‘Age of Conan’ is set to be a game set apart from other MMOs, and dare I say it, set to deliver more than what other MMO developers are promising in their games in the months to come. Funcom has pleasingly shown us their trademarked “Real Combat” system, a bold new step in online RPG combat, and compounded with that, we have mounted combat, which itself is not a new concept in gaming in general, but completely unseen in online RPGs.
The game’s combat engine has made many gamers quiver at the loins, with its directional attacks, combos, fluid animations, fatalities (“Finish him!”), decapitations, and blood and gore. ‘Age of Conan’ will not be a game for the faint-hearted, and is set to deliver what would be expected in your average Conan, Robert E. Howard story: a dark, gritty, raw and mature world. Howard’s world is one intended for mature readers as he takes themes and motifs found in the works of other fantasy writers (Tolkien, Lewis, and Jordan, for example) to another level. Funcom’s goal with ‘Age of Conan’ is to deliver this mature world of Howard’s to a mature gaming audience.
“Mature”. Let’s think about that word for a second, in fact, let’s ask a few people what the word “mature” means to them. Okay, I’ll be honest: while I wish I could be that spontaneous, I did have this next part prepared. I’m a writer – I’m allowed to research, right?
In terms of emotional, mental and psychological development, to be “mature” is defined as:
- “A term used in psychology to indicate that a person responds to circumstances or environment in an appropriate manner; often this implies a response that is reasoned or learned rather than impulsive.” (Dictionary.com)
- “…like an adult in mental or emotional development. Latin origin, ‘maturus’: timely, ripe.” (Oxford dictionary)
Now, the reason I bring this to your attention first is so I can now address an issue that has been subject to some hot debate over the last couple of months, the “Let there be nudity” (in ‘Age of Conan’) debate. I immediately apologise if it appears I’m beating a dead horse here (that good for nothing horse!), but this issue in itself raises a number of questions regarding ‘Age of Conan’, in the areas of censorship and the dichotomy of what is deemed appropriate and unnecessary in game content. Be assured though, ‘Age of Conan’ fans, I am speaking in defence of this eagerly anticipated game, and I would not say anything that would make you or anyone think twice about purchasing and playing this game.
Before I continue, there’s something that needs to be made clear. We can acknowledge that in Conan lore there is said adult themes: brutal violence, debauchery, undertones of slavery and racism, sexism and so on. Like earlier mentioned, the Conan stories are intended for a mature audience, so with that at the front of your mind, keep in mind also the afore mentioned definitions of the word “mature”.
Recently the infamous “Let there be nudity” thread on the ‘Age of Conan’ official community forums was [finally] locked. Before the thread was locked, 1280 comments had been posted and the thread itself had been viewed 20805 times. Having posted there a few times myself, one of my observations was that there appeared to be a lot of people requesting (and sometimes demanding) that nudity be allowed in the game. Since the game was going to be given a “Mature” rating anyway, most argued that it would only make sense that nudity be included since it was all in the stories anyway. That seems like a fair enough argument, but what needs to be considered is that no one is given free license to include specific content in a game (such as nudity) because a restriction classification simply mentions it:
Titles rated M (Mature) have content that may be suitable for persons ages 17 and older. Titles in this category may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language. (Game Ratings & Descriptor Guide, Entertainment Software Rating Board)
When I asked my ‘Primal Fury’ guild-mates about what they thought the word “mature” meant in a game content context, “Inertia” had this to say:
“I feel it [mature content] is not to be confused as an excuse to use excessive violence or nudity, but that it is an opportunity for developers to offer less restricted content and be confident that their player-base will be able to react responsibly to it.”
A very well thought out, honest and reasonable response, and after reading through most of the responses in the “Let there be nudity” thread (and I’m probably going to offend a few people by saying this, so I apologise in advance), I can only say that those requesting nudity in ‘Age of Conan’ are doing so simply for the sake of having it.
Gentlemen, let’s be honest with each other: you just want to see naked chicks walking around. This is an “impulsive” response/request (see definition #1 above) rather than a “reasoned” or “learned” one. You’ve said that there was nudity and sexually explicit themes in the Conan stories, but does that warrant it being included in the game? Does having nudity and sexually explicit content in other “mature” games give a case for it to also be included in ‘Age of Conan’?
Something else that needs to be considered is the game’s development of content, and what is deemed appropriate and unnecessary. Another of my ‘Primal Fury’ guild-mates, “Darkberserker” (our fearless guild leader), commented on “mature content”:
“In regards to design, I believe that the game designers are trying to capture all these themes that Howard portrayed as well as make the game more mature by giving it depth and realism, as well as helping to cultivate a community about respect, communication and responsibility.”
