[Originally published March 19, 2016]
I’ve been thinking recently about sex in games – specifically RPGs dedicated to player choice, such as Mass Effect or The Witcher. This is not because I am a dirty boi, but because I’ve become somewhat dissatisfied with the way games present the nuances of attraction, romance, and sex. I’m aware that games have grown a lot in this regard – the sex in the aforementioned games is no ‘Hot Coffee’ – but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Think about the real world for a second. Think about how those three listed nouns I just dropped work in the real world v. how they work in a video game. It’s not the same, is it? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
Disclaimer, this might get a little blue for you. I don’t get graphic, but if the idea of sex – or talking about sex – makes you uncomfortable, then perhaps this is not the community blog for you. Additionally, if you’re young, maybe don’t read this? I would prefer you didn’t, but – if you choose to press on – take what I have to say with a grain of salt. I just turned 22 – I’m hardly an expert.
In games, attraction is something that’s often earned through performing the ‘correct’ sequence of dialogue. I am The Protagonist, so time effectively freezes when it’s my turn to talk – freezes so that I may carefully deliberate upon which dialogue option will be most appealing to my in-game conversational partner and win me their affections. I have two options: the flat, colloquial response, and the smoothest, suavest one liner that could ever escape my lips.
I think I know which one to pick.
This is what bothers me. Every game’s base assumption is that a person will be attracted to you if you just say the right thing, and this route down the dialogue tree is often obvious to all who play. It creates a real porn-y environment in a lot of video games – like everybody’s going to have sex with each other as soon as anyone starts talking. In real life – not so much.
People are attracted to who they’re attracted to. Not every straight lady is attracted to every dude they see, in the same way that being gay doesn’t make you attracted to every member of the same sex. Just once – just once – I’d like to have someone shoot me down in a video game. I want someone to call out my protagonist for flirting with his crew, or hitting on someone at a bar. Maybe someone politely turns you down, and then every interaction you have from then on is made uncomfortable by virtue of your failed flirt. Sometimes, people aren’t interested, and that’s okay to acknowledge in a video game. I just wish attraction in games was something hoped for, rather than expected. I think it would make for more interesting character interactions, is all.
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Ahhhhh, romance. Similar to attraction, romance in games usually amounts to a series of hidden bars and meters. Say the right things, perform the right actions, and you build up the secret allocation of ‘sexy points’ until, finally, your partner professes their love. Even if there’s a genuine attraction between two people, romance doesn’t usually blossom quickly, if at all. This is, perhaps, a fatalistic approach to attraction, but if there’s anything I’ve learned after four years of college, it’s that people avoid romance at all costs. Like what I do to deep dark waters, mountain cats, or crystal meth. I think there’s real interesting room for growth in this department. Maybe you take it too fast. Maybe you take it too slow. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where my character has accidentally said the wrong thing, or pissed off their partner in a way that ends a relationship. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been dumped in a video game.
Cibele, by the way, is a great example of how emotionally affecting this could be. It’s a little bit outside what I’m talking about here – due to the linear narrative – but it’s still a powerful expression of the way someone you cared about can romantically devastate you. Play Cibele, it’s a Good Video Game.
Listen I know video games make for some great escapism but I think what I’m saying is that I want the next Mass Effect to end with me getting a space text dumping my ass.
I made some dangerous google searches to bring you these images. Christ alive that was a fine line to walk.
Okay. Time to talk bedroom stunts. So sex in video games is a little bit like watching a toddler make two mannequin toys kiss. It’s starting to look a little better, but it’s still pretty jilted and goofy. But here’s the thing – that’s kind of what sex is like in real life. One of my favorite moments in gaming takes place in The Witcher 3, when Shani rides the vomit comet – prematurely ending the sex scene with Geralt. It’s one of the most human moments in video game history, and it’s a great example of the ways a sexual encounter might not go how you thought it would. At some point in your life, this – or something like this – will likely happen to you or someone you know. Something will happen – something will change, and – while it may not end your evening – it will shatter your preconceived notions of what a romantic evening might entail. It might be something you do. It might be something your partner does. Regardless, you will end up having a very vulnerable moment during a very vulnerable act, and that’s part of what’s appealing (to me) about sex. All encounters – regardless of whether they do or don’t involve alcohol – are still somewhat strange to navigate. Sex with a new partner is often awkward, and weird. You’re adjusting to another person’s boundaries, and they’re adjusting to yours. It’s okay to show us that in a video game, because learning someone’s boundaries – so that you may respect them – is natural. It’s something that doesn’t get highlighted enough in any medium. I actually think it would make for some very interesting character moments. Perhaps the character you play is very traditional, and hooks up with someone with fringe sexual preferences. Perhaps the opposite ends up being the case. How do the characters react to one another? How does it affect their relationship?
Sexual compatibility isn’t the end-all be-all of relationships, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think it was important. Does sex cause your character to change and grow? Do they learn something about themselves? Do they affirm their boundaries, or challenge them?
To be clear: I think there’s a reason we haven’t gotten this far with sex in games yet, and that’s because it sounds like a writer’s worst nightmare. It’s a pretty treacherous balancing act – how do you maintain a player’s agency over their character without robbing the in-game characters of theirs? How do you write a tasteful sex scene? How long should it go, is it too voyeuristic, how many butts should there be? I joke, but there are some genuinely complicated questions game writers and designers would have to answer. That being said – the difficulty of artistic progress is no excuse to stagnate into tropes. I’d rather that games try, fail, and learn, than not try at all.
These games that I’ve been thinking about – your KOTOR’s, your Witchers, your Mass Effects – all go to great lengths to allow the player to explore character within their fantasy worlds. I don’t see why this can’t extend into romance and relationships. These things are challenging in real life, but that’s why they’re interesting. There’s a reason sex and romance are often central conflicts of television shows. Hell, Netflix’s Love exclusively deals with the difficulties of attraction in the modern world. I like to think we’re at a point in our industry that we can really start tackling these issues with the respect they deserve. Call me optimistic, but I have faith. We like to talk about how games have ‘grown up.’ Maybe it’s time for them to grow up a little more.
 For real though, was I the only one who found this super unprofessional of Shepard? Company ink? Hostile work environment? Any of these ringing a bell for ya, Shep?
 It should be avoided, but, you know – law of large numbers.
 By the way, I hope I’m not making anyone feel pressured like they should have sex. It’s a choice, do what you want to do. No reason to feel like your supposed to, and it’s ridiculous that people make folks feel bad for not having it. Those jerk-o’s can eat my shorts. I’m just talking about sex like this cos it’s relevant to a problem I have with games.