Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Let's talk about sex!

I had an unexpected amount of video game time to fill, this past weekend.  After an hour of Bastion and an hour of Chrono Cross I cast about for something new, feeling at odds.  What I really wanted to play was Mass Effect 3, and that's physically impossible for another six months.  I tried other games as a distraction but none of them actually satisfied my craving, no more than a bag full of carrot sticks actually satisfies a craving for a bag of chips.

Everyone on Twitter gave helpful, thoughtful suggestions for what I should try, and in the end I ignored every last one of them and got sucked into a marathon six-hour session of Fable III.

This is my pretty pretty princess, kicking your ass. She had a piratey hat but NPCs made fun.

Fable III isn't exactly challenging, as far as game play, story, or game design go.  And yet, it has challenged me in a most unexpected way.  I knew, offhandedly, before I started playing that this was considered a "mature RPG."  And yet I was surprised (pleasantly so, but still taken aback for a moment) to find that among the character attributes for nearly every adult NPC in the game, there is a sexual preference qualifier.

The game was telling me, bluntly, in no euphemistic or uncertain terms, which of the characters I was interacting with were straight or gay -- and, by extension, letting me know up front which men and women were considered to be in the dating pool for my character.

Knowing all of this, and knowing how the Fable franchise prides itself on a choices-and-consequences approach, I was still surprised further to discover that the bed in a player's house can be interacted with -- and on interacting, the options are "sleep" and "sex."  Sleep has essentially an alarm clock option, and sex can be chosen in the protected or unprotected varieties.

I am in my thirties and have been playing video games since the middle of the 1980s, and this is the first time I've ever seen the existence of sex, as an event unto itself, so explicitly and practically addressed in my pixels.

To be sure, I have played my fair number of games that contain romantic interludes, or the plain ol' bumpin' of uglies.  Divine Divinity contains an unmarked quest for finding the main city's brothel, and rewards a large amount of XP for employing services therein.  (The brothel in question has both male and female staff, and the player character can pick either, without comment and with equal experience awarded.)  Then of course there are the just-barely-offscreen quicktime event shenanigans in God of War (I, II, and III), in which Kratos turns his ragey gusto toward anyone with boobs for a time.

Fallout: New Vegas does not tread the BioWare-style path of party member romances, but sex workers (both voluntary and involuntary) feature fairly prominently in quests and on the Strip, and there are indeed some questionable fade-to-black moments the player character can select if so inclined.  And then of course, there are the BioWare games, with their array of party member romance options, based on conversation and consummated in a carefully choreographed fade to black.

I ship this so hard, but I'm actually grateful for the fade to black.

Indeed, the fade to black is what I'm used to seeing in games (with "suggestive offscreen noise" its crass and less-often seen cousin).  We all know how this goes: provided you've said the right things throughout Mass Effect 2, someone comes up to Shepard's quarters during the last quiet moment on the Normandy, they exchange a few more words, there's some suggestive motion, press "F" to continue, and it's the next morning.  (Relatively speaking, since they're in space...)  The romance option with Liara in the first game was much more explicit, but even so, probably less tawdry than many R-rated movies I've seen.

It's actually just as well that ME2 fades to black; if, later, you choose to call your special someone back up to Shepard's quarters, the "couch" and "bed" animations might actually be the most awkward, least natural, most static, least romantic, and least sexy interactions on Earth.  Even as PG rated cuddle sessions, they fail.

It's not just a body-shape thing; male Shep with Tali is equally wretched but you can image search that one yourself.
(Warning: don't image search that one.)

Still, the real surprise for me with sex in Fable III is not that it exists; sex is implied in plenty of games.  The surprise is that its existence is announced independently.  By adding "sex" to the bed options, and indicating NPC sexual orientation (and flirtatiousness levels) in info boxes, the game is putting out there the idea that sex is a thing your PC might do for any combination of fun, profit, and love, depending on any number of whims, emotions, and circumstances.

Almost like the real world, there.  How novel!

Now, I know I'm late to the discussion, and I haven't played Fable or Fable II.  (I was interested in Fable II but there's no PC port and likely never to be.)  I knew going in that a wide array of player choices existed in the game, but "vague understanding they exist" and "actually having a choice in front of you to make" are two different things.

