I adore a juicy bit of controversy; it’s a jagged little beam of light in my otherwise dark and mundane existence if you will. It’s no surprise that over the many years of creative minds giving us such a vast array of gaming entertainment there’s a few individuals who’ve put forward some titles that were destined to shock gamers and society as a whole. Sometimes a controversial element is purposefully incorporated to get people talking or it may be a simple misconception as to how the public might view and react to a certain element. Of course, what’s considered offensive or controversial is going to be highly dependent on the societal context in which it is spawned. With this in mind, I thought I’d have a look back into the annals of gaming history and find those titles which caused a stir over the past five decades.
1970s: Gotcha (1973, Atari)
This game was an age before my time but I can appreciate a good 70s gaming chin-wag. Atari’s fourth game after Pong, Pong Doubles and Space Race was a two-player maze game where the objective was to catch the other player by moving closer and closer to them as an electronic beep sound increased in frequency to a feverish pitch until the Pursuer caught the Pursued. Each time they were caught a point was scored and the chase started over again.
The controversy wasn’t so much in the gameplay but how the game was physically controlled, which was by two, pink-coloured mounds that were squeezed and fondled in order for your little character to move. Obviously people thought they looked too much like breasts and the fact you had to fondle them in order to play the game didn’t deter their dirty minds. Why did they do away with their typical Joystick controller you ask? Because Atari staff decided it would potentially sell more units to the male and female population if the controllers didn’t look like penises. I’m not making this up; they changed the controllers because they assumed people wouldn’t want to use a dick-shaped controller as much as one shaped like a pair of titties. Ah the 70s, what a time to be alive.
Honourable mention: Death Race (1976, Atari). Deemed too violent for its era by running over stick-men “gremlins” who would scream after being mowed down.
1980s: The Leisure Suit Larry franchise (1987-present, all platforms)
Leisure Suit Larry is an adult-themed series created by Al Lowe. Sierra published the game from 1987 to 2009 and then Codemasters took the wheel from 2009 onwards. The games follow Larry Laffer, a sweaty, balding, leisure-suit wearing man in his 40s attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to seduce attractive women. You’d be fairly certain of what sort of game you were purchasing by the ridiculously lewd titles such as ‘Lust in Space (Leisure Suit Larry explores Uranus)’ or ‘Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals’, which were fairly accurate descriptions of the gameplay you could expect.
So at this point it goes without saying that the game franchise came under immense scrutiny for its extremely mature content and blatant objectification of women. This rendered it too obscene for our delicate Australian eyes and like many other countries around the world it was banned. I happened to stumble upon one of the Leisure Suit Larry games online, and personally I (along with many other critics) found this game to not be as sexualised as it was initially perceived (and I maintain that the film clip for Nikki Minaj’s Anaconda is far worse and is a similar level of morally and artistically bankrupt). I can definitely see how many would turn a nose up at them though. Godspeed, Larry!
Honourable mention: Custer’s Revenge (1982, Atari 2600). Dodge arrows to reach a nude Native American woman who, as a reward, you could have sex with for points while she’s tied to a pole. Controversy followed quickly as it was unclear whether she was being raped or participated willingly.
1990s: The Grand Theft Auto Franchise (1997-Present, all platforms)
Here’s a shocker. The Grand Theft Auto franchise is one of the biggest franchises the gaming community has ever seen, and if you’ve stumbled upon this article then chances are you’ve at least heard about the amount of controversy surrounding GTA. With its violent gameplay that essentially lets you live out your darkest fantasies of being a filthy amoral criminal (if you so choose), and the fact that its publisher Rockstar Games has pushed this franchise to its absolute limits in regards to how far a tongue can really be pushed into a cheek before it tears out the side of a face, GTA is both a parent’s nightmare and a license to print money. Want to run down pedestrians for points? Have to chase down a van whose driver has stolen all your cocaine? Need to release some tension with a hooker in a back alley somewhere? GTA has you covered. Regardless of its detractors, this franchise (and particularly recent versions of the game) is virtually limitless when it comes to what you can actually do in-game (for the most part you don’t actually have to be a complete piece of shit if you don’t want), and has been a benchmark-setting series from both a technological and cohesive world-building standpoint.
