Rated M for Questionable Content: An Argument for Vulgarity Over Maturity

Alt Title: Frank’s Love Letter to Edmund McMillen.

Maturity. Typing it leaves a sting on my fingers. Saying it; a sour taste in my mouth. So-called auteurs of the gaming industry speak of it as though without ‘maturity’, the videogame can never be considered art. As though that if we don’t put tasteful nudes, high-polygon graphics, crying-physics, and a story about the human condition, then Roger Ebert, a person only interested in writing about cinema, will never say that games “are kinda okay, I guess” (not an actual quote from Roger Ebert). It’s gotten so bad that I’ve begun needing to imagine the word ‘mature’ with a small © next to it, because let’s face it, maturity has become more of a checkbox than a concept.

This desperate need for some developers to have their work validated by people unimportant and indifferent to the games industry is nothing short of just sad. We need to have FOX News accept us! We need to have movie critics critique games! We must be validated! We must be validated!

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But vapid affirmation is not my only gripe with mature© games. For one, maturity© in games is more formulaic than goddamned Pythagoras. Let’s look at a few games that have been lauded as ‘mature©’:
Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: Origins.
Before I go any further though, I want to say that I do like these games, with a particular affection towards Mass Effect, it being one of my favorite games of all time.

In these games, there is a threat that opposes the main characters, at some point either the player character or the love interest (there almost always is one) will cry due to their past, and then there will be some sex scene, and then a bit later, the plot ends. Which game that I listed earlier am I talking about now? Now, these aren’t genre tropes I’m listing, Heavy Rain is a ‘cinematic drama’ or whatever, Mass Effect is a ‘space opera RPG-shooter’, and DA:O is a ‘fantasy RPG’. Maturity©, much like ‘art game’, is a genre in itself with its own clichés that developers seem to fall into when trying to be sophisticated.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the above claim may be a bit weak, due to the fact that I only presented two story elements common to mature© games. But I’m not only here to bash maturity©. It has its place in games, and some people really think that that’s the way to get their story across. Nothing wrong with that. It’s always been my belief, though, that true maturity, not just maturity©, comes from knowing when to be immature.

In fact, vulgarity, when used right, may be the best way we can move the entire medium of videogames forward.

Take Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl’s hit game, The Binding of Isaac, for example. Naked babies, blood, feces, urine, heavy christian imagery and mockery of said christianity. It was denied a port to Nintendo’s 3DS portable system, not because of the graphic imagery and focus on the disgusting and the vile, but because the game involved religion at a level that begged for a discussion on the zealous actions of past and current followers of Christ.

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“If there’s blasphemous content it’s probably fine… because blasphemy is in most games… everything is blasphemous for one religion and not for another.” said McMillen in an Ars Techina article from last year, ” Since demons and stuff are in games all the time, and that’s considered blasphemous to some Christians, that’s fine. I guess the way I talked about things in the game wasn’t necessarily blasphemous, but also considered religious and something they don’t want to deal with.”

McMillen has been known in the past for never letting self-censorship come into play when putting themes into his games. Growing up in a strongly “born-again” christian family, McMillen’s views on the religion are an expression of himself. His use of the disgusting and the grotesque is a further exploration of what it’s like to be Edmund McMillen. Play his older flash games on his newgrounds page, and you’ll see vomit, blood, and shit everywhere. It’s who he is. If you ever played his hit game, Super Meat Boy, you can see themes of vulnerability in it. How the titular Meat Boy, a man devoid of skin, is susceptible to multiple hazards, even plain salt, and that he is always chasing after his stolen girlfriend, Bandage Girl, the only person who completes Meat Boy; she makes him feel safe.

Nowhere in a single one of Edmund’s games do you find facetious themes like ‘the human condition’ or ‘parenthood’, or contrived romance scenes of plastic-doll sex, because Edmund knows that creating art is when you’re supposed to be immature; to be yourself. And in doing so, his games are more mature than any mature© game on the market.

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Back to his attempted porting of The Binding of Isaac to the 3DS, it’s evident that the games industry still hasn’t matured at all. While David Cage and Peter Molyneux make valiant efforts, they always fall short because they still don’t understand true maturity.

“Here’s why Nintendo said no, ” McMillen said in the previously mentioned Ars Techina article, “Go to any website that talked about it and read the comments and look at the fucking religious wars that happen in it.”

We can handle oversized breasts, severed limbs, guts, crap, pee, words like: “shit” and “fuck” said a million times to oversaturation. We can handle it when we genocide millions of virtual humans. Hell, we can even handle it when we and a few russians shoot up a fictional airport.

