Bethesda announced in January that its upcoming subscription-based MMO The Elder Scrolls Online had received an M-for-Mature rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a determination the company did not agree with--despite every other recent entry in the series being M-rated--but would not challenge.
Now, the ESRB product description for The Elder Scrolls Online has been published publicly, giving insight into why the game earned an M-rating. The ESRB's main content descriptors note that the game contains "Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence."
But it's the ESRB's complete ratings summary that sheds a better light on the M-rating. As you can read in the below text, The Elder Scrolls Online features sexual innuendo in its dialogue ("In his mind, she would be the sheath to every knight's blade"), bloody depictions of severed heads, and drinking games that result in the character's blurred vision and impaired speech.
This is a multiplayer online role-playing game in which players assume the role of a warrior in the fantastical world of Nirn. As players explore open-world environments, they can perform various quests and complete tasks. Characters use swords, arrows, axes, and magic attacks (e.g., lightning, fire attacks) to kill human-like and fantastical enemies (e.g., orcs, demons, giant insects). Players engage in melee-style combat, hacking and slashing at various enemies; battles are highlighted by cries of pain, impact sounds, and blood splashes. Some sequences depict large amounts of blood streaming up-close as vampires attack/feed on characters. In some quests players have the ability to mount creatures' severed heads onto pikes; some environments depict corpse piles or skeletons hanging from torture devices. Text descriptions or dialogue sometimes contain references to sexual material and/or innuendo (e.g., “She...raped the men as cruelly as Bal had ravished her”; “In his mind, she would be the sheath to every knight's blade”; “No sweetmeat for you”; But it is huge! It could take me all night!”). During the course of the game, alcohol (i.e., wine, mead, ale) can be purchased and consumed by the central character; one sequence prompts players to engage in a drinking contest, resulting in the central character's blurred vision/slurred speech.
The ESRB rating also mentions that because The Elder Scrolls Online is an online-focused game, players are likely to be exposed to user-generated content that cannot be rated.
Bethesda said in January that it will not challenge the rating or change the game's content to achieve a different rating. "The game we have created is the one we want our fans to be able to play," Bethesda said at the time.
It's unlikely that Bethesda is sweating the rating too heavily. After all, the last Elder Scrolls game--The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim--also received an M-rating and went on to sell more than 20 million copies. Still, for concerned parents, the M-rating might be the key decision factor in buying the game or not.
The Elder Scrolls Online launches for PC and Mac on April 4, with a release for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to follow in June 2014. The game carries a $15/month subscription. On PS4, the game will not require PlayStation Plus, but the Xbox One version will mandate that players have an Xbox Live Gold account.