I do not care for censorship in any sort of art form, no matter what it is. I fully believe that artists should have final say in what they pour their heart and soul into. Whether or not the consumer wishes to experience whatever the artist has created should be left up to said consumer. If someone does not want to listen to an explicit song, they should listen to the clean version. If someone does not want naked breasts in their film, they should stay away from movies that are rated R for frontal nudity.
Call me what you will: naïve, childish, unrealistic, but I think as a society we all should be intelligent enough to know what we are getting into before we choose to get into it. Those parents who brought their children to see Deadpool and then complained about the film’s lack of censorship only have themselves to blame. The filmmakers should not have had to censor a R-rated movie for a six year-old kid.
Video games still suffer under heavy scrutiny for their material, especially the ones that cover mature content. The medium is still widely considered by the majority of the world to be a children’s pastime, thus the “game” in “video game”. Video games are rated much the same as films, with many different ratings of major difference for younger audiences and really only two ratings of almost insignificant difference for older gamers: Mature and Adults Only.
These more mature ratings aim to “protect” the perceived majority (children) whilst providing a way to create darker stories with more advanced themes for the believed minority (adults). If ratings were used for that purpose, everything would be fine. However, more and more children are being allowed to play Mature rated games due to the fact that the rating is so broad. Oftentimes, it covers older teen to young adult, so when a game comes out that actually has very mature themes (like real mature), everyone starts losing their minds.
Both Halo 3 and Resident Evil VII are rated Mature but one is clearly more mature than the other. A twelve-year-old would have no problem playing a game like Halo, but Resident Evil might be a bit too much for them. Yet both games have the same rating. For lack of a better word, it is all very dumb; especially since, when those more mature games release with the same rating as the less mature games, every parent starts screaming for the more mature game to be censored. They have to, because they have foolishly allowed their children to play the lower end Mature-rated games and now cannot use the “that game is too mature” excuse to stop their kid from wanting a game that is technically more mature but has the exact same rating. Just look at how confusing this last paragraph was to read and you know how screwed up this system is.
When, of course, the more mature Mature rated game gets negative press, gamers who are actually old enough to play Mature rated games are presented with a dumbed down, censored product. Developers are mad that their game had to be censored and the audience is mad that they are getting a product that feels edited down or incomplete and missing content. As the Mature rating becomes more and more broad, this phenomenon is occurring more and more often. The most recent example is Outlast II.
Trigger warning. The Outlast franchise deals with adult themes of excessive violence and intense sexual assault. There is a a picture of a smiling gaming handheld below that marks where the triggering content ends if you wish to read the conclusion of this article without having to read some of the more horrific content that video games have to offer.
Outlast II has recently been in the news because it is the most recent game to face censorship in Australia. Initially, the situation was nothing new. Australia is infamous for being the one region to almost always threaten censorship in a video game whenever a game displays anything that could resemble a spark of controversy. Half the time though, the censorship never happens. Australia gives the okay and the developers celebrate the country giving them some free publicity for the week.
This time though, two things were a little different. First, the content in question: rape. Apparently there is a moment in Outlast II where someone is raped and we, the player, witness it happening through the eyes of the protagonist. Then, the protagonist is raped, and the player experiences the action of being raped via first-person. Although rape has been in video games before, it usually never extends past rape being implied or rape being overheard. For the act to now be witnessed visually with startling clarity was a whole new ball game. The second thing that was different was how the censorship was going to be handled. Instead of the scene just being cut from the Australian version of the game, apparently every copy of the game across every country would receive censored copies of Outlast II without that scene. People were pissed. I was one of them.
I do not condone rape. I was not excited to pick up Outlast II so I could witness a virtual rape. I was pissed that someone’s work was being thrown to the side. When making a video game, there is plenty of content that never makes it past the cutting room floor. I get that. Part of the artistic process is reshaping what you can and cutting what you cannot in order to achieve the best product possible. People were talking about cutting the final product. They wanted the development team to purposely cut a scene that developers had spent hours animating, adding music to, recording dialogue for, and QA testing. It does not matter what the content was. No one should be forced to watch something they poured sweat into get chopped and thrown to the side because parents were scared about what their kids might play.
