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Just that word alone is enough to send some into a titillated frenzy of obscene thoughts, and immature meanderings. For those who have experienced it, it represents fun, pleasure, exploration, and in many instances, love. For those who haven’t, sex is the ultimate mystery, and for some the pinnacle of self conquest. Sex is a powerful thing, and ultimately is the most powerful form of physical expression between two people possible. It creates bonds, families, memories, I could literally go on and on for days about the benefits of sex. But I’m sure that most would agree that “it’s the coolest” and leave it at that. So why is such a critical part of the human expression so horribly underrepresented in my favorite interactive medium?
I am the first person to say that there isn’t enough sex in videogames. And what sex there is, is terribly awkward, and not very true to life. But first let’s deal with the first part of that statement… How many times a week/month/year whatever do you find yourself running out your front door, equipping the finest in automatic weaponry, loading yourself to the nines with ammunition and explosives, and just taking it to the people? I mean really giving them a lead shower that they’ll never forget… I bet it’s not that often, and if it is, then you’re a warlord in Darfur, or something equally insane, and that begs the larger question of what you’re doing on a gaming auction site. So let’s look at the inverse to that question… how many times a week/month/year whatever, do you find yourself having sex? If you’re an adult in a modern society the chances are far greater that you make love to your girlfriend everyday, instead of mowing down leagues of pedestrians, space aliens, or the pixelated baddie of choice.
So I want to tackle the second part of this, and then unify them for a larger point. Hang on, this may be rough water ahead…
Take a game like Mass Effect, or Mass Effect 2. Games that are lauded for the choice, dialogue, complexity, scope, etc. I’ve made it no secret that I don’t care for Mass Effect. At all. I don’t like Mass Effect, because to me… the idea that you can quantify any of my decisions into fitting into one of two roles is pretty absurd. If I made a choice in Mass Effect, it was rarely for the reasons that game’s morality system apparently thought I made them for, and would assign points that propelled you to either Renegade, or Paragon. Black, or White. It bothered me the entire time. And what was worse to me, was the fact that the character interaction between Shepard, and the other crew members seemed to be just as simplistic. Through using very transparent dialogue choices, you could influence the characters as you saw fit, and I say characters in the loosest sense of the word.. Mass Effect makes steady use of archetypes, and never lets you forget it. There isn’t a single person in your crew that is unreadable. Again that bothered me. But what was the biggest offense to me, was the love scene in the game. It basically amounts to, “say nice things all the time, and girls will sleep with you” and it comes off as very disingenuous at best, and offensive at worst.
Morality is already a tough thing to nail down in a game, but to try and fit meaningful and emotionally engaging sex in a game that’s already crowded with ideas, may not have been the best strategy. So is overcrowding of innovation responsible for the poor representation of sex? It’s hard to say, but it definitely didn’t plead to the game’s case when it later hit an icestorm of controversy because of how poorly it represented the idea of sex within it’s own framework. Fox News, and a few media outlets had a field day with Mass Effect, because of one really cheesey B-movie rate awkward love scene. The thing that I can’t help but wonder all this time later, is this… had Mass Effect simply done a better job of making that scene more meaningful, and engaging would it have been such a big deal in the eyes of the media? And if the answer to that question is a resounding no, then the other question becomes why have developers failed so miserably to capture the essence of the human condition when it pertains to attachment?
Heavy Rain which was met with some polarizing reception ran into similar problems, and again the media pitched a fit. But despite what some might say, the repeated reality was that the game simply did a poor job of making the idea of a romantic interest believable in the context of the game. The character’s own motivations for wanting to take the time out of something much more pertinent just to satiate lust was so ineptly done, it just shouldn’t have been attempted. In fact, the more I got to writing this article, and digging through not only recent gaming history, but the history of games as a whole, I discovered that outside of Japan, (and we’ve discussed my hatred for weird Japanese stuff before) there haven’t been more than a handful of games that deal with the issue of sex in anything more than a contrived and almost forced way.
But why? Call me crazy, but I believe it has a lot to do with the people responsible for for framing these intimate in game exchanges. I don’t want to teeter on the border of saying something ignorant, but I will make something of a blanket statement and say that perhaps it’s easier for the average developer to write about a variety of imagined monsters, and menaces, than it is to write about something to complex as love. Maybe that’s truly the heart of the problem, the menace of expression within games, isn’t the person playing them, or even the presentation, it’s the understanding behind the culmination of those things that makes any game that attempts to relate humanely a complicated affair. The testament to that statement is Jason Rohrer, a man who makes games with the most basic mechanics possible, but amazingly he does an infinitely better job of bottling the essence of those ideas than the majority of his major league counterparts. It becomes abundantly clear after playing things like Passage, and Sleep is Death, that the man behind the ideas has a depth, and understanding of those things beyond how to turn them into moving pixels.
Ultimately this is an important thing, a crucial thing even. If games want to procedurally be taken more seriously, and count themselves in when it comes to debates, and debacles that all seem to stem from controversy based solely on their artistic merit, then they need to tackle increasingly more serious issues. The last game that I saw attempt to do this in the framework of sex, was Fear Effect. And that’s simply because of it’s decision to make it’s main protagonists lesbians. The story is mostly a mess, but this point stuck out to me, and oddly enough, because the game aside from a very silly love scene, never makes it disgustingly obvious in a way that could be interpreted as immature, or inept. More risks like that should be taken within the industry if we ever want this to expand beyond the territory of “toys for grown ups”. Could you imagine if an ambitious group of developers decided to tackle something like The Great Gatsby, and got the funds needed to turn it into a triple A title? My mouth waters at the prospect of a multimillion dollar budgeted game based on a novel, but sadly I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.
If there’s one thing that gamers are right now more than any other category of consumers it is complacent. We’ve let them start charging us for add ons, we’ve let them start charging us for map packs, we let them put out inferior products year after year, and we’re content to spend money on ridiculous upgrades, and peripherals for all of their silly living room space eating machines. We have even let them start charging us for the privilege of playing our own games online. It may seem crazy to say this, but these internal turmoils are reflected in the lack of genuine compassion or humanity in the titles that are developed by the architects of all these new annoyances in games. Most people that work within the industry today aren’t happy, especially in the cut throat jobless climate that our wonderful Global Economic situation has fostered. Simply put, the most popular artists of the form are responsible for the lack of any meaningful human connections within these virtual worlds. More simple than that? Expression simply isn’t profitable. It’s more cost effective to pile up corpses, than it is to take a risk and love somebody it seems. I’m going to finish by saying something that won’t win me any friends around here, but needs to be said.
It is very easy for me to see the argument behind Roger Ebert having said he didn’t consider games to be art. While there’s undeniable artistic merit behind every game ever created, the equally undeniable truth remains. The majority of these games do about as much to expand, and explore what defines us as people, as the average Penny Arcade strip. Then again, maybe that’s being too harsh… I really like Penny Arcade a lot.
Editor In Chief
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