Over the weekend, various sites noticed that Dark Souls II has been given a “T for Teen” rating (minor spoilers at that link) by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB.) That’s the videogame classification body in the US, the equivalent of Europe’s Pan European Game Information (PEGI) group.
In the ESRB’s words, that makes Dark Souls II fine for people “13 and up.” Previously, the same body had give the original Dark Souls a “Mature” rating (suitable only for those 17 and older.) This has caused some concern and speculation that the sequel might be toned down, or otherwise compromised in some way.
It’s understandable that Souls fans are protective, even a little paranoid, about maintaining series integrity as it goes more mainstream. Like Demon’s Souls before it, the Dark Souls ethos is one at odds with most major titles. Player guidance is at a minimum, there’s little surface narrative (but a deep well of lore), and FromSoft have paid rigorous attention to applying the game’s ongoing theme of loneliness to the framework of the very systems they appear on. That’s why there’s no “party chat” option on the 360, and why you need a specific mod to play with friends on the PC.
Whether you agree with all of those decisions or not, the fact that Dark Souls has such a confident design philosophy is one of the reasons people get so attached to it. When it appears that something may potentially damage this integrity of design (like word of a ring in Dark Souls II that may allow limited co-op communication,) players get nervous.
A perceived “downgrade” in rating from Mature to Teen feels, at first, like a warning sign. If the game is suitable for younger children now, surely it’s been compromised in terms of difficulty and imagery?
The former concern is a non-starter, because the ESRB doesn’t rate difficulty. A hypothetical Dark Souls clone that shared the exact same game design but used adorable animals and cartoon violence instead would probably get an “E for Everyone” rating.
Imagery worries are more legitimate. While it’s not exactly a horror title, the Souls series is somewhat defined by fearsome, and occasionally grotesque, boss design. It’s understandable that someone might look at the Teen rating and think there’s little chance of seeing another Gaping Dragon.
The first game is cited for “Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, Violence,” while the second will have “Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Violence.” Pretty much the same, in other words. Dark Souls II apparently features NPCs saying stuff like “prick” and “bastard,” which is why it has the additional Mild Language flag.
Both “Violence” and “Blood and Gore” exist on wide spectrums, of course, so maybe Dark Souls II is toning it down a bit? The ESRB summary for the original notes “slashing sounds, cries of pain, and large splashes of blood,” “instances of dismemberment and decapitation” and “zombies, demons, giant spiders, and other fantasy creatures.”
For Dark Souls II, we can expect (and again, minor spoilers here) “cries of pain and small splashes of blood,” “a giant snake boss holding its severed head” and “a variety of fantastical enemies (e.g., ghouls, zombies, skeletons, giant rats.)”
I guess you can nit-pick at the “large” versus “small” splashes of blood, but if you read through the whole summary the tone of the game sounds otherwise remarkably similar.
So if it’s not the blood ‘n guts, it must surely be the sex quota, right? Quelaag’s semi-exposed chest must be to blame for all of this. Look, here’s the sentence proving it: “a boss creature appears partially topless (e.g. hair barely covering breasts.)” Except, in a surprise twist, that sentence comes from the summary of Dark Souls II. Titties aren’t the issue this time.
The first Dark Souls was given a PEGI 16 rating over in Europe, which lies somewhere between Teen and Mature. PEGI doesn’t appear to have rated the sequel yet, but I strongly suspect it’ll be another 16. If the altered ESRB rating for the sequel shows anything, it’s perhaps just that the US body is mellowing out on certain issues and moving closer in line with its European counterpart.
It’s either that or they really didn’t like the harpy bums in the first game. “Some bird-like humanoids are depicted with exposed buttocks,” after all.
No cause for alarm, then. In the ESRB’s own incredibly literal words the two games seem very close in terms of imagery, gore and creepy spider lady bosoms. Rather than worrying that this means Dark Souls II will be an overly-sanitised version of the original, we should perhaps be giving the ESRB some credit for relaxing over what constitutes a “Mature” feature.