Thursday, August 30, 2012

Games and sex themes: getting things right

As gamers we are now well familiar with the use of violence in games – as a plot device, as an artistic tool, and even as a bit of good, old-fashioned fun. There are games that heroise violence, games that criticise it, and games that question the use of violence in games.

In other words, violence in games has become part of the established discussions on games, at both an academic and social level.

On the very other end of the spectrum is sex – a narrative feature so sensitive that developers need to be very careful indeed how they implement it, for fear of a public outcry. Sex gets games banned far quicker than violence (especially here in Australia), and while no one bats an eyelid about the violence of, say, a Call of Duty game, bringing up a game that makes sex a central feature on an Internet forum is a quick way to earn derision.

The reality is though that, just in real life and in the other forms of art out there, sex plays a much greater role in games than many realise. The obvious games featuring bikinis, shirtless hulking men and interactive sex scenes are just the tip of the iceberg; underneath it is a host of games where sexuality is a metaphoric theme or artistic construct.

Below are ten games that I think are especially effective in how they make use of sexual themes. Some are obvious, others are more academic in their application of such themes, but bear with me because the themes are worth exploring:

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time – If you’ve ever read 1001 Nights (otherwise known as Arabian Nights), you’d realise that sex is a pretty big part of the definitive fantasy Arabian novel. Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin, genies and vile sorcerers – the same stories that have inspired family-fun movies and Disney animations are also highly sexually charged in the original literature.

Exotic locations, beautiful women, hypnotic music, decadent palaces and fiery passions – at its best Arabian-themed fantasies are hugely seductive and an entirely unique setting to experience. The games industry has tried to capitalise on that kind of setting a few times in the past, but none have been so successful as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

There was no actual sex in the game, naturally, but the interactions between the two characters were highly charged, and the setting itself from the gorgeous locations to exotic music had exactly the same seductive pull as 1001 Nights. So this game kicks off our list as the game that most effectively uses a sexualised setting and fantasy.

Clock Tower 3 – The philosophical (and often literal) between horror and sex as been around since horror stories have existed. Metaphorically, tales such as Dracula, the early wolf men fables, and right back to the monstrosity of Grendal and the seduction nature of Lucifer in the bible – these tales are so effective because they draw on humanitie’s fears and apprehensions around sex, and give them a physical, dangerous form.

Clock Tower 3 is a game that plays on that tradition. Metaphorically, it’s a story about a girl’s sexual maturation, the point where society demands she leaves the safety and protection of her family and fend for herself. This metaphor takes form in presenting her with vile serial killers (based on real-life murderers, often sexual deviants themselves) who actively stalk her through the games’ levels.

In other words, Clock Tower 3 is the most effective game I’ve ever seen that uses sexuality for the purpose of horror.

Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel – JRPGs that are developed exclusively for an otaku audience are nothing new, and thanks to cheaper distribution costs and digital distribution it’s becoming increasingly financially viable to localise them and release them in the west for the small niche of gamers that enjoy them.

There’s a constant amongst these games, and it’s either deeply unpleasant, outright weird, or amusing (depending on your perspective) – these games feature a weird kind of sexuality that typically involves girls that are designed to look and act young.

As perverse as it appears at times, it’s almost always used for comic effect and, as I’ve argued in the past, these games seem to be examples of developers laughing at otakus, rather than with them. At least I hope so.

Working on that assumption, Ar tonelico Qoga gets the nod in this list for the best use of innuendo in a game. Every second line is laden with sexual innuendo, and if this kind of dark, cynical humour appeals to you, it’s there in spades in this game.

Dead or Alive Paradise – The Dead or Alive series has always been about wobble physics and accessible gameplay systems (so people can enjoy the wobble physics), but Dead or Alive Paradise on the PSP is the first game in the series, and indeed quite possibly the first game ever that is exclusively designed around exhibiting the female body.

Of course, the women of Dead or Alive look more like plastic mannequins than real people, but this I suspect was a deliberate move by the developer – just as real mannequins serve no other purpose than to exhibit clothes, the girls of Dead or Alive Paradise serve no other purpose than to exhibit eroticism.

Every move that these girls make is silky smooth, and slinky – a cat like grace that frames their figures and then there’s the fact that the main purpose of the game is to dress the girls up the swimsuits you want to see them in and take photos of them.
The rawest eroticism that you’ll ever see in a game without actually involving sex.

Lollipop Chainsaw – A lot of critics have attacked Lollipop Chainsaw for being “sexist.” They argue that Juliet Starling is nothing more than a blonde bimbo and the game’s choice camera angles are a deliberate attempt at titillation.

They really couldn’t be more wrong.

Lollipop Chainsaw is one of the most intelligent reversals of expectation in the sexploitation genre ever – be that film, book or game. The game cleverly turns each and every cliché and expectation of the grindhouse genre on its head, and indeed, it’s highly critical of fans of the genre.

