Masturbation is the ultimate single-player game. Let me put that a different way – it’s not a game you’d be leaping to play with everyone on your Steam friends list. But there’s a little more to it than that: The better single-player games tend to be gripping, pleasurable and have an explosive climax. So it’s no surprise the years have borne witness to a number of titles where you only need one hand to play.

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Erotic gaming does not have a particularly distinguished history. Most of the retrotica consists of rubbish Tetris knock-offs, incredible monochrome attempts at strip poker or racist hijinks. Today, things are slightly better for digital pleasure seekers: There are innumerable Flash games out there featuring sweaty bodies waggling together with eight frames of animation. Looming high above them all, however, is the Japanese eroge industry.

Dote Up A Denton

Amid the tower of hentai titles in the timeless tradition of underage cat-girls is Artificial Girl 3, by a company called Illusion. AG3 is billed as “a 3-D lovelove life simulation game,” although something may have been lost in Google’s translation. Players create one or more female companions in the separate “girl creation” program, populate a small town with them and proceed to enjoy a “wonderful life with wonderful girls.” We’ll explore what that means in a moment.

Illusion seems well aware of how disturbing the concept of “girl creation” is and have cheerfully embraced this weirdness by depicting said creation in jars of fluid. Essentially, your future partners must be grown in a vat in the style of Deus Ex‘s own bio-engineered agent, JC Denton. As with JC, you can augment multiple aspects of your girls, but these changes are unfortunately limited to their appearance rather than aggressive defence systems or cloaking devices.

(Without dwelling on it for too long, yes, you can very easily produce some characters who look on the shy side of 10 years old. But since it would be a stretch to qualify any of the creations emerging from Dr. Leering’s Magical Vat of Females as strictly human, this may not be as big an issue as it seems.)

Hair styles, nose length and, of course, breast size are just a few of the options available to any prospective girl-grower. To round out the cavalcade of creepiness, each girl has a number of traits and personality types to choose from, such as “acts like a preschooler” and “is a blood relation.” Somewhat put off by the array of buttons and sliders, I opted for the “randomize” button a couple of times. This proved to be a mistake, as I was presented with a bug-eyed elfin creature with bright blue lips – not exactly the traits I look for in a woman

After tweaking away to my heart’s discontent, I finally found the perfect distance between mouth and eyebrows. (Anything outside the range of 8 to 10 centimeters and I just can’t get off.) It is, of course, impossible to set waist and eye sizes outside the recognized limits of “anime nightmare.” But there’s better news for people who like to play dress-up: After sculpting your character, you get the chance to design outfits for her to wear. Frankly, there’s nothing hotter than struggling with a baffling blouse-creation interface while pondering whether your CGI love-buddy would look better in a massive pink hat or a suit of armor.

Ghost Town

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The 3-D townscape of AG3 is curiously deserted. Of course, the game is pure fantasy, and it wouldn’t do to have other people getting in the way of your conquests, but it nonetheless gives this supposedly erotic title an eerie feel. It’s like you’ve stumbled into a decaying urban environment straight out of The Road, which immediately leads to worries about chancing across a bloated corpse or two. That would be creepy enough, but my companion also seemed obsessed with running on the beach at night. Maybe I should’ve increased the width of her eyebrows after all; perhaps then she wouldn’t be drifting back and forth across the sands like a ghoul.

If you’re ever able to shake off the heavy sense of unease and get down to business, the way into every Artificial Girl’s pants is through hugging. Really. You need to hold her in your arms and only stop when her lungs are about to collapse. Each hug raises points towards making the girl fancy you, as does lurking around near her, which suggests that stalking and inappropriate touching are the keys to building and maintaining a successful relationship. Once you’ve done this enough to achieve “lover” status, most of your sinister hugging will act as a trigger for more salacious acts. You can choose between a few positions, each one as stilted and repetitive as the last and each one ending with the curious icon of a bulbous red mushroom coated in pale hummus.

Curious to see how other, more dedicated players approached the game, I hopped online. Along with some extremely in-depth guides to the rules of AG3-lovemaking, I found a thriving community. This seemed something of a paradox for a game that appears to be so resolutely aimed at the single (in every sense) player. The people who have painstakingly recreated the exact outfits and body-types of their favorite anime heroines probably don’t often discuss their hobby in public, but online they are more than happy to share. This felt to me like the ultimate act of altruism: putting hours of work into a look-a-like character that other people in the community will use to get off. It’s oddly touching – if you don’t think about it too much.

