Nintendo’s Religious Policy

Thanks to this episode of Gametrailer’s ‘Pop Fiction’ series on Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, I am a little more enlightened on the “controversial” subject of Ocarina of Time’s Fire Temple music.

Very interesting, this censorship malarkey. As you might know, the original Fire Temple music with its distinctive atmospheric chanting was removed and replaced by a chant-less song in later versions of Ocarina of Time. Sounds pedestrian right? But hang on, the chanting sounds suspiciously like Muslim prayer. In fact, to be specific, the chant is a killer combo of the adhan, or call to prayer, and a line from the first surah or chapter of the Qur’an, Surah al-Fatihah. Now we all know, where there are Muslims controversy can’t be far behind. But, hang on. GameTrailer’s video offers proof that the original chant was actually borrowed from a sample library, so we know Nintendo didn’t record it themselves. It appears in several other games, including one pre-dating Ocarina of Time. GT conclude that the Fire Temple music was remixed pre-release, so as to avoid potential controversy. Key word here being potential – there was no outcry.

Fast forward to today and Nintendo’s pre-emptive controversy-dodging policy is back in the news (how ironic). On the topic of Nintendo’s recent rejection of indie legend Team Meat’s new game, The Binding of Isaac, planned for 3DS release, Dan Adelman at Nintendo commented:

It kind of kills me…it kills me right now that I had to make that phone call. We carve out some categories of content we don’t allow. Religious themes is one of those topics. And so it was deemed to be in violation of that. Maybe we should revisit the entire concept guideline on religious themes. Maybe we should just get rid of that altogether.

Ouch. The reason why I mention this in relation to the Fire Temple music, is to point out a key difference between the two. Admittedly, I do not know much about The Binding of Isaac. Certainly, the title has overt religious connotations, referring to the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, and the game’s story is modeled with the story in mind. That explains why Nintendo felt that they couldn’t simply request a few cosmetic changes (“First aid cross?! Needs to go”) and release it. But there is a strong case to say that the self-censorship Nintendo exercised for Ocarina of Time is not the same as them refusing to release The Binding of Isaac on 3DS, even if they are justified in the same terms.

The difference between the two games is that Ocarina of Time was targeted at children. I don’t mean to be exclusionary here – I’m not saying that Ocarina of Time is for kids and no one else, but rather that children are included as part of the target audience. And my personal feeling too, is that Ocarina of Time straddles the tightrope of appealing to both children and adults, without exclusively appealing to one group over the other – this can be said for most of the Zelda games, and in fact probably most of Nintendo’s first party games.

The Binding of Isaac, on the other hand, while it has a cartoonish look and clearly borrows heavily from the 2D Zelda games, is clearly not child friendly. Key to all of this are the relatively recent appearance of age ratings for games, something which didn’t exist uniformly when Ocarina of Time came out in 1998. But they do now, in Europe, Australia, America and Japan, meaning that children should not have access to content aimed at older players. Nintendo should take these changes into greater consideration, given that games that address religious themes are suitable and of interest for adults, and update their policy accordingly. As the platform-holder of the 3DS and Wii U, obviously Nintendo have the right to revoke gamemakers’ rights to publish games on their systems. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, both for reasons of quality and what in cheesy-speak we might call “community cohesion” (I’m thinking of one of those notorious homebrew, racist, Neo-Nazi first-person shooters here). There is a line and Nintendo should tread carefully at certain points, I’m just not convinced that The Binding of Isaac is one of those points.

Incidentally, as a final note, I believe Nintendo was right to remove and replace the original chant-laden Fire Temple song from Ocarina of Time. It would be an insensitive move to leave it in, and its removal suggests that its original inclusion was a mistake made out of ignorance and not malicious intent. While its removal may seem faintly ridiculous to some, especially to those unfamiliar with the Islamic style of recitation, a Muslim playing Ocarina of Time would likely be jarred and possibly offended by the chant. (Double incidentally, for anyone interested, I think the chanting as it is used in the game approximates the effect of hearing the adhan in Muslim countries blaring from multiple mosques at the same time – here’s an effective example).