Now, does the rape scene add anything to Outlast II? Maybe, maybe not. The game is not out yet so there is no way to tell. For all I know, the game is much stronger without the scene and it was just included for some cheap tension and fear.
However, the Outlast franchise is not a part of the cesspool of cheap jump-scares that have recently muddied the horror video game genre. There are some intelligent minds at Red Barrels, the development team for Outlast, Outlast: Whistleblower, and Outlast II. Their games deal with startling mature questions about sexuality, religion, masculinity, morality, and insanity. Just breezing through the first game and Whistleblower DLC is a tragedy. There is a lot beneath the surface if you choose to be brave enough to explore the dark environments of Mount Massive Asylum. For an example, let’s look at The Groom.
Waylon Park, the character the player controls in Outlast: Whistleblower, encounters an enemy nicknamed The Groom near the end of the DLC. The Groom’s shtick is that he captures men and cuts off their penises so that they may be his wives. When they prove unfaithful, he cuts off their heads and shoves them into the men’s stomachs to simulate pregnancy. Waylon finds one of these victims before being captured by The Groom and forced into a locker, where he witnesses a man screaming as The Groom slowly chops the guy’s penis off. A few minutes later, Waylon is strapped down and has to watch (as does the player via first-person) as The Groom then strokes his inner thigh and naked penis with a rusty knife still gleaming from the blood of The Groom’s previous “wife.” The player can do nothing but sit there and pray that what is about to happen does not happen.
The entire series of events, and what occurs afterwards, is psychologically terrifying. Nonetheless, the entire exchange is a fascinating analysis of the male gaze. For those who do not know, the male gaze refers to the theory that most forms of media and story-telling feature male characters that a heterosexual man would idolize and female characters with features and personalities that a heterosexual man would lust after or find attractive. A woman experiencing the same media or story would perceive the female characters as role models for being attractive to the opposite sex. Long story short, media and stories portray both men and women in a way that satisfies a heterosexual man’s sexual desire even when the media or story is specifically targeted at women.
Outlast: Whistleblower turns the male gaze in on itself, showcasing the harm such a gaze can cause by increasing it to the extreme. The Groom has created a world where the male gaze is superior. It demands he find attraction in the ideal woman, a problem for a man who is surrounded by men and hinted to be homosexual. Every man around The Groom is mutilated and transformed into “a woman” in response to The Groom’s own attempts to balance his sexuality and psychosis with what he believes society wants from him. Thankfully, such a severe case of the male gaze is not a part of our, the players’, world. However, Red Barrels would have the player think on the male gaze theory. We exist in a world that is also seemingly dominated by the male gaze even if by a lesser extent. Red Barrels is screaming at the player, “Hey! Maybe we should change the expectations society has laid out for both men and women in media yeah? Cause this is the conclusion to our current line of thought and no one wants this!”
To hammer the point home, they force the player to endure the mounting terror of possibly being emasculated in the worst possible way and endure the punishment of becoming a slave to the sexual appetite of a man who can act as he wishes without consequence. A feeling, I imagine, many women in today’s society feel whenever they are subjected to, or reminded of, the male gaze. The message is not lost on anyone, but, as a heterosexual cisgender man myself, I can confirm that the experience with The Groom is very powerful for someone who normally enjoys the beneficial side of the male gaze on a blissfully unaware daily basis.
That is the genius of Red Barrels development of Outlast. Unable to dissect the darkest parts of humanity in a normal setting, they push their players into a world devoid of sanity, freedom, and light. Trapped and desperate to latch onto anything that resembles reason, the player is forced to find sanity in the madness of the monsters around them. When they finally do, they do not find an escape from the nightmare, but a twistedly clear reflection of the player’s own society and way of life. Red Barrels knows there is nothing more horrifying than the truth.
This is an elementary analysis of The Groom and the male gaze. The connections and hidden meanings go much deeper and the rest of Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower are full of similarly disturbing implications of human nature and modern day society. Knowing this about Red Barrels’ games, I have to assume that the rape scene in Outlast II was not just included for some cheap scares or added tension.