Talk Numbers To Me Baby

Judging by the relative popularity of AG3, there are plenty of people getting their rocks off to these 3-D animated antics. On one level, it demonstrates that AG3 fills a certain niche that regular pornography cannot. Maybe it’s the stylized presentation, the player-feedback mechanics of waggling the mouse to control some jerky on-screen thrusts or, aided by the hard work and dedication of the online community, the possibility of seeing a collection of popular anime girls doing the nasty.

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But perhaps there’s more at work here. On a deeper level, games like AG3 may appeal directly to a part of the nerd psyche that sees women as puzzles to be solved. This line of thinking is perfectly illustrated by the games featured at Virtual Date Girls, which present players with images of poorly 3-D modeled women along with dialogue and movement options that may or may not lead to sex – it’s an erotic Choose Your Own Adventure set in the Uncanny Valley. But the game’s provocative visuals mask its true gameplay of managing hidden numerical values like “approval” and “drunkenness” through trial and error. Once these numbers reach an unseen threshold, you date becomes willing to put out (or, alternately, pass out). Getting laid is a simple matter of discovering the correct sequence of actions.

Though slightly more sophisticated, AG3 takes a similar approach. Your harem’s disposition toward you is monitored purely as numbers: Friendship, jealousy, love and other feelings that affect how your girls behave are all tracked numerically. To give love (and thus, the potential for sex) a boost, all you must do is find the ways to tip the numbers in your favor. These numbers are hidden from view by default, but creative players have released “trainers” that display the values and allow them to be altered on the fly.

Mathematical calculations form the core of most games, of course, but by reducing women into manageable sets of numerical values, these titles present players with the comforting view that any girl’s desire can be “unlocked” with the proper sequence of actions. It suggests that all women are attainable if you learn the correct sequence of events to perform in their presence. Consequently, any rejection suffered in real life is more easily rationalized: It wasn’t your fault; you simply didn’t have the right code. Such thinking may help explain the proliferation of wikihow (and similar) guides to dating. By reducing the complexities of social interaction to simple bullet-point manuals, the authors are falsely presenting a fool-proof “sequence” to follow, just as the correct sequences in AG3 and Virtual Date Girls are guaranteed to lead to companionship and sex.

Singles Night

This guarantee is key to the single-player experience. For these titles to function as fantasy fodder, it must be impossible for the player to fail once they know the correct steps to initiate a sex sequence. There’s no point in building the possibility of permanent rejection into the A.I. – it’s humiliating enough being rejected in real life, let alone in a fantasy world of your own creation. Instead, AG3 places you in a position to exert complete romantic and sexual control over every character in the game. (Indeed, one of the creation traits even allows players to bypass the already minimal effort required to convert a girl from “friend” to “lover.”)

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The single-player dynamic is crucial to the AG3‘s promise of precise fantasy companionship. For obvious reasons, the unpredictability of multiplayer participants wouldn’t work in this context; single-player erotic games are much more focused on getting players where they want to go than they are with consent. With only the A.I. to deal with, players can easily recognize patterns and correct their mistakes in order to trigger in-game sex whenever they want to. Simply put, AG3‘s appeal is that it places the power to initiate sex with a girl of your choosing (and of your own design) entirely in your hands.

Like a cheesy romance novel, the women in AG3 are almost completely submissive, save for occasional flurries of assertiveness. Likewise, the male lead is practically a mind reader, able to fulfil every sexual desire with ease, which, in reality, most men would surely find exhausting and frustrating. But AG3 is not in any way a reflection of reality, and the characters must act the way they do for the game to fulfill its purpose as masturbatory theater. They may perform limited “couple” activities (walks on the beach, sitting down to lunch, visiting local points of interest), but these are mere facsimiles, shorn of the sensation of authentic human interaction.

Games like AG3 probably aren’t responsible for creating the view of women as puzzles that, once solved, are entirely in your control. But they do serve a single-player audience for whom this view is already in place, an audience who want to spend a little time puzzling and a lot of time dominating their 3-D anime creations. My own experiences with the game left me with the feeling that it was much too creepy to be arousing – performing a set number of actions to trigger an animated blowjob from a busty mathematical algorithm proved to be a great deal more surreal than sexual. I did find, though, that the developers of AG3 are well named: What is all of this if not an Illusion?

Peter Parrish is looking forward to explaining that these games on his hard-drive are “research.”

Society of the Spectator

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