Long before Sonic, Mario or I were born, videogames had already tackled controversial material. Even in gaming technology’s most primitive phase, sex and violence had found a new home. In 1976, Death Race gave gamers their very first chance to drive a handful of white pixels around a dark screen and brutally slay other white pixel blobs. Six years later, technology had moved on, and the advent of color graphics brought a visibly erect General Custer on a mission to rape Native American women. While each of these incidents engendered enough discontent to brew a tempest in a teacup, they rarely reached the attention of the bored masses yearning to be offended. It would take a game more sinister and terrifying than anything we had ever seen to change all that.
Let’s go back in time, to the early ’90s: Nirvana’s Nevermind just launched the grunge movement, and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians were under siege by the ATF. But rock music and embattled cultists were the last thing on concerned parents’ minds, as a greater evil, one far more advanced, was already working its way into their very homes! In 1992, Night Trap was about to hit the home console audience. This was the year politicians became interested in videogames and started a war of ignorance and misunderstanding that even today shows no sign of reaching an amicable peace treaty.
Night Trap began life in 1986, as a project for Hasbro’s cancelled NEMO console. While I sat too close to my TV enjoying Bubble Bobble and The Legend of Zelda, one developer had their eye on taking gaming far beyond anything I had seen in my 8-bit world. Tom Zito hoped to create a game based on the Nightmare on Elm Street series using live action video, but having failed to secure a license from the film studio, they created their own original horror game using live-action video rather than pixelated imagery to tell the story. Unfortunately for Zito, Hasbro killed the NEMO, and Night Trap sat quiet, unseen and waiting. The public was spared this abominable threat to good taste for another six years.
For me, 1992 was the year of Nintendo. Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario Kart arrived, two family-friendly classics that would survive the test of time. However the videogame that caught the media’s attention was Night Trap, on the Sega CD. It was an “interactive movie,” an experimental genre that mixed traditional film footage with occasional gameplay choices. Game developers used to working within the tight memory constraints of cartridges had access to the vast storage space of CD-ROMs for the first time and chose to fill the vacuum with grainy film footage. And so Night Trap was resurrected to once again threaten the homes of mild-mannered, law abiding citizens across the country.
I was 12 when I first heard about the game the press called an interactive horror movie bent on perverting a young generation, and like any impressionable child, I was desperate to get my underage paws on it. The press had promised me the goal was “to trap and kill women,” but unsurprisingly this bore little resemblance to what I ended up buying. As I discovered, Night Trap was a bit of fluff, a cheesy little vampire film with a few hints at interactivity. The violence we were all promised turned out to be whimsical at best, missing only a big Batman KAPOW sound, as you flung balaclava-wearing invaders into trap-doors. Did I mention it even featured a musical number halfway through? Terrifying in all the wrong ways! The whole thing seemed like some cruel and elaborate hoax to trick young boys into buying what they thought would be a taboo piece of horror, and instead all we got was a campy B-movie.
But that didn’t keep the wolves from circling.
Maybe it was the use of live-action video, maybe gaming had just finally reached critical mass or maybe the wind just happened to be blowing in the right direction one cold morning in 1992. Whatever the reason, Night Trap caused enough hysteria to get the government involved. In joint Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee hearings on videogame violence, governmental experts were quick to claim Night Trap was “ultra-violent” and “offensive to women”; they also accused it of “promoting child abuse.” Major newspapers across the U.S. carried this alarming message as far as it would go, and it wasn’t long before stores like Toys ‘R’ Us and F.A.O. Schwarz stopped selling the game altogether.
Even my beloved Nintendo was quick to sell out fellow developers: Nintendo of America insisted Night Trap would never appear on a Nintendo console. Sega and the creators of Night Trap blamed Nintendo for the hearings and accused them of using lobbyists to launch a wave of damaging controversy against their competitors. While Nintendo and the senators denied this, to me the transcripts tell quite a clear tale: In the middle of full-scale console war Nintendo got involved in the hearings to score a cheap victory.
Those hearings weren’t looking for the truth. In fact, the makers were told they were “out of order” when they stood up and offered to speak in defense of their game. The bemused developers asked one of the senators afterward if he’d even played the game, but were told, “I don’t need to; this is filth.”
Richard Perrin lives in Sheffield, England, working as the designer and producer for independent game developer Studio Trophis. He also works as a freelance videogame journalist and maintains a blog about interactive storytelling called Locked Door Puzzle. He’s partial to a quality vodka.