With the imminent releases of Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3, it’s time to think back to the criticism levied against the last round of “hyper-realistic” graphics. It seems the closer games get to uber-fidelity, the more gamers realize exactly what this entails. The cost of ultra-realism will take its toll: on artistic direction, on level design and, worst of all, on the boobs.

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Digital boobs are the unsung heroes of the graphical arms race. They’re the harbinger of new technology as well as the most abused part of any physics engine. Boobs brighten our day, make us chuckle as they swing with ludicrous motion and on occasion arouse us in ways we would never admit – especially to our significant others. We love boobs.

Back in gaming’s infancy, boobs were little more than properly placed pairs of the letter C, pointing in whatever direction the programmer desired. In these early days, boobs were abused constantly, thanks to lax production standards; your very own pair was only a few lines of code away, no matter how poorly implemented or out of place. There were plenty of famous titles, but considerably fewer famous titties.

One of the earliest examples of breasts in a videogame is Bachelor Party, an absolute horror of a game created for the Atari 2600. In Bachelor Party, you control what seems to be a nude man as he bounces up against what appear to be nude women – his erection makes them vanish, which lends the game some much needed realism. But the breasts! The cone-like monstrosities hardly even qualify.

Even then, however, graphics were making leaps and bounds over themselves. The Nintendo Entertainment System was the first to feature a comparatively sharp eight-bit resolution that allowed for crisp lines, well-defined characters and, of course, more curvaceous boobs. Bubble Bath Babes and Peek-A-Boo Poker both graced the screen to considerably better reception than their predecessors. In each, breasts were hand-drawn with loving care, but they were still simply static images. We took what we could get. After all, boobs are boobs, and in America, digital boobs were about to vanish completely.

The late 1980’s saw the rise of child advocate groups in the U.S. who campaigned for stricter regulations and increased censorship of media. Like the music and film industries, videogames were able to avoid trouble through self-censorship – and digital breasts were the first to go. It was probably for the best – after all, even with the dawn of the 16-bit era, what were we really missing?

Not much, it turns out. Overseas, where sexuality is a different matter entirely, Japanese gamers were flooded with exactly what you might expect – catfights and dating simulators. Each offered the discerning gamer a chance to see boobs – but dating simulators were little more than digital comic books with an interactive twist. Only the catfight games forged the technology ahead. Strip Fighter featured the classic Street Fighter style with a heavy focus on bouncing cleavage. Defeat your opponent, and you were rewarded with a digitized photo of boobs.

But Strip Fighter‘s digital breasts were still static images, animated crudely like a cartoon. It required a great deal of imagination to even pretend you were seeing breasts. Groping blindly for realism, it sometimes seemed like we were actually going in the opposite direction.

Then polygonal graphics made their debut, giving us that step towards realism we had always been hoping digital boobs would make – existing in three dimensions. It was not glamorous from the beginning, however. The early polygonal games such as Virtua Fighter were so unrefined that they were hardly erotic.

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Sarah and Pai were the only females available for play in the arcade version of Virtua Fighter, and their forms were certainly quite sculpted. A far cry from the triangles of yesteryear, breasts had finally become pyramids. But these monuments, however grand, were still immobile, barely portraying the glorious reality of breasts as we know them.

It didn’t matter. Virtua Fighter marked a paradigm shift in graphical breasts. And while Japanese developers were still light-years ahead of their American counterparts when it came to cleavage, the next major evolution would come from the other side of the world – the United Kingdom.

Designer Toby Gard noticed the dearth of bountiful breasts in the game-space and saw an opportunity. Utilizing the hardware of the Sony PlayStation, Gard created Lara Croft, the first sex symbol of the videogame world. Lara sent shockwaves through the male gaming populace. For the first time, we could control a hot, big-breasted woman instead of another butch space marine. Granted, her breasts were still conspicuously geometric and her body equally low on the polygon count. But she was a hottie.

Quickly it became apparent that the age-old adage “sex sells” applied even to videogames. And as game engines and systems grew more powerful, gamers were treated to all manner of extraordinary breasts. Whether they were the oversized mammaries featured in Dead or Alive or the swinging masses gracing the chest of Rachel in Ninja Gaiden, breasts had come a long way.

Today, we have Soul Calibur 4, the current pinnacle of breast tech. Look no further then Ivy, the dominatrix with a whip that doubles as a sword. As she amply spills out of her string of protection, simply turning her body in game yields a demonstration of how far we’ve come. Remember, boobs tend to show us how close we’re getting to reality – and the gap is closing quite quickly.

For the first time, however, the breasts are suffering for it. While Soul Calibur and its ilk display their boobs with pride, other games are professing a different kind of realism, and core audiences are clamoring for hardly any breasts at all. It sounds absurd, but it’s happening all around us, and reality is to blame.

When Gears of War came out in November of 2006, critics hailed the graphics as the most realistic in the console world. The particle effects were top notch. It had a level of immersion that set it apart from the crowd. It was beautiful – but it wasn’t without flaws. Gamers quickly pointed out that reality is apparently very, very brown. It’s also obscured by dubious graininess and bloom effects. And, worst of all, reality according to Gears was breast-less.

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In all its realism, Gears removed women almost entirely from the world. Crysis, another game praised for its hyperrealism and robust physics engine, had no women whose bosom utilized either feature. It seems the tides are turning against the 14-year-old boy in his basement.

The trend was obvious enough to spot, but few did. Sony contributed by releasing Heavenly Sword last fall featuring a strong female lead named Nariko. It was obvious she was created with men in mind when it came to her looks. In fact, the developers took Nariko’s character down a path that made her empathetic to players of both sexes. She was deep, intelligent, caring and interesting. Consequently, hardly anybody noticed her downright conservative garb (for videogame characters, anyway) and modestly proportioned breasts.

A year later, EA will soon release Mirror’s Edge, a game with a strong, rebellious Asian female named Faith as the lead character. Enthralled by the trailers, gamers are salivating – but not at her. In fact, it’s safe to say that many of those who have seen the gameplay footage don’t even realize she’s female. Faith, it would seem, is the least sexualized woman in gaming history.

Boobs are a barometer of realism in games. As characters are designed and constructed to have more depth, shallow features like cup size are no longer necessary. When the complexity of virtual worlds rises, the importance of hooters quickly drops. Characters like Nariko and Faith are sufficiently unique in themselves that their chests are the least of our concerns.

Digital boobs may soon be relics of a bygone era, of a period in which developers simply couldn’t build an attention-grabbing female character without them. They will be greatly missed, mourned on countless internet threads. But don’t despair. After all, Japanese developers will still be making games for a long time.

Brooks Brown is an award-winning author who leaps at any chance to utilize breasts as an allegorical tool regarding the artistic growth of a medium.

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