What a difference a few years makes. In this latest installment of my monthly Culture Clash column for the International Game Developers Association, we’re talking about the steps, baby and otherwise, that a creative medium must take in order to ensure its own freedom of expression. As you might recall, in 2005 Rockstar Games decided to cross a creative Rubicon of sorts, hiding a sex scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and leaving it for haxx0rs to inevitably find. Known as the Hot Coffee scandal, it sent tremors through the entire industry as calls for censorship – which had until then been dying out – reignited with fury. Rockstar embarked on what I then quite wittily described as a “polymorphic campaign of bullshit,” going to ever more flamboyantly unbelievable lengths to deny their own culpability in the matter.
The dust did settle, eventually, and now seven years on, it’s only fair to concede that Hot Coffee – dangerous, selfish, and stupid as it was – did accomplish something. The censorship threat blew over and games have more creative license than ever before. Personally, I still don’t forgive Rockstar for what it did; in Vietnam terms, the company destroyed a village in order to save it. What I offer here is not a justification for the company’s misdeed, just a reflection on the fact that they cast a die and got a result. Enjoy!
Dangerous to the Last Drop
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
Max Payne 3 is probably the most depressing thing I’ve ever played. A game like Dark Souls is transcendentally bleak, but Max Payne 3 is much more immediately, personally miserable. I can only manage about 20 minutes at a stretch before I have to switch to some cheerful activity, like cutting my wrists, which is why I haven’t finished it yet.
Of course, the series has never been jolly. Read into it what you like, it’s always been the story of a man who wants to die but can’t let go. Max Payne is a figure of tragedy. It’s often pointed out that in his misery he kills an awful lot of people, and I don’t disregard that. It is a shooter, though, and shooting people in one of those is a pretty standard proxy for advancement. I can overlook it.
But where the first two games did have small sparks of hope here and there, and where they were quick with a wink-wink self-referentialism that diminished the fourth wall, Max Payne 3 does away with all that. The pain pills which had been health packs are now an addiction. The drinking, once hard-boiled-cop standard, is now ruinous. The violence, once symbolic of progress, is now at the far edge of shocking. This game revels in a darkness the other two never plumbed.
It ought to go without saying that much of this change in tone stems from the fact that Max Payne 3 is the first in the trilogy to be directly developed by Rockstar Games. While the first two Max Payne titles were published by (and received significant creative input from) Rockstar, it was Remedy Entertainment and writer Sam Lake who propelled the dour human drama in Max Payne 1 and 2. Rockstar and the Houser brothers took the third much further, which I guess isn’t really surprising considering it’s Rockstar we’re talking about.
I have always been conflicted about Rockstar’s products. Recognizing the technical and narrative ambition of Grand Theft Auto, I nonetheless could do without the games – not for the common reasons, but because they’re not fun to play. In my opinion most of Rockstar’s work eschews fun for scale. The writing is usually good but the games often aren’t there at all, and focus too much on pushing the envelope at the expense of everything else.
Though I’m not a fan of their games, my animosity toward Rockstar and the Housers stems from the 2005 Hot Coffee kerfuffle. Not that they put (smirk) “explicit” sexual content into GTA San Andreas; in my view games have the same rights to that as any literature. It’s that they chose to hide the content in such a way that its discovery was inevitable. It’s that they lied and continue to lie about whether its inclusion was intentional. It’s how much danger they so carelessly exposed the medium and industry to, and how smugly unpenitent they have been.
For a long time I thought Hot Coffee was a childish prank by childish people, people too shortsighted to realize the threat they’d created (or too arrogant to care). In fairness, that may still be the case. But now, with the distance of years acting as a lens, I’m willing to concede that it might have been more objective-oriented. Hot Coffee exposed video games to widespread vilification and scrutiny and new calls for censorship. But it also allowed game developers to skip several levels. Before Hot Coffee and After Hot Coffee are dramatically different worlds, and it’s fair to acknowledge that Rockstar’s move forced an acceleration of creative liberty in the medium. Widely accepted mainstream views about what should and shouldn’t be “allowed” in video games had existed forever, and changing those views organically would have been a slow, iterative process. By unleashing Hot Coffee, the die was cast: how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?
Once the dust settled, game designers have felt a lot safer exploring adult themes in titles rated to contain them. Would CD Projekt have taken on a series like The Witcher had Hot Coffee not shone a light on sex between consenting adults in a video game? Would Bioware have clumsily explored sexual relationships in Mass Effect and Dragon Age? Being openly first to do something is very risky. Hot Coffee forced the change from hiding. The medium got much of what it wanted in terms of deserved creative liberty because of Rockstar’s stunt, but that doesn’t make the stunt righteous – in fact it was cowardly, and dangerous.
The growth of adult themes in games, whether empowered by Hot Coffee or not, hasn’t been limited to sexual situations. The overwhelming despondency of Max Payne 3 wouldn’t have been welcome ten years ago, nor would its repeated, unflinching themes of addiction, grief, and suicidality. But the mistake was always believing games “shouldn’t” explore stuff like that.
Irresponsible as Hot Coffee was, it did bring progress. Seven years ago that hidden content was seen by some as monumentally shocking. Compare it, though – its absurd, clothed QTE sex – to what’s going on in the background when Max Payne wanders into a brothel during his visit to the favela. And consider that no one has uttered a peep about that scene.
Some believe that the U.S. government had foreknowledge of an attack on Pearl Harbor, and let it happen because the United States “needed” to get into the war. Caught between months of policy debate and one shocking attack, the argument goes that Roosevelt and his advisors chose the most perilous, but also fastest and surest, path to their objective. I’m not comparing Hot Coffee to an event that cost human lives, just noting that dramatic action does tend to quickly produce dramatic results. And I guess after all these years I’m willing to accept that Hot Coffee resulted in dramatic and long-deserved increases in creative freedom. I just wish that Rockstar – and by extension the Housers – had found a way to do it without putting so much at risk.
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