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.
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.
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.