Manhunt 2: Now officially for Adults Only

First the upcoming Wii/PS2 game Manhunt 2 was banned from sale in England, then it was rated Adults Only by the ESRB in America. Shortly thereafter, Nintendo and Sony both tactfully issued press releases stating they don't allow AO games to be released on their systems anyway. Then today it was announced that the game won't be coming out at all, at least, not July 2007 as originally planned.

Manhunt 2 is going to have to cut out some violence, re-submit to the ESRB, and somehow walk away with an M rating. Or else the whole project was a waste... Take Two has been in shareholder turmoil as of late - despite having GTA, one of the most successful games of our times WTF - so they can't let the years of Manhunt development fall to nothing. Hey, Tarantino had to cut Grindhouse down from NC-17. It happens. Of course, video games don't usually have the luxury of releasing an unrated edition so fans can get the "true" version after the profits have been secured on the tamer material.

It seems to me that it boils down to semantics. The ESRB thought that Manhunt 2 deserved a stronger rating than M (which is fine... it's their job to assess that), and all they have available to them is Adults Only. Which, to most ears, sounds like porn even if, in this case, it's chiefly due to violent content.

When people starting confusing XXX films with legitimate X-rated films (like Clockwork Orange, back in the day), Hollywood got clever. They changed the term. X was replaced with NC-17. Sounds so much more respectable, doesn't it? And now the porn industry no longer bothers to submit their films to the MPAA, so it has fallen on the public to draw the distinction between a movie rated NC-17 (like the original cut of Saw, for example, now available as the "unrated" edition at your local Wal-Mart) and XXX porn. To date, society has had no trouble doing this, but the naked women on the covers probably help.

However, simply changing AO to M+ or whatever wouldn't do much for video games. Sure, you'd lose the "Adults Only Means Sex" problem, but enemies of gaming would just brand that as an obvious dodge. "We're not fooled," they'll say. And Wal-Mart et. al. will just adjust their policies to state that they refuse to sell M+ games and they will receive fawning accolades from the kinds of people who think that souless corporations actually give a shit about the "community."

What the ESRB needs to do is add an interim rating. Something to indicate a level of violence stronger than a contemporary weak M but without the sexual connotation of AO. There's your M+. Then they keep AO around as the one reserved for actual sex games, which nobody actually makes or sells anyway. (Wink, wink.)

I recall being surprised that the first Fatal Frame was rated T. It was definitely borderline. I mean, there's this whole bit with women getting their eyes stabbed in by a circle of priests, for crying out loud. It's off-camera, sure, but some of the most affecting and frightening stuff happens off-camera. This is Cinema 101. It's silly to think that because the director didn't show it, that it doesn't count. Talk about a dodge! (Later Fatal Frame games earned the M rating.)

BUT, remember that there is supposed to be a point to the rating systems: keeping kids from buying games unsuitable for kids, and keeping parents from buying games unsuitable for their kids. (I know, I know, who's deciding what's unsuitable... that's an entirely separate topic.) The M rating already does that. Or is supposed to. So what functional purpose would an M+ serve?

It would - given that the M+ is restricted to extreme violence, not pornography - create a safe harbor for violent games at the retail level. (And, incidentally, create a very interesting sidebar about types of violence. Would Halo 3 be M+? Would Resident Evil 4 be M+?) It's the retailers that matter in this discussion. Sony and Nintendo would not have muttered a single word had the ESRB granted Manhunt 2 an M rating. M games are perfectly sellable at Wal-Mart. AO games are not, so everybody had to clam up about it. M+ games would be the direct partner to NC-17 (and "unrated") movies, which Wal-Mart clearly has no trouble selling. To adults. If they're paying attention.

If Wal-Mart made a stink about refusing M+ games, the industry would only have to gesture toward unsold copies of Unrated Saw to make the point. And hopefully, a level-headed consistency would arise and we could all take video games to a higher plateau of cultural awareness and respect.

Realistically, you wouldn't see that many M+ games. You don't see that many NC-17 movies, even though the rating is largely accepted by retailers. If such a rating existed, we would probably see them mostly during the first year of a new generation, as advances in graphic realism push the boundaries of simulated violence. Then things would cool off back into regular M territory as times change. If Tecmo released Fatal Frame today, it would have no trouble scoring a T rating just on the lower graphic fidelity alone (in comparison to current games), Blinding Mask notwithstanding.

It's a shame that all of this is over a game that likely won't be that great anyway. Who out there really liked the first one?

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This page contains a single entry by Joe published on June 21, 2007 11:44 PM.

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