Do you know what we have yet to be able to handle? A serious discussion on religion that makes you think. We can’t have people stopping their game to think about something in the real world, because when you think, you get scared, and when you get scared, you might just not buy a game that supports themes you don’t like, and I’m damn sure a publisher would stick its junk in a blender before they give up a sale.

We changed the name of Al Qaeda to Insurgents in the Medal of Honor reboot because we can’t have you think. We cancelled Six Days in Fallujah because we can’t have you think. We couldn’t have The Binding of Isaac published with an actual publisher because we can’t have you think.

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Answer: “Goddamned Yes It Should!”

In the end, it’s people like Edmund McMillen, one of the few actual artists in the games medium, who are going to push the artform forward. We don’t need sex scenes, crying, and SO MANY POLYGONS! We need themes and ideas that will make you think about the world around you. Mature games should make you question your beliefs that you’ve put all your stock and life into. We need to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what is and what isn’t acceptable to have in a game.

And you know what? If you want to just make a game full of breasts, wangs (we need more), and gore without any thought-provoking themes, then that’s fine too, and I’ll love every second of it (unless it sucks).

You can follow Frank on Twitter @Fuhjem.

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5 thoughts on “Rated M for Questionable Content: An Argument for Vulgarity Over Maturity

  1. Pingback: We Are What We Play: “Spec Ops: The Line” Made Me Re-Think Videogames | Turtlecade

  2. I think this is some serious backward-thinking. Vulgarity is the game industry’s cop-out attempt at “maturity”, and we’ve had enough of it. We need games that communicate interesting things through restraint and intelligent game design, not blood, feces, and genitalia.

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    • I think there are room for both, if we do the whole “games at art” debate then movies have their fair share of the same alternate genres. I don’t see why we cannot just have a little of everything and be happy, as gamers the amount of choice should be something we appreciated.

      People can get their over the top action (Saints Row) yet if they choose not too, they can get a deep story driven game (Heavy Rain). Art has nudity, some of it not tasteful, but who cares…Choice is what I believe in and the fact we even have it, is something people take for granted.

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    • I’ll admit that a lot of what I was trying to get across got lost in the article. I typed up about half of it at my day job and then finished the rest a day later.

      What I was trying to get across was that we need games that are going to push the idea that games can promote serious discussions on uncomfortable topics. Any game by David Cage or Peter Molyneux, while fantastic game designers (I love the Fable series), is playing it safe when it comes to its content. Sure they involved murder and sex, and they try to put it into an emotional context, but it never made e feel uncomfortable. I never once had to question if what I was playing was ‘alright to play’.

      I honestly think that it’s strange that we consider the Call of Duty series neanderthal dreck when we have the No Russian level confronting us with the horrors of modern terrorism, taking us straight out of our comfort zone as the hero, or anti-hero, and putting us straight into the shoes of someone in an actual terrorist role. It was horrifying to play; I only shot people who were visibly suffering, in the head, in order to just make the suffering stop. It was a more powerful experience than anything I’ve played in a mature© game.

      Then you take The Binding of Isaac and it shocks me how few games ever present a realistic view on christianity. It’s setup was based off of the biblical tale of the same name in which god commanded a father to murder his own son because, let’s face it, god was kind of a dick back then. The sheer existence of the game brought into question the extreme things christians do in the name of their god, and that was too much for a publisher to handle. It got people thinking about real world problems, something that few games do.

      What we consider vulgar, as a society, are things like Six Days in Fallujah (DON’T MAKE THIS WAR A GAME!), Al Qaeda in Medal of Honor (DON’T BRING UP SOMETHING IN REAL LIFE!), and christianity in The Binding of Isaac (DON’T MAKE ME OR ANYONE ELSE QUESTION OUR BELIEFS!).

      Without exploring these vulgar topics, without taking us out of our comfort zone, we’re doomed to be playing “Dry this Child’s Tears so You Think I’m Deep: The Game”.

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    • And for the record, big tits and dismemberment aren’t what I’d consider vulgar. They’re a safe bet for sales and they rarely bring up discussions on whether they should be in games or not. Vulgarity, for me at least, is something that makes people uncomfortable.

      When was the last time Ninja Gaiden made you uncomfortable, what with it’s ultra-tits and limbs literally made out of solid blood? They don’t, because those are elements of fantasy. We can ignore them. Those tits and limbs have no bearing in the real world. It’s terrorism and christianity and islam and child abuse that are things in the real world, and those are the topics we’re too scared to play in games.

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