Illusion Software is one of the genuine trailblazers in video games. The studio has been around for 22 years, having been founded in 2001, but it’s all over now. The company has announced its imminent closure, and in its shutdown notice, also said that it would also be taking all its games with it.
Illusion’s not exactly a household name. It’s not Nintendo, Sega, Sony, Capcom or Square Enix. But within its own tiny niche, it was a true giant. That niche is porn. Illusion Software made sex games. But sex games with a difference. These sex games of a very high visual fidelity that pushed the boundaries of what was possible at the time that they were released. Many of Illusion’s games also had a kind of aesthetic/artistic sheen and higher concept that helped set them apart from the grimy nonsense that makes up the bulk of stuff released in this niche. In short, Illusion was one of the first to really master 3D graphics for the purposes of pornography and then use that to make explicit, interactive sex a kind of thesis on the aesthetics of sex.
Illusion was perhaps best known in the West for Honey Select, and particularly the game’s character creation options, which gave you incredibly fine control over the looks of the women that you would then… play with. We wrote about that game on DDNet at the time, and how the character creation features were actually something that we should take notice of, because there are some socio-cultural implications of having that level of control over digital sex experiences (and, now, VR/AR sex experiences) that go well beyond the boundaries of video games.
As I wrote then: “For example, a man called Donald Hoffman has been doing research into supernormal stimulants (you can watch an excellent TED talk by him here), and basically supernormal stimulants are when something is so “perfect” that it effectively replaces the real world interaction that a person (or animal) should be having. A beetle in Australia nearly went extinct when it mistook the design of a certain kind of beer bottle, when discarded on the road, for being a hyper-idealised mate, and stopped breeding with the females of its actual species to instead try and breed with the bottle.
“Humans might be more intelligent than beetles, but we’re no less susceptible to supernormal stimulants – something the advertising industry regularly consults Hoffman for, he told me in a conversation a few years ago. While Honey Select isn’t quite there as it is ridiculously limited by what happens after you’ve created a character, that character creation mode, and premise of the game is very much that of supernormal stimulant.”
Now, how that socio-cultural theme will play out over the longer term remains to be seen, but supernormal stimulants are an observable phenomenon, and Illusion, for better or worse, was the foremost developer in bringing that into sex-themed video games. The cat’s out of the bag now, so it will be interesting to see what happens when another developer inevitably picks up the baton.
Of course, a company that peddles that kind of material was always going to ruffle feathers, and Illusion Software certainly went places. A lot of what it did could be described as some of the most brutally transgressive art, if you’re feeling generous, or vile like the worst of Marquis de Sade if you’re not. The company developed the utterly notorious RapeLay, for example. That game was released back in 2006, and was so extreme in theme that it managed to capture very mainstream media interest. Indeed, it created such a furore that Illusion Soft actually pulled the title from its Website entirely. Imagine what it would take for a niche developer to turn down the sales that would have come from that notoriety.
That wasn’t the only controversial title in the Illusion library. The Battle Raper series (yes, it was a series) were 3D fighting games that started in 2002 and answered the question “what if Mortal Kombat replaced gruesome fatalities with… Jesus Christ no?” That one didn’t quite catch the same outcry wave that Rapelay did, but still ended up on “immoral/controversial games” in major newspapers.
In more recent years, Illusion Software calmed down somewhat and eased back on the sexual violence, instead focusing on making games where you could “interact” with digital women in VR and increasingly creative ways, and building on that exceptional, industry-leading character creator system. Most of its games were designed around being as realistic as possible, but there was one anime-aesthetic one that was pretty popular too.
Whatever you think about the games that Illusion Soft created – and there’s a lot to debate about it as a company and creator – one thing is undeniable: This really was a pioneering business that pushed one significant part of the games industry forward. There was a kind of artistry to what they did, and you can simply compare their games to the trash that gets dumped on itch.io to see the difference. Illusion Soft’s games had a kind of reverence for eroticism that did elevate them and, between that and the transgressive quality of its harder-edged games made them perhaps the best example of the debate about “what is the line between art and pornography” that we have had in video games to date. The very same discourse that applies to Sade applies to this mob, and as far as I’m concerned that’s actually a critical step in legitimising games as an art form. Art is not really art if some of it doesn’t break with taboos and challenge audiences, and Illusion was one of the few that have been able to do that.
In that context, it is genuinely disappointing that this studio has shut down, and even more so that its entire library is about to become very scarce. Whether you call it vile smut or gloriously transgressive art, it needs to be accessible, because it needs to be discussed. Though, I guess if there’s one thing you can be sure the adult gaming fans will be up for, it’s “preserving” the work of studios in the space. I’m just not sure I’d want to test my antivirus to acquire them, though, so I might need to go on a shopping spree before the company formally winds up on August 31 this year.