The Problem With Sex As A Video Game Goal

As you thumb through dialogue trees in Mass Effect, trying to find the best lines to seduce slinky space-warrior Ashley, you're engaging in what the developers hope is an advanced form of simulated human interaction.

Throughout the game, Ashley slowly warms to your own personal Commander Shepard, even reeling off some flirtatious lines of her own.

If you've pressed ‘A' effectively enough your efforts are rewarded with a short sex scene.

And then, nothing.

Spoiler warning: This article mentions a late-game plot event in Red Dead Redemption.

The end goal of these love side-quests is often just sex - as if that's the zenith of any proper human courtship.

As the technology behind video games advances, ambitious developers have begun to toy with the idea of creating realistic romantic relationships. But the end goal of these love side-quests is often just sex - as if that's the zenith of any proper human courtship. A romantic tryst between two people features hundreds of intimate moments, of which sex is only one. Video games allow for a substantial link between the player and the character they control. Seeing that character share subtle romantic connections can be immensely fulfilling, while the attainment of intercourse usually feels like nothing more than a successfully completed mission.

Sex is undoubtedly an important facet of any romantic partnership. At a base level, it's the activity that furthers the race, one we're evolutionarily programmed to seek out and enjoy. Featuring sex in video game relationships is definitely worthwhile and prudishness should not stand in the way of an engaging narrative. Abolishing sex from mainstream story-driven games would be a disaster, forcing it to retreat into the next Leisure Suit Larry cacophony. Having sex appear as a product of romantic engagement has been an important step forward, but the industry shows signs of stagnating; wallowing in its own maturity.

Sex is an alluring experience from a game development standpoint. It's a tangible target, a moment of accomplishment that clearly indicates to the player that they've been successful. Bioware's Dragon Age goes so far as to award Achievements each time you successfully enact coitus with a new member of your party. Games need goals and, if you're in the business of portraying romance, making sex your bullseye is an easy option.

Escaping this trap won't be easy, it may even require abandoning a goal-centric model for in-game relationships. Moments of intimacy are typically not forced, they flow naturally from the interactions between people. Often, the most striking and meaningful moments in real-life relationships occur when nothing much is going on. Video games don't like downtime. There's a constant need to make every action serve a purpose. Moving away from the inexorable charge towards sex will take either a developer brave enough to discard functionalism for moments of simple storytelling or exceptional writing and design that seamlessly blend the two together.

In Persona 4... a great emotional intensity is expressed through little more than a declaration of affection and some light snuggling on a bedroom couch.

A well-rounded portrayal of an adult romantic relationship is likely to include sex, but there are examples of games eschewing on-screen copulation without betraying their depiction of love. Persona 4 - by Atlus - is a lengthy game, one that dedicates a large portion of its playtime to budding romances between the player-character and his rag-tag band of acquaintances. In the climax to one of these narrative threads, a great emotional intensity is expressed through little more than a declaration of affection and some light snuggling on a bedroom couch. Out of context it's not nearly as bombastic as sex, but it tugs at the heartstrings far more effectively than a 30-second montage of grinding and moaning.

Persona 4 is also an excellent example of how to connect narrative relationship advancement and productive game mechanics. When you choose to spend time with one of your friends there's very little in the way of gameplay, but each time you sit through one of these vignettes, you're rewarded with an increase in your Social Link, which boosts the power of your created monsters.

As its characters are high school teenagers, Persona avoids sex in its relationships out of a well-intentioned reticence. Rockstar, on the other hand, could never be accused of shying away from the gratuitous. From Grand Theft Auto to Bully, they have shown a willingness to indulge in the unseemly as well as a dedication to strong stories. In Red Dead Redemption they have perhaps their best excuse yet to fill our TV screens with high-definition thrusting.

After repeatedly spurning the advances of lascivious ladies on the grounds of marital faithfulness, John Marston returns home to the arms of his feisty wife Abigail. Marston has spent so much time aching to be reunited with his belle that just seeing them together is a rewarding moment. The couple's good-natured jibes and snatched cuddles are depictions of a romantic relationship fully formed, the kind rarely seen in games. You wouldn't begrudge the writers a sex scene or two at this stage, but it's difficult to see what the player would gain, beyond mild titillation. As it is, their subtle interactions form a heartwarming payoff to hours of gameplay.

