'Nipple Gate' -- How Much Nudity Is In 'Age of Conan' And Why?

Age of Conan: Hyborian AdventuresFuncom's upcoming M-rated MMO "Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures" caused quite a stir last week when the game's community manager said the US version wouldn't feature nipples, due to legal reasons.

The studio later flip-flopped, however, and declared the announcement a miscommunication; the US version would, indeed, have nipples. More specifically, players could choose to remove everything above the waist on their female avatars, thereby exposing their breasts (complete with nipples, obviously) to the other human players in "Age of Conan."

Gamers may have rejoiced at the prospect of virtual titillation, but Multiplayer wanted some basic answers: why even bother putting nipples in "Age of Conan"? After "Mass Effect," is Funcom risking a mainstream backlash? Did everyone read "nipple" in the headlines and overreact?

For more, we contacted Funcom Product Manager Jorgen Tharaldsen, who also works as a freelance journalist. He just returned from a vacation to Iran covering extreme sports. "Since the very first meetings we had about where to take Age of Conan we were extremely clear on the fact that we were NOT about speculating on sex and violence. We wanted to be about bringing the true Conan experience to the gamers out there, and we have always been clear on that," said Tharaldsen in an e-mail exchange with Multiplayer.

He has a point. Robert E. Howard's mythical universe is filled with scantily clad women -- case in point, the vast majority of "Conan the Barbarian" comic covers feature barely clothed damsels in distress. Conan's not wearing very much, either.

"This is the most hardcore Conan story of all," reads an Amazon.com review of "Conan the Barbarian" novel The Conquering Sword of Conan. "Dr. Freud would have field day with this. Graphic violence, deviant sex, sadomasochism; all are here in full display."

Tharaldsen takes several opportunities to point out that if such displays of nudity are par for the course in the Conan world, their appearance in a game based on that material makes sense, too. Nonetheless, he readily admits Funcom practiced restraint when implementing nudity into "Age of Conan," and expresses some frustration over the United States' response to what Funcom internally refers to as "nipplegate."

What does he mean by that? Read on to find out.

From the start, Funcom planned nudity for "Age of Conan." "We have always had solid guidelines internally. Regardless of your sex you will always wear underwear, minus the top of course, which means that we will, for instance, avoid a lot of, eh, interesting Youtube videos (seeing we have hundreds of emotes in the game). If we would have allowed full nudity it would just have created a lot of unnecessary havoc around the game."

Unfortunately for the female players of the world (sorry, Tracey!), unless you count larger-than-life abs, there's no male nudity in "Age of Conan." As Tharaldsen points out, there's no peeking below the waist. Such exploits might have been part of Howard's literary works, but there's no place for them in the world of games -- not yet, anyway.

"We're not adding partial nudity just for the sake of having it in there. We're doing it because we're trying to create a relatively realistic world based on the original literary works of Conan, and that includes having a certain amount of nudity. We could have gone all out on this, but we want to remain within the boundaries of what is, well, relatively tasteful, and there is therefore no need to add unnecessary nudity in any way."

Nudity is a particularly touchy topic in the US (see: Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl a few years back), an issue not usually found abroad. As more European studios start producing games for our shores, one can imagine many scenarios where either the US is receiving sexually modified versions (which happened to Quantic Dreams' "Indigo Prophecy") or studios simply self-censoring from day one.

Conan the BarbarianThough Tharaldsen doesn't cop to self-censorship, he admits surprise at the reaction. "Now, seeing how nipples brings a lot of controversy along, it is naturally tempting for my Norwegian mindset to say something about “hey, come on, please, why is this a biggie, we all have them, we were all created with them”, but I will refrain from that. I will rather say that in Age of Conan 'nudity' is but one very small aspect of the game. Since we have a mature rating, we give you the chance to take of most of your clothes, but that’s about it."

And while "Age of Conan" is labeled an MMO, much of the player's first hours with the game are entirely single-player. Gamers don't graduate to the MMO portions until they've reached Level 20, and none of the game's nudity is plot-centric. "The players will only encounter 'nudity' when they are in the presence of other players who have chosen to go about topless," said Tharaldsen. "Example in question: we enabled our new female characters on the beta the other day and I saw like 30 topless chicks in a market square. I would think that most all of those 'chicks' were actually guys though."

We'd probably guess that, too.

Readers, what has caused this large divide in approaching sexuality in video games? Is the gap becoming wider? As gamers, can we do anything about it? Tell us your thoughts in the comments and keep watching Multiplayer, as we'll be posing these very questions to some developers with plenty of experience in this arena in the coming weeks.

[Photo Credit: Gary Gianni]