Warning: Later in this story, there is discussion of a plot point in Haven involving forced conversion therapy.
Plenty of games depict romantic relationships, but many don't know what to do with the sex part, and so they avoid it. Haven, on the other hand, never stops talking about sex, because its two main characters are young, in love, extremely horny for one another, and sex is a healthy part of their daily routine. A sci-fi story "about" two people escaping an oppressive society and building a new home, Haven's sex talk is, at times, gratuitous, but in a way that feels congruous with a 20-something couple whose world revolves around the other person.
What's initially striking about Haven is its look, with big and beautiful vistas full of color and infinite space. Haven takes place on a busted up planet, where the geography is defined by floating chunks of rock and finding secret energy bridges the two leads—Yu and Kay—can tap into and walk across. Yu and Kay are not superheroes, but they do have access to some future technology, which lets them use the same energy to blast their boots at turbo speeds, summon shields, and fire lasers from their hands. But the focus is on their relationship.
The combat, exploration, larger story—that stuff is often bleh and boring. It's flashy but lacking substance. The real hook is the endlessly relatable conversations between Yu and Kay, and the game gives you ample opportunity to listen to them chatter on and on. Some of the talking is part of the story playing out, but frequently, you can optionally listen to more conversations. The duo's optimistic naiveté frequently reminded me of my own youth.
"We wanted [to] show the daily routine of a couple," said creative director Emeric Thoa. "There is an epic adventure story in Haven, but the real content is the mundane daily life of that young couple in love. And of course, sex is part of that. For once in a video game, we wanted sex to be fun, healthy, without taboo and depicted in a relatable way. We decided to have them openly talk about it like, let's say, like a modern couple of 25-ish years old."
It's a reach to say Haven developer The Game Bakers is breaking ground in its depiction of sex, and even the developers of Haven pointed to the work of designers Nina Freeman and Robert Yang. You don't have to go far into the independent game space—heck, just browse the visual novel section of any storefront—to see creators have been engaging and normalizing sex in the medium for a long time. But it's true bigger budget games shy from sex, or depict sex as a cutscene reward for the act of talking with a person enough times.
It's also a game that drops in the midst of COVID-19, depicting a relationship where people can intimately touch one another's body in a world where people are being told to stay away.
"It's cute that when they kiss they heal each other but it kinda hurts my lonely ass soul," wrote one commenter on YouTube.
“There is an epic adventure story in Haven, but the real content is the mundane daily life of that young couple in love. And of course, sex is part of that.”
One difference with Haven is that it's a relationship in progress. When players join Yu and Kay, their love is already in full bloom. You don't help them fall in love with the right dialogue choice, or participate in the daring escape from their home world. Haven picks up with Yu and Kay contemplating an existential crisis: a future away from everything they've known.
"I also drew a lot of inspiration from my own life, my current relationship as well as my previous ones," said writer Pierre Corbinais, who penned Haven's dialogue. "Some stories were directly inspired by stuff that happened to me, [such as] Yu not believing in shooting stars because she never saw one? That’s my girlfriend, and she’ll probably be mad at me for telling this."
Corbinais cited comics like Lupus and Saga as inspirations because they shared Haven's story of people on the run, but he didn't spend much time, say, watching videos of today's young couples talking, trying to pick apart how they speak to one another in 2021.
"I don’t believe young couples talk much differently these days than they did decades ago," said Corbinais. "Sure, every generation has its own verbal tics, its own slang."
While creatively brainstorming the game, Thoa said that The Game Bakers co-founder Audrey Leprince pitched that the game should imply they've had sex "in every room of the Nest." (The Nest is the ship the two have crashed into the planet they're currently on.) Because the outside world is scary and unknown, they've spent a lot of time in this place.
"I had free rein for writing the Nest scenes and quickly steered in that sexy/flirty," said Corbinais. "The very first scene I wrote was what became the very first scene of the game and it already implied the characters’ active sex life. The 'sticky sheets' scene is also one of the first I wrote because I thought nothing could be more relatable than this, at least for hetero/gay couples."
The "sticky sheets" scene in question:
Yu: Kay? Do you mind if we switch sides?