To those who would protest and call remixing the music “political correctness gone mad”, “censorship”, I ask you, what purpose does the chant serve? Clearly it isn’t integral to the game in any sense whatsoever, and the same result (a vaguely creepy atmosphere) can be reached easily by another means. So what is the problem? I would ask that you consider, for a moment, the perspective of a Muslim gamer when he or she comes across that chant. Even if they happen to like the effect and find it pleasant, which is debatable, surely they will question what the chant is doing in the context of a fantasy game. Now we assume that the Gorons are Muslims? It adds nothing, in fact it detracts from the overall fantasy of the game. That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of other racial and ethnic references already in Ocarina of Time, but most of them are implied. In any case I will leave that topic for a later post. Stay tuned.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Gerudos, Ocarina of Time and Arabs | Very Very Gaming
  2. moresleepneeded

    I agree with your argument, it sounds like the chanting was accidentally inserted into the game and removing it seems to be a way of taking out accidental religious connections, rather than out of control political correctness. If the Fire Temple music was supposed to just be a way of providing background music in a game, then it seems logical to remove aspects of it that specifically mimic the player’s religion (especially if it a specific religious reference and not a sound that is just similar to something associated with a religion).

    It does seem strange that Nintendo claims to have a policy that forbids the use of religious themes considering that the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time uses a lot of religious references. This blog has already produced an article describing the links between the Gerudos and Islam. Ganondorf’s symbol resembles the symbol for Islam. It is mentioned in the game that there were three goddesses, which resembles a polytheistic religion, and the game describes a creation myth (the goddesses creating the world). When Link is a child, he searches for the three spiritual stones, which sounds like something from a mystical religion. Collecting the spiritual stones opens the pathway to the Sacred Realm, which becomes the Evil Realm when Ganondorf enters and claims the Triforce. The idea of the Sacred Realm and Evil Realm seems similar to the idea of Heaven and Hell (the concept of two worlds that are only entered during spiritual events, like meeting the sages). The Temple of Time resembles a Norman Christian Church. Adult Link has to enter temples. Instead of being devoted to the goddesses, these temples are mostly dedicated to the natural world (Forest Temple, Fire Temple, Water Temple, Temple of Time and Shadow Temple) which seems like a pagan idea. The final temple is dedicated to spirit, Spirit Temple, which seems like a religious concept. Strangely enough, nothing in the temples seems to be used for religious ceremony (there are no holy leaders, alters, etc.). Link enters the temple to awaken the sages, which seems like a celtic concept (sages providing power). It is also strange how these sages are awakened. Saria is described as travelling to the Forest Temple to defeat monsters and, when the player enters, a lift can be seen lowering to the basement where the main monster is (is Saria in there?) In Fire Temple, the player clearly sees Darunia enter the room where the main monster is. In Water Temple, the player sees Ruto travel to defeat the main monster. Impa is described as entering the Shadow Temple. The player sees Naboorou in the Spirit Temple, before she is hit by a spell that transforms her into light. The fact that none of the sages are seen again after the player completes the temple suggests that the sages are killed when they enter the structures. The sages are described as “awakened” (which has a religious association) when they become sages, which suggests the sages are martyred for the greater good. There are also fairies and spells, but these seem like Medieval fantasy concepts, rather than religious associations.

    • veryverygaming

      Thank you for such a considered reply. It’s really gratifying to get back such detailed and well thought out comments. I’d never thought of the sages in OOT as being martyrs, but it makes a lot of sense to look at it that way. Also, as you rightly point out, by the terms of their own policy they probably shouldn’t have released Ocarina of Time because of the association of the Gerudos with Islam. With the exception of the Gerudos though (and the Fire Temple theme which they obvious fixed), I’d say the religious themes in the game are non-specific enough that they can get away with it without annoying or offending anyone – which is the important thing for them. That certainly seems to be what Nintendo’s spokesperson was referring to – themes that are likely to be read as relating to current religious beliefs or issues, not the presence of religion in games per se.

      So just recently the incident around Tomodachi Life on the 3DS is interesting. A “glitch” in the Japanese release allowed same-sex couples, and Nintendo removed the same-sex option for the American release. In justifying the decision to take it out, Nintendo’s PR haven’t mentioned the religious policy from what I’ve read, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it played some part in the decision. Just as with abortion, same-sex relationships are contentious political issues in America at the moment largely because of resistance from Christian activists and groups. Their policy is in effect supposed to help Nintendo play it safe and appear “politically neutral” in all things political, but with something as big an issue as gay rights in America there’s no way to pull that off. Especially now the press have caught on, it’s inevitable that they’re going to be seen as taking sides, which also inevitably means losing some customers in the process.

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