“How to do it?” is a question that is, perhaps, at its most literal when talking about sex, and it’s a question that has long troubled game development. Should sex be shown in-game at all? If so, how? Will it be framed as a bonus or a reward? Integral to the story? Will it feature a same-sex couple? All this comes before the litany of technical questions about coding, naturally.
But a larger issue remains: are video games saying or doing anything interesting with sex? I would argue that, by and large, especially in the triple-A industry they are not, and it stems from a perspective issue of sorts: games have long portrayed sex as an external affair, to be seen and consumed rather than an internal one to be experienced. They’ve shown sex as something external, but with no inside to speak of. It makes a world of difference.
Sex is often something to project. “Sexy” can be something you wear, a way in which you carry yourself. It is adornment for the eyes of another--or several others; ritual design and dance that communicates in sensual tones. To whatever extent videogames capture this, they do so by showing something or someone coded as “sexy” on screen. To say that our industry has mastered this, in one form at least, is something of an understatement. To observe that we are oversaturated with supermodel avatars and scantily clad women is, by now, a cliché (albeit one that still bears repeating).
The complex language of adornment has arguably been ignored by games that keep banging the same dissonant note over and over again with portrayals of sexy women. Meanwhile, male sensuality in its external form is often not explored at all. There are glimmers to be found in the way that characters like Bayonetta or Dragon Age 2’s Isabella carry themselves with a profound sexual confidence. They’re not merely designed avatars but women whose characters are capable of projecting sexuality in a more complicated register that bespeaks a certain amount of agency.
"If you were to describe what it was like to have sex with someone, you would likely emphasize how it felt, in a way only you could adequately describe."
But both are undermined by the use of the camera, especially in Bayonetta’s case, to pornographically possess the characters, reducing them entirely to posed sex objects that neither speak nor act independently of that camera’s orientation. In those scenes they don't express character; any avatar with the "right" proportions could take their place. The point is to look, not to interact or experience; after all, one interacts with human beings, one merely looks at objects.
But some objects can be interacted with. Vending machines or computers, for instance, designed to unquestioningly respond to our inputs and desires. It is, to the detriment of games, the model most game developers seem to use when coding romance and sexuality into their games. It reduces sex to the transactional, to say the least. Put enough gifts and positive dialog options into the romantic vending machine and out comes a sex scene around the second act.
But this approach is, ultimately, in service to that external dimension of sex. Showing the player a kind of forbidden, lusting beauty. You are treated to the characters’ nudity, awkward kisses, a roving camera that tastefully drinks in the blending curves of PC and NPC bodies. The cutscene is the primary expression of video game sex; the sexy avatar's moment. In Bayonetta 2 the cutscenes give us crotch shots, Bayonetta being cut out of her white dress while fighting angels on a jet, sexualised acrobatics that make full use of her skintight outfits, and so on. In Bioware-style RPGs, the sex scenes are similarly there to be passively consumed, more openly framed as a reward for appropriate inputs.
This is not to dismiss the hard work and often superb writing (in the case of Dragon Age) that frames all of this, of course, nor is it to deny the technical limitations that often force developers into these tried and true models. Like violence as an idiom of progress, vending machine romance is just easier to design for.
But there are other vistas we can begin exploring.
Sex has an outside, yes, which is ideal for the norm of consumption that imbues so many games. A hot avatar to be ogled, a hot sex scene that serves as both salacious reward and Fox News fodder, et cetera. But it also has an interior.
In an S.EXE column by games journalist Cara Ellison, I and other queer women were asked for our thoughts on the supposed lesbian sex simulator Girlvania: Summer Lust. I was unimpressed, and argued:
“The game is hamstrung, I think, by its clear desire to provide visual stimulation to the player, which is entirely at crosspurposes with being a sex simulator. An as-yet-underexplored area of gameplay is how to actually simulate the feeling of being involved in sex rather than the mere voyeurism of watching someone acting for the sake of an audience, a long tradition that Girlvania continues.”