As a consequence of course, many of its morally questionable missions and objectives have seen outrage by untold millions of people. It has been banished from certain storefronts (including Australia’s very own Target), websites and countries as well as spurring a multitude of lawsuits. One staff member stated that the amount of threats to sue the franchise became equivalent to approximately one per working day. Sexism, drug use, nudity, racism, language, torture and murder? Somebody’s going to want to speak to the manager.
Honourable mention: Wolfenstein 3D (1992, DOS/SNES). Violence, gore and killing Nazis in droves. Oh, and the final boss is Hitler in a mech suit… just in case you plan to really piss people off.
2000’s: Conker’s Bad Fur Day (2001, N64)
Ah Rare, many teenage gamers tipped their legionnaire hats to you once this hilariously over-the-top game hit our N64 consoles in 2001. To me this was by far the funniest and most enjoyable game I have played to date (subject to age, of course). To sum this gem up in a nutshell (get it…) you are an alcoholic squirrel who wastes himself at a bar and loses recollection of how to get home to his girlfriend, Berri. He then has to navigate his way through an immersive 3D world by solving puzzles, defeating bosses with a frying pan and moving strategically through obstacle-ridden paths while being partially hungover.
Controversy surrounded the seemingly child-friendly looking game after it was found to be riddled with binge-drinking glorification, extremely course language and an abundance of generally lewd humour. At one point you also have to battle a giant pile of faeces who flings turd balls at you, brilliant in a time where fart jokes were funny.
Very Honourable mention: Manhunt (2003, PS2, PC). Intense violence and gore, including suffocating foes with plastic bags or hacking into spines with ice-picks. Banned in Australia after it allegedly inspired a teenager to replicate a gruesome in-game murder in real life.
2010’s: South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014, Xbox360/PS3/PC)
With a TV franchise that is definitely not a stranger to lawsuits or pushing the boundaries of what the world will tolerate, it comes as no surprise that the game South Park: The Stick of Truth ruffled a feather or two. You play a new kid, who after moving into the famous town becomes involved in an intense role-playing game featuring wizards, elves and humans who are all fighting over control of the all-powerful Stick of Truth. In inimitable South Park style things escalate fairy quickly, and before long you’re witnessing Randy getting anal probes and you and your buddies are smacking homeless people around in the sewers, and it doesn’t stop there. You’ve got Nazi zombies and a horrifying scene at an abortion clinic where you fight the mutated foetuses. Like the creators of the series Matt Parker and Trey Stone, the game has had many books thrown at it by furious consumers, but unlike the show itself the game is just too entertaining for the other 90% of the enthusiasts for nay-sayers to have the game pulled from shelves. Content has been slightly restricted in Australia, and scenes that are just too much for our Aussie sensibilities have been replaced by an image of a crying koala and a very vivid description of what we would have seen if our government wasn’t ridiculous. Some may call it censorship, I call it exclusive content!
Honourable mentions: Hatred (2015, PC). A game about mass-murder, where the foundation is to kill innocent civilians in fits of rage. The controversy came mainly from its name, as the CEO had been accused of having affiliations with Neo-Nazi and anti-Islamic groups via pages on Facebook.
While most of us have a relatively broad and open mind when it comes to some of the content in the games we love there are definitely moments where you think: “Should I be offended?” But it’s also important to understand that developers and publishers are never trying to purposely attack us, make light of our devastations or undermine our religions and beliefs. We like controversy and brow-raisers because it proves to us that not everything nowadays has to be rolled in bubble wrap, and with full creative control developers and publishers can virtually create whatever we or they want. People are going to be offended and people aren’t going to like everything that another person likes, but it takes creators and developers like Rockstar Games and Al Lowe to push boundaries for us so we don’t eventually get stuck with games where brutal boss-battles are replaced with naughty princess pillow fights where you are required to learn about the magic of friendship before holding hands under a rainbow.
These are of course just some of the titles that have gotten some knickers in a twist, what are your favourites?