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How Sexual Text Games Stimulate the Imagination

How Sexual Text Games Stimulate the Imagination: 'Mass Effect 2'

'Mass Effect 2'

As anyone who’s played a modern video game can attest, better graphics don’t necessarily make for a better game. What happens when you remove the graphics entirely? Word Games is Playboy.com’s column on text adventures both classic and contemporary.


Video games are always evolving. They’re getting better all the time, technically and artistically. That’s a sentiment I hear pretty often. There is certainly a measure of truth it, but progress is slow and there’s no denying there exists a plethora of topics that games just don’t know how to handle, like PTSD, class warfare or even something as mundane as sex. Developers, on the whole, appear to still be deathly afraid of putting anything sexual in their games that goes beyond pin-up men and women to be gazed at from afar, characters that lack agency, presented as objects of lust and little more.

This isn’t to say there aren’t large-scale games that incorporate sex and relationships. BioWare is renowned for creating games with sprawling, customizable stories where the player can become romantically entangled with other characters. Yet even Mass Effect and Dragon Age, often heralded as top-tier interactive storytelling, approach sexual relationships in a rather simplistic manner: tell the character what they want to hear, do a list of chores, maybe give them a few gifts, and they’ll be fully DTF (down to, well, you know).

The simplicity of that design, and its pervasiveness in game series that garner critical acclaim for how they present sexuality, betrays how bad games are at portraying complicated concepts like sexual relationships. As Katherine Cross recently wrote on Gamasutra: “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.”

Fortunately that exploration has already begun. In that same piece, Cross goes on to praise Twine games—which are often mostly, if not entirely, text-based—as one of the few kinds of games that explore the complexity of sexuality in an interesting way: “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.”

In Cara Ellison’s Twine game Sacrilege, you play a woman in a nightclub ready to initiate a “fuckplan.” You have a choice of four men. The protagonist already knows all of them and gives you her opinion about each of them. For example, Mark is described like this:

sacrilege

Ellison’s writing here is great because it not only tells us about Mark’s attractive aloofness, it also tells us about the protagonist herself, letting us know that she has moments of doubt—more than moments, perhaps—about her charms and talents. Continue to try and pick up Mark and you’ll be met with warnings every step of the way. A crying woman whose heart he broke, a friend urging you to turn back; but maybe you go on. Maybe Mark isn’t such a bad guy. Maybe the game will reward you for your persistence (as games often do). Joke’s on you: turns out he’s really a prick. You jump immediately back to the “fuckplan” selection screen with the protagonist reassuring herself that the night is young and she looks hot in her dress.

These little moments, with Ellison revealing her heroine’s thoughts, and the destination where they all ultimately lead, amount to a neat little complexity that isn’t often seen in big budget games. In something like Mass Effect, the onus is on us to figure out how our blank slate character internally handles their interactions with other characters, how they deal with rejection or, in happier circumstances, acceptance. Furthermore, successfully initiated relationships in such games are almost always a happy affair, with both the protagonist and the love interest in a loving, stable relationship (unless the player chooses to break things off).

Nice. Clean. Simple. We’re in control of this fantasy. There is no fighting, no bottled resentment or jealousy, no disappointment—the relationships just work like magic. Ellison sharply steers us away from that kind of tidiness, for in Sacrilege, the only victories are the hollow kind.

Choose the guy you don’t really have any attraction to and feel your avatar’s disappointment. Or, when a second chance presents itself, go to bed with Mark only to feel shame in the morning. There’s also the man who reveals he’s married after some passionate sex on a staircase, but perhaps worst of all is the man who won’t sleep with you because he knows you’ve slept with his friend, which culminates in a horrifying scene where the protagonist sees barcodes running up and down her arms. “You are a container,” Ellison writes, “Just an object/passed around.” This ending results in a feeling of powerlessness and isolation, an awareness that you are being imprisoned by a culture that imposes different standards on you because you’re a woman being upfront about your sexual desires. When I asked Ellison about the sense of powerlessness prevalent in her game, she told me this:

“There was an interesting period around the Deus Ex, Thief golden era, in which games, even big budget games, really did experiment with powerlessness a lot more, and how power negotiations can make games more interesting. There are quite a few games that approach this in an interesting way—Teleglitch, Tomb Raider, Papers, Please, Gone Home, Redshirt. But I think that a lot of the demographic that people try to market to are purely interested in becoming heroes through violence and so it becomes about dominance and aggression over your environment rather than a comment on relationships between people—although sports games are sometimes an interesting difference on this point.

“Although I also like violent games too, I think it’s time we started to innovate a little more on the power relations and relationships front. Games are a powerful medium in which to investigate systems of power and most game narratives are concerned with already brutal people just becoming a lot more brutal. Try being a brutally hot lady who can’t get some in a club, I guess?”

Ellison’s work does not stand alone in its presentation of sexuality as a complex issue. Soha Kareem’s reProgram is a text game concerned with a character recuperating from sexual abuse-related PTSD and is, to use Ellison’s adjective, brutally honest while also hopeful. Merritt Kopas has made fascinating games centered around sexual consent and kinky violence, like Consensual Torture Simulator and the short and succinctly named Super Consent!. Nina Freeman’s Cibele is about, as [Polygon] describes it, “teenagers, sex and selfies.” These are games that commit to exploring sex (its joys, it tragedies, its anxieties) in great detail instead of just making it a A Thing You Can Do while saving the galaxy.

It’s difficult not to be disappointed that year after year developers make great strides in devising more and more impressive ways to kill virtual people but still don’t know how—or don’t want to try—to capture the complexity of sexuality in their games. Again, there is progress, of course, a little. Last year’s Dragon Age: Inquisition altered Bioware’s relationship formula slightly, making it easier for you to screw up with characters, and by having some characters make it clear that they’re just not interested in you sexually if the character you’ve shaped for yourself just isn’t their type.

Still, Inquisition is a strong example of the “vending machine” design Cross discusses in her article: do whatever quests the character asks you to do and you’ll likely be able have a sexual relationship with them. This is unfortunate because that design limits what sexuality can be in a game. Sometimes sex isn’t a reward; it’s about trying to defy crushing loneliness, or it’s a self esteem booster, or it’s a horror story about escaping the things that have we have done or the things that have been done to us. Sex can be just as malleable and powerful thematically as violence and the moment that more developers get comfortable playing around with that theme in ways that aren’t contrived, games will be better for it. For now though, it’s text adventures like Sacrilege and the others I mentioned above leading the charge.


Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.


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