The hottest game on the Xbox 360 this year may be too hot for its own good, according to the group that rates video games.
On Wednesday, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board announced that both the PC and Xbox 360 versions of "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," have been re-rated from T (teen) to M (mature), advising retailers to now only sell it to gamers 17 and older.
"Oblivion" was released with a T rating in late March and has been a top seller, shipping more than 1.7 million copies for the Xbox 360, according to a press release issued earlier this week.
The ESRB has taken issue with matters of both sex and violence that it claims to have been unaware of when the game was submitted for a rating. "The content causing the ESRB to change the rating involves more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating, as well as the presence of a locked-out art file, or 'skin,' that, if accessed through a third-party modification to the PC version of the game, allows the user to play with topless versions of female characters," the board reported in a statement.
Pete Hines, public relations manager for Bethesda Softworks, the creators of "Oblivion," asked that gamers judge the rating for themselves. "We made a complete and full discourse of the game's content when we submitted the game for our rating," he told MTV News. "Now the same game and content have been given a different rating. We aren't going to contest the rating. ... You can judge the fairness of it."
Prior to a game's release, the ESRB requires that a game publisher provide video and written accounts of the most ratings-sensitive material in their games. The ESRB, which uses a rotating trio of anonymous raters, doesn't always actually play the game in advance. With a game as expansive as "Oblivion," discovering every nook and cranny in a pre-release version might not even be possible without the game's creator pointing the way.
"Oblivion" is a deep game, advertised as a fantasy swords-and-sorcery adventure that can last several dozen hours. Players embarking on the quest won't find any bared female breasts without some outside help. While the game allows players to pick the gender and change the outfits worn by their character, they can only make a woman in the game topless by using a program that removes layers of artwork created by the developers to represent underwear. In late March, within days of the game's release, a gamer with the handle "Maeyanie" developed a program to do just that.
"In the process of trying to create a nude skin for Oblivion, I found Bethesda had already done all the work for me," Maeyanie wrote. "They just covered it up with underwear afterwards."
The program has been downloaded 57,000 times and elicited a tide of feedback — pro, con, and occasionally lascivious. Some time after the announcement, Maeyanie posted an addendum: "Due to the number of thoroughly depressing comments, I'm no longer providing any support or updates. Nor will I release any further mods of this nature, for this game or others. I'm not regretting having made this. But I am regretting releasing it to the horny, immature masses out there."
The topless mod cannot be activated in the Xbox 360 version, but the ESRB affirmed that rating of both the PC and 360 versions would be changed because of the newly discovered violence. The ESRB won't specify what those newly discovered acts of violence are, but Betheseda reps said the company never hid anything from the ESRB in the first place.
"The rating changed for both versions primarily due to the violence in the game," said Bethesda's Hines. "We made a complete and accurate submission and disclosed the violence in detail. Among the things that were pointed out in the original submission: severed heads, bloody rooms, corpses, etc. We made every effort to make them fully aware of the game's content. We filled out their form and checked off the most frequent amounts of blood you can select. We gave them an additional 60-page document that exhaustively listed any content we thought may be deemed objectionable. Basically the same content we disclosed initially is now the basis for deciding it should be rated M due to blood and violence."
The ESRB's most recent high-profile re-rating of a game occurred last year when hidden sex animations unlocked by a modder forced "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" to get slapped with a belated AO (adults only) rating. The game was later re-released without those scenes (see "'Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas' Gets 'Adults Only' Rating").
"GTA" is published by Take Two Interactive, the same company that co-published "Oblivion." But Bethesda and the ESRB say that Take Two is off the hook this time, because Bethesda handled the ratings submission.
As a result of the new rating, the ESRB has mandated that Bethesda supply new ratings stickers to all retailers and post a downloadable software patch on its Web site that prevents the topless mod. Bethesda will comply, but, unlike the "GTA" creators, it won't alter its game. Said Hines, "We won't change the game to get a T rating."