When many of us think about the ESRB rating of a game, we immediately correlate that score to the gameplay. Whether it be gory and bloody for an M rated game, violent but not over the top for a T rated game, and a little comic mischief for an E rated game, these ratings can tell us a lot about what to expect in the gameplay portion of the game, but can the ratings have a real effect on the narrative portion of a game? For this piece we are going to take a look at 3 different games with different ratings, Gears of War, Halo, and Legend of Zelda, and see how the games would change with a different rating.

Let’s start off with the E rated Legend of Zelda. The entire Legend of Zelda series is known as one of the best adventure games for kids of all ages, but for the past few years, long standing fans of the franchise have been begging Nintendo to branch out from the kid friendly version of LoZ and try something a little more mature. Now I don’t think an M rated Legend of Zelda game is really necessary, so let’s examine the possibility of a T rated Legend of Zelda game.

As defined by the ESRB, The T rating allows for “violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language,” If these themes were to be added into the Legend of Zelda world, they could drastically change the way the story comes is told. For example, we all know that Ganon is an evil character and wishes to bring darkness to Hyrule, but if we were able to inject some adult themes into the game, we could see what a land ruled by Ganon would look like in more vivid detail. We could see the oppression of the people and really get a sense of what Link is fighting to save, other than a damsel in distress. You would also get to play Link as a more mature character. Someone who notices the oppression and despair that has happened due to Ganon’s reign and decides it is time to fight to save his land and his people.

You would also be able to see some new combat techniques in the game. Each iteration of the game has brought new things to the table, but the combat in the LoZ series has always be very similar. With a T rating, gamers could expect to see more blood and violent combat actions that could translate into a darker gameplay experience. One of the memes that made its way around the internet a few years ago was a fake game case for a game called The Hylian Creed, an imagined LoZ game that features the gameplay style of Assassin’s Creed mixed with the story and characters of the Legend of Zelda. This type of game is something that could be made if Nintendo decided to make the ratings jump from E to T.

hylian creed


Now we’ve seen just how much a game can change with a rating change, now let’s take a look at how much games can differ within the same rating category. Epic Games’ flagship franchise, Gears of War, is known for its visceral gameplay, gore, and strong language, earning it an M rating from the ESRB. The amount of violence and gore in Gears really pushes the boundaries of the M rating. The story itself is contains very mature themes, so if Gears were to suddenly move from an M rating to a T rating, there would be some significant changes to how the story of the Locust War is told.

One of the best ways that Gears of War can get across the cost of war and the importance of destroying the Locust threat is through graphic violence. The types of weaponry used, the Hammer of Dawn, the Cainsaw Bayonet, and the Torque Bow in particular, show how much the war against the Locusts have changed the way that humans undertake warfare. There is thought put into collateral damage, it is all about destroying the threat in the most violent way possible. In other war games like Halo, Call of Duty, or Battlefield, melee kills are usually quick and stealthy, but Gears of War takes melee kills to the extreme with the Chainsaw Bayonet, which alone would increase the ESRB rating from T to M. Without the frequent use of strong language, extreme amounts of blood and gore, and over the top violence, Gears of War might look a lot like Halo, another excellent war franchise for the Xbox, but it probably wouldn’t have become the incredible success that is had.

Halo on the other hand, another M rated classic franchise, looks almost tame in comparison to Gears of War. Yes, Halo is a war game that’s central mechanic is killing the enemy, but the way the violence is portrayed is much different than Gears. There is almost no gore or viscera in Halo, and the enemies in the game are actually pretty funny to encounter, especially the grunts. There isn’t even much language to speak of in Halo.

When you put the 2 games side by side you could mistakenly make the assumption that they were from 2 completely different rating groups, but Halo and Gears of War are perfect examples of how much variation there can be within the ESRB’s rating groups.

gears of war content filter

Gears of War provided the gaming community with a new style of shooter that we hadn’t seen in a long time. It had the violence of and gore of old school first person shooters like Doom and Duke Nukem seen from an entirely new perspective.

Hatred is another game that just recently released that has come under an incredible amount of criticism for the themes and violence portrayed in the game. The outrage surrounding Hatred started before the game received its official ESRB rating, and after hearing the opinions of the gaming community, the ESRB decided to slap Hatred with the black death of rating, the dreaded AO – Adults Only. This tag severely limits the overall availability of a game. Some brick and mortar game retailers won’t even carry AO rated games, and if they do, sales of the game are followed to the letter, nobody under the age of 18 may touch that game.


When you look at the content description of Hatred on the ESRB website, Intense Violence, Blood and Gore, Strong Language, you may notice that it is almost exactly the same as Gears of War. What makes Hatred different is something that isn’t listed on the ESRB rating, murderous intention. The game centers around a man who is fed up with the world and decides that he is going to go outside into the world and kill everyone he encounters, regardless of who they are or what they have done. Many people were disgusted by the concept of this game, but others stood up for Destructive Creations’ right to make a game about anything they wanted too, their freedom of speech. When it came down to it, the gaming industry did as much as they could to discourage the creation of a game like Hatred, but at the end of the day, the game released without fanfare and to mixed/negative reviews.

Most gamers don’t think about an ESRB rating when purchasing a game, but a publisher’s insistence to meet a certain ESRB rating can have a drastic affect on the entire game experience. Luckily, there are very few instances where a game is forced into a rating that doesn’t suit its story and gameplay style, but if the gaming industry continues to follow the path of the movie industry, then we could see some of our favorite games having to change their style to fit an ESRB rating that is more suited to the publisher’s target audience.

Do you look at ESRB ratings before purchasing games? Do you think it is important to enforce the age restrictions that accompany each ESRB rating? Let us know in the comments below.

About The Author

Nick C
COO/Podcast Host

I’m Nick, a proud nerd and gamer. I rock my Star Wars tattoos like I’m a real Jedi, and I hope I will be making games first and playing them second in the future!

  • Nonscpo

    The problem with the Hatred episode is that it demonstrates a lot of hypocrisy when it comes to the rating boards. If a game like Hatred could get an AO rating just for its theme’s, than why not Mortal Kombat or Sniper Elite III? After all in both those games you can see body parts and organs, and certainly isn’t appropriate for a 17 year old.

    P.S. You should consider on doing another piece specifically on the AO rating and how useless it is and sniffles innovation, in fact it’s so worthless that most games the rating is intended for don’t even bother applying for it.

    • Nick Caminita

      The AO rating is rarely used, but the ESRB ratings aren’t something that developers apply for. It works just like the MPAA, games are assigned ratings after they are reviewed by the ratings board.

      Overall, the AO rating is there for porn games, which are rarely made, and other games that fall into a very specific category. I think one of the main reasons that Hatred received an AO is because of the community outrage that surrounded it. Many people didn’t even want to see the game released, but you can’t stop the developer from releasing it.

      • Nonscpo

        Indeed most porn games don’t even bother applying for the AO rating because it’s a worthless rating. Now that I think about it, I can only recall 2-3 18+ games on the ESRB website. At the end of the day the best thing to do is to merge the M rating with the AO rating, especially with demographics changing. Now that the average gamer is a guy in his 30’s and a woman in there 40’s there’s really no reason to sell the violent games and the porn games separately, especially since were moving into an era of digital distribution.