We Built This City

We Built This City
Stripping Down the Nude Mod

Brendan Main | 26 Jan 2010 12:33
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But technology has marched on, and regardless of our feelings on the matter we find ourselves in an age of Brave New Boobs. Between a well-entrenched modding community and an unrelenting trend of developers toward videogame cheesecake, the nude patch has become more ubiquitous than ever. A surprising array of games have received the nude treatment. Beyond no-brainers like Lara Croft and likely targets like Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance and Left 4 Dead's Zoey, there are some that strain credulity - for example, a nude patch for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 that is painful to even think about. My search also turned up stranger fare that barely qualifies as a "nude patch," including an attempt to restore the classic Game Boy game Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening to its original version, which included, among other visual delights, a half-naked hippo. (Of course, as an optimist I would consider the hippo half-dressed.)

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Certain cases reveal a delightful absurdism. Take a game like The Sims, which capitalizes on this dress-up dynamic. You start with little people living out their daily lives. These daily lives might sometimes involve stripping down, at which point the characters' naughty bits are discreetly covered with a blur effect. So a patch is created that removes this blur, revealing featureless Barbie-doll bodies. Boring. Then another patch is invented to dress-up these already undressed bodies with the various bits that the creators omitted. Finally, pictures of this last project find their way online, where some images are re-censored because think of the children.

Then there is the case of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which drew media attention after a modder assembled a nude patch using textures already found within the game files. The resulting controversy led the ESRB to change the rating from T to M, forcing retailers to pull copies from store shelves for relabeling. Whether you agree or disagree with the verdict, you can at least appreciate the puritanical logic behind it all: Imagine! All this time, they were naked underneath their clothes!

Often the nude patch has been framed as proof of gaming's eternal adolescence - an X-ray Male Gaze fixed on pixelated pubescence. But I'm not interested in dressing-down these deleters of digital duds. In all my searching, I found little that upset anything but my sense of aesthetics. In some cases, I wondered if they could even be considered "pornography" at all. Porn, after all, is material whose primary purpose is sexual arousal. But pinning down that purpose is the tricky part. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography that he couldn't define it, but he knew it when he saw it. In this case, I'm not always sure I see it - did the person who re-skinned Street Fighter 4 do so because he was sweet on Zangief in buttless briefs?

The irony is that what is sexy has more to do with what someone is wearing than what someone is not. It's a relational thing, a push and pull between seen and unseen that plays out in the imagination. Stripped of context as well as clothes, these nude characters sleepwalk through unblinking games in a way that is comic rather than erotic. The result is somehow less than its combined parts, like a man arriving at a cocktail party wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a tuxedo on it. But the greater irony is that for all its skulking in shadows, the nude patch's day in the sun may have finally come.

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