Adult Games ... but are they really?

By Gordon Aplin (November, 1996)
Before you read any further I should point out that this is not an in-depth look at X-rated titles along the lines of Virtual Valerie and the like, so those of you anticipating a salacious read are going to be very disappointed indeed.

My concern is to look at the trend to label some games as adult simply because they introduce a feature that is, perhaps, not suitable for children. My argument is that a classification which implies a game is 'unsuitable for children' is exactly that, and should in no way be allowed to suggest that the game is therefore suitable for adults, much less be one that adults might particularly enjoy.

I read one review of the game Innocent Until Caught where it was breathlessly suggested that here at last was an adult game because your character got to enter a brothel. I should point out that, as anyone who played the game will know, entering the establishment was as far as it went. Jack T. Ladd, the main character in the game, also enters a zoo, should that qualify the game as childish? Obviously not! So what is it that makes entering a computer game brothel appear to be adult? Granted, parents of young children may seek to avoid awkward questions about such places as brothels, but then, young children would be unlikely to be playing this game in the first place.

Clearly it is a matter of perception, and 'adult' as used here was in the mind of the reviewer, but perhaps he could be forgiven for his youthful enthusiasm were it not for another underlying assumption. Innocent Until Caught is set in the future and was perceived to have had a 'gritty', 'hard-edged reality' to it because of its seedy locations including bars, brothel and dingy back alleys, and a character on the wrong side of the law -- a man with an 'attitude'. This made it somehow more adult than, say, a game with a fantasy fairy-tale theme such as Dragonsphere or Discworld which, by implication are, after all, strictly for children. Personally, I have never understood why a fantasy set in the future should be automatically considered to be more realistic, and hence more adult, than one rooted in folklore and mythology.

All this, of course, raises an interesting point. Many younger players, no doubt, find the games based on fantasy and fairy tales to be kid's stuff, yet these are precisely what many adults choose to play. Is this simply a case of children wishing to grow up too quickly and grown ups seeking a second childhood? Or perhaps it is yet just another manifestation of the generation gap. But I digress.

Other examples
In the second issue of Quandary I reviewed Ecstatica which had some dubious scenes, including men crucified and women impaled on spears, which apparently qualified it as an adult game, as if this was what adults truly wanted to see. At the same time the storyline features your character turning into a squirrel and a frog, riding on a broomstick, being chased by a witch and having to get past a Minotaur. Take out the fighting and the objectionable screens and, I would suggest, you are left with a theme that wouldn't be out of place in any of the King's Quest games from Sierra that are often labelled as childish. I seem to remember turning into a frog in King's Quest IV and defeating the Minotaur in King's Quest VI, and neither of these games needed a gruesome scene to keep me entertained or to make them worthwhile.

Similarly, I reviewed both Noctropolis and Hell and it was claimed that these too were adult games. Why? A bit of nudity (a glimpse of your partner topless) in one -- which was clearly intended to be titillating to a male player -- and a bit of gore and swearing in the other. Few would disagree that they were unsuitable for children, but what makes this acceptable adult fare? Were the games particularly difficult to play? Did they have complex puzzles that left the player frustrated and weeping? No. If anything, for experienced adventurers, these two in particular were fairly easy to solve.

More recently other games have appeared that are being touted as adult because they feature swearing or nudity, or a gory scene. Phantasmagoria is a case in point, a game with copious servings of blood and terror but with precious little gameplay. So too, The Orion Conspiracy was promoted as adult largely for its strong language.

A more mature outlook
I am not seeking to be prudish about this, far from it, but I do wish the computer game industry would mature a little and perhaps start to produce more genuinely adult games in terms of complexity of puzzles and depth of game play and storyline. I am not even arguing for adult themes as I find that many of the, so called, gritty, realistic games that masquerade as adult are simply depressing, or are merely a poor excuse to foist gory sequences on us. Like many adults I am quite comfortable with fantasy and fairy tale scenarios and I don't feel that my 'masculinity' is in any way compromised by this admission.

That many adults welcome the escapism provided by fantasy and fairy tale themes is affirmed by the millions of people around the world who choose to read books in the rapidly expanding fantasy genre (J.R.R. Tolkien has a lot to answer for). Fantasy themes are ideally suited for incorporation into computer games, witness the myriad RPGs and adventure games that draw their inspiration from this source.

Not surprisingly, such themes have found an eager audience among those who see games as an extension of their reading. Millions of adults are perfectly happy to play and enjoy King's Quest, Monkey Island, Myst, Discworld or Death Gate, for example. Why are these sort of games so popular with mature players? Certainly not for any of the reasons that would earn them an 'adult' label. They do not rely on combat and gory scenes, nor on titillation or aggressive language. What they do have in common is a range of puzzles to absorb and delight, and that special ability to provide hours of fun and enjoyment.

If you examine the three features that most often stand out as being the common denominators of games labelled as 'adult', namely nudity, gore and swearing, it soon becomes apparent that the target audience for this type of game is not adult at all but the traditional market of the computer game industry, adolescent males. Only this market could possibly find the limited nudity titillating, the gore something to drool over, and the swearing adult. Most adults have already passed through that phase and now recognise it, possibly with some embarrassment, as childish and immature. Furthermore, it is disappointing to see this vulnerable group being quite cynically manipulated and exploited in this way.

