There are a lot of terrible sex scenes in mainstream games. There are also a handful of good ones, as seen in games like The Witcher 3. But even in that game’s case, creating believable sex scenes wasn’t easy. Video game technology is great if you want characters to make war; not so much if you want them to make love.
Warning: the videos in this article are NSFW.
This piece originally appeared 4/28/17.
Sex in big-budget games has come a long way. Once exemplified by Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ infamous “Hot Coffee” controversy, The Sims’ “woo-hooing,” and Dragon Age: Origins’ uncanny valley robot montages, recent years have seen major steps forward—most notably from BioWare and The Witcher developer CD Projekt. The Witcher 3’s sex scenes were multi-person efforts that required scripting, storyboarding, mocap sessions, voice work, and all sorts of technical workarounds.
“Generally, the production process isn’t all that different from any other scene in the game,” said CD Projekt cinematic director Paweł Świerczyński, “though sex scenes have their own set of challenges.”
It all begins, Świerczyński says, with writers. On Witcher 3, they’d come up with a script, and the quest design team would sort out details like where a scene should take place. “We work together to establish a vision for the scene—the story it’s going to tell, why the scene is there in the first place,” he said. They then passed the baton to the cinematics team, who put together a storyboard and animatic. Next came mocap sessions with actors. After that, it was time for implementation into the game engine, replete with cleaned-up animations, effects, and all that jazz.
These challenges, he said, were less about the subject matter and more about the specific technical issues that can pop up when two nude character models smoosh together. If you’ve got a couple video game character models interacting from afar—conversing, or trying to set each other on fire with magic—potential troubles, too, are far away. Up close, however, video game characters have a tendency to “clip” into each other. I don’t know if you’ve ever had your entire arm pass straight through a lover’s torso, but it’s a total mood-killer.
“That’s one of the toughest, most irritating things about sex scenes,” said Świerczyński. “They usually feature a lot of close-ups, so you need to go above and beyond when polishing up these animations, which requires a lot of time and patience.”
Some character models can’t even assume basic sex positions without glitching, Świerczyński said. Many character models can’t raise their hands above their heads without armpit textures becoming noticeably distorted. “We tend to avoid these [positions],” he said, “even though they could potentially allow us to create the best shots.”
It’s a problem shared by other big-budget games that include sex scenes—even Saints Row IV, which used sex mostly to make jokes. While characters like The Witcher’s Geralt are non-customizable, Saints Row IV’s main character can be tweaked in a wide variety of ways, opening up the possibility of even more weirdness.
Mid-sized characters could generally grope, smooch, or pounce on other characters without too much trouble, but things would get weird if your character was extra large or extra small, said Volition writer Jeff Biewlawski. “It wasn’t always perfect, and we found we had to live with that fact,” he said. “The humor in the scenes and the insight into the characters was more important than making sure there were zero visual discrepancies.”
Video credit: Asleep in the Fantasy.
Development time and resources can also be an issue. Świerczyński says it takes as much time to make a single sex scene as it does to make three standard main quest cinematics. That means some cut corners: while a few Witcher 3 characters got elaborate, story-driven sex scenes, other incidental characters were stuck with a copy-paste of the exact same sex scene.
“Of course, the scenes featuring main characters absolutely need a custom approach, because the relationship between these characters is deeper and important for the main story,” he said.
Those might sound like severe limits to impose on a game in the name of a handful of brief scenes, but the “custom approach” Świerczyński mentioned could get awfully elaborate. He offered the example of a particularly fantastical scene from The Witcher 3’s second DLC expansion, Blood and Wine, in which Geralt and a woman named Syanna had a roll in the hay… in the clouds.
“We couldn’t mocap the scene in zero gravity,” explained Świerczyński. “So, as a workaround, we recorded actors performing the scene in a swimming pool. The underwater footage served as reference for the animator, who then had to animate the whole scene by hand. It’s hard to create a realistic looking animation this way.”
Video credit: ProofDota.
Sex can also present unique challenges in the mocap studio, Świerczyński noted, recalling a scene in Witcher 2 that was to be performed by a real-life couple. Once they got into the studio, he said, they “freaked out” and became “afraid they’d end up showing something real from their intimate life when acting, which ended up blocking them.” Ultimately, it all worked out, resulting in one of the game’s most memorable sex scenes, but things were touch and go for a bit.
The Witcher 3’s sex scenes were also constrained by external factors. The game has sex in it, but it’s not a sex game. It needed to achieve the equivalent of a Mature—but not Adults Only—rating in multiple regions. “Anything that looks remotely similar to pelvic thrusting is… a no-go,” Świerczyński says.
That resulted in some major cuts to a scene in which Geralt and the sorceress Triss have sex in front of a lighthouse’s lamp, causing the ships at sea to think they were receiving coded messages. They had to cut out the thrusting to comply with rating requirements, and the final scene, he says, “doesn’t make any sense.”
The recent trend in sex in games is to make it fun. You know... like sex! In everything from mid-00s BioWare games to Metal Gear Solid 3, sex was a climactic Serious And Important Thing you earned shortly before or after the final battle. But that’s hardly all sex is ever about. It can be fun and silly. It can reveal people’s strengths, or their weaknesses. That’s why Świerczyński thinks it’s worth nailing, despite all the trouble.
“I wanted to show that in the world of The Witcher, sex quite often doesn’t have anything to do with romance,” said Świerczyński. “It can be a way for people to fill out an emotional void that’s haunting them, or simply kill some time… People have sex, we have sex, so we’ve got sex in our games.”