February 9, 2008 12:00 AM | Leigh Alexander
[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.]
It’s easy to knock action video games. It’s all vaguely silly, implausible stuff – bullet time, acrobatic corkscrews, explosions, and heroes who sass monsters with hip one-liners. But you can’t really blame them – after all, action video games are the torch-bearers for action films, and when it comes to emulating their conventions and allowing players to interact with them, games are quite admirable as imitators.
Take the Devil May Cry series as an example, whose next-gen successor has just hit the scene this week. It achieves the formula handily, even stylishly. And it should. A triple-A melee franchise about devils, demons, babes, guns and swords – playing it demure, intellectual and understated? It just isn’t meant to be.
So you can’t fault it for flaunting high-powered, scantily-clad females with impossible measurements, suffering under a combination of neck-breaking high heels and massive endowments that, taken as a pair, make them likely to tip over. Aggressively foxy babes are part and parcel of the action format to which the game skillfully – and enjoyably adheres.
When we talk about sexuality in video games, the closest thing we’ve got is these cleavage-spilling women, and to some extent, the endlessly resilient, solidly built and smoldering (though much more thoroughly clothed) men alongside them. This column previously defended the value in gratuitously-fleshed game gals as a useful complement to the raw, animalistic nature of brawler games. Blood, bare flesh and adrenaline rush as a package are the closest we as humans can get to our primal state, and it’s amazing that video games can tap into that.
Some people will buy my theory that video game flesh is effectively bestial; others feel it’s simply juvenile, a disservice to women and men alike. Either way, it's true we don’t live in caves anymore – and we’re growing up. So what will it take for sexuality in games to grow up, too?
Though sexuality needn’t necessarily mean sex, the most immediate example that comes to mind is Mass Effect. It offered players the opportunity to personify their hero to a degree almost unprecedented on consoles, and then, through developing interaction between characters, to develop a relationship. And then, of course, we all know what happened after that.
And therein’s the rub – do forgive the pun.
When I first raised this topic at Sexy Videogameland, I suggested that Mass Effect may have suffered a bit under what I call pioneer’s syndrome. If sex in games were a familiar and established thing, the fact that Mass Effect contained a customizable romantic scene would not have been such a big part of its advance buzz. And while it’s an opaquely detail-heavy game, with enough background and story elements to satisfy the appetite of traditional science fiction fans, I would never believe anyone who told me that the sex scene was not at least somewhat on their mind when beginning the game and when selecting characters within it.
Thus, to put it bluntly, the sex act became like an Xbox achievement, the whistle warp in Mario, or anything else you know’s coming, but just have to figure out how to accomplish. As Chris Dahlen put it in his column about the Mass Effect romance, character dialogue seemed to reduce itself to, “Keep talking to me and someday we’ll have that sex scene you saw on YouTube.”
In other words, sex in a game became game-like. I’ve often asserted that whether, and how deeply, to become immersed in a game is largely the player’s decision – instead of being primarily a developer’s task. So to be fair, perhaps I just didn’t emotionally engage with Mass Effect to the extent that I could have. Can’t help it – I was too distracted wondering which character I wanted to get it on with.
A good number of Sexy Videogameland’s readers have suggested to me another possibility, though, one that I think is much more viable when thinking about sex in games. Just as Devil May Cry 4 and other games in its genre drip with sexiness because its film predecessors do, Mass Effect and its ilk may be suffering under traditional sci-fi and fantasy genre constructs.
Commenter Mark Hughes pointed out that traditional fantasy, which often has a very influential role in today’s video games, is primarily “juvenile, sexless material.” As an example, he points out that Tolkien, essentially the "father of the genre" as we know it, features almost no women in Lord of the Rings – and those that appear are “’romantic’ (but non-sexual) interests for the men, kept at a distance.”
So video game sex lacks maturity because the dated constructs it has inherited lack maturity. No one would call Lord of the Rings an unsophisticated novel, and its heroes are most definitely nuanced. But like most hero stories, complexities within people’s spirits and the ill deeds they commit can be explained away by evil magic – the main characters with whom readers largely identify are almost implausibly focused on noble deeds, not intimacy.
Intimacy, however, might be where respectable sexuality in video games needs to begin. And games have, often accidentally, stumbled on real and affecting intimacy quite often over their history – the subtle, charming poignancy of holding hands with Yorda in ICO far outdoes Mass Effect in that department. And I’m loath to overexpose the Companion Cube any further, but in only mentioning it, you get the idea.
The Final Fantasy series often gets teased for its sometimes over-emotional, hyper-fantastic character presentation, and no one would call FF heroes anything more than constructs. But the most recent incarnation, FFXII, presented more subtle layers among the characters’ relationships than we’ve yet seen – we learned more about Balthier and Fran, for example, through what was not shown.
An inanimate cube, juveniles holding hands, and the nuances of a complicated adult relationship as seen through the eyes of a youth – the conclusion here seems to be that games are able to create that sense of intimacy by revealing less, not more – just as FFX’s quietly tragic heroine Yuna lost a lot of dignity by cropping her shorts way up into her "personal crease" and gyrating around like a pop star in X-2 (even though it was cute and fun), games lose dignity the more decadent cleavage shots and full-body pans they show.
In addition to prioritizing intimacy and emotional connection over the direct, exploitive route to nudity, games need to start inheriting their influences from more mature media. It won’t be long before games can build primarily and foremost on the established successes of other games in this area, and quit passing the baton from genre archetypes, but until then, they can look to more innovative and more modern sources to create characters that act like adults – only then will they believably make like adults.
[Leigh Alexander is editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer