Discussing the graphics, sound, gameplay, and story is the tried and tested formula followed by the traditional game review. Sure, some game journalists can inject a witty turn of phrase and write in a pleasing style but the vast majority of reviews tend to remain shackled to the same old structure of analysis. Yet for those seeking a less conventional perspective, there are alternatives out there that take on games from some rather unusual angles.
One particular website gave God of War 2 a 3.5/10 rating on one aspect of assessment. The criteria on which the grade was based? Magic. The website in question is CCGR, or Christ Centred Gamer, one of many Christian gaming websites with a particular fixation on the portrayal of all things magical in videogames. Anyone who remembers the campaigns to have Harry Potter banned from libraries will be aware that some Christians have a peculiar fixation on fictional portrayals of sorcery, so it comes as no surprise that the tone is rather anti-magic. Yet whatever your feelings toward the dark arts may be, these sites provide a refreshingly unconventional take on games.
I was pleasantly surprised by how conscientious the reviews were in assessing occult content when I discovered that zombie-killing-fest Resident Evil 5 was deemed a magic-free zone. The reviewer rather astutely points out that despite the game featuring zombie-like creatures, they are in fact infected humans: a product of science rather than the occult. While the tone of the site is one of general disapproval of magic, it is far more analytical than the knee-jerk reactions one might expect.
The higher the score, the more objectionable the magic, but CCGR goes beyond a simple “magic equals bad” analysis and puts a lot of thought into how the magic is portrayed. In God of War 3, you play a Greek pagan god fighting and killing other gods in an orgy of supernatural violence. So why wasn’t it given a top-of-the-scale 10 out of 10 for magic-overload? Well, the kind of magic depicted is given great importance and some magic is deemed worse than others. Apparently, the magic in God of War is “fairytale” in nature, which is significantly less worrying than “real” magic. According to the ratings guidelines, Wiccan and Satanic magics are considered real and thus a far more insidious influence than alternatives, like maybe Phoenix Wright‘s magic magatama or the biotic powers of Mass Effect. There is an undeniable internal logic to this. If you believe magic to be both real and evil, it of course makes sense to worry about how it is depicted in works of fiction.
Another important factor is who exactly is using the magic. If players themselves are throwing fireballs and reading minds, this is a lot worse than simply smiting magic-wielding foes. Of course, a magic-free hero beating up enchanted villains still isn’t deemed positive, as minds are still being corrupted by the very notion of magic, yet it’s a lot better than little Timmy virtually living la vida magia.
While the presence or absence of magic may not be a deal breaker for most gamers, sites like CCGR can prove an invaluable resource for concerned Christians who wish to shield their children from the occult forces, and could presumably also be useful to practicing wizards who could reverse the score and find themselves some extreme magical games. For the rest of us, it’s a great opportunity to take a look at games from a different perspective.
So what if magic isn’t to your tastes? Well, there’s always sex and violence. The Christian sites can usually be relied on for a good assessment of brutality and erotica, but I prefer to go with the experts.
“In Bayonetta, the bloody violence is frequent and consists of clouds of blood, arterial spurts and flying limbs during combat, as well as ‘torture’ moves in which Bayonetta puts her enemies on a rack, into a spiked cabinet and so on. Such sequences are not presented in a realistic manner – one involves pulling a female monster to a rack and tightening a chain – with resulting breast jiggling – before the victim explodes in a puff of blood and body parts.”
A critique by some sadistic blogger with a weirdly eroticised view of violence? Not quite. The quote comes from a British censor’s report.
The reports of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and the American/Canadian Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) have always produced some of the more interesting censor reports. Other jurisdictions pale in comparison. The European censors only release a rather uninspired rating with no report, kind of like a review consisting of only an unexplained mark out of ten. The notoriously prudish Australian Classification (Review) Board also disappoint, publishing only appeal hearings which read with the scintillating prose of a court judgment
It’s an old cliché that American censors are more hung up on sex, while the Brits are more bothered about violence; a comparison of the reports often backs this up. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 feels the wrath of the BBFC for its “moderate violence” and the report goes into detail about heavy interrogation scenes involving hypodermic needles and knives. The ESRB makes no mention of this at all, but does choose to mention the presence of women in cleavage-revealing outfits.
What makes the British censor reports worth reading are their bizarrely detailed accounts of violence. The above extract from Bayonetta could have simply said “there was a lot of bloody violence,” but instead goes into gruesome detail about exactly what horrific delights that gore aficionados can expect. There almost seems to be an air of the critic in this one, expressing disappointment at the lack of realism. Add to this the clinical, bureaucratic tone that seems totally at odds with the subject matter and they often end up reading like the diary of a psychopathic English civil servant.
Sometimes the overzealous censors of the BBFC veer into the strange territory of describing what horrific acts of violence are not in the game: “There are blood spurts as people are shot and stabbed, etc. and pools of blood form on the ground. However, there is never any discernible injury detail and it is not possible to inflict post-mortem injuries, although there is considerable ragdolling as dead bodies are shot.” (Episodes from Liberty City DLC from Grand Theft Auto IV.)
The option of committing sadistic acts of post-mortem violence on corpses is not something that I would usually consider conspicuous by its absence. Yet these kinds of passages in some ways reflect the modern approach to censorship. Despite the popular image of the censor as an out of touch kill-joy, the modern censors look at a work of fiction much more holistically, not just noting the violence but the context in which it takes place. Similarly, if the brutality is taking place in a fantastical or unreal world, this is also addressed in the analysis. Sadistic mutilating of corpses is the example cited in the guidelines as an example of glorifying and dwelling on violence, so no doubt some of the more officious censors go looking for it every time.
While more perfunctory in its analysis of violence, the ESRB devotes more time to sexual content. Mass Effect 2 is well known for its fabled sex scenes and the British BBFC spares a terse three line paragraph making note of their existence, that it “can take place between humans and humanoid aliens of both sexes” and that it is not depicted in detail. The North American censors express far more interest in the subject. Before even getting around to ME2‘s tame bedroom antics, the report makes note of the “alien pole dancing” with its “choreography highlighted on big-screen monitor. This is followed by extracts of some choice lines of smutty dialogue including “krogan sexual deviants enjoy salarian flexibility.”
When they finally get around to the famous sex scenes, it may surprise some to learn that, by ESRB standards, these are not sex scenes at all, but “romantic encounters.” The report’s explanation of the distinction would make Bill Clinton proud: “Clothed alien/human characters may prop a partner on top of a space console, clear away the clutter from a bed-slab, unzip a future-blouse, or just talk it out. Though an alien/human may gyrate her hips while on top (fleeting – one-to-two seconds), actual sex is never depicted – the camera cuts away to space furniture and ceilings.”
Mainstream game reviews can rest easy; these bizarre accounts are no threat to the traditional format. Gameplay, graphics, story, and sound are the sort of things that consumers really want to know about. Still, these weird and quirky reports have an undeniable charm. Strange and ridiculous as some of them may be, they can shed light on cultural differences and present our games in an unfamiliar light. So why not check out the reports on some of your favorite games? Who knows, these unusual perspectives might even inspire you to think about them a little differently.
Fintan Monaghan is a freelance journalist working in Japan.