Why are video games for adults so juvenile?
I first became aware of "Conker's Bad Fur Day" while urinating in a pub. Before me, in what first seemed a drunken apparition, a cartoon squirrel was himself peeing (cartoon pee), and glancing back at me naughtily.
It's not often a video game gets advertised in the men's room of a nightclub. The target market for most games is too young to get past even the most lenient bouncer. But "Conker" is different—a mature-rated game, not for kids under 17. Thus the urinal ads, the late night TV spots, and a racy Web site replete with busty women, keg stands, and scatology.
Nintendo's clearly aiming for the Maxim set here—frat guys who think poop is funny—and it's a solid strategy. Those guys do play lots of video games, after lacrosse practice and before Jell-O-shot parties, and I've yet to see a game target them so directly. But it's sad when a video game theoretically meant for adults features a drunken, misogynistic squirrel.
Don't get me wrong: "Conker" is great fun to play. The animation's gorgeous, and the manic wackiness grows on you. You can't help but giggle a bit while herding screaming, motile pieces of cheese, so you can slam them with a frying pan, so you can feed them to a flatulent mouse, so he will explode, so you can drop a giant ball of poo on a dung beetle's head. Game play is also fantastic: Conker, the title squirrel, moves quite smoothly through a 3-D environment. The game anticipates where you're headed and quickly renders the best view of your world. Conker responds nimbly to the control pad—running, jumping, and helicoptering his tail to float around.
Still, it seems the designers just took a Mario-style kid's game and added a bunch of swear words. Most of the mature moments come during preprogrammed scenes triggered when you meet a new character. The effect is jarring: Jovial cartoons suddenly face the screen and call you a "shithead." Other marks of maturity: A flower lets you bounce off her massive breasts so you can reach a high-up ledge; a drunk scarecrow farts loudly; and a cow drinks prune juice and gets the runs. The designers also favor misogyny and violence: Female characters are leered at, ridiculed, or graphically murdered. Of course, this is the industry standard and not solely Conker's fault.
All in all, this game seems perfect for eighth-graders just getting into Monty Python. The mature rating excludes them, but that won't stop them from playing. Many frat guys share the eighth-grade mindset and will also love the game. Sadly, despite the mature rating, actual mature gamers (yes, socially adjusted, non-outcasted adults who enjoy videogames) are once again left out.
There are adult games out there. Sports games appeal to all ages. Chess and fishing games bore most kids. And many PC games ("Civilization"; the new "Black & White") are complicated and strategic enough to bewilder most tykes and intrigue many adults. But there's a missing niche. Console games (for PlayStation 2, Dreamcast, N64) boast great game play, requiring eye-hand coordination and providing an immersive, physical environment. PC games lack action but excel in concepts and complexity. Why can't we have the best of both worlds?
It won't happen until we recognize games' capacity for real art. Current designers come from programming backgrounds, so millions of dollars in development costs produce a beautifully rendered world full of farting scarecrows. Meanwhile, the nerds behind strategy-based PC games lack the drive or ability to design a responsive, explorable, 3-D environment or characters that move the way you want them to.
Here's one suggestion for improving adult video games: Interactivity could be the most powerful artistic tool we have, yet no one does anything with it. The pieces are all in place: The money's there (games now outgross movies), the audience is ready for something new (older gamers now resort to emulations of retro games just to find something fun to play), and the technical foundations have been laid.
Will anyone create a beautiful, complex, engrossing video game for adults—a treat for the mind and the reflexes? If not, steel yourself for more peeing squirrels.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.