When your government tells you there are things too Adult for Adults
Honestly, this is a bit of a rant article. Yesterday, the Australian Classification Board refused to classify Compulsion Games newest outing ‘We Happy Few’. The reason? Well, like anything, there are a few, but chief amongst them is drug use.
Now, that sentence is both true and misleading. There is a lot you need to know for that sentence to make complete sense. This information is referred to as context, something the Classification Board seems to have forgotten about. But more on that later.
This is going to look like a random mishmash of items, and superficially it is, but bear with me – each section will illustrate how frustrated we are about things in Australia, with this simply being the latest example.
An underrated gem of a film – Equilibrium (2002)
Before Batman Begins, my favourite Christian Bale movie was Equilibrium. Set in the near future after World War III, the leading council of the city-state Libria has established peace by stopping all emotions in the citizenry. The theory is all crime and violence ultimately comes from uncontrolled emotion, so by issuing a drug called Prozium II to the people, no one feels, and there are no criminals.
Criminals in Equilibrium are those that refuse the drugs, known as ‘Sense Offenders’. Christian Bale plays John Preston, a Cleric or highest ranking police enforcer, tasked with finding and removing Sense Offenders for the greater good.
The trailer below shows the world in a bit more detail.
It’s not for everybody and isn’t an original story overall, but it’s a great telling of a sci-fi standard. Not a family movie, but the violence isn’t too over the top and the pacing is good for the story.
If you live in Australia, you can check it out on Netflix here, and it’s rated M.
2016 – I see an Early Access game on Steam called ‘We Happy Few’.
I heard a few bits and pieces about the place for this game called ‘We Happy Few’. It was a Kickstarter that a few people told me was a game I would probably enjoy. Dark outlook, supposedly strongly narrative-driven storyline, alternate history – just the kind of thing I would like.
Unfortunately, I missed the Kickstarter completely, but the announcement trailer certainly caught my interest and it’s been on my Steam Wishlist pretty much ever since.
My friends were right – this was a game that seemed to call to me. I was already under the gun time-wise and didn’t want to start playing Early Access, so I decided to wait until the game was finished. That way, I could see some reviews or gameplay footage and make my final decision.
So what is ‘We Happy Few’ actually all about?
Excellent question! I have no idea.
Really. I tried to avoid spoilers a lot because it was a title that really caught my interest. Compulsion Games seemed to think along the same lines because even though the game was being built upon and improved in Steam Early Access, it was always seen by them as a glorified demo to not spoil the full experience.
What I can tell you is We Happy Few takes place in 1964 England in a timeline where the Germans successfully occupied England. The people of Wellington Wells all take a drug called ‘Joy’ to stop them from remembering the Very Bad Thing the town had to do in the past.
Joy puts the people in a perpetual happy state, extinguishing the memories causing them anguish and guilt. However, not everyone is happy to be in a drug-induced utopia. Some people want to remember, and stop taking Joy. These people are called Downers, and want nothing more than to leave Wellington Wells behind them.
But to do so, you have to explore and find a way out. The problem is if the other people realise you aren’t taking your Joy, they will make you. That’s if you’re lucky. Otherwise, they will ‘free’ you from Wellington Wells without a second thought.
Now, you may understand why I started talking about an old movie. Doesn’t this sound like a game played from the Sense Offenders side in Equilibrium? The ruling body doesn’t want you to have free thought or emotions they can’t control. This idea has been in science fiction writing almost as long as sci-fi has been around – just look at Brave New World. Similar thoughts were being explored in the 1930’s, it’s just the source material sadly hasn’t stood up over the decades.
Playing a game that lets you explore such ideas is a game I want to play. I also like a mechanic in the game that may seem strange to some – you can’t save. Each life is exactly that – one life in the game. If you are caught and killed, you awake as someone else in the town. You have already explored and reatin your own knowledge of Wellington Wells so it’s not a true reset, but peoples’ reactions will change as you are a different person.
That sounds great! When can you play it?
Well, I can’t. The Classification Board refuses classification, making it illegal to sell the game in Australia. The battle for an R rating, allowing people 18 years and older to purchase games in Australia, was well publicised worldwide a few years ago.
One of the main problems is the use of Joy in the game. In Australia, a blanket rule for games classification is that ‘Video games will be refused classification if they include or contain ‘drug use related to incentives and rewards”.
In We Happy Few, if you take your Joy like a ‘good’ citizen, you can gain advantages in the form of being able to move around town easier. Well, easier, in this case, means ‘not being killed by an angry mob’ – not sure if I would call that a reward, but definitely an incentive to do so.
But there is another big problem – the boards own standards. On the Classification Boards own website describing the essential principles for classification, the following text appears:
There are three essential principles that inform the board’s classification decisions:
- the importance of the context
- assessing the impact
- the six classifiable elements of drug use, language, nudity, themes, sex and violence.
Number one is the big one – Context. In We Happy Few, this isn’t a weird drug simulator where you swallow different pills for a higher score. This is a game where you play someone explicitly working against a government forcing you to take a drug against your wishes.
So in this context, Brave New World and Equilibrium should be banned materials. Surely there are not different standards for games than there are to film and literature?
Yes. Yes, there are. Anyone can walk into a bookstore and buy Brave New World. It’s a classic, but even though I enjoy it honestly it’s a hard reread for me these days. But the point is an 8-year-old can walk into any bookstore and buy a copy and start reading.
But Equilibrium? Rated M. Not even MA15+, just M. In Australia, anyone can walk into an M rated movie – it’s just an advisory that there may be mature themes. MA15+ means anyone under the age of 15 needs to be accompanied by an adult. So a non-interactive version of similar themes can be viewed by anyone.
