1. Nazis and Swastikas, for obvious reasons
As you can imagine, Germany does not take its history lightly. That isn't to say they want to forget it ever happened -- quite the opposite. But Nazis, and everything that comes with them, are something of a sensitive subject. Though movies like Iron Sky made it to theaters relatively unscathed (despite featuring swastikas worn by Nazis living on the moon), games don't have the same protections in the country. Meaning that any use of the swastika in a video game is strictly verboten. So if you're the developers of something like 10 Second Ninja (seen above) and your main character is fighting Nazi robots in levels full of swastikas, you'll have to make some compromises.
Is it fair that video games have to censor themselves while Indiana Jones remains uncut? Well, not really. But as we'll see throughout the next few entries, the German government doesn't recognize games as art, and thus doesn't offer it the same protections as other mediums. But publishers still want to put their games out in Germany, especially since it's the largest market in Europe, ahead of even the UK.
Not publishing your game in Germany is leaving a lot of money on the table, so even games with Nazis baked into their DNA -- like 2014's Wolfenstein: The New Order -- have been changed to accomodate the local censors.
The Wolfenstein series has always, always been about shooting Nazi shitbags, so you can imagine that making The New Order fit for German shelves was a tall order. Every single reference to Nazis were completely removed from the game. The bad guys were now simply called "The Regime," and all swastikas were erased throughout the campaign, often replaced with the Wolfenstein logo. Eurogamer put together a great comparison roundup if you'd like to see more examples like the one above.
Besides some key visuals and dialogue being altered, TNO largely remained the same story-wise; even someone unfamiliar with the Wolfenstein series would find it patently obvious who "The Regime" were supposed to represent. It's sort of like pixelating someone's hand when they flip the bird to the camera -- everyone knows what's really going on, but it's covered up because that's just the way things are.
South Park is no stranger to censorship, so it should be no surprise that The Stick of Truth dealt with its Nazi zombies just like the show dealt with images of Muhammad: Using a series of strategically-placed black boxes.
In a way, you can kind of appreciate the transparency of this censorship. The haphazard black bars clearly communicate "Someone made us cover this stuff up, but everything else is presented as-is." At the same time, it highlights how simultaneously strict and lax German censor rules are. Characters that are obviously Nazis can appear in video games -- so long as they aren't wearing Nazi-specific symbols.
Remember how we mentioned that Indiana Jones movies were ok to reference Nazis? Well, the same doesn't go for Indiana Jones video games.
Whereas Wolfenstein went to impressive lengths to localize their title for German players, the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade adventure game is something of a different story. All the swastikas in the adaptation are indeed removed, but in the most lazy, slipshod way possible. It looks like someone colored in the swatikas with MS Paint. The result is a bunch of flags with misshapen squares on them.
This moment is based on a very memorable scene from the movie, so they couldn't very well leave it out. But it's especially strange to see such obviously censored swastikas behind what is unambiguously Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute.
Hell, instead of allowing Hitler to autograph Henry Jones' diary, you can punch that dickmunch right in the face.
Note that the only real difference between the US and German versions of the scene is the swastika to the far right. They didn't even bother coloring in the flag dead-center, because it's already being obscured by a wall.
It's odd that The Last Crusade got away with depicting Hitler at all, because that seems to be a big no-no when it comes to modern German ports.
Like a lot of early entries in the series, Call of Duty: Finest Hour takes place during World War II. So it would only make sense for Nazi propaganda posters to be plastered all over Germany and the rest of Europe. You'd think that the historical nature of the game might preclude it from censorship, especially in a country in which WWII documentaries air uncensored on a regular basis. But nah, Adolf's shitty mug is replaced by what appears to be a foldout pin-up straight out of Tiger Beat: Hitler Youth Edition.
Though Hitler's face has been eradicated from contemporary games in Germany, his name still lives on. Hearts of Iron 4 is a strategy game that, like the aforementioned Call of Duty title, takes place during World War II. So it seems like it'd be pretty impossible to fight against Hitler without representing him in the game -- and in a way, the furher does appear. Sort of.
For most of the Western release, Hitler's is unaltered, presumably because everyone wants the pleasure of knocking that shitty mustache off that cretin's face. But in Germany, while Hitler remains a specifically-named character in the game, his face is cloaked in shadow. The near-silhouette kind of makes it look like Hitler is an unlockable character whose portrait will light up after you get a special achievement. Either that, or it's an extra tough second version of the dictator. Seeing this just sort of makes me want to test my mettle against Shadow Hitler.
It's not just direct references to Hitler and the Nazis that have gotten the boot -- the policy even extends to logos that resemble the offending symbols.
The skateboard brand Mystery was featured prominently in EA's Skate 2, except in the case of Germany, in which the company's merch was excised completely. It has to do with Mystery's trademark logo, which does bear resemblance to the the Nazi SS lightning bolts. Believe it or not, this is the same problem that the band KISS ran into; their logo is different on German album releases, presumably because their S is uncomfortably close to that of the Schutzstaffel. Thing is, in the case of Skate 2, any and all Mystery products were removed from the game -- even products that didn't bear the logo. Worse yet, this removal made the game incompatible with the version the rest of the world got, so German players hopping online could only play with other similarly stiffed German players.
