Are Games Ready for Sex?
A safe for work talk about sex in video games
The video game industry has explored many topics over the years, with some developers truly turning the medium into a new form of artistic expression. But, like any art form, some topics are taboo — and sex often rises to the top of what seems like an ever-shrinking list (especially for Western audiences, where there seem to be fewer no-go areas than ever before).
Of course, there’s a great deal of nuance here. As a topic, sex is incredibly broad. Discussions range from the way characters are portrayed (or objectified) through to the question of how sex should be depicted on-screen (and where to draw the line).
Nevertheless — and despite still being a younger medium than books and film — video games are becoming more mainstream and the industry itself is growing up (sometimes painfully, and sometimes perhaps a little too slowly). Given where the industry is now, I thought it’d be a good time to examine the current state of sex in video games.
Sex on a spectrum
There already exists an incredibly wide variation in terms of the way sex is depicted in video games. There are games that utilise sex as a vehicle to add texture to in-game narratives, and then there are games where sex is the object of the experience. In the former case, we’re talking about games that might feature various romance options for the player character, or which visually depict sex acts in a way that contributes to the narrative. BioWare is a great example of a developer who attempts to deal with sex in this way; they have been praised not only for incorporating same-sex relationships, but also for depicting sex in a way that is not merely pornographic in nature. In other words, the use of sex in this context isn’t about titillation or being risqué; it’s simply part of the story. There are also numerous visual novel-based games and indie titles that explore sex and sexuality without leaning on obvious objectification.
In the latter case, we’re talking about experiences that are about sex first, with gameplay perhaps being something of an afterthought. There are many indie titles, for example, that are perhaps more accurately considered to be pornography with video game elements. Interestingly, some of these titles are deliberately mis-titled or incorrectly labelled such that they avoid censorship on platforms like Steam. Some examples are quite extreme, and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to provide details here — suffice it to say that these examples do exist; they’re out there.
This latter case — pornography with gameplay elements — may actually have the effect of causing a serious discussion about sex in games to break down. This is largely because in many cases, even the gameplay elements included are utterly trivial, and simply provide a vehicle for some form of voyeurism. It’s worth noting at this point that there is a middle-ground of sorts; games that skirt the territory in between these two extremes (Leisure Suit Larry might be an appropriate example of a “middle ground” here).
The dichotomy I’ve considered above does raise an interesting question, I think: are there games which provide, for lack of a better word, “high fidelity” depictions of sex while also being truly engaging from a gameplay point of view?
Making a sex game
The answer to that question may be coming sooner rather than later. Recently, a game called Subverse smashed through its initial funding goal on Kickstarter — to the point where it snared every single stretch goal, too. Subverse is being developed by a company that has specialised in producing highly graphic pornographic films utilising the Unreal Engine. As a studio that has already demonstrated experience around depicting sex, the team now want to try their hand at pairing sex with gameplay.
So, what exactly is Subverse? Essentially it’s a shoot ’em up combined with a kind of turn-based strategy — the goal, ultimately, is to unlock the ability to have sex with various characters. As you play through the campaign and improve your relationship with these characters, you’re able to unlock special moves (and even voyeur modes) for each one.
It’s clear from the Kickstarter page that the developers aren’t interested in a measured or restrained approach to sex (of the BioWare variety); they’re clearly aiming to lean into far more hardcore content that they can successfully pair with gameplay concepts and systems. Given the support this game has received on Kickstarter so far, there’s a clear market for this approach. Sex sells, as they say.
With all of that said, I am still left with questions that I’m curious about but can’t answer.
Porn or product?
Earlier I talked about sex in games on a spectrum, along with the general rule of thumb that the more numerous the depictions of sex (and the more explicit), the less gameplay we’re likely to see (both in terms of quantity and quality).
This leaves me wondering about the unique angle that Subverse is driving at. To put it bluntly, I wonder if there is a market for gamers who actually want to “work” for porn? To dig into that just a little further: people who aren’t interested in the sexual element are unlikely to be interested in Subverse. But will the audience who are specifically attracted to the sexual element actually be bothered working their way through the gameplay to achieve the porn payoff at the end? Given the abundance of free and easily accessible pornography out there, one wonders if people won’t simply go for the easier method.
In terms of gameplay specifically, I do have reservations about Subverse’s approach. Tactical turn-based strategy is a tricky genre to tackle, especially for a brand new developer. It seems to me that the gameplay must be engaging on its own terms in order for Subverse’s unique pitch to actually resonate with audiences. And it certainly remains to be seen if this will be the case.
As with all artistic medium, it takes polarising content to generate discussion and ultimately to push the medium forward. For now, it raises a valid question: is it possible to create an “elevated” take on sex games, and if so, what could this look like?
I’m not sure that Subverse is going to answer that question comprehensively, but it might open the door for others developers who might.