For what it's worth, my Princess hasn't shacked up with anyone yet, mainly because she hasn't met a soul worth her time.  Most of the NPCs she's encountered and interacted with are neither attractive nor interesting, so "friend" is more than enough work there.  (Also I can't actually find the way back to my house, which was free DLC content and doesn't appear on the world map that I can find.  I may need to buy an apartment in town.)  I certainly have no moral objection to my character having (safe, consenting) sex.

Once again, though, I've been surprised by the baggage that I the player bring into this world with me.  Although its wardrobe cues are drawn from the 16th - 19th centuries, Fable III takes place in a version of the 1820s that never existed, where most fantasy RPGs take place in a version of the 13th or 14th centuries that never existed.  Its "Albion" is yet another false Britain, and so I find myself instinctively guarding against the roles reserved for women in the Georgian and Victorian eras.  In that environment, I feel that marriage is not actually an option for my female character.  In order to remain a successful, independent, respected agent, my gut says she needs to stay single.

These are totally assumptions I the player bring to the world, and really I only notice and question them because I take the time to write here.  I mean, as mentioned, I have no problem pairing off my Shepard.  Yes, I felt that not only did she have the burden of representing humanity to the galaxy, but also of representing women.  But when forced to examine it, I find that in a sci-fi, future-based environment, I feel that a woman can be partnered and yet also successful and respected.  Plus, the Commander was a renowned, accomplished hero in her own right before a partnership option entered her life.  She has a strong identity and can keep being herself, and the world in which she lives will support that.

Intellectually, I'm keenly aware that this Albion is not actually England in the dawn of the Industrial Age.  I know that it's a game in which I can make any choice the mechanics allow, and still reach one metric of success as a player.  I'll be able to complete the story regardless of the side-choices my Princess makes.  But in my gut, I still feel the pressure of a few centuries' worth of feminist issues.

Realistically, I don't actually think the mechanics of the game will enforce any kind of social penalties for marriage.  Based on what I've seen so far, the biggest impact on the overall story arc I can imagine is NPC gossip and chatter around me in towns.  But this unnamed Princess is right now forging her place in the world.  She's trying, very hard, to become a leader and to earn the loyalty of an entire kingdom through hard work and hard fighting.  She's aiming to place herself at the very head of a nation-wide rebellion to oust her lousy brother, who's a terrible king.  That's no small task!

And yet while I feel that a permanent partner (even with divorce easily available in-game) would hold this nameless lady back, I'm not at all averse to her having some sexual interludes for fun, if the right NPCs show up.  Somehow I don't feel that the Princess openly having gentlemen or lady visitors will set off any actual consequences with her people (though they may gossip); we'll consider this the "never existed" half of the culture.

Sex in games (and everywhere else) has a way of falling into a certain trap, though.  Alex Raymond wrote a really interesting piece a while back on how video games perpetuate the commodity model of sex:

To give an example: a guy I know once received a call from a couple of his friends, who asked if he wanted to go to a strip club. He said something like, “Why would I want to go to a shady bar and pay a random stranger to show me her boobs when I can have sex with my girlfriend?” And his oh-so-clever friends informed him that Hey! When you think about it, you are still just paying to see boobs! Except the payment is in dinners and dates and compliments, rather than dollar bills.

Ha. Ha. Get it? Because
all women are prostitutes.  ...

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, some video games allow the player character to have sex with NPCs; even more allow the player to have romantic relationships with NPCs. What the vast majority of these games inevitably do is present relationship mechanics that distill the commodity model down to its essence–you talk to the NPC enough, and give them enough presents, and then they have sex with/marry you.

This design approach is extremely simplistic and perpetuates the commodity model of sex–the player wants sex, they go through certain motions, and they are “rewarded” with what they wanted (like a vending machine). Furthermore, when sex is included in a game, it is generally framed as the end result–the reward–of romance, rather than one aspect of an ongoing relationship/partnership. For example, one gamer commented that the romance in
Mass Effect seemed like the romantic interest was really saying, “‘Keep talking to me and eventually we’ll have sex’”. The relationship is not the goal; the goal is the tasteful PG-13 sex scene. The NPC’s thoughts and desires aren’t relevant; what matters is the tactics you use to get what you want. This is a boring mechanic in games and dangerously dehumanizing behavior in real life.

Fable III is most certainly and emphatically guilty of what Alex describes; the mechanic of all relationships in the game is purely an item-exchange, level-up sort of thing.  And yet it actually feels more like a free choice than in most other games I've seen.  Although mysteriously my assumptions about marriage in-game are framed by a historical understanding of the 19th century, my assumptions about sex remain grounded firmly in the 21st: any number of adults can do whatever they all willingly and openly consent to, and should do so as safely as possible.

