Friday, 20 November 2009

Sex and the Galaxy

This week, I decided to write about sex because sex in games is funny.

I spent rather a long time trying to come up with an argument, a reason why games just aren't very good at being sexy. But I decided not to because my last three articles have compared games to other forms of narrative entertainment in some respect, and the comparison was beginning to grow stale. 

Also, I can think of no earthly reason why games should be any less equipped to cross the minefield of sexual representation with their dignity intact than any other art form. I honestly think that in this circumstance, interactivity is neither a help nor a hindrance,and that sex is just tricky to get right. Therefore, I thought it would be more fun (and erm, easier for me) to take a gleeful jaunt through the museum of game sex.

But just to clarify, books and films rarely manage to be sexy either. In fact in any kind of media you choose to mention, sex is generally either relegated to selling point status or portrayed with such cloying earnestness that it just becomes rather embarrassing for all concerned. Rarely does it actually succeed in being, well, sexy.

"Sexy" is hard to achieve because it is entirely subjective, and because it relies so strongly on abstractions such as character and chemistry, it is hard to represent. It must be felt, although it can function symbolically in comedy or slapstick. We know the female bunny with the glaringly female traits (small waist, large bottom, large eyes, large chest, tiny nose) is exciting to Bugs Bunny because we recognise the girl bunny as sexy. Therefore his reaction is funny even though we don't share it. Probably not, anyway. Although hey, who am I to judge?

Where were we? Oh yes. If people want to be titillated, they will turn to something created with the purpose of being titillating. And the range of such media is absolutely mind-boggling because the range of human tastes is so astonishingly wide. You do not have to have visited your local Spank-o-rama video store to know this.

In general, people don't read books/watch films/play games/etc to get off. If one of these happens to be exciting, it's generally because there are engaging characters whose relationships and behaviour is intriguing enough to create tension. This is rare and difficult to achieve as well as being entirely dependent on taste. If you're interested in quite how difficult it can be, I heartily recommend having a look at this year's short-list for the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. These are actually quite rude, so don't read them at work or say I didn't warn you. 

Sadly there is no game equivalent as yet, though I could give them some nominees.

More often than not, especially in media with a weighty visual component, sex is used to sell. In video games, this is more true than most, thanks largely to the misconception that most gamers are teenage boys. This is not the case, nearly half of gamers are women (most of them hidden away online, actually) and the average age of gamers is rising every year. Despite this, much mainstream game advertising is relentlessly (and amusingly) adolescent. 

This is not to say that teenage boys are any more susceptible to sexual imagery than anyone else (although I suspect they might be) but that when trying to appeal to a certain demographic, using eye-catching imagery tends to be effective.

Now I'm afraid this brings us to our old friend Lara. She wasn't the first female video game character, but her astonishing presence and recognisability can be attributed to character design as opposed to anything else. Like so many 90s icons, her post-millenial output has been a bit patchy, but it's hard to forget that back in the day, she got everywhere. Toothbrushes, underwear (both sexes), deoderant, stationary and food, you name it, Ms Croft was winking and sneering all over them. In a nice way. 

And although I don't think anyone would argue that her status wasn't initially down to her breasts (many games are obsessed with breasts, but we'll get to that), I think that the breasts were actually just the most eye-catching aspect of some pretty nifty character design. Far more intriguing was the fact that she wore heavy desert boots and had her hair tied back. And she never really spoke to anyone else, except to threaten them with an alligator if they didn't tell her where the next magical piece of meteor was. 

In other words, she didn't seem to care whether she was sexy, or put any effort into it at all. 

And (in the early games at least) it just wasn't a factor in gameplay. Even if you bought the game because Lara looked a bit titillating (and frankly, it would be cheaper and easier to have watched the newly-launched Channel 5), fifteen hours of exploring a dark clanking tomb would chase those thoughts from your mind. In fact, in-game Lara Croft never really had much in common with the snarling sex-pot from the promotional ads. 

But it was those ads that rose her to the status she reached, and without them, Tomb Raider may not have been such a success and we'd never have got to play the sequels where she rides a motorbike and explores a sunken ship or Area 51 or Aldwich tube station or the Great Wall of China or the Temple of Karnak, and Tomb Raider's remarkable influence on gameplay and level design would have been greatly reduced.

Hundreds of pairs of breasts followed in Lara's wake, picking gingerly over her discarded shotgun shells and the carcasses of endangered species. These breasts, or more accuratley the women they were attached to, generally gave rather less thought to practicality than Lara. Often, these women wore suits of armour which rather bafflingly left 90% of their anatomies exposed to attack from the hellspawn they were likely to encounter. In general, subtlety gave way to silliness.
Perhaps the most conspicuous of these genres was, and still is, the humble beat 'em up, where characters are pitted against one another in one-on-one battles to see who will fall over first. The two-character format and potential for contact in a beat 'em up means that they rather lend themselves to the kind of shenanigans that are only made more entertaining by breasts. 