If games want to compete with other narrative media, they need to do a better job of creating immersive human relationships. The inclusion of sex in these couplings is an important step towards maturity and realism, but it's also a barrier beyond which the industry has struggled to progress. A select group of games have broken the mould, showing us that sex is not a necessary feature of rewarding in-game romance, just one entry in the rich encyclopedia of intimate personal behaviour.

Joseph Ewens is a freelance video game, film and poker journalist from London. You can keep track of his various writings at his blog Joyous Film Review or hurl abuse at him on Twitter @JoeOE18.

[Dragon Age achievements pic]


Comments

    Great article. +10

    I always thought it was laughable that the sex scenes in Mass Effect were referred to as "Romance subplots"

    To be honest, I only clicked on the article because it had "sex" in the title.

    Now I'm glad I did because I totally agree with it.

    The problem is, video games cannot effectively convey the feeling of love correctly; it's an emotion very difficult to convey in a medium plagued by factors such as the uncanny valley and a severe shortage of time (gameplay-wise).

    The issue seems to be that game-devs are attempting to make relationships exciting in the complete wrong way.

    Hopefully a more mature type of game will spawn from these arguments.

    should those single line paragraphs be bolded as titles or something?

    Cause at the moment you've got
    "The end goal of these love side-quests is often just sex – as if that’s the zenith of any proper human courtship.."

    Then 3 lines down

    "But the end goal of these love side-quests is often just sex – as if that’s the zenith of any proper human courtship."

    And again you've got
    "In Persona 4… a great emotional intensity is expressed through little more than a declaration of affection and some light snuggling on a bedroom couch."

    Then a couple of lines down

    "In the climax to one of these narrative threads, a great emotional intensity is expressed through little more than a declaration of affection and some light snuggling on a bedroom couch. "

    It's kinda weird.

    I thought Mass Effect was doing ok because of the ongoing thing with each game. So stuff was still happening after the sex scene.

    Hey wait just a minute!

    I fell completely in love with a video game character. Is everyone forgetting the companion Cube?!

    Did an educational video on every possible sex scene in Mass Effect to show it's not "Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas" (gee, thanks FOX).

    VIDEO: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1691196277554&oid=110767468939052

    Welcome to come see the rest of the site and catch up on Aussie R18 news at the FB group.

    R18 Games Australia
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    Sex is not the 'Zenith' of a proper human courtship, but it is often used as a device to show that the relationship has progressed to the stage where both characters feel dedicated enough to each other. Movies have been doing this for YEARS, I don't see why it's such a problem for video games to do it as well

      Love is just a biochemical reaction to ensure the passage of your genes. So yes, sex actually is the zenith of any proper human courtship.

        Incorrect. It's a popular argument among people who like to seem to cool for the whole love thing but, I think, fundamentally misses the point. Perhaps it's a matter of definition but I would describe "Lust" as a motivator for sex. Love is much more complex.

        Love is more to do with the nurturing and protection of those you consider close to you. Again this relates to propagation, but sex is not its zenith.

          Agreed. Love isn't a feeling, it's an amalgamation of them. It features some of our good friends: lust, happiness, emotional comfort and trust. Lust is the reason you want to get intimate. Love is the reason you want to get intimate with a particular someone and then spend time with. Love is not simply a lead up to hanky-panky.

    The real challenge with trying to portray romance in a game is that the player has to feel something for the romantic target. Its fine if the character likes her but if the player is sitting there saying "I'm supposed to be in love with this woman? But she's an annoying bitch!" then the entire exchange ceases to be fun and becomes a chore.

    Since game development is finite, it'd be impossible to make a romantic target with AI sophisticated enough to adapt to the players likes so they'd always be stuck with making them appealing to the character and hoping the player gets pulled into the relationship without feeling like they've selected "Fall in love? Y/N" at some point

    What would be cool is if the romance choice you made in ME2 carries on as a proper relationship in ME3. As opposed to what amounted to a one night stand in ME1.

      I'd like to see the romance from ME1 see a possible continuation, too. Hopefully the developers reward your loyalty to a single partner in the third ME3 as well as acxknowledging new ME2 relationships.

      There was a pretty touching romance scene with Liara in the Mass Effect 2 DLC 'Lair of the Shadow Broker' if the player had romanced her in the first game. It was probably the most 'romantic' conversation in the game so far, and part of what made that DLC so great. If that's the standard for romances in ME3, it's going to be outstanding.