In pretty much every other game I've ever played, sex for a player character exists in one of two contexts: (1) within a romance arc (not necessarily leading to marriage), or (2) as a literal commodity, traded for money or information.  The avatars I've controlled have encountered a number of sex workers in their times and likewise my player characters have on occasion used seduction as a tool to advance.  But sex as a choice, with a willing partner, just because we're both there and it seems like fun?  Not so much.

This, then, is the paradox I find.  While sex in Fable III is to every pixel a tradeable, level-able commodity, it's also a free and open choice, presented without judgement.  If there is a "doing it right" to be found, I'm certain this game isn't it -- but it's also, in a strange way, closer.

With the recent release of Catherine, "how does game design approach actual sex and actual relationships?" is a question flying around criticism circles at the speed of the Internet.  In almost all cases, I think that answer is still, "badly," with a chaser of "inadequately."  Ultimately, all of our games still rely on sets of numerical mechanics and rules.  They're a series of unbreakable "if, then" statements and our heroes (and villains) can't decide to take a left turn to the established rules of reality the way a flesh-and-blood human can.

In this one small way, though, in this one tiny instance, my Princess can break the rules.  Maybe the next time I see "sex" as an in-game choice, it will be in a game where the NPCs are actually designed to be characters, rather than a half-dozen fixed sound bites and gestures.  Society's head might explode.

*If you hear Salt-N-Pepa singing in your head, congratulations: you, too, are an old.  Now dance!


  1. Indigo Prophecy had a sex scene that was cut in the US version.  And Fable 2 is basically the Captain Jack of video games.  Wasn't sex also a plot feature of the Leisure Suit Larry games?  Been a very long time since I played those.  (Someone sneaked them onto one of the macs assigned to our AP biology class.)

  2. I don't think of the Leisure Suit Larry games as counting.  I mean, yeah, they're about sex, but they're also about sex, y'know?  I mean, they're about this idiot who strikes out with ladies managing to advance with ladies.  So sure, it comes up a lot (usually in the most juvenile, innuendo-laden ways possible) but it doesn't have that same sort of... organic? ... quality that "romance or not, sex or not" does in games that aren't actually about the game of getting laid.

  3. addressed in my pixels.

    That sounds magnificently dirty.

  4. I think you're totally right that sex in games is generally seen as a 'reward' for a particular set of interactions with that npc and not something that is just a smaller part of a larger relationship.  Given the rather juvenile mindset with which most games approach sexuality, I'm pretty sure this surprises no one.  I suspect the 'reward' label is part of it as well though, given things like achievements and item/feature unlocks, rewarding the player with in-game stuff is a pretty popular formula these days and your character's sex life is another avenue for that.  

    I'd probably also say that it's just plain hard to write realistic relationships into games, especially when you're dealing multiple gender/species/orientation combinations - that just gets complicated, especially when it's likely you will need to tie each possible relationship into the larger story line to make it feel like a cohesive part of the game.  That's not to excuse the games that handle it poorly, but there are not a whole lot of games with good writing in general and this is just that much harder to do well.I doubt there's one ideal way to treat sex that would apply across all games and genres but assuming there is a game (probably an RPG of some sort) which is capable of treating the subject matter decently, what would you like to see?  

  5. Well, there are sort of two separate forces at work there.  One is the presence of realistic romantic relationships, and the other -- which is sort of a subset of the first, but not entirely -- is the presence and treatment of casual sex.

    We tend to go for the former, across games.  And actually, not just across games, but across all the stories we tend to tell in modern Western popular media.  Which probably has a lot to do with the major hang-ups we have around casual sex, particularly for women and, by extension, female characters.

    As for "hard to write well", I'll give a big' ol cosign there.  It's hard to write people very well and games have an additional layer of challenge on top of film and TV in that regard, due to player ability to change character behavior.  A strike against the existence of casual sex in games is in fact the difficulty of adding unrelated or irrelevant content, in general: how much easier to script in 2-3 potential romances rather than a world full of hookups?