Yu: I dunno. I just feel like a change.
Kay: Augh…this is all sticky!
Yu: YEAH! AND WHOSE FAULT IS THAT?
Kay: … [chuckles] I guess I can't really complain.
Yu: Obviously not! That'll teach you to pay attention next time.
The overtly sextual dialogue got the game into trouble with some ratings agencies, in fact. Japan's conservative CERO ratings board would not greenlight the game without some censorship, according to Thoa, even if the developer agreed to an 18+ rating, which makes it illegal for anyone to purchase the game under the age of 18. CERO continued to say no.
"It got me pretty upset that we had to censor the Haven for having an healthy and mature representation of love," said Thoa.
The team ended up altering the game's dialogue to skirt around the issue, resulting in changes that try to keep the spirit of the eroticism without being so explicit. For example:
At first held tight by his erection, the button doesn't give in…
Until it whispers away.
And then you slip your hand into Kay's underwear…
I couldn't take it off easily, but …
Eventually it succeeded.
And you follow Kay's skin with that finger …
But that came with other compromises, too. The Japanese version of Haven is a special version of the game to accommodate these dialogue chances, and the studio was then forced to remove the ability for players to change the language. Only Japanese is available, compared to the nine different language options that are found in other versions of Haven.
"I think it’s also worth noting that none of these scenes actually show any sex," said Corbinais. "The sex always happens before, of after (if it even happens), and it makes me laugh that the only two scenes which explicitly presents the characters naked aren’t about sex at all."
"We obviously thought about 'showing' some of the sex," said Thoa, "but that wasn't the subject of the game. We didn't want to make players horny with Haven. We wanted them to fall in love with our characters. To become friends with them. Showing too much would have kinda broken their intimacy."
Warning: What follows are some brief plot and world building spoilers for Haven.
It's also not the only controversy the game's come under.
Haven's approach to sex and intimacy has been celebrated, but it has also been hit with criticism about a plot point involving a parental figure. This parent, themselves in a queer relationship, demands Yu and Kay stop seeing each other because Haven's society has something called the "matchmaker," which pre-determines coupling, and they are acting in defiance of it. If people defy assigned coupling, they're sent to forced conversion therapy. In essence, the game has a queer parent forcing their child into a straight relationship because the "matchmaker" deemed it so.
"How could anyone think painting queer people as oppressors while letting cishets be rebellious illegal lovers is ok?" said one person on Twitter in response to the review.
The criticisms were not universal, but it was enough for the developers to publicly apologize.
"To players who have felt hurt or unwelcome while playing our game: we’re sorry," said the studio in a statement only days after the game came out. "This goes against our inclusive values as a team and the theme of the game, and we regret this. Haven is a game about love and freedom. Our intentions have always been to advocate for freedom of love regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, class etc."
The statement goes into detail on the developer's intentions for future stories in Haven's world, and how those might help explain what the studio was going for in the first place.
"My point of view is that this is a very isolated misunderstanding from the reviewer," said Thoa. "We've had so [much] more positive feedback from LGBTQ+ community that I'm not worried about the overall perception of the game and that the massive understanding of the meaning is indeed 'freedom to love who you want.' But Audrey [Leprince, Game Bakers co-founder], who is wiser than me, thought that it doesn't matter if our intentions were good."
Thus, the studio tried to acknowledge the potential harm.
"It was difficult for me to take them at their word," said Torres, one of the critics who raised this issue, in an email with VICE Games. "Especially with certain language in the message like 'We understand now' as if they've been blindsided by the reaction. Actions speak louder than words and I just found it odd that no one in development, seemingly, didn't notice this."
It's a sour note in a game broadly about the love between two people, a love that sometimes includes sex. With any luck, what makes Haven stand out today will, eventually, seem trite.
"I know these mature discussions/sexy scenes stand out in the game," said Corbinais, "but when you look closely, there actually aren’t that many of them. Maybe a dozen dialogues in the whole game, which may contain more than a hundred. I didn’t count. Maybe that’s why they don’t feel overbearing: they’re actually kinda rare, and always come (I hope) as a good surprise."