In other words, the game, like so many other, less-explicit titles before it, fails to explore the interior of sex. One can be performatively sexy, of course; as a dominatrix, putting on an appealing visual performance is all part of the fun for me and my partner/s. But the experience of having sex is something that often looks rather visceral and less put-together from the outside. At best, even if it is visually stimulating (which is by no means guaranteed), that image is only telling part of the story. If you were to describe what it was like to have sex with someone, you would likely emphasize how it felt, in a way only you could adequately describe. How your body was being touched and stimulated, what you were thinking about, how the other person’s body felt against yours and so on.
"Put enough gifts and positive dialog options into the romantic vending machine and out comes a sex scene around the second act."
Sex is something you get inside of, both physically and mentally. There is a sense that is available only to those within the sublime experience of that moment. It cannot be fully captured by a camera.
Games could certainly stand to diversify and complicate their portrayals of sex’s exterior dimension, but it’s the interior that provides the most fertile ground for exploration. And, of all art forms, games are perhaps best suited to recreating that interior. How can video games do this? Well, a form of video game that trades heavily on the strengths of older media provides some insight.
Twine games have done a superb job of portraying sex precisely because of their medium: most Twine games, by their very nature, rely heavily on text in order to immerse the player in their particular ludic experiences. This is, in so many ways, the ideal medium for capturing sex’s interiority.
Kate Simpson’s Krypteia gives us an image of Bayonetta-style sexual confidence without objectifying the protagonist, even in a game that is resolutely more visual than most Twine outings; Christine Love’s Hateful Days series provides, in its epistolary fashion, insight into what forbidden love under pressure feels like, her words infinitely sexier than a thousand 3D avatars of half naked, impossibly proportioned women; Olivia Vitolo’s brief Negotiation simulates the process of negotiating a BDSM encounter, allowing the player to build the exoskeleton of consent that holds up BDSM’s performative and externally-oriented sexual expression. Lana Polansky’s steamy .error404, meanwhile, is one of the most immediately sexually interactive of these titles; you play as a human sexually pleasuring an AI who speaks to you in rich, sensual metaphors.
It is not, perhaps, a coincidence that many of these genuinely erotic explorations are the product of women’s imaginations, unconstrained by the demands of a male-dominated workplace and the demands of marketing superstitions about who is playing games and for what purpose. For all the lusting after sexy content in both games and advertising for them, it is independent titles like these that approach sex in more interesting ways.
But it is worth pointing out, too, that Twine’s modes of interaction are very often limited. Krypteia features movement around a map with strong visual representations and guideposts, but this is a rarity in such games. The challenge that awaits us now is how to make the interior of sex a visible and involving experience even in big budget triple-A games.
"Sex is about an expression of self and agency as unique as one's fingerprint; using sex to provide insight into a character is as old as written erotica."
Text can be part of the solution, of course, but gameplay that puts you inside a sexual encounter would be genuinely memorable and a potentially moving experience that could catapult a mainstream title into the history books. Through creative use of voice acting, visual cues, quick time events that simulate motion, and meaningful choices, one could create a visual representation of sexuality that does not dwell on simply crafting lurid, exploitative shots that reduce characters to objects.
Sex is about an expression of self and agency as unique as one’s fingerprint; using sex to provide insight into a character is as old as written erotica. Violette Leduc’s classic Thérèse and Isabelle, for instance, uses each of her titular character’s sexual acts and habits to establish key facts of their personalities in a way that humanises rather than objectifies them. “Objectification” is not a feminist buzz-code for “sexy,” rather it’s meant to describe instances where sex is reduced to the instrumental; a reward of some kind, or a purely visual thing meant to be consumed, where a character could be exchanged for any other to serve the same purpose as a blunt tool.
A way to get around that, and to also make games that much more sexually appealing, is to get inside the heads of characters and make their desires sing.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.