This week we're talking about sex in video games. A couple of days ago Kotaku ran an interesting story on how sex is presented as a goal in gaming, and we wondered how things might be done differently...
To help us out, we've brought in Lucy O' Brien, editor of PSM3, who spent at least five hours trying to get laid in Mass Effect.
MARK: So Lucy, you read Kotaku’s feature on sex as a video game goal, what did you think? It got me thinking on a number of levels, the first one being that I distinctly remember, as a guy in my late teens, that I actually did see sex as an end goal, in much the same way as video games do now. Sex to me was an achievement to be ‘unlocked’!
But looking back, that world view was undoubtedly a result of my own immaturity (and stupidity), and I wonder if the way sex is presented in games is indicative of gaming’s immaturity as a medium?
LUCY: Right. Well, off the bat I have to admit that I spent a lot of time trying to get laid in the original Mass Effect. A lot of time. In fact, right before I knew I was going to lose my pixilated virginity, I saved my game so I could replay the scene to my housemates and enjoy a nice hearty laugh at its awkwardness (or secretly, its eroticism?) So, I’m as guilty as the next gamer in my pursuit for the juvenile ‘end goal'. Can we just use the word climax, Mark? You know it was inevitable.
But I think our pursuit for this climax is inevitable considering gaming as a medium has traditionally been about risk and reward. If we want an item in a videogame, let’s say, a magical, um, flute, we’re tasked with a series of challenges to get it. When we complete these challenges, we get the flute, and we move onto the next challenge. It’s unsurprising that sex is treated in the same way – we jump through some hoops and get rewarded with five seconds of brief titillation. We enjoy the trophy or achievement and our new blue alien girlfriend and move onto the next thing. We have a goldfish-memory as gamers because of the way games are constantly urging us forward. I don’t see how videogame sex is any different from a power pellet in Pac Man.
MARK: I loved it when David Cage famously said that Uncharted was the equivalent of a porn movie: you watch for a bit... then action. Watch for a bit... then action. It’s an interesting point - the very nature of game mechanics really influence the way things are portrayed in games.
Gaming by its nature is goal driven, they’re compelling as a result of how they reward you and what you have do in order to gain that reward. But isn’t there a way in which we can evolve that? Can’t the end result just be something else entirely? The word 'climax' is an interesting one – it’s used to define a high point, but also to suggest the end of something. Is it the case that sex basically is the end game for us as human beings? Isn’t sex, as represented in games, just a primitive version of what goes on in real life?
LUCY: I think that’s a fitting observation from David Cage, the man who gave us the tasteful quicktime striptease.
There is a way games can evolve from the quick thrill of a brief encounter as reward, and I agree with Kotaku’s argument that videogames aren’t doing a particularly good job of portraying the nuance of real human relationships. But I don’t think the answer is to force the player into a long, ‘realistic’ relationship with an NPC. Let’s be honest, much of a real life relationship doesn’t translate in the medium. I found dragging the Bowerstone bartender from date to date in Fable 3 tedious. I didn’t care for the mundane domesticity Heavy Rain wanted us to be so invested in. To me, the Persona 4 ‘friendships’ felt depressingly insistent.
I think Uncharted got it right. Muddling porno comparisons aside, the relationship between Elena and Drake in Uncharted was told cleverly, in the peripherals. Their friendly banter never felt forced, nor were you forced to have any investment in its outcome. Their relationship wasn’t a reward for a skill-based challenge, and consequently I felt genuine warmth towards the pair. That’s a far greater achievement than pressing a few buttons to trigger broadly emotive cut-scenes building towards a climactic - and ultimately anticlimactic - goal.
And sure, sex is perhaps our end game, and will always play a part in all forms of popular entertainment. But I think developers must get smarter in the way they tell their stories. Only then will erotic encounters be gradually fleshed-out (sorry) into something more meaningful.
As an aside, I personally had no problems with Mass Effect’s ‘quickie’. Mass Effect was a space opera, and its narrative arcs were in keeping with its genre. Hell, they were facing the end of the world, wouldn’t you want to get in some quick stress-relief before your final mission?
MARK: You’re right, the Elena/Drake relationship is subtle and well told, as is the unspoken Martson/Bonnie/Marston’s Missus love triangle. But it’s told outside of the mechanics – isn’t there a way we can create a game based on relationships and have it not be Love Plus?
How about an Indie game that focuses on running the gamut of the first date using the mechanics from the upcoming LA Noire - a game that forces you to read subtle interaction cues and respond accordingly.
Isn’t there a way we can make this sort of thing fun, by utilising the tiny unspoken rewards that come from being in a relationship: a smile, or someone pinching your arse cheekily. How about the subtle punishments? The silent treatment, the ‘friend zone’ rebuttal.
There are so many way we can reward gamers in terms of relationships – I think there are definitely game mechanics that can evolve from those dynamics.
LUCY: But do gamers want a game in which the pursuit of love and sex is the main objective? If gaming is all about escapism, do we want to subject ourselves to ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ in a virtual world? I’m also inclined to think sex-as-reward is the status quo due to consumer indifference. But if gaming is to move forward as a medium at all, we need to be asking these questions and pushing these boundaries. I think Quantic Dream and Rockstar are laying down a gauntlet of sorts by presenting us with big-budget titles focused principally around social interaction. The industry is taking baby steps towards narrative nuance, something that’s eluded it for a depressingly long time. And ultimately, I think these broader narrative conventions need to evolve quite significantly before love and sex can be approached with any degree of real maturity.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t be interested in playing your arse-pinching game, Mark.
MARK: [blushes]Achievement unlocked!