We'll get into censored game features a little bit later, but right now we have to get to one of the oddest trends in video game censorship.
2. Turning humans into robots
The majority of games are violent in one way or another. It's just a matter of degrees. Flinging a tiny bird at a grinning pig and making it explode into dust is still technically a form of violence, even if it's not as extreme as Sub-Zero ripping out Scorpion's spine. Violence is built into game design, in part because killing an enemy and erasing it from existence one of the easiest ways for a player to make a real interaction with a virtual world.
Germany is pretty strict about violence in gaming, but since so many games heavily rely on it, this has led to developers using some loopholes. As it turns out, Germany is not okay with humans exploding into bloody body parts, but is totally fine with robots meeting the very same fate. Just look at the German version of Team Fortress 2.
In case it didn't come across in the GIFs, all the characters in German TF2 are robots. Meaning that when you shoot them, sparks fly out instead of bodily fluids. When characters explode, instead of blood and body parts, there's oil and gears and sometimes toy hamburgers.
The best place to see this in action is probably the Meet the Soldier" animated short. Here you can see they used the MS Paint fill bucket to change the color of the red blood to an oily black, and inserted a large coil where a spinal cord should be.
While the goofy German version does fit the tone of the series, it's a shame that Valve felt like they had to do this. The original decapitated head already looks like something out of The Flintstones, but apparently it wasn't cartoonish enough.
Team Fortress 2 didn't invent the human-robot transformation, though. The trend dates way back to the 90s. Not even the Nintendo 64 was safe.
Though Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is primarily known for... hunting dinosaurs, there were plenty of humanoid enemies in the first game. Of course, this changed from men with firearms to robots with laser swords for the German release. Honestly, this might be something of a benefit, since "shooting dinosaurs and robots with a minigun" sounds like the description to the best game ever made.
But if we want to talk actual contenders for the Game of the Forever pantheon, Half-Life 1 also employed robots to replace human enemies.
As if that wasn't lame enough, these "robot grunts" also replaced every single character class in Team Fortress 1. I'm not saying that every game must have killable humans in it, but it's always obvious when a game was designed around one thing only to be supplanted by something else.
So far the games we've covered are pretty tame by today's standards, but Soldier of Fortune II's ultraviolence retains its ultra prefix to this day.
It looks a little bit sillier now than it did in 2002, but SoF II still allows players to mutilate, dismember and otherwise horribly disfigure enemies with non-stop gunfire. It was pretty controversial stateside, which didn't bode well for getting past the German censors.
As you might have guessed, developer Raven Software got around this by making everyone a robot.
Unlike everything else we've mentioned so far, Soldier of Fortune II is at least somewhat grounded in the real world. Take away the fact that everyone seems to be a highly-pressurized sack of cherry Jell-O covered in skin, and it could almost resemble the real world. SoFII isn't a sci-fi game at heart, so where are the robots coming from?
To justify these automatons, Raven Software created a new universe for Soldier of Fortune II. The German version of the game takes place in an alternate dimension where androids have taken over the world. Seriously. When we said that everyone is a robot in SoFII, that means enemies, NPCs, and even the player's protagonist.
Thing is, the game is otherwise mostly the same. As the intro explains, these androids wiped out their human masters in order to live out their days having families and working shitty jobs... just like their human masters. It might be poignant if it didn't feel like Poochie was going to be summoned back to his home planet at any moment.
Soldier of Fortune II wasn't the only game to robotomize its entire in-game population. The biggest (and most hilarious) offender might be Command and Conquer: Generals.
Since the C&C games are traditionally real-time strategy games played from the top-down perspective, making every character in the game a robot doesn't have a huge effect -- at first. Sure, the soldiers make crinkly aluminium can sounds when you run over them with a tank, but what's extra special here are the titular Generals. The default release of the game features actual portraits of real people that head up one of three different playable factions. But since everyone is a robot in the German edition of Generals, that means each human represented in the game was subject to an awesomely terrible transformation.
Above you can see General Granger was corrupted by the Borg and went on to steal Geordi's visor. The other leaders in the game didn't fare better.
On-the-ground troops also got artificial flavors as well, but there's one especially ridiculous case that might actually be an overall improvement. See, the selectable factions controlled by the pictured Generals include the USA, China and something called the Global Liberation Army -- the latter of which was just a fancy way of saying "The Most Stereotypical Terrorists Imaginable." Even in 2003, the guys behind 24 would be a little concerned about the depiction of Middle-Eastern people.
Case in point: One of the GLA units is a suicide bomber. Straight-up. It's just a dude with a vest and some dynamite, seen yelling in his portrait. The German release took their usual robot assimilation a bit further in this case, replacing the suicide bomber (the unit name is literally "Terrorist") with a bomb on wheels.
Every once in a while, silly censorship can be a force for good. But as we'll find out, it can also be a complete ripoff.