Some have argued that while excessive violence in a game such as ‘Age of Conan’ is acceptable and can be deemed appropriate, why is it then that nudity is not? To be frank, ‘Age of Conan’ is about “Combat, combat, combat” not nudity, nudity, nudity. If nudity and sexually explicit content was included in the game, then the focus might shift from combat to the “unnecessary” content (a bit like those who say they read Playboy magazine for the articles… yeah right!). Do you really want to be playing a game where others are saying, “Hey, there are naked chicks in this game!” or “Hey, I heard there’s a naked courtesan in a bar in south Aquilonia, let’s check it out!” or where a myriad of players are standing in a crowded bar all facing a naked dancer for a suspect length of time? I mean, wouldn’t you rather just go out and kill something?
The “excessive” violence in ‘Age of Conan’ is acceptable because it is of the true nature of the literary genre Howard was writing for: Sword and Sorcery. When you think about, given the nature of the characters and setting, the violence isn’t excessive at all, but more “proportionate”. If you take a game like ‘Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude’, it would be fair to argue that that is a game centred around sex and nudity, and so the content is proportionate to the characters and setting. While there is barely any violence to speak of in that particular game, placing any content in there disproportionate to its central theme(s) or motif (e.g. fighting, excessive violence) has the potential to shift it from a game about sex and nudity, to a game about something completely different. The sex and nudity is proportionate in ‘Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude’ as the violence is proportionate in ‘Age of Conan’; two games with two different central foci, but both with a variety of thematic undertone.
In a November 22, 2006 interview with Erling Ellingsen, GameMusketeers asked Mr. Ellingsen, “Age of Conan has been announced as a mature game designed for older player. How will you increase the latitude with which your developers can add content to the game?” to which he replied (make note of the bolded text):
“Having the game rated Mature does give us a lot more opportunities to fully realize the world of Hyboria in accordance with the works of Robert E. Howard, the original author of the Conan stories. It is very much a brutal, violent and realistic world, and to make our game world as close to the vision of Mr. Howard as possible, we needed aim for a Mature rating. This means we can add elements such as blood, gore and even dismemberment. There are several finishing moves in the game that end with your character decapitating enemies, a feature you most definitively have not seen in other, typical MMOs. However, our aim is not to shock or in any way include controversial content. We add these elements because they are in line with the Conan lore, and we feel that we need to add them in order to stay true to the license. We could also have added elements such as explicit nudity and sexual content, but we’re trying to stay away from these things simply because we can not end up as an Adult Only game. But we do enjoy having the creative freedom to create a true depiction of Conan’s world, which does mean a lot of violence and some scantly clad women.” (Direct link to interview)
Titles rated AO (Adults Only) have content that should only be played by persons 18 years and older. Titles in this category may include prolonged scenes of intense violence and/or graphic sexual content and nudity. (Game Ratings & Descriptor Guide, Entertainment Software Rating Board)
More recently, Mr. Ellingsen had this to say on the official forums in response to concerns of German ‘Age of Conan’ enthusiasts when told of a censored (modified) version of the game possibly being made for the Germany market:
“In the end, it is really not up to us at all. As mentioned, Funcom does not have the power to change the rules of a marketplace. If we want the game released on the German market, we will have to adhere to the rules and regulations of that market. Releasing a version on that market that will get banned would be rather pointless, and then we would rather release a modified version that the market can accept than just ignore the problem and put out a game that German players won’t be able to obtain in their own country.
Many other MMOs have not had to deal with this problem before. Age of Conan is a game that aims for a Mature rating in the US market and equivalent ratings in other markets. Some countries have restrictions on the sort of content that will be available in this game, and Funcom has little choice but to do the necessary changes called for by the authorities in that country. It is either that or having the game banned altogether, which would be bad for both Funcom and people in that country who wants to play it.
But this being said, Funcom is yet to announce any changes to the German version of the game. What we’ve said is that ‘we’ll most likely have to make certain changes to the game for certain markets in order to be accepted onto those markets.'”
Basically, Funcom is developing a game that they actually want to sell, not a game that could inevitably be banned by governments due to recommendations from rating and classification boards in countries around the world. To put it in perspective, here in Australia there is no “AO” rating for video games simply because they’re disallowed or refused classification (The Office of Film & Literature Classification for more information). These classifications exist to guide consumers in making reasoned and learned decisions when purchasing a computer game product.
In the end, it is Funcom’s intention to create a game that replicates Howard’s world and literary vision, but at the same time realising that not all aspects of Howard’s Hyborian Age is compatible with computer gaming content standards. But restricted or not, if you’re into Conan, Conan lore, sword and sorcery, combat in general, and themes central to Howard’s Conan work, then Funcom’s ‘Age of Conan’ will not be a game that will disappoint you. Bring on the “Combat, combat, combat!”
Until next fortnight, this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,
Want to contact me? Then email me here.
© Stephen Spiteri, March 2007