The ESRB’s view of maturity is very simple: blood, guts, violence and sex. But is that really what ‘mature’ is?
If we pick up a dictionary, it tells us that Mature is:
- Intended for or restricted to adults, esp. by reason of explicit sexual content or the inclusion of violence or obscene language: mature movies.
- Fully developed in body or mind, as a person: a mature woman.
Society tells us that the term ‘Mature Videogame’ is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, for one automatically cancels out the other. Videogames are designed to transport the player to the days of their youth; a place where anything was possible and joy was to be found around every corner.
The term ‘mature’ implies a life led by adults, one filled with tough decisions, stress and hard work.
Can a videogame be tough, yet playful? Can it elicit joy, whilst simultaneously causing the player emotional turmoil? How on earth can a game be fun and mature?
First, we need to ask:
What constitutes a ‘Mature Videogame’?
If I walk down the aisle in any Best Buy/Walmart/Gamestop, it’s likely that I’ll be walking past dozens of M-rated games. Manhunt 2, Fallout 3, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Resident Evil 5… Each has been given the same rating – and yet each game’s content is vastly different.
How do the governing officials dictate what is a ‘Mature’ game? How do we, as videogame players, decide what we think is mature? Is it a game that provokes a mature emotional response within the player? Is it one that includes ‘mature topics’ (regardless of the way they’re handled) — i.e. sex, violence, swearing? Or is it a game that may include a childish subject matter, but deals with it in an appropriate, mature way?
The “Emotional Response” Argument
Some might say this is a bit of a non-starter — after all, every game is designed to invoke an emotional response from the player. But can joy, elation and happiness be regarded in the same manner as lust, betrayal and fear?
The latter triad of emotions are incredibly complex and usually reserved for adults. Of course, a child may feel fear, but usually their fear is a fear of the unknown or of circumstances that they do not/cannot understand. In my opinion, fear laced with understanding is far more frightening — something only a mature person could experience.
Then there’s the idea of love. Can a videogame elicit the emotion of love? The tag-line of the recently released interactive-experience Heavy Rain asks “How far would you go to save someone you love?” But is it possible for a videogame to invoke that response? If it does, then surely Heavy Rain is one of the first true ‘Mature’ games.
After all, ask the parents of any 16 year-old who claims to be in love and they’ll invariably tell you something along the lines of, “It’s not love. They don’t know what love is.” Is love an emotion/process only reserved for a mature audience?
In my opinion Heavy Rain re-established what it means to be a videogame. By creating believable characters in a fictional world — a world grounded in reality — the emotional impact of each decision made by the player was greatly intensified, leaving me agonizing over each and every decision I made.
In creating characters with human flaws, Quantic Dream have realized a cast that the player can identify with and relate to.
Speaking to GamePro, Quantic Dream’s lead designer, David Cage, had this to say:
“We are all shades of grey. All of us have skills, but we all have secrets. Things that are hidden that make us suffer. It’s that complexity, and those shades of grey that make us more interesting, and in the case of these characters it meant that I could move things away from the standard archetypes.”
Does this make Heavy Rain a mature videogame? Does the fact that the game handles ‘true’ adult themes such as love, relationships, life and death, in a convincing and adult manner solidify its status as a mature experience?
Perhaps the most interesting design choice in Heavy Rain is the complete absence of a ‘Game Over’ screen — much like life, it forces you to accept your mistakes and move on, regardless of the consequences. The knowledge that your mistakes will impact the way the game plays out (including the death of some major characters) makes the experience far more tense, forcing the player to quickly weigh the available options in a short amount of time — and act in the way they think best.
Having completed Heavy Rain, I felt a sense of pure agony at the game’s finale. The knowledge that my actions and my decisions led to the game’s eventual tragedy physically hurt. It may just be a videogame with tens of thousands of pixels on the screen, but to me, that didn’t matter. I caused the death of someone I felt attached to, and in turn, I paid the emotional price.
Is this true videogame maturity?