Ladykiller in a Bind is a visual novel by Christine Love. It’s about affection, sex, consent, manipulation, and expression. Video games can often be a vector for experimentation and escapism. Playing Ladykiller in a Bind has taught me a surprising amount about myself.

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WARNING: This article contains images that are Not Safe For Work. There’s also some spoilers in here for Jumin’s route of Mystic Messenger.

The core conceit of Ladykiller can feel a bit flimsy. You play as a woman impersonating her brother on a school cruise. There’s a contest going on; whoever gets the most votes will receive a heap of cash. This conflict ends up feeling largely secondary to the main interactions you have with many characters, which often focus more on sex and power dynamics.

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There is a message at the title screen: “In real life, all power exchange must be negotiated. That is to say, there’s nothing more important than clearly communicating your desires and limits in advance, without either party feeling uncomfortable or pressured.

Mystic Messenger’s Jumin Han

A focus on power dynamics is what makes me far more comfortable with Ladykiller in a Bind than my previous visual novel/otome game Mystic Messenger. While many of the routes in that game are tame, things escalate quickly during the route for Jumin Han. Jumin is a detached billionaire who gets very possessive once you start a relationship. At a later point in the route, he refuses to let you leave his apartment. You remain there for days.

In our discussion about the game, I mentioned my discomfort with this moment. My co-worker Cecilia D’Anastasio pointed out that some people might be into it. This is a completely fair point. Captivity and notions of ownership can be very powerful as a sexual fetish. Viewed in this light, Jumin functions as an incredibly commanding dominant.

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The thing that made me uncomfortable with Jumin was my inability to approach the situation with nuance. My choices were to gleefully assent to his domination or largely equivocate and rationalize his possessiveness in a way that felt incredibly enabling. I felt forced into a role that I was not ready for and ill equipped to handle.

Ladykiller in a Bind has a mechanic were you generate suspicion for acting differently than your brother might. A way to remove all accrued suspicion is to spend the night with another classmate. These liaisons are distinctly BDSM affairs. Unlike Mystic Messenger, I had much more ability to express myself. I could get greedy and press for kisses, I could struggle when tied, or I could completely submit. If I felt uncomfortable, I had the option to signal my discomfort. The power dynamics flowed in multiple directions. I was not helpless.

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I eventually found myself submitting more and more often in these scenes. Safe within the confines of a virtual realm, I was free to experiment with sexual exchanges far different than any real world experience I’ve had. Without kissing and telling too much, it is enough to say that I’ve never particularly considered sexual submissiveness as a significant form of intimate expression. Yet here I was actively, excitedly, and consensually submitting in scenes. Game or no, I was engaging in a form of sexual exploration, sampling an experience previous foreign to me. I liked it.

A notable thing about Ladykiller’s interactions is how much they still stress the act of being a sub as an active decision. To be submissive is to make a choice and it’s actually pretty remarkable how clear the mechanics of a visual novel make this. While video game systems can often feel reductive and lacking when it comes to simulating the real world, Ladykiller’s format makes decision making incredibly clear.

I had my character largely remain silent during these scenes. To do so I still had to make a conscious and continued decision to pass up dialog options up in favor of remaining passive. The process was still engaging and deliberate. I was never forced to do anything. I chose to play along. I trusted that the situation would never move beyond a point where I did not feel secure.

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I’m not suggesting that my exploration in Ladykiller constitutes anything equal to real world experience but I do believe that the game provided a significant vector for me to experiment with certain sexual arrangements and behaviors while maintain a remarkably safe space for said experimentation. It was illuminating and respectful to me as a player. That respect is appreciated and I hope that more games might extend the same courtesy to me in the future.