“What’s a slut if not someone who’s a nerd about sex?”
~The Beast, Ladykiller in a Bind
I’ve long tried to answer, in broad and abstract terms, a rather pressing question: “how do you fuck in games?” At last, I have a concrete example to point to, one that is a masterclass of writing and design.
Christine Love has shown her skill with erotic language in past games--steamy letters and log entries in Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus are evidence enough of this--but sex was more incidental to the larger stories there. In her latest game, Ladykiller in a Bind, whose full title helpfully serves as the game’s comical premise, sex is front and center, particularly the much-derided but little understood sexually subculture of BDSM.
Central to the game’s advertising has been an iconic image of the protagonist--named The Beast, by default--nakedly in the thrall and ropework of the elegantly dressed Beauty. Their relationship, while optional in the game, is central to its themes about power, sexuality, and identity.
Put simply, Ladykiller succeeds because sex tells its story.
This is an unabashedly 18+ game; as of this writing it’s still in limbo as regards being placed on the Steam store--and it speaks volumes about the moral hypocrisy of some quarters of our industry that this game could be verboten while the awkwardly splashy sexualization of women is a staple in game advertising even in Wal-Mart, to say nothing of the violence many game titles display. All should be permitted.
But to the brass tacks of Ladykiller itself--and why it’s a mercy that some digital distribution platforms are not shy about the game--you can have multiple sexual relationships that explore various sensual territories familiar to many but largely unrepresented in mainstream gaming: polyamory, S&M, consent, subspace, abuse of power, the role of gender in shaping kinks and relations, and varying degrees of maturity in one’s approach to sex.
Where some sex games or eroge have explored this material, it tends to be in the lofty realm of the fetishistic, divorcing it from everyday life into the clouds of pure fantasy. That’s fine as far as such games go, of course. But Ladykiller weaves a simulacra of the real world into sex that is as relatable as it is achingly arousing.
The game takes place on a cruise celebrating the high school graduation of a spoiled gaggle of rich white private school students (all 18, of course). Your character is the twin sister of the class’ Machiavellian playboy, The Prince, whose latest machination sees you take his place on the cruise while cross dressing as him.
Why is your character put in this, the titular ‘bind’? Well, that’s for you to find out. That requires surviving the seven day long cruise without seeming too suspicious, and doing that requires navigating that thicket of self-important politics that can only emerge in the environment of a wealthy private school. Layered onto all of this is The Game, a contest where every student is competing for votes in a bid to win five million dollars; it’s a neat bit of lampshading that makes a mechanic part of the story--and its silly, aristocratic decadence is rather the point, as extended play reveals.
This is a political viper’s nest where everyone is scheming and triangulating to both win votes and improve their position going into university and the job market. It’s rather like Hanako Games’ Black Closet, a visual novel-cum-strategy game where you took on the role of the President of a Student Council at an elite girl’s school; the small stakes of petty high school drama are easily elevated by entitlement in both games, and that drama is central to the action, as well as to the fact that most of the characters are not meant to be entirely sympathetic.
In Ladykiller everyone’s a bit of an asshole.
So, what does all this have to do with the game’s sexuality? For one, seduction and sex are means by which the Beast improves her position and saves her skin (if not from every conceivable wound); votes can be procured through sex, or leverage can be gained to help you acquire votes elsewhere. But there’s a thematic element here that I find fascinating, and it’s simply this: The Beast’s relationship with The Beauty--the most BDSM-heavy relationship by far, availing itself as it does of every letter in that acronym--is the most authentic relationship on that boat.
Every relationship in the game is about power, to one degree or another. But BDSM’s power dynamics are almost never hidden behind the artifice of everyday relationships, where so much of hierarchy is invisible and coded. It is, instead, exoskeletal, showing all of itself for all to see in a clear visual language. Negotiation and consent are central to the experience as well. Contrary to all the dreary arguments that open consent “spoils the mood,” BDSM weaves it into every knot of every rope harness. The Beauty is domineering in every way, delighting in taking every inch of control you elect to give her as The Beast, every inch making its way into another knot, another shortened breath, another painful tug of the hair or reddening slap on the cheeks. And yet, there’s always a way out in the form of a pre-negotiated safeword whose invocation could stop it all--or a finger snap, when The Beast is prevented from speaking. Instructions are as clear as a flight attendant’s safety lecture; it does not break the scene, it lays its very foundation.
Love did a stunning job thematically contrasting this with the far more toxic relationships elsewhere aboard the cruise. If you allow it, The Beauty becomes an island of safety, of stress-relief (she knows your secret as she’s in on the plot), and she not only removes all your accumulated Suspicion with a few swipes on her cell phone, but also alleviates the burdens of assuming the Prince’s precarious place at the top of the social pyramid.