Several beat 'em ups have added new and exciting twists to the genre. Soul Calibur IV features an "armour" system whereby it is possible to disrobe another character by hitting them enough times and thus "breaking" their armour. This rule applies even if your opponent is wearing a ball gown. Hit her enough times and it shatters, like a sheet of glass, and she is left hopping about in her underwear. Dead or Alive famously featured an unlockable ability to adjust the bounciness of the character's breasts. And let's not forget Rumble Roses, the all-female wrestling game with the mud mode.

Beat 'em ups look rather tame, however, in comparison to the peculiarly Japanese phenomenon of "dating" or "virtual girlfriend" games, also known as "shag 'em ups" (by me). Many of these are fairly baffling in that they are fairly tame, and the time required to get a virtual girlfriend to go out with you could be spent getting an actual girl to go out with you. However, some are less tame, but pornography exists and has always existed in a number of forms, and I can't see why anyone should have any more objection to in-game pornography than the pre-determined stuff.

Except, of course that games are interactive. To some, the accountability which gamers have for the actions that happen on screen is a threat, mainly to the fragile developing minds of children. Personally, I feel just as implicated in voluntarily watching or reading something as I do playing it, as I'm emotionally involved with it. 

I'm just as likely to be disturbed by an exploitative film as a video game. Actually, I've never really been offended by a video game (though perhaps I have felt my intelligence insulted), perhaps because games have to stand up to far more scrutiny and censorship than many movies. The things you find on the bottom shelf at Blockbusters! (Here are some titles: Muffy the Vampire Layer, Pulp Friction, Das Booty and Womb Raider). 

Where was I? Oh yes, our fragile youth. I think I'll save the soap-box rant for another time (a time after I have played Modern Warfare 2, perhaps), but I can't help but notice that the majority of criticism regarding the damaging nature of video game sex 'n violence comes from people who don't play video games.

My favourite example of this is probably Cooper Lawrence, whom Fox News wheeled out upon the release of Sci-fi epic Mass Effect. Mass Effect is a video game which contains a sex scene, which was much publicised (one suspects as much from the distributors as from the ill-informed media). 

Cooper Lawrence is a journalist and broadcaster who puts her M.A. in developmental psychology to good use by being the fame expert on the VH1 'Celebreality' show Confessions of a Teen Idol and the author of Cosmo Girl's Quiz Book: All About Guys. 

Unfortunately, Cooper Lawrence's lengthy education didn't teach her to research her arguments properly, as she went on Fox news accusing Mass Effect of featuring “a man [...] deciding how many women he wants to be with”, and agreeing with host Martha MacCullum when she attacked the game which apparently gave players “the ability […] to engage in graphic sex and [...] decide exactly what's going to happen between the two people”.


I played Mass Effect. It is an incredibly long and in-depth game about humanity's place in the galactic hegemony. A good 40% of the game is spent engaged in conversation, mostly about the political situation in the galaxy and different species' roles within it. 

What sex there is can only be obtained after lengthy discussions with the object of one's affection about their history, their family and their species. 

When you finally engage in the act, all you see is a pre-scripted sequence which you cannot control. It lasts for about ten seconds and you see hear some gasping and see a bit of leg. When the event was over, I was given the option of asking my partner (an alien called Li'ara, since you ask) if she wanted to do it again. She politely turned me down, saying that we should probably return to saving the galaxy. If this is teaching our kids anything (and it shouldn't really be played by kids under 15, the game had a age-appropriate rating), it's that sex is underwhelming and only achieved after hours of negotiation. I'm not sure this is accurate, but it's hardly damaging.

And as for Lawrence's accusation that "it's a man deciding how many women he wants to be with", the game opens by asking you whether you want to be a man or a woman, as well as letting you decide your own race, history and psychological profile. I chose to be a woman, and two characters expressed romantic interest in me. The first was the aforementioned Li'ara, member of an all-female race of aliens who evolve through emotional connection with others regardless of race, species or gender. The other was nice-but-dim Kaiden, a psychic soldier who looked a bit like Ben Affleck. Pragmatically deciding to keep my options open until the last possible moment (Kaiden may have had hidden depths, you never know), I forged relationships with both characters, until the point where they both told me in no uncertain terms to stop playing around and make a choice. Polyamory was not an option. 

There is a slight imbalance in that if you are a male character, your choice is between Li'ara and spunky chick Ashley Williams, which means you don't get the option to be a homosexual man, which is a glaring omission in a game so concerned with inclusion. I can't help but suspect, however, that the hurdles of conservative censorship in this case would have been more trouble than it was worth for American-based publishers EA and Microsoft, which is a shame.

