Where Have the M-Rated RPGs Gone?
The death of the Mature RPG is Bad News for the Genre
Eviscerated bodies hung on meat hooks, disemboweled corpses leaving trails of blood, satanic idolatry: welcome to the world of the typical shooter. Ever since the original DOOM, shooters have gleefully trodden through M-rated territory, and their developers have zealously defended their preference to craft gory shooters. Almost all shooters are M-rated because of the violent the nature of their gameplay, but games like F.E.A.R., Soldier of Fortune and Gears of War deliberately spotlight graphically violent and gruesome scenes. I prefer shooters that focus more on creating realistic settings instead of colorfully filleted cadavers, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to play violent shooters in front of my non-gamer buddies although I’ll happily show off the life-like cityscapes of Half-life 2 to the same audience. Of course, I’ll also proudly parade out the latest fantasy RPG replete with elves and fairies without feeling emasculated, so perhaps the demarcation lines I’ve drawn for mature gaming aren’t particularly sensible.
Jade Empire is one of the only recent RPGs to be released with an M-rating, but that rating is due to exaggerated, gory violence, rather than due to any mature content.
The gaming world is apparently similarly filled with contradictions, since while M-rated shooters are thriving; similarly rated RPGs have sadly almost vanished. Although I’d like an RPG with a Die by the Sword-type combat system that profoundly demonstrates the skull-bludgeoning power of a mace or a sword’s propensity to decapitate, it’s not the loss of graphic death animations that I’m bemoaning. The best RPGs effectively draw you into their worlds by making environments feel incredibly realistic, and settings that are completely stripped of M-rated elements are inherently artificial. Temple of Elemental Evil had its NPC children removed when threatened with being saddled with an M-rating if the tots could be harmed. You similarly won’t find kiddies running around in the otherwise realistic environments of other RPGs such as Oblivion. Omitting toilets and outhouses may not be an unwarranted compromise to fidelity, but removing all evidence of procreation tends to strain credulity.
Neverwinter Nights 2 offered something Temple of Elemental Evil was unable to provide: children in a D&D setting game.
Daggerfall was released before the current rating system existed, but even its novels were subsequently sanitized so that its (T)een-rated sequels. One of the Elder Scrolls’ most important historical characters is the dark elf, Barenziah, and conflicting accounts of life appear in competing volumes that litter Tamriel’s landscapes. The series of novellas that purports to most accurately reflect her life are the “Real Barenziah” books, but the spicy versions that appeared in Daggerfall were censored of erotic content in Morrowind and Oblivion (series bookworms can read the unedited editions at http://til.gamingsource.net/). Daggerfall also featured occasional nudity, but concern over the apparent presence of an errant nipple hidden in other Oblivion artwork generated a patch. RPGs may have occasionally included profanity and sexuality to titillate (in other words, for the same reason shooters graphically gib victims), but a realistic setting can’t entirely ignore those elements or any other aspect of human experience. Many of the best RPGs in recent memory have been M-rated because they didn’t shy away from including such content. Gothic 2, Vampire Bloodlines, and Fallout were better RPGs because they featured brothels, profane curses and NPC guards urinating against walls.
The Gothic series previously reveled in M-rated content, but Gothic 3 was recently released as a T-rated game. The Fallout 2 developers now at Obsidian haven’t crafted an M-rated RPG since the company’s founding, and Troika Games, the most persistent advocates of M-rated RPGs, is out of business. Tremendous sales of M-rated shooters have demonstrated that it’s not commercial suicide to produce games with mature content. It’s a shame RPG developers seem less willing than their shooter counterparts to risk ostracism from commercial outlets like Walmart in order to produce M-rated games, when there’s no genre where such content is more appropriate.
Desslock, February 2007
Note: Since this column was written, The Witcher was released as another M-rated RPG game, with commercial success and critical praise.