Claims that a game is for adults should immediately make it suspect in the eyes of mature players as often gameplay is the first thing to suffer, particularly when the more 'sensational' features are highlighted on the box cover. By including a few dubious scenes the makers of these games are indulging in a cynical and shoddy marketing ploy. The twisted logic often runs like this: "Here is a fairly ordinary game, what can we do to make it stand out? I know, let's include a gory sequence and a four-letter word, then we can truly say that this one is not for the kiddies."

As every teenager knows (and I can remember that far back) adult games are 'cool' as it means that by playing them you have come of age, or at the very least you can experience the vicarious thrill of partaking in the forbidden or mysterious world of adults. Hence, Jack T. Ladd entering the brothel mentioned earlier and taking youthful players with him for a peek behind those, hitherto, closed doors.

Unfortunately, this trend is stifling the development of truly adult games and ensures that games which don't feature questionable elements are condemned as childish and therefore insignificant. And I do mean condemned. There is nothing so damning as being told that your favourite adventure game is twee, and childish, and boring, and unoriginal, usually by someone who thinks only 'cool' games are worth playing. So many times I've heard that phrase, "just another point and click adventure", as if pointing and clicking was the most hideous activity ever invented. This mystifies me -- how else would you play a mouse controlled game? By contrast, I have yet to hear the words "another boring blood-fest" or "another boring joystick wiggling caper".

The message is unmistakable and oft repeated -- action-packed games are in, adventure games, unless blessed with 'cool' graphics and sound and, often, gory elements, are out -- with the inevitable result that certain games achieve maximum publicity and sell well whilst others are poorly promoted or ignored and languish on the shelves. What this means in terms of future game development is fairly obvious. Those games that are perceived as successful are emulated by other software companies -- witness the recent rash of Doom clones -- other games, no matter how worthy, are dropped. On a superficial level this may be seen as simply a case of supply and demand, however, the major thrust of the industry is clearly self-perpetuating because it is largely only one viewpoint that prevails.

The problem
Here is the source of the problem. The games industry itself has yet to come to terms with the fact that it is now reaching a far wider audience than could have been envisaged even just a few years ago. The earlier, predominantly teenage boy, market for games still looms large in the minds of many game publishers even as they now seek to broaden their product's appeal. (Actually, I believe it is more a case of the industry being forced to, reluctantly, recognise that many games are already popular with a more mature market segment than they were ever intended to reach). This has largely had the effect of creating an essentially juvenile view of what constitutes an adult game.

It is ironic then, that the classification of games by age suitability that is gradually appearing, whether by voluntary code or government legislation, frequently means that the real target audience for these games can't, or perhaps shouldn't, have access to them. Therefore this 'forbidden fruit' aspect can make such games even more attractive to the younger market.

In the meantime, older computer game players are potentially conned by the publishers' hype into thinking that a game labelled as adult is precisely that, when, in many cases, it is nothing of the sort.

Unfortunately, the almost inevitable pushing back of the boundaries of what is acceptable in a computer game has led to calls for greater regulation of the industry. To that extent the industry has brought the heavy hand of censorship upon itself and this, in turn, has given rise to the phenomena of adult games as they are currently being labelled. The system of computer game classification, as it applies in Australia at least, is no doubt a boon for parents who are concerned about the type of games their children are playing, but I would suggest a new classification could be beneficial for mature players and warrants inclusion; that is, 'unsuitable for adults'.

Or perhaps, since 'adult' and 'adult themes' as currently understood are clearly misnomers, a new category could be introduced, possibly 'juvenile themes', along with the warning that the game likely has no plot, few puzzles and limited characterisation, but contains a pixelated glimpse of female breasts, copious splashes of red and the gratuitous use of four-letter words.

So, is there no hope of ever getting a truly adult game that is recognised as such? The answer to this question depends on whose definition of 'adult' is allowed to prevail. Games that rely on gimmickry and cheap sensationalism do little for the industry except harm in that they draw the attention of those who seek to censor. Though, I must admit that the outlook is not totally bleak and some games are appearing that provide what may be termed adult themes combined with a good plot, greater depth of characterisation and most importantly, substantial gameplay. Gabriel Knight I and II, The Pandora Directive, Myst, Zork Nemesis and Return to Zork readily spring to mind in this regard as they, fortunately, don't rely primarily on sensational 'features'. However, I would also argue that Discworld, The Riddle of Master Lu, Death Gate and even the King's Quest Series and numerous others are also eminently suitable to be played by adults.

In my experience, the games that most adults choose to play are those that provide a measure of depth and sophistication in the puzzles and problems that are set, and it doesn't matter if the game is cartoon-like and humorous, a fantasy world, a murder mystery, or hard-edged science fiction. There has to be a goal and a sense of achievement in overcoming the obstacles to attain it. For many of us, the greater the challenge the better we like it. This is perhaps one of the major components in that intangible which is known as gameplay, and games that provide this are truly adult, and often suitable for all ages.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 1996. All rights reserved.