  6. I think it centers around seeing relationships as achievements in video games, which is why a lot of people were intrigued by Catherine showing a relationship already in progress. This also might not count, but my recent playthrough of Choices of Romance featured a good amount of time after I had 'chosen' (I didn't feel like I explicitly chose anyone, and didn't know I was going to end up pregnant x.x) and it was interesting to see how I had to adapt to the world after this decision was made. I went through the game wanting personal power and influence, and didn't really love any of the characters. It seemed like it was inevitable that I was getting married, so I got to decide what that meant. I chose for my character as a means to have a say in politics. She was a little manipulative, but in the end, all she was seen as was a romance-able object, baby-maker, and money bags. It was super interesting to go about relationships in a system that didn't require love, though the game ended up making choices for me I didn't want (having sex at the time I did, entering a relationship, and getting knocked up [though, as a side note, wouldn't it be interesting for a random even to end up with a child and have to go on from there? Hmm...]). I remember realizing what that article you cited did when I was trying to find a good dating-sim to play, and realized they reproduced the parts of out gender roles that has men doing favors for the assurance of sex, and women with-holding sex until the man jumps through enough hoops. I felt similarly about Mass Effect; there was nothing particular about my Shepard that was attractive to my team-mates other than being talked to without being a complete jerk. I think both ideas of exploring a game after attaining a relationship and having relationships begin under other circumstances that chatting after every mission would be a nice step forward.

  7. Fable III (and from what I recall, Fable II as well) does play the level-up-your-relationships card like many other games do. What is in its favor, I think, is not only what you've pointed out, that virtually half of the adults in the game are potential partners, depending on how you want to play your character, but that ... well ... not sure if you want me to avoid spoilers, but let's just say that you'll find that it's basically split right down the middle. The leveling-up aspect is still present and sadly more obvious as you progress with your relationship(s), but then you have a remarkable amount of freedom with respect to the number and gender of your partner(s).

    Credit is due, I think, for openly acknowledging that sometimes people prefer same-sex partners, and for not building in any bias toward those people (that I could find). The problem with the rest of it is what I think other people are touching on: it's hard to put actual relationship mechanics in a game, especially when you have a very limited number of possible interactions with a person. It basically comes down to memorization, rather than interaction: to date NPC Jane, do A, B, and R; to date NPC Rick, do C, R, and W ... I suppose it's possible to build in some bit of reality by not having NPCs respond the same way to the same actions each time, but I don't know if that would make any difference in a game like Fable III.

    Dragon Age, maybe, was a better example of this? It wasn't just about holding hands, running stupid errands, and handing over trinkets that just happened to be pulled out of the pockets of people you killed recently. You had to find different approaches to woo different characters, and you couldn't necessarily woo them all at once. In fact, sometimes (frequently?) you'd please one potential partner and upset another at the same time. (I feel like you've addressed this about Dragon Age: Origins ... I don't mean to make you repeat yourself.)

    And maybe some of this is because I am a huge Claudia Black fan (and will never forgive the former SciFi Channel for ending Farscape a season too early), and thus had no choice but to pursue Morrigan, but there were times in DA:O when I felt less like I was looking for optimal choices and more like I was interacting with another character ... trying to figure out what she "wanted". She talks about this ... maybe she'd like this as a gift? (And liking it when she did, in fact, appreciate something I'd given her.) It is, of course, as little of the actual interaction between men and women as playing Rock Band is compared to playing an actual guitar or keyboard or bass, but it's something more than "dance with NPC to start relationship quest."

    Plus, there was something to Morrigan's character that maybe wasn't actually agency, but something that made her more than just Stock Female NPC ... at least on the decision trees that I ended up following, there was only so much she was interested in, and that was that, and it didn't matter what I thought. It was nice to know that in DA:O, I did not have control over every situation. (In Fable III, as you'll find out if you like, the situation can be very, very different ...)

  8. To be fair, Dragon Age 2 does allow you to have a long-term relationship that runs alongside the main story. They don't deal with it in that much depth, but like you say, it's a step forward.

  9. You're right, but it barely felt like anything. It was kinda like a "Oh, someone slept over for the past year or so!" You party only slightly gossiped. But we all know I'm extra harsh, especially on DA :P

  10. Haha, yes. And we all know I see games not as they are, but as their descendants might be.

  11. definitely agree that dragon age is an interesting example here. not only do characters have set orientations (though the same-sex options are pretty limited), but the concept of casual sex vs relationship sex is addressed as well. the player can "romance" zevran or morrigan to the point of triggering a sex scene while simultaneously (or subsequently) romancing another character without getting a jealous reaction. the other romanceable characters, however, will confront the pc about what's going on and what your intentions are if you choose to engage in multiple romances. while not very diversified, it's an interesting attempt to give the npcs a sense of agency within their relationships.

