Let’s talk about sex. Specifically, the sort of sex you’re liable to run across in videogames. The business of getting laid in games is a relatively new one despite the fact that we’ve been playing for roughly three decades now, and it’s nice to see developers spreading their creative wings as they strive to grow the medium into a genuinely mature form of entertainment. But just as every 15-year-old fumbling with his first bra hook is bound to discover, those first, halting encounters with sex don’t always go quite as smoothly as we hope.
BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk said recently that the inclusion of sex makes sense in some games and that his studio would provide that sort of “intimate” content when appropriate. His position is both laudable and perfectly reasonable, and BioWare, with its long history of story-driven RPGs built around strong, well-defined characters, would by all appearances be the ideal developer to have at the forefront of the industry’s sexual revolutions. Except for one slight problem – it’s not.
In January 2008, BioWare was the victim of a smear job by Fox News, which claimed that the sex scenes in Mass Effect were explicit to the point of pornography. It was a complete and outright falsehood, entirely unjustified and unfair. It also distracted from the far more valid criticism BioWare should have faced: That the scenes in question were unnecessary, laughably melodramatic and awkwardly shoehorned into the story for no better reason, it seemed, that to give the marketing department a little something extra to work with.
Speaking on Fox at the time, Spike TV game journalist Geoff Keighley described the lead-up to the game’s infamous sex scene as “the evolution of a relationship” between characters, but is that really what we were looking at? To my eyes it was more like a drawn-out series of multiple-choice questions spread across numerous preordained encounters, essentially an aptitude test to determine whether you’ve got the mojo to smooth-talk your shipmates into the sack. But any sense that an actual relationship was forming between the characters was virtually non-existent.
BioWare stumbled at an even more fundamental level, however, by working from the assumption that there needs to be that sort of relationship at all. Set aside thoughts about how wildly inappropriate it is for a commanding officer to play hide the pickle with an enlisted man and consider instead the simple realities of life on a small starship. Cramped quarters, great stretches of tedium punctuated by moments of off-the-charts stress and not a whole hell of a lot to do; you stare at a glowing monitor in 12-on, 12-off shifts, you eat the same reconstituted grey crap for every meal of every day and there’s a very good chance that you’re going to snap and beat the holy hell out of the next person who asks “What’s new?” as he walks past your station.
In that sort of environment, people’s more primitive urges – in particular, the urge to stick bits of themselves into other people – are inevitably going to be exacerbated, and without making this sound like sex-ed class or an uncomfortable conversation with your parents, it’s perfectly normal and healthy. It’s also completely overlooked in Mass Effect, which instead made a point of hammering on the fact that Shepard and Williams weren’t just banging, they were in love.
It was a point that just didn’t work. In truth, it would’ve been a far greater surprise if it had. Hooking up after chow to relieve some stress is one thing, but the idea that two elite, hardened (so to speak) soldiers caught up in an unfolding cataclysm that threatens the whole of galactic civilization would suddenly find their hearts going pitter-patter is something else entirely, and to pull off that level of character complexity takes the kind of writing chops that the BioWare team, despite its ability to create a deep, believable and thoroughly engaging sci-fi setting, just did not have.
Ironically, one of the few games to really do well with sex is The Witcher, the 2007 RPG featuring the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, monster-killing anti-hero wonderstud named Geralt. No need to remind me of my not-entirely-flattering comments about the game’s sophomoric approach to heaving bosoms and milky thighs, and I stand by them. But sex in The Witcher worked, nonetheless, by making the protagonist not a paragon of virtue who falls head-over-heels in love with a feisty-but-troubled NPC, but just a guy who likes to get laid and seems to have a certain talent for it. It’s a refreshing approach because it doesn’t tie the natural human instinct to get naked and roll around together to the far weightier and more difficult subject matter of genuine, lasting relationships.
But the idea of presenting sex for its own sake rather than as a beautiful expression of love between a man and a woman (or a woman and a woman, or a man and an alien) may leave a lot of American developers and publishers uncomfortable. Gamers may be grown up, but North American culture in general still tends to view sex with a certain degree of uneasiness: An hour of watching gigantic, armored men attempting to stomp each other into grass-stained goo is good family fun but a quarter-second flash of someone’s nipple in the middle of the proceedings is cause for lawsuits. Because of that, designers are naturally more prone to presenting sex only as the result of something bigger and more meaningful, and the whole thing ends up forced and clumsy.
Right now, the inclusion of sex in videogames provides very little value to either gamers or the industry: A bit of promotional titillation, an extra side-quest and maybe an opportunity for the publisher to claim that it’s spearheading the effort to grow gaming into a truly mature medium. But until game makers figure out how to handle the role of sex in gaming with some dexterity, by either establishing believably complex relationships between characters or just letting ’em screw, legitimate sophistication is out of the question. The maturation process is underway, but like the onset of puberty, that process will almost certainly involve a lot of weirdness and awkward moments before we finally get to where we want to be.
Andy Chalk remembers having “the talk” with his dad, although he desperately wishes he didn’t.