As disturbing as dealing with The Groom is, Red Barrels included him for a specific purpose. Had they censored him out, Outlast: Whistleblower would have lost one of its major themes. I have to assume the rape scene in Outlast II is the same. It must have a purpose. Someone spent a long time trying to figure out how to get a specific truth across to the player and came to the conclusion that a rape scene was both the most horrifying and most effective means of doing so. So again, why are people threatening to censor it? Well, because it is both easy to do and simpler than having a mature conversation about rape with a teenager.
Triggering content ends here. Welcome back to the happy side of gaming.
The threat of censorship is typically enough to get a developer to change their game’s tune. Some development teams flaunt such accusations of course (nearly the entire marketing campaign for Saints Row IV was based around their Australian censorship) but most shy away from being labeled as negatively controversial. Better to censor the content or change it to something less inflammatory prior to release then face negative press and a possible loss of sale upon release.
Gamers saw this when Blizzard removed Tracer’s “Over the Shoulder” victory pose from Overwatch because parents thought the character showing off her curves was too mature for their children to see. It almost occurred back in 2013, when Irrational Games considered removing the mandatory baptism at the start of Bioshock Infinite because it was provoking some angry Catholics into crying out that their children would be confused over seeing their religion being bastardized. 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 saw its fourth mission “No Russia” censored because it contained a scene where players participated in a terrorist mass shooting at an airport. Players were given the option of skipping or playing that particular mission from the game’s starting menu, but the fact remains that the developers were pressured into including the option to skip the mission. That level is a part of the overarching plot. Giving the option to cut it out is still a form of censorship.
This threat of censorship needs to stop. Video games are the only art form that is truly interactive. They provide a means by which people can experience certain aspects of society, both familiar and foreign, first-hand before discussing them with others. Sure, showcasing someone playfully flaunt their sex appeal, forcing a moment where someone has to take a hard look at the fundamental tenants of a major religion, or bringing up the moral dilemma of mercilessly killing unarmed civilians to protect an agent’s cover in order to save a larger group of civilians down the line are all mature topics. That’s why they are all topics in games reserved for more mature audiences.
Overwatch is rated Teen and both Bioshock Infinite and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 are rated Mature. A teenager should be confronted with a lesbian who’s comfortable in her sexuality. They are going to be confronted with discussions concerning sexuality and dealing with the growing desire to find comfort with their own body soon enough anyway. A young adult should be confronted with the hard truths of religion and war. Understanding that the world and those who inhabit it are not wholly good or wholly evil is a healthy lesson to understand going into adulthood.
So parents, get ahold of yourselves. You know what your kid is and is not ready for. Do not buy the next Call of Duty for your eight-year-old kid. Do not complain about the game’s violence and mature themes if you do. A rating is included on a video game’s case for a reason. The developers designed their game with a specific audience in mind and included themes relevant to that specific audience’s level of maturity. Let them design for that audience and stop trying to stonewall them with threats of censorship. It only hurts our medium in the long run and prevents developers from tackling mature concepts in creative and interactive ways much like Red Barrels has with Outlast.
Additional Note: As I am finishing up this article, the publishers and a PR representative for Outlast II have come forward to say that the build of Outlast II that contained the scene in question was old and not the current build. So it is not that the world is getting a censored version but that the world is getting the actual final cut version. I am inclined to believe Red Barrels, but I cannot shake the déjà vu. This all sounds suspiciously like Blizzard’s response to the backlash surrounding Tracer’s sexualized victory pose.
After Overwatch came under scrutiny from the backlash surrounding the pose (adults felt a Teen rated game was being too sexy for their preteen children) Blizzard claimed the pose was already being cut. Their team felt the pose did not match Tracer’s personality. The same seems to be happening here with claims that the Outlast II content was accidentally released. It cannot be proven either way of course, so each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether or not this was all an honest mistake, a clever marketing ploy, or a means of hiding the fact that the team behind Outlast II is being forced to censor the game’s content.
Regardless if Outlast II is being censored or not, I still stand by my convictions that threatening developers with their game being censored or cancelled, due to the game’s controversial nature or mature content, needs to stop.