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Why Germany lifted its ban on Red Faction after 15 years

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We talk with publisher THQ Nordic.

Sci-fi shooter Red Faction launched 15 years ago, and for the first time ever many German gamers are getting a chance to play it.

Publisher THQ Nordic, which bought the rights to the THQ trademark and some of its properties in 2014, recently announced that Germany will soon remove Red Faction from its list of media considered harmful to young people, also known as "the Index."

The Federal Review Board for Media Harmful to Minors, known by its German initials as the BPjM, manages the Index. According to its website, the government agency seeks to protect minors from content it feels could "endanger their process of developing a socially responsible and self-reliant personality." This includes media that contains extreme violence, discrimination, anti-Semitism or racism, as well as the glorification of National Socialism, drugs, alcohol abuse, self-inflicted injury or suicide.

Once a piece of media appears on the Index, distributors cannot allow children under the age of 18 to purchase it. They also can’t sell, rent or advertise it in public.

A decision on violence

"The BPjM examined Red Faction in 2003 and deemed it harmful to minors because of the violence shown in the game," says Petra Meier, vice chairwoman of the BPjM.

At the time, THQ disagreed with the indexing and argued that it had extensively toned down the game for the German market. The company had omitted all traces of blood, scaled back animations when enemies were hit by a flamethrower, removed certain sound effects and made dead enemy bodies vanish after a few seconds. The publisher also argued that Red Faction’s futuristic Mars setting helped players distance themselves from the game.

The BPjM disagreed. In its official decision, which THQ Nordic provided to Polygon, it acknowledged that the extensive localization work the developer, Volition, did greatly reduce the visualization of the violence, but it still felt justified in placing the game on the Index.

"Games in which players are required to destroy humans or humanoid beings, and which represent these actions in gory detail and depict them such that the killing procedures must be classified as particularly brutal, have always been categorized as malicious and therefore socio-ethically disorientating in accordance with the practice of the Federal Review Board," the BPjM wrote.

Red Faction
THQ Nordic

The BPjM cited specific examples of Red Faction’s brutality in its decision, claiming the game forced players into a ruthless gameplay style that "showed contempt for human life." Players could shoot and kill guards after they’d fled and begged for mercy, for example, or they could attach remote-controlled packs of explosives to enemies and then detonate them. The BPjM also pointed to a specific instance where players must kill an unarmed civilian to obtain an access card to progress.

"In Red Faction, the boundaries between good and evil are therefore blurred," the BPjM wrote, "not only on the part of the victims, but also on the part of the heroes: the fundamentally good Parker, who is pursuing a just cause with the rebellion, must become a murderer to achieve his objective."

"Mostly what gets you on the Index quite fast is if you don’t have any alternative of killing everything," says THQ Nordic PR and marketing director Philipp Brock. "So, basically that’s why most stealth games would not be banned. Because, if you want to, you can kill everybody in sight, but you don’t have to."

Red Faction was not the first shooter banned or edited in Germany. The original Wolfenstein 3D was banned for its use of Nazis imagery. Fallout 3 toned down its violence. The classic 1994 game Doom, and its sequel, were also placed on the Index. At the time, the German government was concerned about their bloody, relentless violence. Doom’s current publisher, Bethesda Softworks, successfully lobbied to have it removed from the Index in 2011. When the latest Doom shipped earlier this year, it did so without cuts or content restrictions, making it the first game in the series to launch in Germany in its original, unedited form.

Appealing the decision

Germany is the biggest game market in Europe and the fifth largest game market in the world, according to research firm Newzoo. Nearly 37 million Germans play games, which is over half of the online population there. Console gaming is the most popular, followed by PC. In its 2016 Global Games Market Report, Newzoo estimated the German game market would reach $4 billion that year. But, despite Germany’s prominence in the global market, Brock believes the Red Faction ban didn’t have a large effect on the game’s overall sales.

"Germany, although it is a big market for PC software, if we were to talk about the U.S. and the ban it would’ve been a completely different picture," Brock says. "I think it’s more of a U.S.-centric game. I don’t really see the financial impact that it would’ve had in 2003 on THQ’s results, because back then [German gamers] probably would’ve bought it via Amazon UK or Amazon France and got the game anyway."

Ten years after a game winds up on the Index, its publisher can request to have it de-listed. Once the appeal is filed, the BPjM re-examines its content. If the review board finds that the game is no longer harmful to minors, it’s taken off the Index.

Red Faction
THQ Nordic

In THQ Nordic’s case, it employed a German law firm and laid out a line of argumentation for its appeal, stating that improvements in video game graphics over the years have made the depictions of violence in its game less relevant. Compared to the photorealistic violence shown in many modern games, the 15-year-old Red Faction appears to many to be almost quaint in comparison.

"For us, clearly the mission was we have it on the Index and it’s definitely not supposed to be there," says Brock. "We like to take care of the stuff we own, and we do have a very broad and wide array of different genres in our portfolio. And Red Faction is definitely one of our, I would say, key brands, core IP if you will, and therefore we just sorted it out."

The BPjM re-examined Red Faction on Oct. 18 and concluded the game’s violence was indeed no longer harmful to minors, and that decision couldn’t have come at a better time.

Brock tells Polygon that THQ Nordic plans to re-release the game on the PlayStation 4 as part of the console’s PS2 Classics line. It’ll be the exact same code as the PS2 version running in an emulated environment on the PS4. And, yes, it will be the uncut version worldwide.

"It would be a pity if we re-release the game and you can’t play in it Germany," he says.