Not that there aren't games which feature male homosexuality. The Sims is an obvious example, in which any character you create can have giggly pixillated sex with any other character you create regardless of age, gender or race provided they have the right star sign. The depiction of the preceeding relationship is necessarily simplified, and you learn very quickly that the route to love is as follows: talk -> do dance -> tell joke -> tickle -> hug -> kiss -> go to bed -> select "play in bed". Polyamory and homosexuality are allowed in The Sims, but for some reason it didn't come under the same scrutiny as Mass Effect. Perhaps because The Sims was (and still is) largely played by teenage girls and the cover featured pastel colours and a couple in wedding clothes, allowing it to be rather more subversive than a game that was more clearly geared towards a male demographic.

Like The Sims, other games that feature optional sexual relationships tend to do so through subversion or parody. The highly entertaining Fable 2 is an open-world game in which you can split your time, should you so desire, between saving the world and raising a family. Not that you have do do this of course, marriage is optional. As is monogamy. 

Fable has wicked sense of humour, and because your appearence changes depending upon whether you are good or evil, or upon how much beer you drink and pies you scoff, people find you more or less attractive accordingly. A man I seduced and married began to find me less attractive once I abandoned my virtuous ways and became more and more corrupt. He finally became so disenchanted with my horns, red eyes and beer gut that he kept saying things like "your looks aren't what they were" in a west country accent before eventually leaving me. Men, eh? Thankfully I had used a condom during all of our encounters, so I didn't have to contribute to child-rearing costs. Unlike the oh-so-serious Mass Effect or the farcically jiggly Dead or Alive, Fable 2 does not try and make sex either arousing or emotionally involving, and so it succeeds in being a very funny parody of sexual conventions across all media.

Although voluntary sexual conquests are not a new phenomanon in games (Leisure Suit Larry has been around for years), more common are the straightforward narratives in which you control a pre-determined character in a pre-determined story in which you have a pre-determined love interest. These games play, in structure at least, play rather more like interactive films. 

The Final Fantasy games almost always feature a romantic subplot between two of the main characters. Final Fantasy games are characterised by lush visuals, beautiful design and epic storylines. The scripts have always been good, and in general the quality of even the English-language voice acting has remained consistently high. As a result, the relationships generally succeed in being affecting. There's not much sex, however. Not because the games are chaste or puritan but because the characters and scripts are strong, so implication is enough.

There's slightly more suggestion in the recent Prince of Persia games, in which the Prince always has a love interest. The first game in the Sands of Time trilogy featured princess Farah as a permanent companion throughout the story. Farah is refreshingly polite and well-brought up in comparison to many other boob-tastic gun-toting video game vixens (although you'd hope so too, she is a princess), and her gently mocking banter with the matinee-idol Prince is more lightly entertaining than the scripts of many romantic comedies. 

As the last people in the Maharajah's kingdom unaffected by the aforementioned Sands of Time, their necessary co-operation is darkened with the possibility that one might betray the other. There is a scene just before the game's climax in which the Prince and Farah consummate their ambiguous relationship. It may have been a dream, but either way the Prince wakes up in a room without his weapons, and Farah is the only possible suspect. Considering Farah is only in this mess in the first place because the Prince's father conquered her kingdom and sold her into slavery, our sympathies are conflicted. It's hardly Romeo and Juliet, but the shifting power balance between the two is interesting and engaging, and I couldn't help but care what happened to them both in the end.

Perhaps the best example of a video game relationship (that I can think of, alternatives welcome) is one that is not only one-sided but entirely chaste. In Half Life, you play the silent and invisible Gordon Freeman from a first-person perspective. As a consequence, the character is completely blank and the game makes no attempt to impose opinions or reactions onto the player. Other characters speak to you and react to your presence, but your responses are all in your head. 

Although Freeman's image appears on the box (pale, bespectacled, dark-haired, beard) and he has a reputation as a renowned scientist, he's just a bloke, make super only by the presence of his raditation-resistant suit. He could (to coin a phrase) be you. Freeman cannot help but attract the attention of Alyx Vance, the sensible yet playful daughter of resistance scientist Dr Eli Vance.

The player isn't forced to like Alyx or watch helplessly as Freeman engages in romantic banter, which makes it all the more engaging when Alyx is embarrassed by her father's jokes about grandchildren. 

It helps that she is both believable and likable character, but the key to her appeal is that she is never thrust upon you. 

So often in video games, you control a character, control their every move and are responsible for their survival. And yet when it comes to their romance, you have no choice but to helplessly watch as the character in which you have invested so much time fawns over some hopeless idiot in a halloween costume. 

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