  12. Another major problem that you run into with relationships and sex (especially the casual kind) is the question of story utility. What does this scene tell us about this character that is new or compelling?

    I've always found Mass Effect's approach to romance to be incredibly creepy, not because of the commoditization of it (although a very good point!) but because the characters basically fall out of character as soon as the topic comes up. The normally tight lipped Shepard comes out of nowhere with a bizarrely sleazy come on, which apparently establishes the romantic interest, and it culminates in a painfully corny scene that would seem to be written by someone guessing at how these things actually work.

    The major exception is Garrus, whose Paramour scene is actually really touching, and does tell us something new about him: how he copes with tragedy when the wound is fresh. I was really surprised by it, given how cornball the subplot was up until that point. None of the other characters' consumation scenes seem to have anything important to tell us about the people involved. (But have you seen Jacob's scene? My god, I'd have pulled an Alan Smithee if I'd written that.)

    But outside of the dating sims, I can't think of games that have done better jobs. Persona 3 and Persona 4 are famous for their relationship stuff, but they ultimately reduce all relationships to a level of "spend time with this guy and always agree with him until you're best friends." And once you get into games like Fable where the main character is strictly an avatar, all of this goes out the window. I can't even fathom how you could make that compelling. Commander Shepard actually has a lot of autonomy from the player and can pick out the right words to indicate our will. An avatar can't.

    All of which is to say, if you don't feel like sleeping, there's a guy on youtube named Agsii1 who likes to edit scenes from ME2, especially the romance bits, and make them deliciously weird. Here's a less frightening one: This is obviously the future of romance in video games.

  13. Dragon Age 2 was a lot better in so many ways, the romance primary among them. Of course, the fact that I hated what passed for romance in DA:O so damn much probably played into that. The fact that you could explicitly try and flirt with characters that you have no possible shot  with is a nice addition.

  14. i don't think video games are all that different from, say, action movies, when it comes to sex and romance. i use action movies as a comparison because, for the most part, our games are centered around conflict and violence, rather than on relationships.

    so unless a game specifically designs itself around the encounter, the sexytime option will always be something peripheral to the core of the game's narrative. because it's an option.

    there are some games that don't give you a choice. if i remember correctly, fahrenheit/indigo prophecy doesn't even ask you if you want the (creepy, egregious) sex scene in the final chapter (i could be wrong about this, though. the first sex scene, which is actually quite natural and justified by the relationship between the two characters, is optional). and i'm okay with that, too, in the way that i'm okay with having no choice about what comes next in a movie. it's not my story; these aren't my choices.

    it's when i do have the choice that games are kind of missing the mark. i need to think more on this.

    (though the more i think about it, the more i appreciate the first fade-to-black scene from indigo prophecy. i can't think of another game that has written a recently broken-up couple, who like real life people have complicated feelings toward each other, who sleep together in a moment of loneliness and vulnerability [loneliness and vulnerability on both sides]. everything that happens afterward is suspect, but the actual encounter leading up to the rekindled romance is quite believable, if a little bit clunky in terms of game mechanics. much, much, MUCH better than anything in heavy rain.)

  15. If anyone wants to read a fascinating history on the subject, I recommend checking out the rather obviously titled "Sex in Video Games" by Brenda Brathwaite.

    BTW, it was nice meeting you on Wednesday, Kate!

  16. Thanks!  I had a lot of fun meeting everyone too. :)

    Also, good point on the Brathwaite book.  Somehow I'd managed to forget she'd covered this ground at all.

  17. i use action movies as a comparison because, for the most part, our
    games are centered around conflict and violence, rather than on

    That kind of hits the nail on the head, doesn't it.  There are games out there now that are centered on relationship-based conflict rather than violence-based conflict but you know, I'm forced to admit that I haven't necessarily found any of them to sound interesting enough to play.

    Guess I'm part of the problem here, heh.

  18. Sorry for the comments thread necromancy - I played the first Fable game to death and was tickled pink when I realised the male NPC could both flirt with and marry other male NPCs, there's also (if memory serves), a brothel based side quest that's played very much in the vein of the old Carry On films which leaves your NPC waking up and walking around looking lost and forlorn in nothing but a pair of Union Jack undies.

    And the ME2 post game snuggles, god the awkward unintentional comedy of those things, mind the results of getting Kelly up to Shepard's cabin are a little more... unfortunate 0_o