A few exceptions aside, video games are pretty shitty at sex. It's often presented as a stilted, awkward "reward" or a tool for cheap titillation. It's also heinously un-sexy.
Games have come a long way since Dragon Age: Origins' infamously nightmare-inducing dead-eyed doll sex, but I think there's still ample room to grow, for games to not be The Absolute Worst at portraying sex. Big-budget hits like Grand Theft Auto V, God of War, and Far Cry 3 prefer to use it for laughs or tasteless thrills, and even the latest Dragon Age—while much improved over previous BioWare efforts—still struggles with moments of passion and intimacy. Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus creator Christine Love (who, full disclosure, I once sang karaoke with a while back; she's very good) agrees. The most obvious issue, in her eyes? Game makers have trouble making sex, well, sexy.
"I'm absolutely sick of games not being sexy," said Love. "I'm interested in romance, and an under-interrogated part of that [in games] is that sex is important for relationships. It's a fundamental part. And yet, the way love stories work in games is, you get the girl and your reward is the screen fading to black and you have terrible sex for the first time because that's how the first time works. But that's, like, the 'happy' ending. It feels really weird."
"You've got, like, this weird shot of Isabela [from Dragon Age]'s thigh while her sword clips through her shoulder," she continued. "That's not eroticism. It feels like they're sort of embarrassed by it. Or afraid. It feels like taking the signifiers of how this works in movies, but none of the actual eroticism. When you see a sex scene that tepid in a movie, it's a big deal. It becomes a joke. We talked about the second Matrix movie for years afterward like, 'That was a really bad sex scene!' But in video games it's just standard. Sex scenes are gonna be awkward."
But the problem runs deeper than that. Love's biggest beef with the way games portray sex is that, even when characters aren't forever in a committed relationship with multiple layers of clothing, sex is rarely a key part of the experience. It's lacy, frilly window dressing, as evidenced by games that have censored or cut their hanky panky and only suffered slightly for it.
"There's been a lot of visual novels that had sex in them, and once they hit Steam, they had to release censored versions," she said of more traditional dating sims. "Frankly, I think that's total bullshit. If you can take out the sex scenes from your game and you're still willing to sell that, what are you doing? If you can remove it, if it's an extricable part of your game, then why was it there to begin with? Obviously they weren't that important."
To top it all off, video game sex sometimes find itself in a post-coital miasma of potentially ugly themes. Grand Theft Auto's manhandling of sex and sex workers is an obvious example to me, but even dating sims—ostensibly focused on treating characters like, you know, people instead of objects—can stumble systemically. Dating sims, said Love, are often about gaming the system, saying what everyone wants to hear over the course of multiple playthroughs so you can find the optimal pathway into their hearts or pants. Rarely do those games encourage you to play like, well, yourself. In some of them, you're essentially a sex-starved sociopath, and sex is a series of moving goal posts, not a process. And sure, fantasy fulfillment of that sort has its place, but Love wants more out of sex in games. She doesn't only want that.
That brings us to Love's latest narrative-driven game: Ladykiller in a Bind, aka My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress As Him And Now I Have To Deal With A Geeky Stalker And A Domme Beauty Who Want Me In A Bind!! (No, I'm not joking about that second part.) Its goal? To make video game sex both sexy and essential to the experience. Love also wants to navigate around the thematic pitfalls of blockbuster games like Grand Theft Auto and niche dating sims, to prioritize care and consent over crassness.
Ladykiller is about a girl who has to dress up as her twin brother and navigate a seedy underbelly of S&M-tinged social manipulation. Sometimes you'll talk to characters. Other times you'll have sex with them. Many times, both. The main two characters in your love life, a devious domme who gets a rush from slapping you around and a shy stalker who'll gladly play bottom to your top, can help keep other people's suspicion about your true identity down and make people not hate you as much, respectively. For a price. (A sexy price.)
Warning: trailer is NSFW.
"It's a sex game," Love told me without hesitation. And she did so while not looking at the floor or stammering something like, "Oh, but... but it has other stuff too." Despite the fact that many games, game makers, and game players (Hi there, Steam reviews of any visual novel ever) preempt talk of sex with jokes or awkward laughter or outright "I read Playboy for the articles"-style shame, Love thinks making a sex game is something to be proud of.
