Taking the taboo out of mature gaming

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Brian Crecente
Gears of War 3

It’s like clockwork; moments after popping open any
game that has a mature rating, my 10-year-old son seems to appear at my
elbow to ask if he can play it with me.

It’s a mix
of things that draws Tristan to these games that he knows I don’t let
him play. I suspect the fact that I’ve told him he can’t play them tops
the list, followed by the fact that they deal with topics considered
taboo for most children.

So when “Gears of War 3”
arrived on my doorstep within minutes Tristan arrived at my elbow. But I
surprised him with an unusual answer to his usual question: We’ll see, I
said.

Increasingly, video games give players the
ability to fine-tune their experience in a way that television shows and
movies still can’t.

In games like “Gears of War,”
players can turn on filters that remove the mature language found in
the game’s dialog and the blood and gore that fills the game. You’re
still shooting the game’s monstrous Locust and Lambent. But the sprays
of blood and the ability to literally blast an enemy into bloody chunks
of meat is removed.

The resulting, much-tamer
depiction of violence against fictional creatures had me reconsidering
my hard no-mature games rule, but only because the game didn’t seem to
really deserve the rating with those filters turned on.

Curious
about how the filters might impact ratings, I contacted the
Entertainment Software Ratings Board for their take. Does the game
deserve a second, filters-on rating, I asked? Turns out they get that
question a lot from kids trying to win an argument with their parents.

“Ultimately
we feel our rating should reflect the most extreme content possible,
regardless of whether filters can eliminate or diminish some of that
content,” said ESRB spokesman Eliot Mizrachi. “Having a secondary
‘filters on’ rating would not only be potentially confusing for parents
that are unaware of those settings, but may not provide those parents
assurance in terms of avoiding their child’s exposure to certain content
since these filters aren’t usually lockable and can typically be
switched off by the player.”

Mature filters have
been around in “Gears of War” since the first game hit the Xbox 360 in
2006, but initially there was some debate over whether to include the
option.

Some in the studio worried that including
the filters would mean they were no longer staying true to their
“creative vision,” said Rod Fergusson, Epic Games’ director of
production. Ultimately, he said, they decided that wasn’t the case and
that including them had some benefits.

“Yes, in
our minds the game is a better experience without filtering but it’s
still a great game with filtering turned on,” he said. “And, at the end
of the day, if these types of filters mean that a larger number of
players get to experience our game then it is certainly worth the
effort.”

That first “Gears of War” only had a
single option for “extreme content.” Turning it on cut down on the
game’s gore and mature language. In “Gears of War 2,” the developers
decided to break that into two filters.

“It seems a
number of people are OK with chainsawing monsters from the underground
but would prefer not to hear swearing while doing it,” Fergusson said.

In
“Gears of War 3,” the two filters returned. While the gore filter
hasn’t really changed since the original game, Fergusson says the
language filters have.

“In ‘Gears 1,’ we called it
‘Extreme Content’ because we really only filtered out the harshest of
words,” he said. “In ‘Gears 2’ and now, ‘Gears 3,’ we’ve increased the
number of words we filter to make it more acceptable to a broader
audience.”

Giving players the ability to
experience the game the way they want to isn’t quite as simple as
bleeping out a few words. Because the filters can be turned on or off,
the process is more complex.

“For every line that
has a word that we want to filter out, we’ll have two lines loaded in
memory — one mature and the other filtered,” Fergusson said. “So when
the game is preparing to play a line of dialogue, it checks the language
filter flag, and if it’s set to ‘on,’ then it will play the filtered
line with the radio static. If it’s set to ‘off,’ then it will play the
original mature line. Inside each line is the appropriate subtitle so
that onscreen text matches what’s being said as well.”

Even the static sound players hear when a word is filtered was debated.

“Initially,
we tried the traditional bleep but it seemed to do more harm than
good,” he said. “Instead of the filter hiding the mature language, the
bleep would give it more attention. In fact, in some cases you would
replace the bleeped word in your mind with a word much stronger than
what was actually written.”

The team’s audio
director, Mike Larson, suggested trying to blend it more, by either
using blanks or simply playing radio static, so it felt more like it was
part of the world, he said. So now when you run into filtered foul
language in the game it sounds like a radio is on the fritz and you hear
static.

To decide what words to filter the team
starts with a list based on current television standards for acceptable
language. The team then goes through all of the possible bad language
and discusses whether each word needs to be filtered.

The gore filter is equally complex. When turned on, the game replaces the blood spray effect with one based on sparks.

“We
can’t simply remove it because in video games the blood is not only a
visual effect, it’s also an essential feedback mechanism to tell the
player whether they’re being successful or not,” Fergusson said. “Beyond
removing the appearance of blood, the gore filter will also prevent
bodies from breaking apart or into chunks.”

That
means if you try to pull the arm off a Locust in “Gears of War 3” and
the filter is on, you’ll punch the creature in the face instead. If you
try to chainsaw or shoot an enemy up close with a shotgun, they will
die, but they won’t be blown to bloody bits.

And
that’s just how the interactive bits of “Gears of War” are affected. The
game also has its share of non-interactive, movie-like cut-scenes.

Most
of the “Gears of War 3” cinematics are real-time, so the game can still
alter things on the fly. But in previous versions of “Gears of War,”
the game used pre-created moments. And that caused issues.

In
“Gears of War 2,” for instance, there’s a cinematic when the game’s
Sergeant Marcus Fenix utters an expletive. Late in development, Epic
decided to pre-render the moment, to make the level run a bit smoother.
But it created an issue: salty language that couldn’t be changed on the
fly.

The solution was to rework the scene so Fenix
says a tame version of the line, and turns his back to the camera as he
speaks it so players don’t see that he’s still mouthing the extra curse
word.

While “Gears of War” isn’t the only video
game series that allows players to filter out mature language, gore or
both, it’s still not seen in a lot of mature games.

Fergusson
points out that adding the filters isn’t a free feature. The developer
needs to write two versions of spoken lines and create two sets of
subtitles. There’s also the cost to the power used by the machine
running the game.

Memory is being taken up by
having both versions of lines loaded, there’s additional disk space
taken by the extra audio and there’s extra asset management going on.

“Given
all that though, we at Epic feel that these filtering options are worth
the effort to give the customer the experience he or she wants,” he
added.

Those customers include the people working at Epic as well.

“We
definitely have a lot of parents at Epic who have taken advantage of
the filtering,” he said. “For me personally, I really enjoy playing
‘Horde’ with my two sons (17 and 9) but I definitely turn on language
filtering for my 9-year-old. If the filtering option didn’t exist, then
he wouldn’t be able to play and we’d lose a lot of great family time
together.”

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GAMES WITH FILTERS

Gears of War isn’t the only game with mature content filters. Here are a few other examples:

—“Assassin’s Creed”

—“Metal Gear Solid”

—“God of War II”

—“Call of Duty: Black Ops”

—“StarCraft II”

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Brian
Crecente is managing editor of Kotaku.com, a video-game website owned
by Gawker Media. Join in the discussion at kotaku.com/tag/well-played.

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%uFFFD 2010, Kotaku.com (Gawker Media).

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