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‘Treating people with respect isn’t a buzzkill’: how big studios should handle sex and consent in games

In their Spinoff debut, Tof Eklund examines the way sex and consent are treated in video games, and highlights a few things big studios could learn from indie developers. 

I’m not a wowzer, I swear. As an American ex-pat, you might even expect me to hold a “First Amendment” view of government censorship. The US has reaped the bounty of Constitutional protection for hate speech and legislative bans on sex education, there can be no doubt of that. Still, I have to say: when the OFLC banned Gal*Gun: Double Peace, it was no loss. There are games out there that deal with sex, consent, relationships, and consequences is meaningful, not-creepy ways, but Gal*Gun is not one of them.

There’s no nudity in Gal*Gun, and no sex scenes as such. Instead, it’s a game that’s all about sexual titillation that passes off sexual assault as a joke. The plot is some kind of BS about an angel helping a young man find true love, but the game is a first-person shooter where you pick off anime schoolgirls with a “pheromone gun,” causing them to confess their love to you, moan, and collapse. It’s not enough that this is Orgazmo: the game, they also have to fall in love with their assailant.

Sadly, this isn’t new. Sex in games has long been sublimated into violence, from the naked women in alien pods that you couldn’t rescue but could blow up in Duke Nukem 3D to Bayonetta using pole-dancing moves to shoot sexy angels in the head with her gun-shoes. Impossible physical proportions, “jiggle physics,” and chainmail bikinis are more common and more acceptable than a simple bedroom scene or a bare nipple. If I see one more dungeon crawler with succubi that flash their pastie-armored tits and cry out orgasmically as they die, I’m going to plotz.

Thank the gods of gaming, whatever they are, for the indie scene. Women and queers (and queer women aye) are making games that everyone can learn a thing or two from. Recent titles by Christine Love, Sugarscript, and Kinmoku take issues of consent, relationships, and the consequences of intimacy seriously, and they’re more interesting and, when they want to be, sexier for it. Funny how treating other people with respect isn’t a buzzkill.

Kinmoku’s One Night Stand has precisely one thing in common with Gal*Gun: there’s no sex in it. A short, intimate game about waking up in a stranger’s bed with a brutal hangover and no recollection of the night before, it’s all about the aftermath of a one night stand. Poignant and surprising, One Night Stand doesn’t condemn barhopping or hookups, but neither does it offer the player any sense of sexual satisfaction or “conquest”. Instead, the player is invited into the disorientation, discomfort, and, above all, awkwardness of the situation.

That awkwardness is actually a really compelling motivation, as the player has the chance to learn more about their bedmate and see her as a complete human being, or to be a real jerk – and get called on it. Either way, the woman is her own person, and nothing you can do will either make her fall madly in love with you or be completely chill about casual sex.

While One Night Stand is a subtle take on the consequences of casual sex, Cute Demon Crashers is a light-hearted validation of female sexuality. The game’s protagonist, Claire, isn’t naive, but she is hung up on her own virginity. Her angst draws the attention of some friendly sex demons, who then get stuck in her house for a day waiting for their dimensional portal to re-open. They’re really quite harmless, with nary a contract signed in blood to be seen: the game’s definition of “demon” appears to be “supernatural sex therapist.” Claire has all day to get to know them and decide if she wants to have her first time with one of them that night. There’s the strong, gentle one, the cultured BDSM incubus, the eager young one who hasn’t had his first time yet, and a cute succubus who couldn’t care less what it “means” if Claire chooses her.

The sex, when it happens, if it happens, is explicit but not dramatic. The BDSM option is intentionally featherweight, blindfolds and chocolate, and the others follow suit, offering comfortable, pleasant trysts, nothing complicated or mind-blowing. Heaven help the poor soul whose first time is their best! The most interesting and original element of the game is that you can end intimate scenes at any point. Not skip, end: Clarie lets her partner know that that’s all she’s comfortable with for now, and her partner assures her that that’s okay without making a big deal out of it, just like any decent human being would. When has Hollywood ever done that? The closest thing I can think of is when Scott Pilgrim respects Ramona Flowers’ boundaries in Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and critics blasted Ramona as “unlikeable” and “manipulative” for that. Hello virgin-whore dichotomy, bane of womankind!

Ladykiller in a Bind is a much larger and more ambitious project than either One Night Stand or Cute Demon Crashers. Christine Love has been creating queer, character-driven games about sex, relationships, trust, gender roles and power differential games for years, and her latest work is specifically and sometimes explicitly about queer kink. Popular conceptions of BDSM were completely screwed up even before Fifty Shades of Grey: remember “the gimp” from Pulp Fiction? Damn you, Quentin Tarantino.

Well, Love has come to town with a much needed corrective. The hero of Ladykiller in a Bind is “The Beast,” a butch lesbian who has been maneuvered by her scheming brother “The Prince” into taking his place on a senior cruise. A pawn in a multifaceted game of deception and manipulation, The Beast finds respite in the honest communication and trust that (real) BDSM relationships require. Social games seep into everything else in the story, including vanilla flirtations, dating, and sex, but informed and discussed D/s play creates a magic circle that power struggles cannot enter, and trust radiates from that safe space. It’s surprisingly wholesome.

Big-budget “AAA” games have made some progress toward plausible representation of sex, consent, and relationships in recent years. For that, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Anita Sarkeesian for persisting in the face of the frothing misogynist rage of “Gamergate” (not to be confused with GamersGate, a long-standing Swedish online game store that I thought would have rebranded by now, I means geez, it’s like running a bicycle shop and newsstand named “Bikemart News” or being the bald owner of a yarn store named “The Angora Brotherhood”). When The Witcher came out in 2007, it was full of women Geralt of Riva could have boring one-night stands with, without strings or characterization, and the player was rewarded with a nudie card for each one. In 2015, The Witcher 3 had risen to the level of soap opera romance, as Gerald gets a convenient bout of amnesia and is nursed back to health by a new love interest, and then has to choose between her and his old flame when she shows up and his memory returns.

Then Mass Effect: Andromeda hit stores in March, and the game a Bioware manager tweeted was “totally softcore space porn” was a clear improvement of the puritanic lewdness of Mass Effect 3, whose tame sex scenes took place fully clothed, but whose female characters’ costumes were painted on and regularly featured in butt close-ups. In Andromeda, the characters shipknits and space armor are reasonable, and the sex scenes are fully nude and very nearly softcore. Uh, that would be except for the one gay romance option, where they kiss and then the screen fades to black, presumably because Mass Effect’s animators are deeply insecure about their sexuality and really just need a hug.

I suppose you could say that games have (ahem) come a long way, even if NieR: Automata does allow players to look up it’s hero’s skirt and see her panties… and give the player an achievement for doing so. I expect we’ll continue to see the big companies continue to drag their feet as they attempt to address criticism without changing their cultures or diversifying their workforce, but who cares about them? There are some awesome indies making games that matter, and some of those games are really hot, if that’s your thing. Sugarscript is hard at work on Cute Demon Crashers “Side B,” which features a young gay man and all-new incubui, and I look forward to seeing what Kinmoku, Christine Love and other indies from LongStory and Failbetter, to Porpentine and Anna Anthropy do next.


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