I plan to get the videogame industry drunk and smudge its eyeliner.
Cuddle up in a smoky corner, navigate the rituals of words and glances and body language, get a suggestive glimpse of its black stocking tops. Reach that moment when videogames and I hover, lips apart, a vast possibility between us …
Until Ken Levine rips off his wig and I’m left with scars in my eye sockets.
Games have gotten very good at guns, physics, audio and graphics that leave the real world looking low-res. Off to the side and down a few alleys, they’re also pretty good at porn. I like these things, all of them, not to mention bouncing around like a prat with a plastic guitar, being addicted to World of Warcraft and those perverse Japanese cooking sims.
But someone needs to send out a search party for sex appeal.
Human relationships and intimacy are still a videogame flyover state. Most studios still seem obsessed with how to make games, which is a bit like when you’re young and pimply and obsessed with how to have sex. There can be more to it all than mechanics and wobbly bits and stickiness, more ability to suggest than just show.
You up for a wander in the shadows?
Dreams in the Dark
To mutilate something a judge once said, sexy’s tough to define but I know it when I see it. When I was 13, that meant Phoebe Cates taking off her top in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Those poolside love globes made quite an impression – a freeze frame moment that seemed like the sexiest thing in the universe. I had no thought that behind this lay an hour’s worth of cinematic buildup; they were there and that was it.
Phoebe, bless her chesticles, was the gateway drug into a new world.
Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential – imitating 1940s siren Veronica Lake – led me back to an earlier, subtler era. It’s amazing what films of that time can do with personality, glances and chemistry. From Rita Hayworth in Blood and Sand to Sophia Loren playing off Anthony Perkins, the in-your-face approach would be like a bazooka at a chocolate tasting.
Or like bringing down a building.
When I was 24, Buffy and Spike had dead person/vampire killer demolition sex. It was violent. It was obscene. It had been building for three years and was rooted in angry self-destruction. Wrecking a house with lovemaking was fun. The savagery of unleashed desire was sexy as all hell.
Buildup. Tension. Suggestion. Desire. At their best, film and TV can run their hands all over your mind.
And then there’s Monica Bellucci every time she breathes.
Her silhouette, her attitude, her voice. The way she moves onscreen. You can disagree if you like or substitute others, but here, to me, is a movie star in the purest sense: someone you can’t take your eyes off of.
So would Monica Bellucci be sexier at high-res 1920 x 1080, with bump mapping, HDRR, per-pixel lighting and AGEIA’s PhysX engine taking care of her curves?
Have you ever sat down in the evening with that special someone and said, “Hey, honey, let’s dim the lights, relax, play footsie in front of a videogame … like Gears of War“?
Start your chainsaws, it’s lovin’ time.
Show and Then Show Some More
If we’re talking sex, rather than sexy, videogames have done great things over the years. Right around the time I enjoyed Fast Times‘ supernova of nipples, Strip Poker 3 was dehydrating my friends and me at an alarming rate. The last two decades have seen titles like Virtual Valerie 2, Orgasm Girl, Bliss, King Stroker, Sextris … you get the picture. There’s a long-standing, wide-eyed tradition of Japanese sex games, many low-budget European titles, and even the odd “mature” French experiment like 1991’s Fascination.
A warning, though: Dr Ruth’s Computer Game of Good Sex, 1986, available on DOS, Commodore 64, and Apple II, will have you taking celibacy vows on the spot. Just don’t.
Even better than pixelated blobs humping like mad is no blobs at all. “Adult interactive fiction,” which means text-based porn adventures, is proof that being an obscure, moneyless subculture has its advantages. Even “legitimate” interactive fiction types shun them, which is like being called fat by William Howard Taft. The AIF titles are promisingly hilarious, such as The Gifts of Phallius 2: Keys to Eternity or School Dreams. Within the AIF community there are favorite creators, how-to lessons, and an annual awards show, the Erins, which at least has more of a sense of humor than SpikeTV.
I downloaded The Gifts of Phallius 2, wandered round, typed things and enjoyed myself. Pure text has one great advantage over both graphics-based games and film: In the absence of anything else, your brain gets to do its erogenous-zone thing at maximum capacity. Not for nothing did the medieval church keep a tight rein on their obscene books list.
So subculture porn we can do. Us and the rest of the internet. But sex is rarely, if ever, the same thing as sex appeal, and for my money there have been too few really suggestive videogames. Even fewer since the 3-D graphics revolution brought awkwardly jiggling polygons into the world. The silly clichés still hold: Most of the usual female suspects are show-and-tell androids, fun on the Phoebe Cates level, yet desperately robotic. But even when there are signs of life, there’s often nothing to play off. How many male characters can set pulses racing? How many hot-sparking videogame double acts – couples or partners or even enemies – have ignited your LCD screen with their chemistry?
