By Matthew S. Burns
If you’re already a fan of Sex—and there are plenty of you out there—you probably don’t need this review. But if you find yourself on the fence about whether to try this much-heralded, much-argued-over activity, pull up a chair! We’ve got a lot to discuss.
Like many other extended franchise juggernauts, Sex has been around in some form or another for a long time. Originally released as an open-source application and carefully iterated upon over the years, it’s been through its fair share of reimaginings, reboots, and back-to-basics redesigns. Today’s Sex is the most technically advanced version yet, but as we all know, it takes more than eye-popping visuals and high-tech peripherals to make for a truly meaningful experience.
Sex is best understood as a freeform co-op experience where partners work together to achieve one or more user-defined goals. It’s most often played in groups of two, but sometimes more (or less). Broadly speaking, each match-up follows a similar structure–all players are helping one another to achieve a similar goal, and if they work well together, every player can “win.” Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see how creative Sex teams can be, combining inventive techniques with high-level mechanical mastery to achieve unusual but no less satisfying victories.
Aficionados will be pleased to hear that the Sex’s visual presentation is as great as ever–even though it doesn’t seem to have progressed much as of late. Then again, why mess with something that’s already working so well? Today’s Sex features advanced graphical techniques like soft body physics and subsurface scattering; these were incredible when they were first introduced, and they stand the test of time. But with technological innovations coming faster than ever and innovative new VR technology on the horizon, it’ll be important for Sex to step up its technology in the coming years to keep pace.
As true gamers know, it’s gameplay that matters most. The mechanics undergirding Sex are deceptively simple–even if you’ve never played, you probably already understand the fundamentals. There’s some stroking, and sliding, and slapping, and smacking, and, well, you know. All of that. The beauty of Sex is that those basic actions can be combined in all sorts of interesting ways. Sex embraces what game designers call the property of “emergence,” i.e. the designed opportunity for varied combinations of simple components to create a complex end result.
Despite those strong fundamentals, Sex is not without its share of technical issues. Sex can, and often does, fall prey to many of the same kinds of bugs and glitches we’ve seen in other multiplayer games: synchronisation errors, dropped connections, poor response times, and the like. Some people seem to wait around forever in the matchmaking lobby, never getting to the actual game.
A lot of virtual ink has been spilled on forums and elsewhere complaining about these problems and begging for fixes, but it’s anyone’s guess if they will ever be addressed. Many of these problems have been present for so long that they feel inextricably tied to the game itself, and it seems like the best strategy is to learn to live with them. At this point, it’s hard to say whether the developers of Sex are even listening to any of us at all.
Sex assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the player, and isn’t always welcoming to newcomers. Once you’re finally able to initiate a round of Sex, you may wonder if you’re playing correctly. There are no pop-up tutorials to guide you–not even so much as a nav point indicating the next important spot you should be working towards.
If the lack of real-time instruction sounds scary, that’s because it certainly can be: You’re expected either to already know what you’re doing, or to basically make it up as you go and hope for the best. (Meanwhile, online walkthroughs and strategy guides vary drastically in quality and utility. Finding accurate, actionable information about Sex is almost a game in its own right.)
The good news is, you don’t have to be an expert to have fun with Sex. If you pay attention to the signals and cues provided by your teammates, you’ll probably be fine. If all else fails, button-mashing can be a surprisingly viable strategy. Just like with most games, Sex is something you can get better at if you’re willing to learn and incorporate what you’ve picked up into the next round. Even your mistakes can be quite educational.
Sex obviously draws from a deep well of creative influences, but I find it’s most comparable to From Software’s 2011 cult classic Dark Souls. Like Dark Souls, Sex can can be exhilarating when things are going well—but it can also turn into a frustrating trial-and-error slog when it feels like nothing is working. Just like in Dark Souls, the key to overcoming obstacles like these is to continually move forward with a healthy dose of caution and awareness. And like in Dark Souls, if the Hellkite Dragon sets you on fire, you’ll probably want to put that out before doing anything else.
Lots of people focus on the physical, mechanical aspects of Sex, but it’s actually Sex’s storytelling and narrative design that make it stand apart. To an outside observer, two given rounds of Sex can look identical on a mechanical level, yet feel totally unalike to the players who are participating. That’s thanks largely to Sex’s brilliant, complex metagame. What’s the backstory between these characters? Are they partners? Rivals? Just plain horny? Have they been playing together for years, or did they just meet? The interplay between the low-level player interactions and the high-level story results in a heady mix of motivation, action, and feeling.
Additionally, Sex features an ingeniously designed branching narrative structure that’s largely defined by the choices the player makes in the heat of the moment. During a given round of Sex, you make lots of important decisions that may have far-reaching consequences.
In fact, Sex is so full of these decisions that the various ways you can approach it can be overwhelming, especially when you’re new to it. You’ll have to keep in mind that different players can have varying expectations around what the experience should be, or even what it’s meant to accomplish. Problems are more likely to occur down the line if there isn’t clear communication with your team, so it’s worth taking the time to establish where you’re coming from and listening to your co-op partner(s) to help address those issues before you get started. Lone-wolf solo players might not be used to communicating with their teammates, but if you get chatting early on in the game, you won’t regret it.
It can be difficult to rate Sex as a value proposition. On the one hand, it’s essentially free-to-play, with near-infinite replay value. On the other, Sex has a veritable shit-ton of expansions and expensive add-ons that offer the promise of altering and enhancing the experience in almost any way you could possibly imagine.
As you spend more and more time with the “vanilla” version of Sex, you’re pretty much guaranteed to want to try at least some of these items. Fortunately, the large and vibrant Sex community has also expanded the game with a mountain of user-generated content and mods over the years, though, as with most things, that content varies wildly in quality. It’s possible to throw a lot of money at Sex—just be aware that more money doesn’t necessarily equal a better experience.
There’s no denying that Sex has become a global phenomenon, and thanks to the rise of easy-to-use video streaming sites, Sex has grown into something of a spectator sport as well, particularly over the last decade. We can now instantly watch other players, both professionals and skilled amateurs. This can be instructive and edifying, but it can also leave an ordinary person feeling inadequate.
Are you playing enough? Or maybe you’re playing too much without really scoring? While there are many ways you can feel like you’re losing, there are far fewer ways to actually lose. Sex didn’t ship with leaderboards, and I have to think that’s for a reason. This lack of built-in tallying seems like a statement from the game’s creators: Nobody’s keeping score here. You can play it however you feel is right for you—whether it’s a lot, or just a little, or even none at all. Like many of today’s best games, Sex offers its players endless freedom. It gives you an open-ended environment to explore at your own pace.
Sex isn’t perfect by any means, and does ship with a few built-in problems that really ought to have been patched by now. But if you approach it with some patience and a willingness to experiment and learn, Sex can be good–really good. At its best, it’s like realizing you’re the star of your own life, and your partner is the star of theirs. Even if you don’t think Sex is for you, I’d suggest giving it a shot. You just might be surprised by how much you like it.
Matthew S. Burns is a writer and game developer in Seattle. Follow him at @mrwasteland.
Top illustration by Sam Woolley. Images via Shutterstock.