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Video Games Like 'Mass Effect' Should Just Admit They’re Bad at Sex

BioWare’s developers struggle to incorporate believability and realism into romance and sex, but should they?

by Jess Joho
Mar 27 2017, 5:15pm

Image: EA/NRMgamingHD

Let's not mince words: alien sex is fun. Slutty games like Mass Effect make our world a better, more curious place to live in, and for that we thank BioWare. But there's no shortage of critics who will tell you that, all in all, video games are really bad at sex. Like, worse than that guy Jeff from your psych class. Something about two dead-eyed fish gazes meeting in a bedroom, their virtual bodies struggling not to clip through each other while they jerk around on a pointedly folded down sheet, well, just doesn't scream titillation.

At the heart of video games' sex issue is the uncanny valley. While video games can be exceptional at making players feel certain emotions through mechanics and metaphors, the subtleties of the human face still elude them—and Mass Effect: Andromeda in particular. But rather than look for nonexistent solutions to realistic video game sex, the best option might just be to just embrace their inherent cringe-worthy awkwardness.

When Motherboard talked to co-lead writer John Dombrow over the phone about the difficulties of representing sex in games, however, he insisted that the team's major focus for the new series was more "natural" and "believable" romancing. "We wanted to take a mature, grounded approach. Games can sometimes end up becoming cartoonish and we wanted to avoid that," he said.

Image: Electronic Arts

But what exactly "natural," "believable," or "grounded" even mean in the context of a digital power fantasy alien sex game eludes this reporter and, evidently, continues to elude BioWare. Like the trilogy before it, Andromeda's wooden sex and romance are more likely to make you squirm than squeal. The game's insistence on realism and fidelity manages to walk the line of our suspension of disbelief when in the context of space colonization, since most of us don't know what that looks like. But as Dombrow admitted, the difficulty of translating this into sex is that we all know exactly what banging is supposed to look like. And it certainly looks nothing like this.

Dombrow indicated that time, money, and resources continue to be the major constraint on believable sex and romance in BioWare's games. It's clear the developers needed to prioritize, and despite playing like a dating sim in parts, Mass Effects' deepest systems pertain to shooting and combat, not love and sex. Unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition, which goes as far as to ascribe discrete loyalty stats to each relationship, Mass Effect's solution to creating more organic relationships came down to tying relationships into character-specific side missions (which often involve combat).

What's worse, Bioware's continued instance on maturity feels particularly remiss in Andromeda, which Dombrow said is the first Mass Effect game to not be bogged down by Shepard (the original trilogy's protagonist) and his no-nonsense style and primary focus on saving the world. Yet while Andromeda makes some commendable attempts at humor in romancing, and the inclusion of more varying types of relationships is welcome, it misses the mark more often than not. And the game's continued emphasis on realism in sex gets at the heart of why games, specifically AAA dating sims, will continue to be bad at sex: because they're fighting a losing battle with the artificiality of the medium.

Hurt Me Plenty. Image: Robert Yang

Being bad at realistic sex is not an issue exclusive to games. We all know filmed sex scenes bare zero resemblance to real life sex, yet we've grown accustomed to the language and cheats used to suspend our disbelief. Rather than trying to develop their own language and cheats to address the synthetic nature of mediated sex scenes, BioWare games (and less egregiously, Dragon Age: Inquisition) impose those same cinematic cuts to avoid the most difficult aspects of virtual banging. In fact, as indie game designer and digital sex extraordinaire Robert Yang pointed out, there are only two times video games use cuts: when the player dies and it's game over, or during sex scenes. "As if sex in games signifies a sort of end," he wrote over email. "To me, that's very sad."

In contrast to BioWare's investment in naturalizing sex in video games, Yang's work goes in the exact opposite direction. Titles like his dick pic-simulator Cobra Club and BDSM simulator Hurt Me Plenty demonstrate what he calls a "systematization" of sex theory, engaging and zeroing in on the structures involved with sex, like flirting, seduction, build-up, climax, and aftercare. Aside from a heavily systems-based approach, Yang's games also bask in the weirdness of games, turning hyper real bodies into something delightfully alien. "There's no point in fighting the uncanny valley, we should all just be diving straight down to collect the treasures at the bottom," he said.

Ironically, Yang's embrace of awkwardness make his approach to sex endlessly more human and erotic than any of BioWare's attempts. "AAA thrives on realism, but that also means realism becomes a trap," he said. "Instead, I consider realism to be a tool that I can selectively deploy or destroy."