Every few years, it seems, the mainstream media gets itself all in a flap over a videogame. In the past, these have included the vehicular mayhem of 70s coin-op Death Race, Mortal Kombat’s bloodshed in the 90s, or the shooting of civilians in Modern Warfare 2 in 2009. Sometimes, the moral outrage is justified – Custer’s Revenge was rightly pilloried in the early 80s – but more often than not, the media’s reaction to certain games can be downright bizarre.
This brings us to Night Trap, a 1992 game whose angry reception was entirely out of step with its actual content. In fact, it’s quite like that, if Night Trap hadn’t made the headlines, it would have been quickly forgotten, along with most of the other dodgily-made games released for Sega’s Mega-CD in the first part of the 90s.
A kind of reverse interactive slasher movie, Night Trap involved protecting a house full of hapless teenagers from the murderous advances of a group of people called the Augers. To do this, the player had to flick between a series of grainy video clips, and click an icon at the correct moment should an Auger appear. Get the timing right, and the game would continue – get it wrong, and you’d be shown a (bloodless) murder sequence.
If the concept sounds tedious, you should see the execution. Although reportedly shot on a budget of more than $1million, its video sequences looked like the cheapest soap opera you’ve ever seen. The acting was extraordinarily bad, even though some of the actors in it weren’t complete unknowns – Dana Plato had appeared in the US sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, for example.
Part of the reason why Night Trap looks so awful is probably due in part to its strange history. The creation of former Atari programmer Rob Fulop, the footage for Night Trap was originally shot in 1987, and was intended as one of several titles for the NEMO, a weird console that used VHS tapes instead of cartridges or discs.
The console never emerged, and the games in development for it, among them Night Trap and Sewer Shark, were shelved. But five years later, when the Mega-CD emerged, both games were dusted off and ported over to Sega’s new add-on. Night Trap sold fairly well, in spite of mixed reviews, though this may have been partially because it was one of only a small number of games available for the Mega-CD at the time.
Then things went a little nuts when, in December 1993, Senator Joe Liebermann held a hearing in Congress about violence in videogames and its effect on children. Back then, there wasn’t yet a ratings system in place for the medium – unsurprising, given that the abiding view of games in the west was as a pastime for children – so it was inevitable that the topic of videogame violence would come up sooner or later.
Bizarrely, though, the hearing concentrated not on the truly violent games of the time – such as Doom or Wolfenstein, which involved blasting monsters or National Socialists in fountains of gore – but on the relatively tame Night Trap. The game was described as “disgusting”, “shameful” and “ultraviolent”. Those at the hearing, it seemed, had never bothered to actually play it, since they’d concluded that the aim of the game was to trap and kill women, rather than protect them.
Before the makers of Night Trap knew what was happening, the game was plastered all over the front pages of American newspapers, in stories that often misreported its content. A lot of attention was paid to what became known as ‘the bathroom scene’ – in which a character is attacked by a pair of Augers wielding a bizarre weapon that looked like something a dog catcher might use. Some stories spoke darkly of the scene’s nudity and violent content, when its tone is more comedic than unpleasant.
It was also claimed that the scene was a reward for the player’s actions, when it was actually a game over screen – a campily staged punishment for not clicking a button at the right time. Digital Pictures boss Tom Zito’s attempts to defend his game fell on deaf ears, and Sega temporarily withdrew Night Trap from Toys R Us stores.
Night Trap was eventually ported to the Mac, PC and the ill-fated 3DO when the furore died down a couple of years later, by which time the game had already passed into videogame lore.
Admittedly, Night Trap had a rather sexist concept at its core – protect the helpless ladies – and its voyeurism could be seen as unsavoury. Had the game been released after the ESRB system was established,though, it would probably have been slapped with a Teen rating, and any hint of controversy could have been sidestepped. Instead, Night Trap became the unwitting focus of a national hate campaign.
After all that drama, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the story might end here. It doesn’t. Rob Fulop, Night Trap’s designer and opener of a Pandora’s box of public anger, was so spooked by the reaction to his game that he later created the Petz series – pet simulators “so cute and so adorable” that no one could ever accuse him of corrupting the nation’s children again…