Me, I’m a Max Payne and Mona Sax man. An obsessed degenerate and a deadly woman tear each other to pieces in a James Ellroy crime novel come to life. Though playing through The Fall of Max Payne again for this article, I noticed that the game is really an action shooter with a film overlaid, all the violence on the player’s side, all the tension and sex appeal in cut scenes. Explosions are still a lot easier than fireworks in this medium of ours.
Blue Alien Boredom
The Lovely Brunette has just smacked me in the head and pointed out that “you’re being cheap. As if Gears of War is trying to be an Italian actress. And sitting on some lofty pedestal while sneering at videogames is for Time magazine, not you. Shape up.”
It’s certainly unfair and tired to hassle games for not being films. The two are estranged third cousins, separated by 80 years of growth and the fundamental gap between observation and participation. Plus, any type of sex or post-adolescent sex appeal is tough for an American-led industry still dealing with a large youth audience, soccer moms, politicians and moralists.
But does intimacy have to mean a chainsaw to the guts?
“What about Mass Effect?” the Lovely Brunette said. “Or those people who hook up through games like World of Warcraft?”
Mass Effect has a fun storyline, shiny galaxy and great music. Plus, you can sleep with aliens. Good times. But for all its Starflight-y charms and xenomorph-lovin’ hype, it’s as sterile and robotic as Pacman.
My experience of Mass Effect was of climbing a vast conversational tree and finding nothing at the top. As in so many other games over the years, from King’s Quest to KOTOR, the relationships were an exact calculus of button-pushing – “if I click this, then this, then this, she’ll take off her Star Trek costume!” Not that I didn’t click. It’s sex with a blue-skinned alien. Normally takes $50 worth of paint and a Real Doll to get that far.
Mass Effect‘s real lesson is that while game interfaces have gotten more advanced, the human relationship interface has yet to even really be born. An industry where a pick-a-path conversation wheel gets awards is an industry that needs to go out dancing more often.
As for the World of Warcraft love nests, intimacy through games is not the same as intimacy in games. After all, you can make love in a cinema showing Star Wars: Episode 2, but that doesn’t mean George Lucas has found his romantic bone with either hand.
The Heat-seeking Flesh Missile of Stupidity
The International Game Developers Association recognizes the “unique issues, challenges and possibilities” of “adult content.” Partly in response to the GTA: San Andreas “Hot Coffee” silliness of a few years back, they formed the Sex Special Interest Group to connect developers and others.
And just like Phoebe Cates and me two decades ago, they missed the point.
On their website you’ll see excited updates on DreamStripper Blackjack (hey! Strip Poker lives!), a Japanese adult dating sim called Lightning Warrior Raidy and sex-toy board games. As porn, I think this is great. But there’s so much more that could be done under the IGDA’s province. Videogame researcher, critic and designer Ian Bogost thought the same thing, writing a magnificent 2005 blog post from which I now steal:
“I think there are interesting and meaningful representations of sex yet to appear in games, but I’m sorry to see the IGDA call the Sex & Games project one of ‘responsible, age-appropriate content development.’ It should be one of responsible, motivated expression. The Sex SIG cites The Iliad, The Graduate and Shakespeare in Love as precursors for sexual content in other media. But the Sex SIG doesn’t seem legitimately interested in commercial videogames that hope to make forthright comments on the human condition; rather, they seem interested in facilitating empty titillation through adult content.”
We saw “adult content” and went straight for tits. Thus passeth Phoebe Cates, the game industry and ourselves.
Back from the Shadows
The Lovely Brunette and I are off around the harbor for a walk. She’s got her black hat on and she sashays in her teasing way. It’s funny – I’ve found reflections of this moment countless times in movies, books, songs, even comics. But I don’t recognize any real part of our relationship or her appeal in videogames.
There’s a downside to focusing on technical achievements and game mechanics, on physics engines and control methods. There’s a danger when developers look at the infinite possibilities of games, chart out some small, bright territories, then ignore the shadow lands beyond. I’m not against chainsaw violence, puzzle solving, porn, plastic guitars or mad Japanese cooking. And I don’t believe games should try to be films or any other media but themselves.
I don’t want less from games; as I get further and further from being 13 years old, I’d like to expect more.
There’s something out there, something beyond Tab A -> Slot B sexuality, mouse clicks or button presses, that might just start to get us closer to the games we play. Something that would bridge the gap between, say, Monica Bellucci with that look in her eye and a harshly lit, bump-mapped Real Doll in a spaceship. Maybe it’s as simple as a few soft words in the right place; maybe it’s as unlikely as changing the direction of a multi-billion dollar industry.
Let’s meet sometime at that dark corner table and see where the possibilities take us.
Colin Rowsell is a writer and strategist working out of Wellington, New Zealand. Speak in a husky voice to him on firstname.lastname@example.org