      I still have some objections to the absence of certain options in romances (for obvious reasons), but on the whole I think the industry is integrating them more into a thoughtful storyline rather than a tacky sex scene add-on.

    Absolutely ridiculous article.

    Who boinked Ashley? I gunned straight for the blue chick. :-D

    I suppose the logic is that games often show the highlights of a simulated life, and while an adult relationship is wonderful and fullfilling, sex is one of the major highlights of such a relationship. I suppose the equivalent would be a level in Call of Duty, you don't see the gearing up, the briefing, heading to the helicopter, the long anxious flight, you skip straight to the rappel onto the deck of the hijacked tanker.

    As an alternative to the examples above Fable games put you through the whole ringer of a relationship to get some loving. Then divorcing your in game partner will cost you you're house! At least you get to keep the dog.

    The reason why television is supposedly 'more engaging' isn't because their writers are more talented, or because games haven't matured. It comes down to money and the inherent differences in their distribution.

    Television shows thrive on sexual tension. The 'will they or won't they' that brings viewers in season after scene, from Jim/Pam, Ross/Rachel and Mulder/Scully. The writers know this better than anyone and work hard to throw in plot developments/love interests and triangles to delay the inevitable wedding. Glee's Will and Emma kinda shacked up in the very first season, completely diffusing the sexual tension, before the writers realised their mistake and introduced contrived subplots to split them again!

    This keeps ratings up, keeps the show relevant, spawns countless creepy fanfics, and more importantly, keeps money flowing their way.

    Games especially RPGs, are usually released as single installment. Once it's released, there's very little financial incentive to blue ball players with an unfulfilled romance until the sequel. So they might as well get the 'romance' part over and done with.

    My main problem with videogame romance is that, like many other story-telling forms, relies on this unwritten law that the protagonist is 'special.' That women want him, and men want to be him. He's a macho man that kicks ass, saves the universe and gets some booty on the way.

    Even Mass Effect is guilty of this, where your character is irresistable to every character CAPABLE of being sexually attracted to whatever gender you chose. I understand how Shepard instills a hero complex, but with character creation tools, you can potentially make Shepard the ugliest mofo in the galaxy and STILL bed every female/gay male in the galaxy. Yes, there's attraction beyond physical beauty, but it's just not realistic in the slightest.

      "Even Mass Effect is guilty of this, where your character is irresistable to every character CAPABLE of being sexually attracted to whatever gender you chose. I understand how Shepard instills a hero complex, but with character creation tools, you can potentially make Shepard the ugliest mofo in the galaxy and STILL bed every female/gay male in the galaxy."

      I'm a bit late, but this isn't really true. There are very clear boundaries to relationships in video games and what developers are willing to allow for. Per your example above, male Shepard has 4 female potential romance options and Liara (no males), female Shepard has 4 males and Liara (no human females). I agree that it's ridiculous that people magically fall over themselves to jump on Shepard, but there are definitely limits to the options available.

        Well, I meant it more as a generic 'Bioware' rule where if your character's sex is potentially attractive to another, then it's an instant lock. In say, Dragon Age, if you were a male, you could potentially bed any of the female characters, including the bisexual Leliana as well as the gay male elf Zhevran.

        It's almost a "Hey, you have a set of genitals I like. Good enough!"

          I get it now - yeah, that's true.

    Perhaps the writer should partake in a romance with Liara T'Soni. Her actions in the first game, and more importantly, the second (Mass Effect) show a fully formed relationship. This is further strengthened by the excellent Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC.

    Whilst Persona 4 is one of my favorite games, to say that it shows a relationship model that's less goal oriented is laughable.

    Sure, theres no actual sex in the game, but the "special final moment" with the girls you can date can be easily thought of such with a little imagination.

    And putting that aside, once you achieve your maximimum social link level... theres nothing. You're free to ignore the girl (there arent many events left for her anyways) and pursue the next girl with no repercussions.

    P4 is fatally flawed in that the game requires you to be able to max out every social link. And by having several social links be dateable girls...

    Some of the dating sims that P4 is based at least model an ongoing relationship with more drama, pitfalls, and detail. And sex ;)

    No mention of Jackie's birthday at Jenny's place, in The Darkness? Damned if I didn't watched half the movie with them..
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InYpnU-dt-k

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