Pressing the Right Buttons


Why does an interactive medium passively present anything? Sometimes cinematics introduce characters, crucial elements of the plot or new gameplay mechanics. Oftentimes cut scenes prepare you for an important encounter by deliberately exposing you to information that will be useful later in the fight. Interacting at a high level from the very beginning would be asking a lot from the player.


But what if the cut scene was the encounter? Imagine spending hours preparing for an interaction with a character, only to have the game take control when it’s finally time to show your stuff. It sounds infuriating, but it’s a common way to approach sexuality in an otherwise interactive medium: You can participate in the foreplay, but when the clothes come off, most games don’t trust you to finish what you started.

Whether bowing to societal pressures, de-prioritizing inessential content or simply feeling that sex makes for bad gameplay, game developers have typically been reluctant to allow player involvement in virtual sex. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Assuming the ratings board didn’t care and there were no moral quandaries, would interactive sex in a mainstream single player video game create a “better” experience with more emotional impact?

Presenting sex in the context of a mainstream videogame poses unique challenges. It’s not a straightforward competition with winners and losers; but the consequences, both positive and negative, can be equally significant and long-lasting. And with the sophistication of current-gen A.I., camera work and gameplay balancing, we’re more ready than ever for a game that demonstrates a more complex understanding of sexual encounters than a cut scene could ever present.

Let’s start with the basics. Sexual encounters need to provide incentives to continue playing and discovering. But more importantly, they need to be incentives for developing a relationship with another character.

If the goal is to create a meaningful emotional experience for the player, skipping the relationship in favor of instant gratification closely mimics the porn formula. Instead of a reward, sex becomes happenstance, which has the potential create ridiculous situations. Take away the consequences, and the player’s actions become irrelevant to the world and progression of the game. Likewise, omit the character’s personal status and you undermine the meaning of the encounter itself.

Context is key, but if the actual game design of sex isn’t compelling, it won’t be much of a reward. Adventurous developers have often adopted a “Simon Says” approach to lovemaking: mimic a sequence of button presses to take your partner to the heights of ecstasy; miss a beat and the deal is off. The final result is little more than a mediocre cut scene with the bare minimum of player involvement. Worse still, there’s no opportunity to excel: You either succeed or fail based on a few quick button presses. Not only does this make the player a spectator in the act, but it presents a view of sexuality that is simplistic even by a teenager’s meager standards.

Let’s take a more nuanced approach. Sex isn’t about mimicking a sequence of button presses; instead, the mechanics of sex involve maneuvering into a position, remaining active in that position while both parties are enjoying themselves, choosing and transitioning into a new position and then repeating the process until both parties are completely satisfied.

Notice my use of the word both. In this relationship-centric game, the A.I. has personality and sexual preferences. Ensuring their needs are met reinforces the ideas of consideration and concern for the other’s well-being. From a gameplay standpoint, this introduces an element of uncertainty to each new encounter, since each partner will have his or her own unique preferences.


From an interface standpoint, movements should imply the real action as closely as possible. Variably sped rotation along with forward and backward movement can all be controlled using an analog stick. Individual positions could rely on unique combinations of speed, rhythm and accuracy. For obvious reasons, a vibrating controller is a must.

Of course, pacing the encounter is an immediate concern: You must indicate when both participants are satisfied. One option is to use visual and auditory “excitement levels,” which both partners could display through a combination of animations and speech. Additionally, this would allow the A.I. to provide direction to the player. Switch to your partner’s desired position without the need for the A.I. to request it, and you raise your partner’s excitement level. This system allows for learned skill after repeated attempts; over time, vocal queues should not be necessary, and the player’s knowledge of the other person’s preferences would become his or her sole roadmap.

Since the goal is ensuring pleasure for both characters, the game would be as much about controlling your own excitement level as it is reaching the height of it. That could mean short pauses or changing speed once your partner has reached his or her optimal state. If either party reaches their end goal much sooner than their partner, it could become more difficult or impossible to continue, depending on certain – ahem – biological concerns.

In this game, “grinding” could take on a whole new meaning. Every sexual encounter could potentially open up new maneuvers and techniques based on the A.I.’s positional suggestions. Over time, the player’s collective experience upgrades their options for future encounters.

That’s not to say there aren’t major problems with this approach. Firstly, there is no feasible way to create animations that convey all of the subtleties in people’s facial expressions, body language and vocal reactions. An amorous picnic in a quiet park could become a harrowing excursion into the uncanny valley. But on a more basic level, gameplay takes imagination out of the equation, replacing it with button presses that detract from what the focus should be.

Maybe there’s a compelling reason for static sex scenes after all. They bypass the uncanny valley by showing a few vague visuals, and they take away control so that the player can relax and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Digitizing sex while attempting to keep it realistic is a difficult and contradictory endeavor. But experimenting with the idea can lead to interesting A.I. and valuable attempts to convince the public that sex needn’t be equated to pornography in games.

Michael Deneen is a lucky designer.

About the author