How Far Will Developers Push Their Shock Tactics?

While the Daily Mail winds itself up to have multiple rantgasms about the upcoming Tomb Raider game, the rest of the gaming world is looking on with intrigue and a small amount of concern. The release of information outlining an attempted rape on main character Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot has split gamers into one of too camps – some are seeing it as an opportunity to form a protective bond with her, an emotional tie that could make the game a far more fascinating experience. Others though are looking on with an ever-increasing wonder of just where this will end.

There are two things that developers seems to be aiming for nowadays: the best online experience and the most media coverage possible, and that often comes at the hands of an excessively shocking moment somewhere along the line. It’s getting to the point where you can’t help but wonder where it’s going next, and looking closely this trend goes back to before the latest generation of consoles…

When I first got a USB headset for my PS2 there were two games I instantly needed: SOCOM and Manhunt. There wasn’t a great deal of shock in SOCOM (apart from how rubbish I was) but Manhunt? Wow. Set up as a TV survival show you ended up killing people as you tried to escape, and some of these were insanely graphic. There was even three levels of attack, with the most powerful ending up in a torrent of violence and gore that you could repeat multiple times over with a range of weapons and methods. The entire game was like this, and there was no surprise when several countries banned it from sale not long after release.

But it’s the current generation that has caught the most attention, mainly thanks to the Internet age going full force. Activision are doing everything they can do bring shocks to gamers with their Modern Warfare series, with each game upping the ante even further than the last. COD4 wasn’t too bad, with maybe the post-nuclear helicopter death being the most “woah” moment on hand, but boy did they turn up the heat with MW2. The infamous No Russian mission made worldwide news as the player tried to blend in with the enemy by taking part in an airport massacre, but it didn’t put people off, in fact it did exactly the opposite. After all there’s no such thing as bad publicity (although David Cameron leaving his daughter in a pub wasn’t great). But the best/worst was yet to come from Modern Warfare with its third iteration.

Kids are an easy way to raise eyebrows, especially when you blow one up with a bomb-laden van. While there was no blatant aftermath in terms of visual cues, the moment itself was another gaming event that launched into the papers, starting a “this is too much” row from many quarters. Meanwhile over at THQ Homefront was telling the story of a Korean invasion of America, and it wasn’t exactly a friendly takeover. Having to leap into a huge pit of murdered Americans and hide amongst the bodies wasn’t great, nor was the moment a body is kicked off a bridge right in front of you with a noose round his neck, but these both fell short of the opening scene. Using kids again but in a different way a young child’s parents are executed as the little’n watches in horror, before going to check on their dead parents. It’s a genuine open-mouthed moment.

So we’ve had brutal murder, nuclear destruction, massacres of innocent civilians, kids getting blown up and parents executed in front of their toddler. Can it get worse?

Well, yes. As stated at the beginning (and pretty much everywhere else on the Internet this week) Lara Croft is going to get sexually attacked in her upcoming adventure, and although it doesn’t end up actually happening its treading very dangerous waters. Aside from the fact there will be gamers playing this (both male and female let’s not forget) who would have been victims of sexual assault, it moves the goalposts another step. Many will see this as an acceptable part of the game, and if it’s handled well it could even be a master stroke, but it could upset a huge number of players. So with so many tightropes being walked, what next?

It would take a brave developer to go much further, but when do we start seeing the wrong side of the line? How long until developers are so keen for publicity that they start applying more brutal techniques, bringing in more graphic sexual violence, paedophilia or incest? I’m not one to get all upset about these gaming shocks, it’s what age ratings are designed for, but age ratings are entirely pointless in the majority of cases. That’s another discussion entirely, but while I’m working with kids I’m always hearing about 10 and 11 year olds playing games with an 18 certificate, and you just can’t help but wonder how far things will go to get the next headline. Developers are treading very dangerous waters, and at some point the increasingly fine line between good and bad taste will be crossed.

That is something that nobody wants to see.

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