NEW YORK — "I'll show you what got us banned in Australia," Colby McCracken, a "Reservoir Dogs" gaming producer, said with a grin. He had a PlayStation 2 controller in hand and began pressing buttons.
He was about to push things over the line.
On a day in Manhattan last week that was so hot some subway lines ground to a stop, McCracken was in an air-conditioned midtown hotel showcasing video games for his employer. He works in production and testing for Eidos Interactive, publisher of the "Tomb Raider" games, the "Hitman" series and this fall's "Reservoir Dogs," which was, in fact, denied a rating in Australia last month, barring the game from stores on the globe's smallest continent.
McCracken and Eidos Marketing Manager Kevin Gill were stationed at the end of a meeting room lined with TVs, game consoles and tall stools. Other Eidos employees were showing off the rest of the company's forthcoming holiday lineup, including a madcap, Bond-style jungle adventure called "Just Cause" and a new Lego Bionicle game.
"Reservoir Dogs" got the back-corner spot. Gill talked mostly while McCracken mostly played. Gill explained that the game would make playable many of the troubling activities only referred to in dialogue by the main characters in the 1992 Quentin Tarantino movie of the same name. He said the game would include the movie's soundtrack as well as the voice and likeness of Michael Madsen, a.k.a. Mr. Blonde. The other actors are not included but their characters are. So Mr. Pink can be played. But Steve Buscemi does not appear.
McCracken played through a few levels. Some involved driving dangerously. Some involved running around and shooting — also dangerously. Much of the shooting involved Mr. Blonde firing at cops. Occasionally he triggered the game's slow-motion "bullet festival" mode, a technique for shooting a row of police officers.
Demonstrations like these are common during meetings with any of the many major game publishers that back violent video games. The point is to demonstrate how the game is played and what sets it apart, even if, for better or worse, that new thing is a new way to kill. Those demonstrating the violence don't apologize for it: They're just showing it.
Eidos tends to push the edge anyway. Other companies publish pro wrestling games, but Eidos publishes the more violent "Backyard Wrestling." Other companies call their Vietnam games "Battlefield Vietnam" and "Viet Cong," but Eidos' is called "ShellShock: Nam '67."
Eidos got heat from politicians and police officers earlier in the year for a cops-vs.-robbers multiplayer game called "25 to Life." Sometimes it's easy to forget that Eidos was also the company that published last year's joyful kid-focused surprised hit "Lego Star Wars."
So after a 15-minute demonstration of "Reservoir Dogs," the Australia question came up. Why was this game getting barred in the land of cane toads and kangaroos?
McCracken said he'd demonstrate.
It turns out he didn't really have to show anything. He'd already shown content that was Australia-unfriendly. Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification released a press release in late June explaining that the game was too extreme for the country's most stringent gaming rating, an MA 15+. Without a more severe ratings category, a game the board deems inappropriate for a 16-year-old is a game that can't be rated. As a result, a video game targeted to the same audience as an American movie that's rated R for 17 and over can't be sold. In Australia, movies can receive R or X ratings — games can't. The press release said one of the objectionable "high-impact" aspects was that bullet festival: a "slow-motion shootout occurs, accentuating the violence."
That festival may have sufficed, but McCracken had something more to show. He took Mr. Blonde through what may have been the interior of a police station. His character took a maid hostage, using her as a human shield. The heinousness of that action caused a policeman to drop his gun. The character's adrenaline meter began to fill. He released the maid and grabbed a policeman, walking him over to some civilians who quickly fled. The game has been programmed so civilians are more easily intimidated than the police. The meter took on more color. McCracken kept doing this, sometimes roughing up the hostage in order to scare passersby even more. It was working.
Eventually the meter was full. The cops surrounded Mr. Blonde and his hostage. The police had their guns drawn. But with that meter full, McCracken could pull off a special move. Mr. Blonde was going for the hostage's ear. The camera cut away to the side — not showing the deed, just as the movie didn't. When the camera returned, the hostage had already yelled. His ear was in Mr. Blonde's hand. And the police, horrified, had dropped their guns.
McCracken rested his controller. "And that's what got us banned."
"I don't think it's that bad," Gill added.
The Eidos team said the game isn't crossing any line with the ear that the movie didn't, and that both were more suggestive than literally descriptive of the action.
The Australian ratings board, however, objected to these very actions that caused the in-game police to lay down their arms. The press release didn't refer to the ear but objected to other characters' use of that special meter to trigger burning people's eyes with a cigar or cutting off fingers.
It's not a game for kids. It's not a game for the squeamish. And it's not a game for Australia. For all the concern about video game violence, this is how that kind of thing shows up behind the scenes: at a mellow demo session, in air conditioning, on a hot summer day.
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There were other Eidos tidbits at their holiday event. For fans of Eidos' "Shellshock: Nam '67," there's some good news: An Eidos rep told GameFile last week that a "Shellshock" sequel is coming. The game is in development by Rebellion Studios. The original game's developer, Guerilla Games, was purchased by Sony last year and is working on "Killzone" games for the company's PlayStation portable and home consoles. Also notable was the company's console and PC racing game, "Ford Bold Moves Street Racing." Many gamers might turn their nose up at a budget-priced racing game branded with a Ford marketing slogan, but the unassuming game packs an original feature: Players can race a team of cars and, within the course of a race, repeatedly switch control from one car to the other and call friendly cars to block or draft for a strategic advantage. The feature worked well in the demonstration version. How long will it take for the premiere video game racing series to pick it up?
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