The "Adults Only" rating remains the kiss of death for any game that hopes to make a dent in mainstream retail.
Stores won't carry games rated Adults Only, nor will Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo give them an official release on consoles. The ESRB's listing of AO-rated games show how often the rating is granted due to graphic sexual imagery or nudity, and how rarely the rating is given based on violence.
"I believe the lack of AO content is hard on the industry because it forces people to keep pushing the edge of the Mature rating," Geoffrey Zatkin, the founder of CPO of EEDAR, told Polygon. "But since no major retailer will carry an AO product, it is almost impossible to release any sort of 'mass market' game with an AO rating." Movies may get around this limitation by pushing the boundaries of the R rating and then releasing an "unrated" version for the home theater market, but the gaming industry has no such recourse.
There was one console game that came close to being rated AO for its violence however, and it happened back in 2005 when Volition, now famous for the Saints Row series, worked on a movie tie-in for the then-upcoming Punisher film. This may have happened eight years ago, but the story is a powerful reminder of how far gaming has to go as an art form, and the limits of content allowed in mainstream games.
Testing the boundaries, and having the boundaries test back
Some developers may walk up to the edge of what is acceptable in games, but only a few are willing to jump off. This saga of compromised content and contentious ratings is what happens when a game bumps up against the standards of our industry's rating board.
"We felt we had to be true to the character, that's the reason we did what we did with it," Dan Cermak, the general manager of Volition, told Polygon. "That was the Punisher to us. He's a psychopath, he's kind of a twisted fella."
The team worked directly with the ESRB, letting them know there would likely be issues with the content. As for? "They supported it, they bought it completely," Cermack said. The idea of an ultra-violent game based on an ultra-violent comic book made plenty of sense.
Cermak laughed when I asked what content the ESRB found problematic. The words "interactive torture" came up; scenes where the hero would do ghastly things to criminals in order to gain more information about what to do next in the game. They were optional, but they tapped into the grim determination that makes the Punisher an interesting character.
The ESRB had an issue with every sequence, according to Cermak.
There was a scene that involved a wood chipper. There was a torture sequence where the criminal was gored by a wild animal. In one scene Frank Castle, the Punisher, tortured someone with a drill press. There was a sequence where a bad guy was held up to a ceiling fan "that was spinning pretty fast." It wasn't just a visual issue, as scenes were interactive. You didn't watch someone get tortured, you participated. It was a game mechanic.
They showed these scenes to the ESRB, and the decision was made to change the coloring to black and white to try to dull the impact of what was being shown. Kill Bill had just been released, and that series featured a scene that was changed to black and white in order to escape with an R rating as well. The idea seemed sound.
"Their feeling was if we went black and white, and gave it the Kill Bill treatment, take the blood color out, that would be enough," Cermak explained. "I really enjoyed working with them, they were very helpful. It just didn't work out when they got the panel together. The panel just fried us."
The ESRB may have provided Volition with some guidance, but the rating itself is up to the panel of three "trained raters" who view a DVD of the game's content before writing their rating recommendation. The team thought one rater may push for an AO rating, but every single card recommended the game be given the maximum rating.
They changed the color table so it was pure black and white, which made it hard to tell what was being shown on the screen. They experimented with camera angles, and adjusted how much was shown. The game was finally given a Mature rating after going back and forth for about three weeks.
Randy Walker from the ESRB seemed unenthusiastic about discussing this story. "I don't think we have more to add to this subject, which is nearly 10 years old," he wrote via e-mail. "As we have stated for many years and is on the Ratings Process page of our website, once a rating assignment is provided to a game publisher, they can either accept it or revise the content in their game and resubmit it, which starts the process anew."
This isn't the only game that has butted against the limits of the Mature rating. Take-Two expressed its frustration when the 2007 title Manhunt 2 was initially given an Adults Only rating.
"We believe the process of rating video games is to help people make informed entertainment choices and not to limit them," a company representative told GameSpot. "Manhunt 2 was created for mature audiences and we strongly believe it should receive an M (Mature) rating, aligning it with similar content created in other forms of media. We are exploring our options with regard to the rating of Manhunt 2."
The game was ultimately edited to receive the Mature rating.
Volition was dealing with the same frustration with The Punisher. "From the first step, we were so upset that we couldn't carry through the game the way we thought it should be done," Cermak said. "The team really wanted to put the game out there in the version that we finished. That's what it was supposed to be. From a design standpoint we didn't use the interrogations appropriately enough, they became a side menu thing or a thing to do rather than integral to the game."
The game was "moderately" successful, according to Cermak. It sold around a million units, and was profitable for Volition. It wasn't the game they wanted to make, not entirely, but it was far from a disaster.
I was curious if he thought the game would be possible to create now, if the content would make it through the modern ratings process unscathed.
"From the first step, we were so upset that we couldn't carry through the game the way we thought it should be done"
"No," he said laughing. "At this point, I still think we were over the top, too violent for the industry."
The rating process is subjective, but they always knew they were pushing the limits of what was possible with the mature rating.
"Even though it's an art form or however you want to look at it, it's got its own… there are different levels of violence in movies, they don't all get AO, so I feel like it's still kind of a different standard because we're games, which immediately means kids," Cermack said. "I think that still applies."
Zatkin agreed with this assessment. "Part of this is a video game industry perception problem in that people think video games are for kids," he explained. "Video games have never been for kids, kids like video games in the same way they like TV, movies, comic books, etc. But if you look at the age of the average gamer, it hasn't been below the age of 30 since 2004 and has never, as long as I can remember it, been under the age of 25."
Game ratings are enforced more often than the ratings for films, but children are often the justification for censored content. "[The Wii] permits children to act out each of the many graphic torture scenes and murders in Manhunt 2 rather than simply manipulating a game pad," four senators, including Hillary Clinton, wrote in an open letter to the ESRB demanding Manhunt 2 be given the AO rating. "This led one clinical psychologist to state that the realistic motions used with the Wii mean that 'You're basically teaching a child the behavioral sequencing of killing.'"
Of the 34 titles to ultimately receive an AO rating from the ESRB, only two were listed as being released for consoles. Thrill Kill was ultimately cancelled, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was re-rated to Adults Only when sexual material was found to exist on the game's disc, accessible with third-party code in the infamous "Hot Coffee" controversy. The game was pulled from the shelves the day the AO rating was issued, and a Mature-rated version without the forbidden content was sent to retail in its place.
Fans ultimately found ways to access the uncensored content in The Punisher, and patches to access the content on the PC are common. Still, the argument is often made that certain content has to be limited for fear it will fall in the hands of children, based on the mistaken assumption that this is a children's pass time.
"I think we still have that stigma, it's still there," Cermak said. "Having been there, having seen it. It's still very interesting to me."
This is an issue that isn't found in other art forms, including film. "The ESRB is the best enforced entertainment media rating system, better than movies and music, but the association of 'games' and 'kids' has been hard for the industry when it wants to make content for the vast majority of its consumers, who are adults," Zatkin noted.
One need only look at the 2014 Oscar nominees for evidence that games are treated differently than film: It's hard to believe that a scene where the protagonist fills a naked woman's rectum with cocaine would be allowed to exist in a game at all, but that's just the beginning of the adult content of Wolf of Wall Street, a Best Picture nominee.
"If movies were treated the [the same as games]," Zatkin said, "I don't think anything up for an Oscar this year would have been made."