The game is a highly sexualised one, but in a way that is against all odds, one that opens up room for an academic discussion on the role of sex in games and media. For that it gets the award for being the best example of post-modernist and feminist theory in games.

Devil May Cry – Sex in media is not just about women wearing very little. Though it’s impossible to deny that outside of Japan this industry is one that in terms of sex caters to a very male audience, even then it’s important to realise that it’s possible to market male sexuality to men. I am of course talking about the male power fantasy, and in enters Dante.

The entire premise of Devil May Cry is to demonstrate a kind of male perfection. It’s passed off by being “cool” or offering “slick action” in the press, but the reality is that Devil May Cry’s appeal lies in the athleticism and raw physical power of Dante. This is why men’s fashion label Diesel recruited Dante as a marketing figure for a while.

I suspect this is where a lot of controversy around the “new Dante” for the upcoming Devil May Cry reboot comes from. Before people even had an idea of what the game played like, the mere “new look” of the chain-smoking, emaciated Dante of the promo images was derided by the gaming community. For creating such a powerful reaction in its fans, Devil May Cry earns the award for the game that is most effective example of the male power fantasy.

Pandora’s Tower – Pandora’s Tower has almost no overt sexuality about it. The female character spends more time looking like a monster than a human being, and though she’s (naturally) an idealised, pretty girl there’s nothing suggestive in the dialogue or general presentation.

Except when it comes time for her to eat raw meat to prevent herself from becoming a monster. Everything about this process is presented as a ritualised fetish – the same cut scene is played every time the hero brings her back meat to eat, and that cut scene is dominated by extreme closeups and other cinematic conventions generally associated with adult films.

From the way the flesh is torn, to the accompanying sound effects, to the pseudo-cannibalistic nature of the act (she’s not a monster, but she’s in the process of becoming one, and she’s gouging on raw monster flesh), Pandora’s Tower plays this action up as a major function of the game.

It befits the game’s operatic nature, though, so within that context it’s entirely appropriate. Anyway, it gets our award for the best fetish use in a game.

Heavy Rain – Heavy Rain isn’t subtle – it has sex scenes. Now, under normal circumstances (Dragon Age: Origns or God of War anyone), a sex scene in a game juvenile; the kind of sexploitation that the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw sends up. But Heavy Rain did things differently. It’s an interactive sex scene for one thing, which introduces an intensity that gives the game an almost-unique emotional engagement.

It’s also entirely appropriate in a game that plays heavily on the Noir genre – a genre that is famed for two things – hardboiled characters and sex. Without this particular scene, Heavy Rain would actually have lost narrative impact – a genre piece with a big chunk missing.

And for this Heavy Rain is perhaps the best example of sex being used to further a narrative in a game.

Love Plus – Most people in the west won’t get a chance to play Love Plus. It’ll never be localised by Konami, and with pretty good reason – the game already has a reputation in the West for being a “dating game.”

And that is jargon for “a game for perverts.” To be fair to most in the West, most dating games live up to their reputations completely. Sex is the reward in the dating game, much like how Princess Peach is the reward for defeating Bowser.

Love Plus is different. For one thing there is no sex – the best you’re going to get here is a virtual kiss and there’s virtually no skin to boot. The girls you’re “dating” wear school uniforms, yes, but that’s contextual to the plot – it takes place at school.

So really Love Plus is the 10 Things I Hate About You of video games, sans the comedy. That’s why it’s so popular in Japan – it’s a teen romance story, rather than a piece of erotica. And that’s why it’s on this list, it’s the best example of romance in a game.

Tomb Raider Reboot – I’m going out on a limb here and putting an unreleased game on the list, because I think that if the scene I’m about to talk about plays out like it seems to in the previews, it’s a crucial moment for sex in games.

I am of course talking about the “rape” scene, where Lara has to struggle away from a man with less-than-honourable intentions, and indeed becomes the first person that Lara kills.

This could be an important scene for two reasons - firstly, metaphorically; it would show that Lara Croft is an empowered character well advanced from the days where she was “boob raider.” She is literally destroying those that objectify her in the game, and the hope is that the Lara of the future would be taken more seriously as a protagonist than a piece of eye candy with that monkey off her back.

But also in the broad development of video games as an art form, this would be the first time that sexualised violence could be treated in a AAA-game without it being trivialised, glorified, or otherwise treated in a juvenile fashion. It’s an ugly, messy scene, and for that it has (clearly) had the impact that it should have. That would make it the first time that sexualised violence has been treated as a narrative device in a major game with the kind of maturity it needs to be handled with.

A long piece, I know, I hope it was interesting enough to read, and I’m very interested to hear your responses to it – and indeed any other games that you can add to it. Sound out in the comments below!
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