Halloween RetroVision – The Controversy of Night Trap

Developed by Digital Pictures and first released in October 1992, Night Trap is an odd sort of experience.  Coming at the hight of the FMV craze, the game features full-ortotion video for the entirety of the game, being somewhat reminiscent of an interactive movie.  Whilst there were a considerable amount of these FMV games made available for the Mega-CD, Night Trap stands way above them, but not for the right reasons.  You see, whilst you may not think so by looking at it today, Night Trap is one of the most controversial games of all time.

The game that sparked a frenzy in the early 90s, actually had something of a troubled development.  In fact the game didn’t even being life as a SEGA title, instead being originally designed for an unreleased Hasbro video game system called NEMO, a console that planned to use VHS tapes rather than cartridges.  The game’s infamous FMV scenes were originally filmed in California over a three week period in 1987.  However, when Hasbro ditched NEMO all of the game’s footage was placed into storage.

Night Trap Box
Original box art for Night Trap

Not content with this, the team behind the Night Trap, and other FMV titles, decided to found the company Digital Pictures, in turn purchasing all of the footage for the unreleased title.  Digital Pictures then went on to gain SEGA as a publisher, allowing them to complete the game for a total cost of $1.5 million, no small sum in the early 90s.  All of this meant that as with other FMV games of the time, Night Trap found a new home in SEGA’s CD-ROM add on for the Mega Drive/ Genesis, the Mega-CD.  Consequently becoming one of SEGA’s most infamous titles.

But what exactly is Night Trap, and why did it become so infamous?  Well, the answer to this begins with the game’s premise.  In a nut shell, the game features a group of young women who are spending the night inside a house, one that has recently been at the centre of a number of unexplained disappearances.  The player’s role in all this is as a member of the SEGA Control Attack Team (ironically shortened to SCAT)., being tasked with monitoring and protecting the young women.  Something that is done via a series of CCTV cameras, alongside traps that the player can activate to prevent anything untoward happening.

Night Trap Bathroom
A scene from Night Trap involving not much in the way of clothing

This all seems innocent enough, if not actually the foundations to a good game.  However, these young women, that are are not digitised characters but real life actors, spend most of the game wearing…. well next to nothing.  Essentially, an outsider could look in on this game, and rather than viewing the player as a hero, they could in fact view them as a ‘Peeping Tom’, and in turn a criminal.

What’s more, the attacking villains aren’t your usually burglars, but are actually a form of Vampire, vying for the blood of the women you must watch over.  So, on top of sexual content, we’ve added gratuitous violence, and wrapped it all in a box that screams, “this is a horror game”.  With all this coming at a time, when gaming was battling against the view that the medium was mainly for children.

Night Trap Violence
An infamous scene from Night Trap which follows on from the previous image

One scene that was repeatedly cited within the mass media at the time, sees the villainous Vampires attack one of the female characters named Lisa in an extremely violent manner.  This all occurs inside a private bathroom, whilst she is wearing very little in the way of clothes, mixing both of the controversial elements of the game in one violent scene.  As such, despite the role of the main character as a protector, this scene in particular saw accusations thrown at Night Trap that it was encouraging young individuals to violently attack vulnerable women.

This view meant that many took a tremendous amount of offence to game that nowadays wouldn’t even hit the radar of most people.  At this time though people were viewing Night Trap in the same way that they were looking at Mortal Kombat, and both became the figure heads of both mass media, and political campaigning, against controversial games.  This was especially true of America.

1993 Joint Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee
The 1993 Joint Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee with a scene from Night Trap in the background

This all led to Night Trap, alongside it’s controversial counterparts such as Doom and Mortal Kombat, being a key part of the 1993 Joint Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee hearing concerning violence in video games.  Within this hearing Night Trap was directly cited as being “shameful”, “ultra-violent”, “sick”, “disgusting”, and encouraging an “effort to trap and kill women”.  SEGA and Digital Pictures vehemently opposed the hearing’s findings, stating that not only is the player tasked with saving the women, but that the game is also a spoof of cheesy horror movies.

However, this wasn’t enough, and the hysteria of the time saw leading retailers refusing to sell the game, before SEGA removed it from sale all together in early 1994.  Another consequence of Night Trap and its counterparts, alongside the hearing, was the introduction of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB).  Whilst this self-regulating American age rating board for video games is strictly voluntary, since most games following its induction have been submitted for rating, a game without an ESRB certificate these days is not likely to make it to the shelf.  The ESRB’s founding in the wake of this controversy also had the effect of deflecting the potential for government regulation of the medium.

ESRB Ratings
ESRB rating system

Night Trap did return to American shelves, and this time not only for the Mega-CD, adding numerous platforms including the SEGA 32X, 3DO and PC.  The game was even sparred censorship, with the only changing aspect being the box art.  However, as the controversy died down, so did the sales.  This fallout, alongside the collapse of the short lived FMV gaming boom, was all too much for Digital Pictures, who fell into decline before closing in 1996.  Nevertheless, co-creator James Riley has recently said that Night Trap could be re-appearing in an updated form very soon.

Hindsight is a funny old thing.  Looking through modern eyes, you may wonder what all the fuss was about when looking at Night Trap, but for the early 90s, this was the stuff of scandals and mass hysteria.  The lasting legacy of which, being the ESRB ratings that are still a standard of the industry to this day.  The importance of this rating system, and games like Night Trap, love it or hate it, is that they arguably paved the way for greater expression, and for the acceptance of video games as both a medium for all ages, and as an art form. Something which despite Night Trap’s controversial content, we can all get on board with.

Simon Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that I've written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DudeXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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