[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. Hentai gaming, fantasy fanfics, twisted psychology and notes from the dark side-- we'll expose, discuss and enjoy the delicious underbelly of our beloved gaming universe.]

-Hentai games offer the opportunity to experience things that can’t be experienced in any other kind of game. You probably think I’m referring to the sex—and you’re right, but not in the way you might be thinking.

The protagonist’s gender in any kind of game varies depending on a number of factors— necessary relationship to plot devices, or relevance to a specific audience, for example. Sometimes we get a female hero just because a chick looks better kicking butt in scanty clothes. Largely, though, female gamers are used to identifying as a man in the majority of games; similarly, males playing as gorgeous girls are far more likely to objectify their protagonist than to identify intimately with her. Plenty of games allow you to choose the gender of your player character—offering generalized dialogue and little more than a different sprite, perhaps a few other tweaks here and there. It's not a perfect science.

In any of these cases, a degree of separation, a glass wall, is interposed between the player and the character for whose fate they are responsible, between the player and his total immersion in the experience. That’s not to say that you and your protagonist need to have gametes in common to create a satisfying suspension of disbelief; personally, the game characters to whom I’ve best related have happened to be males, since relationship relies on a variety of factors, most of them subjective, with gender being minor among these.

But can you think of any other game that actually allows you to swap genders during the game—and moreover, uses this transient gender identity as a plot device?

- The X-Change H-game trilogy (US distribution by Peach Princess) allows you to do exactly that. All three games revolve around the misadventures of Takuya Aihara, a limp-wristed high school kid who’s constantly being bullied by his female friends, of which he’s got no shortage. Jocks make him anxious, and gym is far from his best subject. He struggles to relate to the girls in his life, many of whom have inspired private crushes. What’s a poor guy to do?

In the exposition of each game, Takuya has some kind of science lab accident that results in him being turned into a girl. The sexual ramifications of such a switch on a game meant to be played by men are fairly clear, and as long as you get sexy CG, it doesn’t really matter which half of a male-female couple is you, if it means you also get lesbian scenes.

Far more interesting is the idea of getting to experience relationships (of all types) from the perspective of both genders. The girls who exploit male Takuya’s weaknesses in the fashion that only high school girls can suddenly convene compassionately to orient “the new girl”; close friends of Takuya who are aware of his change can’t hide their curiosity about his new form.

-As for Takuya, his initial priority is returning to normal; it's the story's central conflict, with the all-important incidental sexual encounters peppered along the way. As time passes, though, he seems to become more comfortable as a girl. He now has a humbling effect on the very types of males he’d been inclined to avoid, and even the girls who know his secret and still treat him nastily have become less intimidating. It’s an interesting experience on many levels to see not only Takuya's change, but how you as a player relate to the other characters differently depending on his gender, how your sexual ideas of them change—and, over-arching, how your relationship with your protagonist can evolve.

In addition, all the X-Change games operate on the traditional basic dialogue tree that results in multiple endings depending on your choices. You have the option of returning to manhood, perhaps in part to further cultivate a romantic relationship begun in your female incarnation. Or you can decide you enjoy being a girl, and stay that way forever.

Playing these games is weirdly liberating—especially given the backdrop of high-school era strained male-female relationships, of which pretty much everyone with a pulse has dubious memories. And it’s the sort of singular experience that only a Hentai game could provide—after all, sex (in both senses of the word) lies firmly entrenched at the core of the human psyche.

(NOTE: There are actually 4 games under the X-Change umbrella; the fourth, Yin-Yang! X-Change Alternative was never Anglicized [EDIT: It actually was; thanks, Alice]. Additionally, the third installment of the series underwent some considerable censorship for the English-language release; see these fan reactions on the Peach Princess BBS to see what was changed and how upset true H-game connoisseurs got about it.)

[Leigh Alexander is a blogger at her Sexy Videogameland site and reviewer for outlets including Paste Magazine. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]