Name a studio that specializes in mature games, and the likelihood is that Rockstar comes out on top. Of course, their adult content has also attracted a lot of controversy in their history — everything from the brutal snuff-tape killings in Manhunt, to violence among schoolchildren in Bully, to killing prostitutes in GTA, or tying Nuns to train tracks in Red Dead Redemption.
Of course, when it comes to a Mature-rated or PEGI 18-rated game these days, graphic and often photo-realistic violence has become the norm. Despite how it was uncomfortably highlighted in the sizzle reel shown at the White House a couple months ago in the wake of the Florida school shooting, it’s a fact that many AAA developers and publishers use the same kind of imagery to sell their games.
It’s all too easy to think of examples, such as the reveal for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Oddly, Square Enix didn’t even show gameplay but a cinematic involving Lara going around stabbing mercs with her pickaxe rather than giving us insight into her character or perhaps the story. That cinematic may not be as awfully gratuitous as the one for Hitman Absolution, but still wholly unnecessary. There’s also the teaser for The Last of Us 2 that closed out the Playstation showcase at Paris Games Week, which Naughty Dog in its wisdom thought it’d be great to show a girl having her arms bashed in with a hammer, while a woman has a noose wrapped around her neck and a knife pressed into her stomach.
Bethesda’s E3 shows particularly revel in violence in an almost carnivalesque fashion, never failing to have its audience in rapturous whoops while limbs and body parts are flying, whether that’s to demonstrate the slow-motion V.A.T.S system in Fallout 4 or the Nazi-killing montage of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus. I’d lump in DOOM but its ultra-violence is supposed to be channeling a juvenile guilty pleasure without any pretense (though it’s noticeable that the game’s appearance on Nintendo Direct doesn’t resort to the same excess).
I’m not saying I don’t get satisfaction out of game violence — DOOM was an absolute blast — and in gameplay terms, getting a visceral sense of feedback can be important. Nonetheless, it’s ironic that, while explicit violence, sex, and language are rated as mature content, a relentless obsession with that kind of content actually shows a lack of maturity — a teenage boy’s interpretation of what’s meant to be ‘grown-up.'
What’s more telling is that the way games are sold to its audiences wouldn’t wash in another medium. The Last of Us 2 creative director and writer Neil Druckmann has mentioned how "hate" is the underlying theme for the sequel, but when I think of the countless films about vengeance, violence and man’s inhumanity to man, I can guarantee none of their trailers are cut in any way near as explicit.
Or let’s look at the medium of television. Thanks to HBO, the standards of what can be shown on the small screen have changed tremendously. From The Sopranos to Game of Thrones to The Deuce, none are lacking in graphic violence and full frontal nudity. However, you’re not being subjected to this relentlessly for an hour. More importantly, you don’t see this stuff cut into the trailers, which are actually trying to sell you on its characters, its story and its world instead of titillating.
So if trailers offer our first impression of a game, then it’s clear that Rockstar is a cut above everyone else. This actually goes as far back as controversial games like Manhunt, where they weren’t advertising the gruesome ways you could execute people but rather used the trailers to create a dark, dank and menacing atmosphere through its music and grainy camera footage. Likewise, jump to the latest Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer and it demonstrates a show for sophisticated storytelling and how Rockstar is the mature master of its craft.
Instead of lingering establishing shots and enigmatic snatches of dialogue, I can imagine another publisher would’ve wanted to show off the return of the Dead Eye mechanic that slows down the action as you shoot dead multiple enemies or more in-game action (although apparently the majority of the footage shown is directly lifted from gameplay) but instead Rockstar clearly has more important things it wants to focus on. What our real takeaway from this trailer is an introduction to new characters, a few familiar faces, but more importantly an underlying melancholic tone and the game’s Promethean theme, “You have to love yourself a fire”.
No doubt we will get a more in-depth look at Red Dead Redemption 2’s gameplay mechanics in other ways, and I’m sure the final game will still have plenty of violent gunplay (the hunting elements already sound pretty savage). That’s all fine. But in exhibiting a level of class in how it wants to present itself, it’s a mature game you can take seriously. Rockstar’s quality is a bar few studios can reach, but cutting a good trailer isn’t a bad start.