July 11, 2005

Do mainstream video games contain hidden sexually explicit mini-games?

BBC reports:
Best-selling game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is being investigated in the US over reports that it contains sexually explicit mini-games hidden in its code.
The controversy surrounds a download available on the net which is said to unlock secret sex scenes.

Game makers Rockstar said they were complying with the inquiry, by the industry body that sets age ratings.

If the findings were to lead to an adult-only age rating, it could limit sales from major retail outlets....

Software code developed by GTA Dutch fan Patrick Wildenborg is said to have unlocked mini-games in the PC version of San Andreas that allows players to make game characters perform sexually explicit acts.

The industry body which regulates games in the US, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), said it had opened an investigation into the so-called Hot Coffee modification....

The fan at the centre of the controversy, Patrick Wildenborg, has said he did not create the sex scenes, but enabled them with his modification.

"But all this material is completely inaccessible in an unmodded version of the game," he said in a statement on his website.

"It can therefore not be considered a cheat, Easter Egg or hidden feature But is most probably just leftover material from a gameplay idea that didn't make the final release."

It's hard to believe the manufacturer would deliberately impair the saleability of such a successful product. Could they really have thought that something available on the internet would only be noticed by people who were happy about it?

I like the way Wildenborg not only figured out how to unlock the material but also came up with the best excuse for Rockstar to use now that it's been discovered -- "leftover material."


Dave said...

"Leftover material" doesn't sound like an excuse. It sounds like reality.

Surely, just as film scenes are left on the cutting room floor, there is ample reason for today's complex video games to have bits that don't make the final cut. But they may very well be on the disc, hidden, somehwere, but accessible by the technically proficient.

John Jenkins said...

The same thing happened with Knights of the Old Republic II. There were things on the disc that were not in the final game and could only be accessed with special software. It's just too big a pain to go back and excise stuff.

Brendan said...

Prof, the only thing worse than hidden porn is Grand Theft Auto itself.

Steven said...

This wasn't made available by the manufacturer on the Internet. The way this was implimented, the only way to discover these scenes was to take a code debugger and analyze the compiled code. Now, after somebody put in the work to find this, the activation is fairly trivial, and a small executable to patch the program could easily be disseminated on the Internet. But the publisher didn't put this on the Internet; the guy who spent the time to pour over the program did.

Ann Althouse said...

Steven: Yes, that's clear in the article. The question is whether the manufacturer put that material there and anticipated that someone would offer up the key. Also, the manufacturer could be tied in some secret way to the revelation of the key. What's the point of putting the material there in the first place? They've got a kind of deniability in that someone else presented the key, but weren't they counting on that happening when they hid the material there? That's the issue.

Robert said...

The idea that the developers just accidentally left these video clips in the project defies plausibility. A couple of still shots or a small movie showing a plot point that was later cut, maybe - if they're inexcusably sloppy with their content management.

But an animation of explicit sex is something that somebody thought about. It wasn't just left on the disk. Whether they planned to cooperate with the young man to help him reveal the animation is hard to say. What's easy to say is that they knew damn well that it was on the disk. This is computer animation - someone sat and generated frames and rendered the movie and built a file. And then someone else decided NOT to include this in the final project - and when that happens, you yank it out of your CMS.

The fact that it was not yanked pretty much tells the tale. They meant it to happen, probably with the intention of generating this exact boom in publicity now that the game is no longer in headlines (and sales are probably slowing).

Freeman Hunt said...

I think it's funny that they're worried about it being in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. "I don't mind little Johnny playing a car-stealing criminal who runs people over. But for him to see sexually explicit acts between CG characters! The outrage!!!"

Plus these people are upset over material that you can't even see without a third party program? That's just silly. People should just watch their own kids. If your kid has free reign on the computer to do and download anything, you are not watching your kid.

Ann Althouse said...

