people wanted from a Metroid game.
It probably doesn’t help that the game contains over two hours of cutscenes. In a 10-12 hour game, that’s a huge chunk. There was content that seems to have been pretty obviously cut, with sloppy story excuses slid in to try to explain why I’m suddenly not heading into the belly of the beast. The game actually suffered as a result of its efforts to deliver a “creative” story, breaking Nintendo’s Golden Rule about storyline in games – that it shouldn’t come at the expense of gameplay.
(NOTE: Metroid: Other M is actually one of my top Wii games. I loved it – but I have no illusions about it carrying on the series’ legacy or its story-driven approach being a good direction for future Metroid games.)
So what does this mean for Tomb Raider? It means that I don’t think that negative reactions to the game’s presentation of attempted sexual assault or its emphasis on inflicting all kinds of pain on Lara Croft are necessarily going to be damning, nor something that the developers at Crystal Dynamics should worry too much about. What’s going to count is that the game is able to show these kinds of uncomfortable scenes while remaining tasteful.
By “tasteful” I’m not just referring to the scenes themselves. I’m referring to the game as a whole. Will the game’s exploration and survival-driven approach be a hit with gamers? Is there going to be enough content to satisfy players? Is the game visually and aurally appealing? In short: is the game going to project the value that counts – a good, quality gameplay experience – alongside the sheer shock value of its controversial scenes? After all, at the end of the day, the primary job of gaming is to entertain.
While developers have every right to include controversial content in their products if they so choose, it’s the customers who get to decide whether those products are actually worth buying – whether they’re actually entertaining. The best way to foster a healthy environment for both creative integrity and tasteful high-quality entertainment is to leave the fate of controversial works up to the fair evaluation of the market, not trapping them in development hell with suppressive political correctness campaigns.