There are others to fall in love with as well, of course, and other ways to have some very good sex indeed, but it is notable that so many other encounters are layered thickly with unspoken neuroses and quiet tragedies, to say nothing of the everchanging masks of motivation each participant seems to wear. Love created a game where a dominatrix offers your character the healthiest and most honest of all possible relationships--at least in relative terms.
Nothing makes the petty brutalities of these privileged students clearer than that fact: the Beauty, who at least one classmate disapproves of as a pervert, uses her taboo kink to have relationships that are far more mature (as opposed to M for Mature) than everyone else.
That relationship is also laden with authentic minor details about the BDSM and infused with all the humanity displayed by real people in such situations. It’s all there; the ibuprofen in the morning, the subdrop, the double-checking of knot instructions, fretting about circulation.
In this relationship, the line between what is and isn’t an act is much clearer--even if, as is the case with all of us dommes, our personalities and needs bleed back and forth between true-self and persona. It isn’t that the Beauty doesn’t have issues of her own, it’s that she knows how to have sex without letting the sludge of her life’s garbage flow into the bedroom. Indeed, for The Beast, her submission provides a shelter from her responsibilities, from the tightrope she walks. It becomes a kind of therapy.
The interactive element is non trivial here; you are clearly the submissive in this relationship with The Beauty, but you do have options that shape what that looks like. Love touches on the concept of being a bratty sub--that is, playful disobedience of the domme’s orders-- or permits active resistance if you’re trying to play a Beast that actually isn’t the “raging slut” for humiliation that The Beauty thinks she is.
The nature of the dialogue system is one of inflections and interjection. As Love describes it, “dialogue options appear as they occur to you and disappear as they become irrelevant to the conversation.” There is an element of brinksmanship to it: do you forego these options and skip them with the promise of a different scene developing; do you gain suspicion in exchange to for opening up more options; do you make a choice just to see what happens even if it robs you of some forthcoming dialogue?
Crucially this is also how Love scripts the dialogue/action options during the sex scenes. The difference between silent submission and The Beast showing her neediness is quite thematically stark; whether you select certain options to underscore a willfully submissive sexual personality can make all the difference.
Writing and dialogue mechanics can actually enhance a sex scene and justify the use of a game--not just a passive cutscene--to explore it. Sex expresses character, and Love exploits that truth with characteristically humorous grace. The way each romanceable character flirts or responds to flirting says something distinct about them, as does the way each character has sex, and it all goes a long way towards avoiding actual objectification, no matter how many naked bodies are on screen.
Indeed, another neat trick pulled by the BDSM in the Beast/Beauty route is that actual objectification is avoided despite The Beast repeatedly describing The Beauty’s domination of her as “objectifying.” You as the player are not put in a position where you are led to objectify either character. The key lies in the negotiated consent between both women; it’s clear The Beast wants and needs this in that isolated context.
Fetishizing one’s self as a sex object is a time capsule from the rigors of your existence; you preserve yourself in stasis and emerge later into the light of another life. It works precisely because it is temporary, outside of time and space yet delimited by it. To be objectified, in a moment you control, with someone whose gaze turns you on, can be a thrilling experience within that time-lost space. Outside of it, different rules must obtain in order for the relationship to be healthy. Love demonstrates this masterfully and creates something that is explosively sexy without being, in any sense, degrading to women. Writing matters, and the construction of Ladykiller’s dialogue choices helps tremendously with making these complex scenes work. Love turns silence into a meaningful choice, as well as showing how words--so often unfairly derided as impediments to sex--mold the body like so much clay.
This game is as prodigious as it is salacious. It’s the nature of visual novels--and, indeed, many RPGs--to mask their wordcount by dint of their presentation: one or two quick sentences on a screen at a time. But Ladykiller weighs in at around 240,000 words. What struck me was how, for all this literary girth, they were all so carefully chosen. I say this in part to point out that even this lengthy essay is hardly exhaustive of the game’s themes: it’s ambitious and sprawling, playing with dating sim and anime conventions, gender, politics, school life, class, and more. There is a larger story at work here that, like so much good anime, turns emotions like love into a slightly surrealist political drama that is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve merely unearthed one rather important thread running through it all.
It is enough to say that erotica has a place in games; too many relegate the genre to pulp like Fifty Shades of Grey but sex is so much more interesting than that, elegant even at its messiest and silliest; knobbly bits, goo, corny one-liners and all. Ladykiller in a Bind reminds us that we’ve only just begun to--if you’ll forgive the phrase--penetrate this subject. But for now I can confidently say this, on the basis of everything I’ve highlighted here:
This is the sex game we need in 2016.
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.