The real reason sex in games is awful (and its not just the zombie humping)

Sex and video games traditionally blend as well as a petrol-infused crème brulee. They don’t look quite right, cause a hell of an unpleasant mess when things heat up, and leave a really weird smell that won’t go away for days.

But why? After all, we’re firmly ensconced within the warm, nourishing age of Games As Mature Narrative Medium now, right? All that flagrant dismembering, exploding, planet-smashing, and laser-chainsaw-robo-shotgun-decapitation is now part of a Serious Narrative Purpose. Ivy Valentine’s paralysing boobs are no different to the Mona Lisa’s smile. Those are two boner fide cultural icons you’re looking at there, you furious, red-faced art aficionado.

So why do we still shudder at the mention of explicit sexual content in an upcoming game? Why, when we’re happy removing a computer-man’s kneecap from his leg with a tyre-iron, does sex fire off alarm bells? Why, when we’re perfectly comfortable with hour upon hour of pyrotechnic vivisection, do we still worry when Horace goes humping?

It’s because however nuanced and genre-savvy games have become about the layered, existential art of pasting men over walls with wildly creative ordnance, when it comes to the most basic, human act--the one which brought us all to be here, game developers and writers still seem, like most people, a bit clueless and more than slightly awkwardly.

The truth is, however mature, intelligent and artistically pioneering some games are with their treatment of the medium, many of them, particularly in the mainstream, AAA area, are not as grown-up as they think they are. In fact they have the equivalent maturity of the hard-faced kids, pseudo-badass kids at school. You know, the ones whose Friday evening festivities consisted of knocking off half a cup of their dad’s cheap whiskey and a few low-grade cigarettes, and settling in for a big night of being a Real Man in the park. In the rain. Before going home vomiting by 10:30. They’re still at the stage of development where they seem to think that ‘adult’ content adds maturity by nature of its mere inclusion, when in reality, like any kind of content at all, it’s not about the subject, but all about the treatment. The problem is that a lot of games now include sex, but very few actually use it.

By that, I’m talking about the way that film uses sexual content. Well, good film anyway. Watch anything by directors like David Lynch and Cronenberg, and you’ll find that when sexy times appear, they’re never for simple titillation. Quite the opposite, sometimes. Over the course of film’s long, storied journey from audio-visual novelty to layered storytelling device, it has worked out how to treat the full gamut of human behaviour with insight and narrative purpose. In a smart film, sex tends to be used to convey important points of plot and character development. Well-choreographed, thoughtfully planned on-screen sexual behaviour--and I’m not just talking about the full-on, explicit act itself--can say more in a single, wordless scene than a full page of dialogue can, and more effectively with it. We’re talking about human behaviour at its most raw and expressive here, and used right, it’s an incredibly powerful storytelling tool.

Games though, at their best, still largely operate with the narrative sophistication of crap films. Or rather, films that don’t care about any of that stuff because, to them, characterisation is just texture. It’s there to facilitate the things that they’re really concerned with, but it isn’t the main draw. In those films, whether it’s an action movie, a horror film, a twisty thriller, or whatever else, there’s a genre hook and set of tropes that act as the core focus of the piece. The people are often just there to have someone for those tropes to happen to.

That’s where games are now. Why? There are a few reasons. First up, the art of games writing certainly hasn’t been honed as well or as long as film writing has, and not enough experimentation has happened to give developers the kind of confidence needed to do this stuff. Plus, we’re still sort of dealing with the stigma of games as a kids’ plaything, and that’s bound to make people antsy. You need to really commit to this kind of content to make it work. Being reserved won’t do it. Also, even the best motion capture performances still sometimes have trouble making a basic conversation between humans convincing, so the kind of detailed nuance needed to make sex work is still a way off.

But beyond that, there’s the bigger problem of those genre tropes I was talking about. Because games have this thing called gameplay. If characterisation in an action or horror movie is only there to service the exploding and killing, then in games it exists only to support the shooting and the driving and the punching. As important as story is becoming, games are still ultimately concerned--by their very nature--with something else. And a large proportion of them always will be. While some games and genres are evolving into true interactive character drama, a great deal of them will always be Predator. Metaphorically. Though seriously, why haven’t we got any decent Predator games coming up? It’s been ages. But I digress.

The point is that a large part of the reason that game-sex hasn’t become any better than action-movie sex is because it doesn’t need to. So couldn’t we avoid this whole problem by just skipping it entirely? Well no, not really. Because at the same time, as games increasingly sell themselves as adult stories alongside their value as playthings, rightly or wrongly, there’s an implicit, subconscious sense that without adult relationship content, game stories are missing something vital. An inherent part of human nature is just missing from their characters.

But when it does appear, it’s either just ‘there’, devoid of function, or is absolutely bloody horrific in its depiction. The former instance is particularly problematic in a medium increasingly touting itself as having the smartest storytelling toolbox of all. The latter instances are a firestorm of dodgy, corpselike ‘romance’ and nightmarishly caricatured anatomical sexism.

The bottom line though, is that this stuff does need to improve. Because when even a film as crap as 1994 Stallone action-thriller The Specialist can use its one, awkward, bathroom-floor humping scene to convey an important change in a relationship better and more convincingly than a supposed bastion of gaming maturity like Heavy Rain, then we’ve got a big problem. I’m not pushing for games to become a great big polygonal orgy. Far from it. But if we’re going to keep turning up at E3 and proclaiming our works to be mature, meaningful dramas, then we can’t conveniently avoid sex forever. And when we do use it, we have to really use it, not just depict it. And if we could depict it in some way that doesn’t go all porn of the dead, then all the better.

Oh, and Ivy’s boobs. We’ve got to get that shit sorted out yesterday. Seriously.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.

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