It wasn't nearly Hot Coffee-level, but the ESRB's decision to re-rate The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion rocked the video game world when it was announced on May 3rd of this year.
As the ESRB would have it, the Oblivion decision was based upon "more detailed depictions of blood and gore than were considered in the original rating... as well as the presence in the PC version of the game of a locked-out art file that, if accessed by using an apparently unauthorized third party tool, allows the user to play the game with topless versions of female characters."
At the time there was much debate in the gaming community over the ESRB's action. The Elder Scrolls series enjoys an almost reverential status among fans of role-playing games. For its part, developer Bethesda went along with the decision, although a company press release expressed frustration with the ESRB, saying, "Bethesda Softworks made what it believes was a full, accurate, and comprehensive submission on Oblivion to the ESRB months before the game's release... Nothing was hidden from the ratings agency."
So what really happened?
GamePolitics has tracked down Maeyanie, the mysterious modder who created the topless Oblivion mod. Maeyanie is a bit photo-shy, but has allowed us to publish a 3-D self-portrait (seen at left). GP Correspondent Colin "Jabrwock" McInnes reconstructs the Oblivion controversy with Maeyanie in this revealing interview:
CM: First off, I just wanted to thank you for letting GamePolitics talk to you about the controversy surrounding The Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion.
Maeyanie: You're welcome.
CM: I guess we could start with some questions about you and your background. Where are you from?
Maeyanie: This is one I'm going to have to not answer. Let's leave it at "not USA."
CM: What kinds of games are you into? What are your favorite recent titles?
Maeyanie: I'm into a lot of things. RPG's with a captivating story are my favorite by far, but I play strategy and some sim games too. Recently there hasn't been a whole lot of great stuff (with the notable exceptions of Oblivion and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey), so lately I've been playing some slightly older stuff like X3, Supreme Ruler 2010, and Silent Hunter III. When I'm not in an MMO, at least... I'm seen in EverQuest II frequently and Star Wars Galaxies rarely.
CM: How did you get started in modding?
Maeyanie: With The Sims 1, actually. I wanted to make things different - I did, and just kinda kept going from there.
CM: Have you modded many games? What games, and what kind of mods?
Maeyanie: A fair number, yeah, but most of them I haven't released publicly. Some of them are on my website. I dug up a few old mods (mostly never before released) and posted them there. As for what kind, usually I just find things I don't like and make them the way I do like them. Or find things I think would be neat, and add them. There's been a few nude patches, since personally I find it more offensive to be treated like a 6-year-old than to see people naked, but also clothes, scripts, commands, stuff like that. A lot of it depends on the game.
CM: What would you consider your skill level of programming? Basic, intermediate, expert, 1337 h@X0Rz?
Maeyanie: Well, that depends on the area really. I'm pretty good at certain things, basically anything on Linux which doesn't use a GUI, such as servers and stuff. I'm sort of working on writing a MUD, I know it's a bit outdated in the days of MMO games, but they still have a cult following.
CM: Ah MUDs. I spent many sleepless nights in first year university playing those... What is the airspeed velocity of an un-laden swallow... er never mind.
Maeyanie: African or European?
CM: Okay, now on to the infamous Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion mod! What was your original intent behind the mod. Were you looking for Easter eggs, or trying to add new content?
Maeyanie: Trying to add new content. I was basically hoping they had done something like most games do, and paste underwear right on the skin texture. They didn't, so I first tried making the underwear texture transparent. That didn't work either. Then I changed the top mesh to create what ended up being released.
CM: Why only topless models? Why not full frontal nudity? Did you make this decision before you started work on the mod, or afterwards?
Maeyanie: I actually tried doing full nudity, that was the original goal. It didn't work very well.
CM: What did you discover about the skins/models Bethesda used when you started work on the Oblivion mod?
Maeyanie: I discovered a few interesting things. For one, most of the skins and model parts are shared amongst all the races, the skins are just tinted. Also, the skins included with the game have all the, ah, "features" you see revealed with my mod already on them, so I didn't have to do a skin myself the way I expected. I'm guessing that's what the ESRB meant when they talked about this in the re-rating, but Bethesda was right, it really was impossible to do without third-party software.
CM: When did you release the mod?
Maeyanie: Very shortly after I got it working, which was about four days after Oblivion's retail release.
CM: And finally, to the whole kerfluffle that followed... What was the modding community's reaction to your Oblivion mod?
Maeyanie: As expected, mixed. There were the people who came saying "men topless are fine, but women are evil and must be shunned." There were the people saying "Cool! Hot naked chicks!" And there was even the odd one who said something supportive.
CM: Do you think that the ESRB was right in re-rating Oblivion, partially based on the content you discovered, or do you think they went too far?
Maeyanie: I completely disagree with them re-rating based on this. As Bethesda said, it was impossible without third-party software. I could post a hardcore sex photo on my Windows desktop even without using third-party software. Would that make Windows deserve an Adults-Only rating?
CM: Do you think companies should be held responsible for content discovered by modders?
Maeyanie: In the case of content in the game waiting to be unlocked by a certain button-sequence or whatever, yes, they put it there. In the case of mods requiring third-party software, downloads from the Internet, and other things, absolutely not. The ability to add content to a game is a great thing, and leads to much greater replayability (if that's a word) and all-around fun. Just because some people like me "abuse" this ability to add "evil" content based on a single culture's narrow definitions of what is and isn't appropriate isn't the fault of the developers.
CM: What do you think of the current obsession with criticizing sex in games? As a comparison, should games be criticized over something like this when Cosmopolitan just released to grocery stores another issue featuring "62 Sex Moves! Guys share mind-blowing tips!" and "7 Bedroom Games to Play Tonight"?
Maeyanie: Yeah, let's make Cosmo magazine only available to people over age 17! Seriously, I think America should lighten up a bit. There's a good chunk of the world which isn't nearly so obsessed over making our own bodies off-limits - I should know, I live there.
CM: Now that all's said and done, do you regret releasing the mod to the general public? Would you have released it knowing the reaction it caused?
Maeyanie: Overall... I don't know. There are times I do, definitely. I especially regret any harm to Bethesda, which has always been my favorite game developer because of the Elder Scrolls series. But then again, perhaps some good will come from this in the end. I can only hope.
CM: Again, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Hopefully you'll be able to stop by the site when the article is up to answer any more questions readers may have.
Maeyanie: I'll definitely stop by at least a few times.
GP: Many thanks to Maeyanie for agreeing to be interviewed. For a recap of all of GamePolitics' extensive coverage on the Oblivion controversy, click here
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