The Early Years and The Creation of The 'ESRB'
During the early years of video games, developers usually steered away from anything too overtly violent and gruesome in an effort to appeal to a young target audience for higher sales. Even when games like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th were released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, there was little to no extreme violence beyond basic beat 'em up or platforming gameplay.
As graphical capabilities progressed into the 16-bit era, more games featuring extreme forms of violence started showing up. The first game to cause controversy for excessive violence was Namco's arcade beat 'em up Splatterhouse. Despite being the first game to come with a parental advisory warning, when Atari Games distributed the game in North America, it became controversial for its excessive violence and gore as well as references to Christian symbols such as the cross. As a result, the game was eventually banned in the United States.
Several years later, with the release of Mortal Kombat in arcades, the video game industry found itself in a tight spot with the game garnering tons of attention in the press. Featuring brutal moves and gory "Fatality" moves that allowed a players to kill their character after a fight was completed, many parents became aware of the violence in some games. Rising concerns led to negative coverage in the media, which began to worry the gaming industry. In fear of backlash from consumers or Congressional actions against the industry, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) was founded in 1994 as a way of self-regulating developers and publishers.
Games like Splatterhouse, Mortal Kombat, and the Sega CD release of Rise of the Dragon, featured the MA-17 label, which meant the material in the video games was recommended for "mature audiences" with a suggested age of 17 . The trend of releasing Mature-rated games would not become commonplace until the 32-bit era of video games.
On the PC platform, two of the earliest examples of excessive violence were the first-person shooter games Doom and, to an extent, Wolfenstein 3D.
32-Bit and 64-Bit Violence
The release of the Sega Saturn and Sony's new PlayStation console saw a drastic change in the way video games were viewed, both by audiences and developers. With the move to 3D modeling, games like Alien Trilogy on the Sega Saturn and Resident Evil saw Mature-rated video games featuring extreme violence saw increasing sales numbers. The use of this violence became such an issue with some that Capcom added an additional warning at the beginning of their Resident Evil series stating that the games include graphic, bloody violence that may not be recommended for younger children.
Thrill Kill: When Violence Goes Too Far?
While Mortal Kombat was dying out of arcades and attempting to revive itself in the realm of 3D fighting games, Virgin Interactive was funding the development of Thrill Kill for the PlayStation 1. With Thrill Kill, Paradox Development (the studio behind the game) hoped to push the envelope of the ratings board as well as break technical boundaries.
The game featured twelve fighers, eight of which had died and gone to Hell and are then forced to take on the physical aspects of their Earthly sins as punishment. Featuring excessive blood, BDSM & fetish-like themes, decapitations, amputations, dismemberment, and much more, the game was considered one of the most senselessly violent games to ever be conceived. To make matters worse, parents and the ESRB became concerned that the game was pushing too far over the line of what was acceptable in video games.
Eventually, however, Virgin Interactive was bought out by Electronic Arts, who cancelled the game and refused to offer the rights out to any other publisher. The game later became available as freeware on the internet, and it also received praise for its "Thrill Kill engine", which allowed four playable characters on-screen at any time.
Extreme Violence in Modern Gaming
Over the generations of consoles, PC gaming, and arcades, extreme violence has become more commonplace in the gaming industry than ever. Mature-rated games sell in the millions and are far more accepted by consumers than before.
Several franchises such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil have continued to push the envelope in terms of tone, graphics, and excessive violence with every new iteration. Fallout 3, released in 2008, features incredibly strong examples of extreme violence, including slow-motion decapitations and dismemberment with excessive amounts of blood. The Unreal and Gears of War franchises from Epic Games feature excessive blood, gore, and violence, even to the point of blowing someone up completely into bloody chunks and blood-spray clouds. In 2009, the revamp of Namco's Splatterhouse franchise will feature one of the first in-game characters to show physical damage via full chunks of flesh, organ, tissue, and muscle being removed from his body. The damage will reheal itself by rebuilding all these parts, including skin.