Sex and Sexuality in the Future of RPGs

By Kotaku on at

By John Robertson

Sex in video games is usually terrible sex. It generally involves two (occasionally more) life forms self-consciously and awkwardly recreating the things they've seen in movie sex scenes, slabs of flesh moving like rigid metronomes as each party pleads for the finale to arrive and pass as quickly as possible.

In real life you could, if you have the audacity to do so, theoretically pry yourself away and escape through the window, but in games we're forced to sit and watch this stiff carnage play out in front of us. We're locked into a libido-less voyeuristic nightmare.

Incredibly, sex in video games manages to miss almost everything positive about the real thing: the emotional and physical pleasure, the excitement, the fulfilment, the bond. Agreeing with everything the non-playable character of your desire says and does might get them into the virtual sack, but that’s such a shallow and unremarkable representation of seduction. Even the term 'non-playable character' is enough to kill the mood, an astonishingly sexless description.

MassEffect1

What's worse is that once a character is 'done' - the statistic noted and the achievement counter edging upwards - the post-sex connection is so meaningless, so static, that you can't help but move on the next to see whether that will prove more worthwhile. Perhaps the pillow talk from someone else in your party will be better?

Of those few studios that even attempt to portray such relationships within their games, BioWare and CD Projekt are two of the most visible. The Witcher, Mass Effect and Dragon Age all offer the option of romantic and sexual entanglement with others, sometimes without boundaries in terms of gender, sexuality and species. New entries in two of those series will be with us in the coming months, and I was curious about the evolution of the role that sex and sexuality plays in them.

"Love, i.e. loving and being loved, is an important part of life", CD Projekt's Michal Platkow-Gilewski puts forward, asked about why upcoming The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt will include romantic elements at all. "There's this old saying that's a bit cheesy... although you can be nothing in the world, you can be the world for someone. Geralt [in The Witcher 3] lives in a world devoid of mercy, a world full of strife. Love is something that might let you last a day longer."

TheWitcher2

As a narrative device, then, the inclusion of relationships in The Witcher 3 is a means of giving Geralt – and in turn the player controlling him – a sense of hope, that there is something in this world worth fighting for. But it’s difficult to maintain an illustion of 'love' if your interactions with potential soulmates are mechanical and obvious. Presumably in a bid to prevent such an amateurish and destructive disruption of the fourth wall, The Witcher 3 seems to be concentrating more heavily than before on the emotional impact of sex and relationships.

"We're a mature game for adults", Platkow-Gilewski tells me. "We tackle serious problems like poverty, cruelty, lawlessness, racism. We give you the option to choose which moral path to take and we make the consequences of these choices quite severe. When it comes to sex, we see it like this: the kind of emotions sex evokes are a normal part of every adult's life. In Wild Hunt we want to cover as many of these same emotions as we possibly can."

Geralt1

What you can't do in Wild Hunt is become directly involved in a homosexual relationship, the reason being that Geralt is a character with a strong sense of authorship, and that he’s straight. This is not a game in which you play entirely as the person you want to be; yes, you have influence over Geralt, but he is a persona not a blank canvas. As a caveat, Platkow-Gilewski explains that "we do have homosexual characters in the universe, but Geralt is not one of them".

It's here that Wild Hunt differs from Bioware's upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition. Where Wild Hunt puts you in the shoes of a character, in Inquisition you make the character. Inquisition's approach is more along the lines of overt fantasy fulfilment: you create a character in your preferred image and act freely. Within this comparatively relaxed structure it's left up to you to make decisions regarding your own sexuality and how you interact with and react to others.

Inquisition_01

"We don't want to force you to play with a certain character or with certain ideals about who your character is", says Inquisition producer Cameron Lee, candidly. "Included in those ideals are things like sexuality and what sort of characters you want to get into relationships with. This is an open story that's set in an open world and you should be able to play however you want to play, and play as who you want to play as. This is your fantasy."

When it comes to living out your fantasy relationships, Lee promises that the spark that sets them in motion and the acts of courtship that follow are more 'fluid' than past Dragon Age games. Rather than simply presenting someone with gifts found or bought and hoping to gain intimacy as a prize at some point down the line (a ubiquitous method of courtship in games, despite its inefficacy in real life), Inquisition's relationships are dictated by how your actions correspond to the motivations and beliefs of those around you.

Do something that falls in line with one of your acquaintances’ political or moral values and they're more likely to become smitten with you. Act in a way they’d hate, and your chance is lost. The hope from me is that such a system will result in romantic allegiances that are based on emotional appreciation rather than simple physical attraction or, uh, transactions. Perhaps it's the dwarf with a beard that my pot-bellied human will fall in love with. So long as I can appreciated why, that's fine.

Lee goes on to explain that rather than use sex in games as a means of titillation and crude arousal, he wants his games to hit notes that resonate across a broad cross-section of society.

Inquisition_02
"This is a broader topic, but it's something I would like to say", Lee explains. "Big games are seen by millions and millions of people across the world. I think that when you have a medium that's that powerful and so capable of saying something important, then it's a very good thing to use that medium to do exactly that.

"We [Bioware] enjoy doing that and I would hope other games would use the opportunity they have to say something about the world that we live in. That could be any topic they want to talk about, whether that's bullying, suicides, sexual preferences or any other kind of important social issue. We have an opportunity with this medium to approach topics like that.

"No, it's not something that all games can do and it's not something that would be suitable for all games to approach... but it would be nice to see more games trying to do it. A groundswell of attitude change needs to come from many areas of life and many areas of entertainment. Again, with the millions of people engaged with playing games, there's a great opportunity to say something to a huge number of people. I think that would be a great way for the games industry to contribute to the world in a very positive way."

I began by describing the crude, unimaginative sex that games are known for, and we’re ending with a plea from a game producer for more games to take the social realities of sex and relationships more seriously. Hopefully this represents a microcosm of what is to come from the next-generation of sexually aware RPGs in the mould of The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition: that crude depictions are of the past, and we’re moving towards something more real, more relatable. The sooner games move away from exclusively providing simple objectifications of complex and important parts of the human experience, the better.