Video games are impressively talented in certain areas. They can be wonderfully inclusive, infuriate us like no other art form, hell, even their advertising can get things so damn right. But they are deplorable in bed. Trust me, I've chec... wait that sounds weird. I've examined the... wait. Ehh...
Look, video games have a problem and I thought we could talk about it. Okay?
Let's Talk About Sex... And Games
In my mind the real problem with sexual representation in video games stems from the industry's obsession with replicating what came before, specifically the exploits of cinema. In other words, cinema isn't great at sex either.
Cinematic sex tends to be pretty far removed from the act itself and depictions on screen lack the same degree of artistic ingenuity that just about every other human act enjoys. More often than not it's romanticized, censored, banal, used to denote a couple's progress in a relationship or shoved in to make the film sell.
We desperately need a sexual revolution in popular cinema, one that'll allow more complex and nuanced discussions about sex to take place once the lights flood dark rooms across the globe. We need to open up about it. But we can talk about cinema another day.
In their defense, video games have attempted to replicate sex in ways that are unique to the art form. In fact, I feel they do parody and satire rather well. After all, we're watching a bunch of animated beings performing coitus by gyrating into one another, occasionally glitching through their own limbs. How can we be expected to take that seriously?
Therefore, I see great worth in games acknowledging their own shortcomings when it comes to "accurate" or cinematic depictions of sex. Opting for more artistically interesting takes on these acts is far more admirable and effective in my mind.
However, know that I do admire those that try; sex is the final taboo topic the industry needs to break! We can viciously strangle people but everyone gets all up tight about some animated sex? Cinema has to deal with the same issue.
When sex and video games do meet, it's usually a truly awful encounter. Here are two examples:
Example One: Heavy Petting In The Rain
Heavy Rain is about a lot of things; kidnapping, serial killers, FBI agents, murder, sci fi glasses and screaming parents. But, like the shed ton of thrillers that came before it, for a brief period Heavy Rain had to be about sex. But... did it though?
The entire game is built around quicktime events, which ask the player to hit buttons at specific moments in order to have characters successfully perform an act. Fail to follow the instructions at the right moment and your character will mess up their action in-game, or in some cases die. But when the designers decided to incorporate these gameplay mechanics into unzipping the jacket of your lady friend before getting down, all you can do is shake your head and laugh.
So yeah, should you fail to hold L1 long enough your character will simply stand there confused by the zipper on a jumper. The gameplay distracts attention from the scene (which is definitely for the best), which itself begs the question: What's the point of watching these two characters fumble about on the floor?—the bed is right next to you two by the way.
Furthermore, this scene destroys Heavy Rain's narrative tone. The protagonist comes back to this apartment, shaking with fear after having killed someone for the first time. He then informs his female partner that finding his kidnapped son is all that matters to him now. Then they undress and make love for a few hours. HUH?!
The gameplay is terrible and the scene makes no sense. This is not how sex needs to be represented in video games. Neither is this.
Example Two: The Kind Of Sex They Reserve For Hell
I don't even know where to begin with this one. Renowned as one of the worst games ever created, it's only natural that Ride to Hell: Retribution would feature some of the worst sex scenes known to the industry. Take a look.
That's right, you're looking at a load of soulless beings rubbing off one another fully clothed—by the way, that dude has enormous hands! These women parade themselves in front of the player and offer themselves up as rewards for completing missions.
Not only is this obnoxiously misogynistic and backward, it's pointless! What are we supposed to take from these scenes? Is sex simply a reward system for macho dudes with Donald Trump sized hands? (Oh no wait, his are tiny).
Though for me this remains one of the worst examples, a lot of video games don't tend to do much better when it comes to sexual relations. It's a reward system in many titles or something that comes about by saying the right thing at the right time, like with the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games—two franchise's that pride themselves on creating realistic human interactions.
I games are going to continue to try and recreate sexual acts as the industry develops, what kind of directions should they take? Graphics are consistently improving, but should they be used to simply recreate what's come before?
Teaching Gaming About The Birds & The Bees
Though I gave cinema a hard time, there have been truly extraordinary depictions and discussions of sexual relations between people throughout its history. They're generally reserved for more avant garde or small budget projects, and I'd certainly like to see them spill over into the mainstream, but I want the same for video games.
Therefore, in my search to find an example that encapsulates interesting sexual exploration in games, I've latched on to Atlus' Catherine from 2011.
Though it has its flaws and rather sexist depictions of particular female characters—I think you can tell which one—Catherine is a masterclass in game design. Its challenging puzzles and innovative narrative are aspects that I'd love more video games to emulate. But it's the way in which this title interacts with the player that I admire above all.
Catherine is all about relationships, commitment and sex. The protagonist is tired of the restrictions his relationship with his girlfriend imposes on his life and is almost reluctant to advance it any further. He's tormented by this new woman on the scene; a being that seems to fulfil every one of his sexual desires. Sex isn't something that's simply shoved into this narrative, it's vital to the plot.
The game frequently asks players where they stand on the protagonist's actions. 'What would you do were you in his shoes?' it proposes. Rather than simply depicting gyrating bodies, Catherine uses sex, cheating and the concept of relationships to pose interesting questions that interrogate its characters and the player. We're challenged by the game and we may even surprise ourselves in the ways that we respond to certain questions or actions.
This almost never happens in video games, or cinema. Catherine even gives you a pie chart once you've answered a question showing you how everyone else responded around the world. You have an insight into the gaming community and their thoughts on sexual relations with others in our own world. What a fantastic and admirable idea! It's something that only gaming can do and it's a genuinely fascinating exploration of our lives.
Now compare that with the pointless sex of Heavy Rain and the misogynistic nonsense of Ride to Hell. Video games have the opportunity to explore sex in ways that no other medium can replicate. With these tools at a developer's disposal, why fall back and simply (poorly) recreate the same, boring cinematic sex scenes we've seen done better on the silver screen? Pose new questions and abandon misogyny. Challenge us.
Replicating what came before isn't a meaningful way of breaking taboos or artistically pushing the industry forward. Developers should instead demonstrate that video games can play a truly fascinating role in discussions about sex in popular culture. Perhaps this little art form can get us talking before cinema does.