Video games have an R18+ rating, meant to legally restrict the contents to adults that could be harmful to younger viewers. There have been many famous cases in the past, such as Fallout 3, where drug use was listed as grounds for refusing classification. The drug in question used as a reward? Morphine. Taking a drug to help heal yourself was seen as a reward or incentive. Don’t worry that the in-game mechanics can have you become chem dependant, tackling the mature theme of drug dependency – you can’t glorify drugs!
Well, I will just let that one sit and speak for itself. And Fear and Loathing isn’t even a unique example – it’s just visually the best drug-fueled trailer to prove my point I could find in 2 minutes. Cheech and Chong movie marathon anyone? Wolf of Wall Street? And you know what all these movies are rated? R18+.
And it’s another example of inconsistent application of guidelines. PlayStation 3’s Haze was a game where you played a super soldier literally fuelled by drugs. You needed to administer drugs for health and abilities to allow you to progress in the game, but in the context of the narrative, this was OK.
Back to We Happy Few – why is the same basic concept of control of the population via drug use openly available in literally every other media? Whatever happened to the all-important ‘Justification by Context’?
This is context proven in storytelling in many ways, I just pulled the classic and my favourite movie adaption to compare to for this article. To be told I can’t view it essentially because I am not mature enough but can go and buy much worse material from JB Hi-Fi is offensive to me.
There are movies I don’t want to see, so I don’t. The Saw movies are outright torture porn, with what I consider ‘high impact violence’ and little justifiable or redeemable narrative to explore. That is the conclusion I came to after watching the first three, and I don’t watch any more of them. And the first four are only blocked to people under the age of 15.
So why is this an issue now?
So here and now, this is another peeve of about a single game I wanted to play. But it is probably about to highlight another round of ‘Refused Classification’ games.
The upcoming Call of Duty Black Ops 4 (a game I honestly won’t be playing) is rumoured to be bringing back active health management. Basically, no more hiding behind a wall and waiting to magically heal – shoot up a stim and heal yourself to continue.
Now, even in a game, I am not interested in, I am happy this mechanic is being explored. The old school medkits for health in stationary positions worked at the time, but in today’s frantic multiplayer environments not so much. Knowing that people will need to heal, it just creates choke points on a map that stop the flow of a game, making it not fun for anyone.
The standing still not taking damage health recharge idea works, but really for most games even though they don’t say it we know how it works.
In almost all shooter games, especially the ones that introduced the stop and heal mechanic such as Halo, you are wearing some form of power armour. Standing still after taking damage to your shields allows them to recharge. This makes sense narratively.
Taking physical damage when the shields are down, how can crouching for 2 seconds heal you? The only way that makes sense to me is your armour is pumping you full of drugs.
Now, these are games – I am not trying to cry for ultra-realism or real-world logic to explain game mechanics. If you had to stop and bandage yourself to heal in every game and wait days to heal, most games wouldn’t be fun.
I don’t mind the implied ‘you got shot full of painkillers keep going’ of the rest and heal, but the new Call of Duty limited health by the number of stims you can carry brings a new tactical range of choices to the game.
Think this fight is a breeze? Don’t heal and go ahead at half health. See how good you really are. That’s the kind of implied challenge these mechanics allow developers to give their players, and for large numbers of players are fun gameplay options.
The other flip side to this argument is once again context. Use morphine to deal with physical pain? No no no that’s far too adult. Need to heal in a Legend of Zelda game? Drink a magic potion! It’s magic, not a drug, so everything is just fine.
Ran out of health? If you have a fairy, you can come back to life! It’s not resuscitation technology or drug related at all, it’s just magic, it’s fine. But the comic series GaMERCaT still has one of my favourite comics on an alternate look at how the potions in the Zelda games work:
Want to tell me which version of healing has the more mature themes?
I am not saying We Happy Few is a must play game, but it is an object of creative expression just like any other title mentioned in this article. And it is one that as a mature adult I would like to enjoy.
If I can make that decision with film, television, literature, magazines, music, clothing, food, or any other aspect of my life – why can’t I make it with Video Games?
Hopefully, this will help demonstrate – again – the disparity in criteria for rating other forms of entertainment and video games. Gaming has evolved from ‘shoot the alien spaceship’ or ‘jump over the obstacle’ to true creative pieces. True, there are plenty of examples of silly, violent and trashy games, but have a look at the movies on offer that are rated and classified for adults to choose for themselves.
To the Australian Classification Board – we have an R18+ rating. Use it. Not only on this game but on all games, now and in the future. Maybe even the past as well. And while these things are being examined, here’s an idea – instead of a separate set of guidelines for games, how about just using the the same guidelines as films? That would be a great start.
If you can think of any other suggestion for the Classification Board, let me know. The only way to change is to take the changes to the politicians and vote for the ones that will implement them.
Until next time,
WAIT! You said this was a Kickstarter? How are they affected?
Ah, yes, almost forgot. I’m really sorry about that.
Honestly, not really sure where this puts both Kickstarter backers and people that purchased the game on Steam Early Access at this time.
Compulsion Games have addressed the Steam community with the following statement:
So Compulsion Games is going to be appealing (rightfully), but there isn’t any information yet on what is possible.
They have already started talking refunds for Kickstarter backers, and I find it hard to believe that similar action wouldn’t be followed for Steam users.
They are trying to be as transparent as possible from the looks of it, so fingers crossed the ACB pulls their finger out and just gives the game a classification.