What do you do when your body is telling you to have sex — but you'll die if you do? It's probably not a relationship problem that many people have dealt with, but it's the central conundrum in the game Don't Make Love.
In Don't Make Love, available now for PC on Steam and itch.io, you play as one of a pair of praying mantises. You discuss your relationship, wondering if you should follow your instincts to make love, even though you're not sure if you'll both make it out alive.
There are so many questions to ask: if we trust each other, is that enough? Can we override our natural, animalistic instincts somehow? Is it worth dying for one night of intimacy, together? Is sex an unmissable part of a relationship?
The game is based on weird real-life nature facts: Around 25% of sexual encounters between two praying mantises end in the death of the male, after he is killed and eaten by the female.
It's a simple way of providing for his future offspring, albeit with the protein from his meat rather than his parenting skills, and studies show that a female who devours her partner produces more eggs afterwards. Still, 25% is a pretty high risk if you're a conscientious mantis who doesn't want to kill or be killed.
At the beginning of Don't Make Love, the player is offered the choice between playing as the male or female - prey or predator; dominant or submissive. Yet the expected dynamics are subverted once you dive into the game: rather than choosing dialogue options, you are invited to type in whatever you like into the text box.
Most of the time, this can be simple - "yes," "no," or just "go on," the latter of which invites your on-screen partner to talk out their feelings and worries. But occasionally there are moments when you can do more.
"I don't want to hurt you," I type, playing as the female character. "I hope so," he replies, looking at me intensely. The player can choose to caress him, to hug him, to kiss him, to choose one of four emotions, or to carry on talking. You might choose to reassure, to seduce, to say what needs to be said without words.
Each one will elicit a different response. "I don't want to make you sad." "I like it when you smile." "I like it when we hold each other like this."
It's surprising how natural this feels. One person (or mantis) is dominating the conversation, but the player is able to influence the direction, and even the conclusion, through empathetic responses, and their own thoughts.
How do you actually feel about the situation? Is sex so important to intimacy that it's worth risking death? Is it healthy to ignore what the body wants?
Playing through the story as both characters in turn gives extra insight into their thought processes. "The highest expression of love is death," says the male, sadly. "If we decide to make love, you could think of my death as the greatest gift I could offer you."
"Some of my friends laugh at us," says the female. "I don't want to force you in any way, but I want to move on, talk about the possibilities we have. Do you think we were made this way? Or is there a chance to change it?"
There is, of course, no answer. Playing through Don't Make Love reminds me of a similar conversation I had many times with an ex-boyfriend of mine. He was Christian, and wanted to wait until marriage, and I was surprised by how this affected me. Surely I didn't think that sex was a vital part of a relationship? Surely I was happy enough with companionship and love?
But, as it turned out, there's more to it than that. Although it was a good and respectful relationship, the lack of physical intimacy, as well as the tension about physical intimacy, took its toll.
There was guilt (should we even be doing this), fear (what if we can't stop ourselves) and sadness (why does it matter so much)? I was challenging his beliefs, he was challenging mine. In the end, that incompatibility is what broke us up.
There are multiple endings for Don't Make Love, yet none of them feel truly satisfactory. There is always a sacrifice, and though it's one that you've decided together, none of them ever feel quite right.
Sex is never really just a yes-or-no question - we all have baggage, and we all have worries. The best we can do is to talk it through.