Freeman: Picture someone with kids that are 15, 16, or 17. You might accept them playing the main game and still strongly object to them having the hidden sex game, just as you might allow them to watch a very violent action movie but not pornography. It really isn't such a weird stance. People have been killing people in mainstream cowboy and gangster movies for a long, long time. Explicit sex really is different, especially with respect to what young people can see.

DaveG said...

I see the point you are trying to make in that parents may be more accepting of violence (which is clearly and explicitly stated on the parental warning label) than they are of sex, which in this case is particularly vile in that it is essentially hidden in plain sight, but thinking that teenagers don't already have easy access to hard core porn in this day and age is somewhat naive.

That said, I too am suspicious as to Rockstar's leaving those features in the game, knowing full well that they would eventually be discovered. I suspect they are counting on the old "any publicity is good publicity" idea to increase sales in a very competitive market.

Freeman Hunt said...

I think it will be interesting to see how many fewer parents of my generation let their kids have computers in their rooms than the parents of the baby boomer generation did. I would never allow my (future) teenager to have a computer in a closed off area of the house. I think that counts as not watching your kid.

If your kid is able to download third party software to unlock sex scenes in a game and is then able to watch the sex scenes, the problem isn't the game. In that case the kid can (and probably will) look at whatever Internet pornography he wants.

Sigivald said...

Robert: As far as I know (having GTA:SA only on PS2, where this crack isn't really an option), the content in question is not pre-rendered, and just involves the normal game models, without clothing, being "animated" in real-time by the game engine, just like all the other gameplay. This is much simpler (and *smaller* on the DVD) than a pre-rendered movie, and thus far less likely to be searched out and removed if it's removed during the development or testing process.

I find it very, very easy to believe that this could have been a feature at one point that was decided against and left on the disk because, hey, it's easy to miss, and it's deactivated in code with a flag or by being commented out.

I'm a (non-game) software developer, and we do that all the time; if a feature is decided against, we often just comment it out, and if nobody says "please remove it entirely", it just gets left in for aeons. Programmers are lazy, you see, and code that never gets run doesn't matter much (outside of Mission Critical software for the military, nuclear, or medical fields, perhaps).

I would be surprised if Rockstar wasn't telling the truth about this one.

Sean E said...

I have trouble getting too worked up about this.

You have a game that is already recommended for a mature audience because of extreme violence (and sexual themes, if I'm remembering reports about prior versions of the game accurately). If you download a patch from the internet, you can also see computer generated characters simulating sex. "Explicit" sex, whatever that means in this context.

As noted above, for a child to access this they already have to have parents who are willing to let them play mature-rated games and access the internet, both unsupervised. Odds are, they've already seen much worse than anything on this disk.

Not a great move by the game company, but hardly worth the press it's getting.

Noumenon said...

Here are screenshots of the purported GTA: San Andreas action. It's an in-game activity with joystick controls and an "excitement meter," not a computer animation. Here is a movie which I haven't been able to download yet because of my dial-up connection. (I'll get it, though -- thanks to GetRight.)

Dixie Flatline said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dixie Flatline said...

I think Sigivald is probably very much on target as to how it happened, and this sort of thing is quite common: for another example (although with rather less controversial content), see The Lost Worlds, which is dedicated to finding the hidden and leftover bits in another series of video games, "Legacy of Kain". None of that stuff was ever intended to be accessed by the end-user, but it was less work to comment it out than to excise it completely.

What I find more interesting is that this part of GTA:SA was so well-developed in the first place. From what I've seen of the screenshots, it looks like a mostly-functional part of the game which was cut out fairly late in the process. I'm a little surprised that they were seriously considering putting something that explicit it in the final game, although considering some of the scenes that were in the predecessor, GTA: Vice City, I shouldn't be too surprised.

I have to wonder: if somehow the ESRB inquiry does decide that they have to rate it AO (which seems unlikely), would they release a new AO edition in which the sexual encounters have been added back into the regular game? Again, I wouldn't be too surprised if they decided to get maximum mileage out of it.