The goal of Ladykiller in a Bind, then, is to present sex for what it really is: not a trophy or the logical "end" of a relationship, but a building block. A constantly transforming piece in a wildly complex human puzzle. A beginning, middle, and an end, depending on the circumstance. You're only pursuing two main relationships—the aforementioned domme and stalker—long-term, but there are dozens of other opportunities for conversation, flirtation, and all sorts of sex.
"You can kiss basically everyone in the game," said Love. "But there's not necessarily long-term relationships going on there. There's the casual and then there's [more committed stuff]. And these can co-exist together without it being like in Persona, like, 'Oh no, he's cheating on everyone behind their backs.' Which is silly. Ridiculous. Kinda terrible."
The demo I played—which was not a segment snipped from the full game, but rather a self-contained appetizer—saw my character going over a hypothetical infiltration of a fancy cruise with the domme, Beauty. The game would flash between real life and the what-if scenario, which I had free reign to fuck up as much as I wanted, again for a price (a sexy price). If I did anything too stupid or out of character, I'd get a stinging slap, thwap, or wallop.
Ladykiller's dialogue system doesn't give you every option up front. It's more like ideas pop into your character's head, and you can choose to open your mouth when you please, even if it lands you in boiling hot water. The result is that you're not some dangerously slick dating sim protagonist. You will bungle big moments. You will look like an idiot. You will get smacked around by Beauty, probably a lot.
That in mind, I played it safe my first time through the demo, keeping almost all of my suspicion HP intact, and emerged relatively unscathed. To be frank, though, it wasn't all that exciting or sexy when everything went according to plan. My second time, I went all in. I flirted with everybody, going so far as to kiss someone my character had barely even talked to when they were in school together. Turns out, they'd had a big crush on my character's brother (remember, I was impersonating him) all along. Then I kissed their best friend too, and they shuffled away, heartbroken. I felt legitimately terrible about that. At the end, my suspicion levels were through the roof, and Beauty ensured that I was sufficiently... punished.
"In the game we're playing with that even outside the overtly kinky scenes," she said. "Characters will discuss what they're OK with. I think that's important no matter what, but I think that can also be sexy. Don't get me wrong: if it wasn't sexy, it would still be important. But why not both?"
On that front, Love feels not only a desire to do things right, but a responsibility. No, media obviously doesn't directly cause us to do things, but it does inform how we view the world, the things we think we know when we don't know much of anything at all.
"It's hard to make consent sexy sometimes, but I think it's worthwhile," she explained. "People look at culture for their [real world] scripts. Like, what I'm doing in a relationship is often informed by what I'm familiar with. If you don't have useful scripts about negotiating consent, you might not know what that looks like. No wonder people have trouble with it."
Kinda like when people are having sex for the first time, and they try applying the appallingly poor form they learned from porn. Not that I (or you or you or you or you or probably, like, the president) would know anything about that, of course.
A lot of this stuff sounds like common sense, doesn't it? Of course sex is a major, ongoing part of relationships. Of course sex should be sexy. Of course consent matters. And yet, Love doesn't see those core ideas upheld much outside of brief, personal indie games often made in Twine or experimental games like How Do You Do It?
That's why Love is doing this, digging so deep into sex and sexuality despite a minefield of taboos and possible missteps: because, in her eyes, nobody else is making that game. No one's trying to make sex sexy, essential, and consensual in a longer form experience.
"Arousal is as important of an emotion to bring to somebody as anything else," she said. "We talk a lot about games that make you cry. There are a lot of games that can make you cry now. I want a game that can make you feel sad, triumphant, and give you a boner. I feel like all of these emotional experiences are valid."
Love confessed that the prospect of putting something so intimate and personal on full blast is a little nerve-wracking, especially since getting it right means so much to her. Other depictions of sex—comedy, irony, titillation—offer convenient shields to hide behind, but sincerity is scary. Love hopes, however, that her game will lead to broader conversations about sex, in games and everywhere else.
"I'm hoping this might open some doors," she said. "Or maybe it'll blow up in my face catastrophically. There's a definite possibility of that. I'm kind of terrified."
"But maybe it's OK to be nervous about that. I feel like this should be something we discuss. I feel like we should be discussing sex more."
Image credit: Sam Woolley.