Much of the world wouldn't peg Australia as one of the more uptight nations in the West, but the country does in fact have an ongoing regiment of banning, or effectively banning by refusing classification, different forms of media. That includes dozens of books, films (though none that will surprise you), and, more recently and rigorously, video games.
The debate over Australia's strict ratings system was reignited last week when the Australian Classification Board refused classification for the followup to the cult hit Hotline Miami, effectively banning the game nationwide. According to the Classification Board's report, the ban stems from scenes depicting sexual violence in Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, which the game's distributors contest.
"First, to clear up any possible misconceptions, the opening cinematic that was first shown in June of 2013 has not changed in any way," wrote Hotline Miami distributors Devolver Digital in a statement, adding that they did not plan to make changes to the game to appease the review board. "Second, in response to the report itself, we are concerned and disappointed that a board of professionals tasked with evaluating and judging games fairly and honestly would stretch the facts to such a degree and issue a report that describes specific thrusting actions that are not simply present in the sequence in question and incorrectly portrays what was presented to them for review."
The game is brutal, but that's part of the point.
Australia first introduced its ratings system for video games in 1994, fuelled by the now embarrassing moral panic sparked by Night Trap, a game very few played—not because it was restricted, but because it was awful.
In the following decade, many games felt the Classification Board's wrath, including Manhunt and Leisure Suit Larry. It didn't help that between 1994 and 2013 games were held to a more strict standard than other media: Games' highest classification was MA15+, meaning the most obscene video games allowed in the country would have to be suitable for a 15-year-old. The rating system had a more flexible metric for film, with an adults-only rating, R18+.
Since 2013, when R18+ was allowed for video games, there have still been restrictions. Saints Row IV, State of Decay, and South Park: The Stick of Truth were all banned initially. All three were later approved after a few redactions, but those changes were met with cries of censorship by Australian gamers.
There are a few general themes that seem to push the Classification Board's buttons when it comes to games. Violence is an obvious concern, but the glorification of gang or crime-related violence seems to make games a bigger target; 50 Cent: Bulletproof and even Marc Ecko's graffiti game Getting Up were held back before changes. Games which use drugs as some kind of power-up are singled out as well, with Fallout 3 and NARC both getting banned, with the former making it to market after edits were made.
The fastest route to becoming contraband seems to be by including sexual content.Every Grand Theft Auto since III was originally banned due to the ability to have intercourse with sex workers, but each game were reclassified after those sequences were either altered or removed. (The ability to mow the same women down with your car remained available.)
Hotline Miami 2's creators say they won't back down. The Classification Board was concerned with an opening sequence—the same sequence that caused uproar after being included in a demo—that depicts a man in a pig mask sexually assaulting a woman after slaughtering everyone else in the house. Which, yes, sounds pretty bad, until a director yells cut, and it turns out the entire scene is part of an exploitative cinematic recreation of the first game. Even with that context in mind, some players were concerned about the grotesqueness of the intro, and in response Dennaton Games have given players the ability to skip that moment if they choose.
There's no shying around the fact that Hotline Miami was a brutally violent game, but unlike many of its brutally violent peers, it was hazily self-conscious about all the neon-soaked bloodshed. It was woozy, nauseating, intoxicated, with a story that was feverish, unnerving, and subversive. It was a game that felt sick. Critics felt the brutality was its own kind of criticism, which sounds like hot air until you consider how much of Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström's pre-Hotline work was similarly cynical about casual murder in video games.
The violence of games should generally be up for debate, but here the Australian Classification Board does not appear to give much credit to nuance. The problem isn't limited to the opening sequence, as the Board cites the rest of Hotline Miami 2 for containing offences as well. Judging by Devolver's statement, it seems doubtful that Hotline Miami 2 will be edited to suit Australia's needs. Failing that, Australian fans could always take Söderström's personal suggestion.
"If it ends up not being released in Australia, just pirate it after release," wrote Söderström. "No need to send us any money, just enjoy the game!"